Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

"Workers at home" or "keepers at home" in Titus 2:5?

A medieval scribe copying a manuscript.

For Bronwen and Ashley

Twice in the past week, someone has asked me about a Greek word used in Titus 2:5. The NASB translates this particular word as “workers at home.” Other translations have “good managers of the household” (NRSV), “homemakers” (HCSB), “busy at home” (NIV), etc. The King James Bible, however, has something different in Titus 2:5: “keepers at home.” I have previously written about Paul’s instructions in Tius 2:4-5 here, but since this word seems to be something that people are asking about specifically, so here’s is an article on it. But what is the Greek word in question?

Oikourgos or Oikouros?

Oikourgos

The word translated into English as “workers at home” is the Greek adjective oikourgous, (the accusative plural of oikourgos. Oikourgos is the lexical, or dictionary, form.)

The etymology of oikourgos suggests the meaning “worker at home” (oikos = house + ergos = worker.)[1] BDAG define this word as “busy at home” and “carrying out household duties”.[2] LSJ define this word as “working at home.”[3] (See here.) Most of the earliest surviving Greek texts that contain the letter to Titus have the word oikourgous.  

Oikouros

In a few Greek texts of Titus 2:5, however, there is a slightly different word: oikourous (the accusative plural of oikouros.)

The etymology of this word suggests the meaning “house-keeper” (oikos = house + ouros = keeper, watcher, or guardian.) This word is found in Titus 2:5 of later Greek manuscripts and in texts such as Stephanus’ Greek New Testament (1550). The King James Bible was translated from texts that relied on later manuscripts, and this is why it has “keepers at home” in Titus 2:5. BDAG define oikouros as “staying at home” and “domestic.” LSJ define this word, in the context of women, as “keeping at home.” (See here.)

Evidence from Older Manuscripts

Bruce Metzger observes that most minuscule manuscripts (i.e. Greek manuscripts which use a style of writing that dates from the 9th to 12th centuries), as well as most of the Church Fathers, have oikourous in Titus 2:5, and he notes that this word occurs frequently in Classical Greek. However earlier, older surviving manuscripts of Titus have oikourgous, a rarer Greek word.[4]

Metzger (and the committee of the United Bible Societies, who publish a respected, critical edition of the Greek New Testament) preferred oikourgous as being the original word “because of superior external support, and because it was regarded more probable that an unusual word should have been altered by copyists to a well-known word, than vice versa.”[4] Accordingly, most modern English New Testaments translate from oikourgous in Titus 2:5.

Whether one word is the original, or the other, doesn’t make much difference, however, as both oikourgos and oikouros have a similar meaning. Both words are about staying at home and domesticity, but oikourgos has the added sense of being productive in the domestic setting.

Keepers at Home or Guardians of the Home?

I’ve heard people elevate the meaning of “keeper” or “watcher” in oikouros, but oikouros simply refers to the domestic life that was typical of respectable married women in Greco-Roman society. Words closely related to oikouros also have an ordinary sense of domesticity (e.g., oikourēma, oikouria, oikourios). (Note that kēpouros, which has ouros (keeper/watcher) as part of the word, is simply translated as “gardener” in John 20:15 without any lofty connotations.)

Unlike what some people have suggested, Paul was not thinking about women taking on a significant role of spiritual protection or guardianship of the household when he wrote Titus 2:5, though pagan Greco-Roman women did play a part in household religious observances. Rather, Paul wanted the young women to comply with the usual moral standards of the typical Roman matron. Paul’s reason for this compliance was that he did not want the behaviour of the young women to cause controversy and unease in broader society, which might lead to the gospel being given a bad name and being dishonoured by pagan neighbours. Note the last phrase of Titus 2:5: “so that no one will malign the word of God.”

Scrubbing Floors or Managing the Household?

In 1 Timothy 5:14, Paul uses another word that has a similar meaning to oikourgos. He uses the infinitive of the verb oikodespoteō. The etymology of this word suggests the meaning “to be a house master/mistress” (oikos=house + despotēs=master or lord). LSJ give the meaning of oikodespoteō as “to be master of a house or head of a family” and it cites 1 Timothy 5:14. (See here.) The implication of this word is that the young widows who are being addressed in 1 Timothy 5:14 are relatively wealthy. And, not unlike Titus 2:5, the activity in view is being in charge of the domestic management of a household.

A conservative estimate is that one-third of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves, and the young wives and widows who Paul was referring to in Titus 2:5 and 1 Timothy 5:14 would have had domestic slaves for the more unpleasant, tedious, and difficult domestic duties. Paul was not speaking about scrubbing floors or washing clothes when he used the words oikourgos or oikodespoteō; he was speaking about the management of the home, which would have included the management of slaves and home-based industries such as spinning and weaving that were traditionally undertaken by Romans matrons.

Paul was not addressing female slaves or poor women in Titus 2:5 or 1 Timothy 5:14, even though these women were equal members of the church. Most slave women and poor women did not have the luxury of staying home and managing their own homes—presuming they had their own home!—as per the instructions in 1 Timothy 5:14. They were to busy working for others. Poor women might live in a one-room unit that didn’t need “keeping” or managing, and slave women would often live in their master’s home.

A Definitive Statement or a Shameful Waste?

Housework is a necessary part of life, and there is nothing at all wrong with someone who devotes their time to keeping a clean and orderly home, but it is important to note that neither Titus 2:3-5 nor 1 Timothy 5:14 represents a definitive statement about the role of Christian women. There are many godly women mentioned in the New Testament) who are not primarily described as women who stayed at home. These women made important contributions to their church communities and helped to spread the gospel; they were prophetesses, teachers, evangelists, ministers, apostles and patrons.

I was reading Plato’s Laws this week, and Plato comments (through the voice of the Athenian) on the wastefulness of the Greek custom of women staying at home and not contributing to broader society (Laws 7.804a-805). Plato called this custom “irrational” and said that when only men contribute in society, you only have half a state instead of a whole one. He recognised this weakness and flaw in his culture. Still, many in the church are copying this weak, flawed model in the mistaken belief that it is biblical.

We need a whole church, not half a church, for the body of Christ to be healthy and effective, but many Christians are effectively coercing their women to bury their talents and ignore their gifts instead of encouraging and supporting them to use them in the wider world for the cause of the kingdom. (See Jesus’ parable of the talents recorded in Matthew 25:14-30, esp. Matt. 25:25ff.)

The statement in Titus 2:4-5 describing the basic virtues of young Greco-Roman wives simply cannot be taken as Paul’s definitive or comprehensive statement concerning all young women, as he greatly valued his female colleagues and friends in ministry, and these women were not restricted to being workers at home.

Footnotes

[1] The etymology of a word does not always give a true indication of how that word is actually used and understood. Usage is what determines the meaning of words, not etymology.

[2] BDAG = Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition, revised and edited by F.W Danker (University of Chicago Press, 2000), 700.

[3] LSJ = Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th Edition, revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones, with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 1205.

[4] Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd Edition, (Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 1994), 585.

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15 thoughts on ““Workers at home” or “keepers at home” in Titus 2:5?

  1. Because Thayers Lexicon lists the meanings of depoteo as master, to rule, to manage, I would think that we would view both oikodespotēs, and oikourgos with a stronger emphasis on leading and organizing the household rather than doing all the work of the household.

    1. I don’t think any of the three Greek words in this article are about doing housework as we understand it, let alone doing all the work of the household. There were slaves to do that. Paul was writing to young women who could make choices and could have their own households to manage.

      ~ Oikodespotēs is about managing the household. (I mention this in the article.)
      ~ Oikourgos is about being busy and productive in the household, by managing the housework and any home-based business.
      ~ Oikouros is simply about staying in the household.

      The etymology gives us a hint of the meanings of these words, but usage is more important. The way these words are used in other ancient texts tells us what these words mean.

  2. 1 Cor.7: 29 But this I say , brethren, the time is short : it remaineth , that both they that have wives be as though they had none; 30 And they that weep , as though they wept not; and they that rejoice , as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy , as though they possessed not; 31 And they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away . 32 But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: 33 But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife…”

    It seems here that Paul is speaking of the urgency of the times and the first line seems to say that even if the man marries he should behave as if he is single in order to do the Lord’s work…and so on…he seems to want us to be ‘free’ to serve God and warns the woman that at least unmarried she will be more able to please the Lord…all of this makes the enforcement of the woman in the home clearly not the INTENT of Paul…he is more concerned with the work of God and is gently encouraging us all to put our focus there rather than pleasing a husband or wife…yet I have never heard such teaching reflected in my churches..instead the focus is on getting women under the roof and away from the work of God.

    1. Excellent point, Judy.

      Paul’s advice to both men and women to remain single so that they can devote themselves to ministry is rarely “pushed” in evangelical churches.

  3. The way you write and from the comments, it’s like you’re saying that that verse has no use for us today which compromises the entirety of scripture. Do you not believe that this instruction was for that time and the times to come? Do you not think that though Paul wrote the letter that the holy spirit had a lifetime motive behind such writings despite Paul’s writing to that time? To deny that, who does the picking of choosing of what is relevant to today and what is not? Are you saying that instead that everything else is relevant besides that particular part about managing the home?

    1. Hi April,

      This post is basically a word study on a few Greek words.

      Titus 2:4-5 still applies today. It especially applies to young wives who live in societies where being busy inside the house would prevent the Word of God being maligned. However, where I live in Australia, being busy outside of the house does not cause the Word of God to be maligned. (I’ve written more about how Titus 2:3-5 applies here.)

      There are numerous instances where we do not follow biblical instructions to the letter, but follow the principle instead. Here is a small sample of verses that Christians today rarely follow to the letter.

      ~ Not all Christians greet each other with a kiss despite five New Testament verses saying that we should (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12b; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Pet. 5:14b).
      ~ Some women braid their hair and some wear gold and pearl jewellery despite the clear instructions that they shouldn’t in 1 Timothy 2:9 (cf. 1 Pet. 3:3).
      ~ Not all men lift their hands when they pray, despite the instruction in 1 Timothy 2:8.
      ~ We no longer insist that slaves obey their masters as it says in Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22; 1 Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:9; 1 Peter 2:18. Rather most Christians abhor all forms of slavery. Some wonderful Christians and Christian agencies even try to free slaves.
      ~ Some Christians say disrespectful things about their political and civic leaders, and even oppose them, despite instructions to honour and submit to governing authorities given in Romans 13:1; Titus 3:1; and 1 Peter 2:13-14, 17.

      Many more examples could be added to this list.

      The integrity of Holy Scripture remains intact when we recognise both the reasons and the limits of certain instructions. In fact, the integrity of Scripture means that we must take the words “To Titus” and “the reason I left you in Crete” seriously (Titus 1:4-5). These words are inspired by the Holy Spirit and they give us an accurate context of Paul’s letter to Titus. Paul did not write his letter to April or to Marg, yet many Christians act as though the apostle is writing directly to them personally.

      Nevertheless, I actually follow all the guidelines given in Titus 2:4-5 and I’m not even a young woman living in first-century, patriarchal Crete.

      Sadly, many Christians do not even follow the most basic and more general of Jesus’ and Paul’s instructions about New Covenant living and mission.

  4. Marg, your article here is a good start, but it is incomplete. I encourage you to interact with Dr. Helton’s word study on this passage. You can find it in the below citation:

    Stanley N. Helton, “Titus 2:5—Must Women Stay at Home?,” in Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity, ed. Carroll D. Osburn, vol. 1 (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2007), 367ff

    Or, he has posted it online on academia.edu:

    https://www.academia.edu/11557125/Titus_2_5_Must_Women_Stay_at_Home

    I think it will augment much of what you have said.

    Blessings!

    1. I look forward to reading the essay. Thanks.

      1. Marg, I’m glad to see you working this text. Stan

    2. Comment removed at Marie’s request.

      1. Paul answers your question, Marie. He gives his reason: So that the word of God will not be slandered or maligned or blasphemed by non-Christians.

        However, Paul says nothing about keeping a house “clean.” (Having a clean house is important, but most people, people of all religions, as well as pagans and atheists, want a clean house. Having a clean house is not an especially Christian virtue. Also, it doesn’t take all day, every day, to clean a house.

        The qualities Paul lists in Titus 2:4-5 are the qualities of respectable first-century Roman matrons who did not have the social freedoms and choices that women in modern societies have today. There is nothing godly or spiritual in the qualities. Ancient pagan authors say very similar things. And most of the qualities in Titus 2:4-5 are very basic: of course, wives should love their husbands and children. (And husbands and children should love their wives and mothers too!)

        Paul also gives instructions to the young men in Titus 2 and he gives his reason: “so that any opponent [non-Christian] will be ashamed, because he doesn’t have anything bad to say about us” (Titus 2:7)

        And he gives instructions to slaves (male and female) and gives his reason: “so that they may adorn the teaching of God our Savior in everything” (Titus 2:10). That is, so that Christian teaching will look good to non-Christian masters.

        The answer to your question, Marie, is in Paul’s letter.

        If you want to stay home and devote your life to house-cleaning because of your interpretation of one passage in the Bible, that’s up to you. But you may want to consider the lives and examples of these Bible women:
        https://margmowczko.com/bible-women-keepers-at-home-titus-2/

        What Paul says about young Cretan women in Titus 2:4-5 is not the sum total of what the Bible, or even Paul, says about women and their lives.

  5. Marg,

    This is really helpful.

    In light of common modern interpretations seeing this as a universal dictate for women to be stay-at-home moms, I find it interesting that almost every aspect of a family’s business in the Roman Empire was conducted from homes – and the men would have generally worked from home just as much as their wives.

    Those who hold the stay-at-home as a universal interpretation are reading and applying this far outside its historical context.

    1. Thanks, David. I agree. Also, the Bible mentions women doing all kinds of work without any hint they are doing anything wrong.

      “The Bible mentions women who worked in commercial trade (Prov. 31:16a, 24; Acts 16:14), in agriculture (Josh. 15:17-19; Ruth 2:8; Prov. 31:16b), as millers (Exod. 11:5; Matt. 24:41), as shepherds (Gen. 29:9; Exod. 2:16), as artisans, especially in textiles (Exod. 26:1 NIV; Acts 18:3), as perfumers and cooks (1 Sam. 8:13), as midwives (Exod. 1:15ff), as nurses (Gen. 35:8; Exod. 2:7; 2 Sam. 4:4; 1 Kings 1:4), as domestic servants (Acts 12:13, etc), and as professional mourners (Jer. 9:17). Women could also be patrons (Acts 16:40; Rom. 16:1-2), leaders (Judg. ch 4-5; 2 Sam. 20:16) and ruling queens (1 Kings 10:1ff; Acts 8:27). One Bible woman even built towns (1 Chron. 7:24). Many women, and men, worked from home, yet the Bible nowhere criticises women who worked outside the home, in the public sphere.”
      From here: https://margmowczko.com/new-testament-working-women/

  6. Comment removed at Marie’s request.

    1. Dear Marie,

      There are three groups of widows in 1 Timothy 5.

      The widows in 1 Timothy 5:11-15 are young, relatively wealthy, and idle widows. And some have turned away to follow Satan. These are the widows I mention in the article.

      The widows in 1 Timothy 5:3-8 are the ones in need, and Paul tells their families to look after them (cf. 1 Tim 5:16). Paul does not tell these poorer widows to get married, have children, or manage their own households.

      There is also another group of widows in the text. This group are enrolled in an early church order of official Widows. Paul gives the qualifications for such a Widow: “she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds” (1 Tim 5:9-10 NIV).

      Paul does not want the younger, idle widows to be enrolled as official Widows. This is why he counsels the younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander. Only a young woman with a degree of freedom, independence, and wealth had their own households. As I’ve said, most Greco-Romans women were poor and slaves; they were not able to be idle and gossip house to house (cf. 1 Tim 5:13), and they usually did not have households of their own to manage.

      This is all in the biblical text of 1 Timothy 5. See here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Timothy+5%3A3-16&version=CSB

      Note also the reason that Paul gives for his instructions to the younger widows: to give the enemy no opportunity for slander. (1 Tim. 5:14). Compare this with Paul’s reason in Titus 2:5: “so that God’s word will not be slandered.”
      I don’t know where you live Selena, but in my country (Australia) and in my culture, women can be more than housewives, and the word of God is not slandered. In fact, modern Australians are more likely to think and say bad things about churches that restrict women to the home.

      Let me repeat myself: as important as it is, there is nothing especially Christian about keeping a clean and well-ordered home.

      The pagan Theano, for example, instructed the younger women to listen to the teaching of older women:

      “Indeed, to you younger women authority has been given by custom to rule over the household slaves once you have been married, but the teaching (didaskalia) ought to come from the older women (presbyterōn) because they are forever giving advice about household management. For it is good first to learn the things you do not know and to consider the counsel of the older women the most suitable; for a young soul must be brought up in these teachings from girlhood.”
      Annette Bourland Huizenga, Moral Education for Women in the Pastoral and Pythagorean Letters: Philosophers of the Household (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2013), 50.

      Similar words and concepts that occur in Titus 2:4-5 are also frequently found on epitaphs expressing the virtues of deceased pagan wives. On the coffin cartonnage of a pagan woman, who died around the same time as the letter to Titus was written, are inscribed these words:

      “Here lies Valeria, daughter of Marcus, of free-born status from Caesarea in Mauritania. She was kind, affectionate, dignified, blameless, she loved her husband (philandros [as in Tit. 2:4]), loved her children (philoteknos [as in Tit. 2:4]), kept the marriage bed chaste. Out of respect and love for what is good, her husband Lucius Dexios from Herculaneum buried her.” AE 828; SEG 1536.

      This epitaph is discussed by G.H.R. Horsley in “11. A Woman’s Virtue,” New Documents illustrating early Christianity, Vol. 3 (North Ryde: The Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, Macquarie University, 1983), 40-43. In the same article, Horsley provides more examples of epitaphs of wives with the words philandros and philoteknos. See also “80” in New Docs Vol. 2.

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