motherhood the highest calling

Our Highest Calling

I have heard many Christians say that motherhood is the highest calling for women. Some even say that motherhood is the holiest calling for women. The people who say this are typically Christians who believe that men and women, simply on the basis of gender, have different roles and functions in society, in the church, and in the home. (It intrigues me that many of these same Christians do not assert that fatherhood is the highest calling for men.)

Jesus did not think that motherhood was necessarily the highest calling for women. He never encourages motherhood when talking with Mary and Martha of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, the Syrophenician woman, the Samaritan women, or any other woman. And he doesn’t encourage motherhood in his general teaching.[1]

One day Jesus was teaching a crowd of people when a woman[2] enthusiastically called out, Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you” (Luke 11:27). Jesus’ mother was blessed. She was not only blessed because of her remarkable role as the mother of the Messiah, she was also blessed because she had faith in the word of God. The Bible says about Mary, “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished” (Luke 1:45).

Jesus did not accept or affirm the blessing that the woman in the crowd had shouted out. Instead, he replied with, “Blessed rather are those who are hearing the word of God and obeying it” (Luke 11:28).

Previously, in Luke 6:47, Jesus had said that a wise person is someone “who comes to me and hears my words and does them.” Jesus wants both men and women to be continually coming to him in a close relationship; he wants us to be continually hearing his words; he wants us to be continually putting those words into obedient practice.[3] This kind of discipleship is our highest calling!

The Priority of Family

If we have a family, we need to care for it.[4] One of our main avenues of ministry should be to our family members. They should be among the first beneficiaries of our prayers and of our spiritual and practical help. If everyone loved and looked after their own families the world would be in much better shape.

Parenthood may well be the main ministry of some men and women, and this needs to be encouraged. However, many men and women also have other expressions of their calling as Jesus’ disciples, and they have been given ministry gifts, roles, and functions to use outside of their immediate or extended families. These other ministries should also be encouraged.

What about people who do not have a family? When churches make marriage and motherhood the pinnacle and priority of Christian womanhood, women who remain unmarried or childless may be regarded as subpar or even as failures. Churches need to make efforts to ensure single or childless men and women are welcome, included, and valued in church communities.

Furthermore, some Christians choose to be single or childless so that they can serve God better and with greater devotion (cf. 1 Cor. 7:32-35). The apostle Paul chose to be single and he recommended it for some (1 Cor. 7:7). Single or childless Christians could be your church’s greatest assets.

Singleness and celibacy were long considered to be virtuous vocations by the church. It has only been since the Reformation that marriage and motherhood have been persistently promoted as the Christian ideal for women.[5]

Dissuading Women from Ministry

It seems to me that many of the Christians who claim that motherhood is the highest calling for women, say this merely to placate women and dissuade them from fulfilling God’s call outside the home. (No one argues that fatherhood and ministry are incompatible.) As important as good parenting is for our children and for our society, some women may, in fact, have a calling in ministry that is equally or more important and necessary than the ministry of motherhood.

We must not let traditional or cultural stereotypes of gender roles overshadow what the Bible shows us about men and women believers being empowered and equipped by the Holy Spirit for ministry (e.g., Acts 2:18; Rom 12:6-8). Both men and women need encouragement and support from fellow believers to help them fulfil God’s purposes in their lives. On the other hand, rigid restrictions based on gender alone can hinder our high calling of being a disciple of Jesus and they limit the work of God.

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[1] Paul preferred singleness for men and women but realised not everyone could live this way.

[2] Jesus had just been teaching about evil spirits. Was this woman troubled by evil spirits? Was this woman’s outburst demonic?

[3] “Coming,” “hearing” and “doing” are present active participles. This means we need to keep coming to Jesus, keep hearing his words, and keep doing what he says. More about Luke 6:47 and the parable of the wise and foolish builders, here.

[4] 1 Timothy 5:8 NIV says, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” There is no distinctly masculine or feminine language in the Greek of this verse. We are all to care for our families as we are able (cf. 1 Tim. 5:4; 5:16).

[5] The Reformation, with the resulting backlash against Roman Catholicism, brought about an antagonism towards monasticism from Protestants, as well as a general discouragement of singleness. Martin Luther was among the first to be outspoken in his attempts to promote the value and virtue of motherhood.

Beth Allison Barr writes,

Women have always been wives and mothers, but it wasn’t until the Protestant Reformation that being a wife and a mother became the “ideological touchstone of holiness” for women. Before the Reformation, women could gain spiritual authority by rejecting their sexuality. Virginity empowered them. Women became nuns and took religious vows, and some, like Catherine of Siena and Hildegard of Bingen, found their voices rang with the authority of men. Indeed, the further removed medieval women were from the married state, the closer they were to God. After the Reformation, the opposite became true for Protestant women. The more closely they identified with being wives and mothers, the godlier they became.
Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021), 102-103. More here. (Available on Amazon)

Image Credit

Stained glass window in the Kilianskirche of Heilbronn © Joachim Köhler (Wikimedia)

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