As I walked down the church hall with my six-month-old hanging on my hip, a mom with grown children placed her hand on my shoulder and smiled. “I heard you quit your job to stay home,” she said. “That’s great! Motherhood is your greatest calling.”
But is motherhood my greatest calling? Should moms with small kids ever work outside the home? Do dads have to be the primary breadwinners?
So as we—a young mom/seminary student (Seana) and a fifty-something seminary professor (Sandra)—discussed the “highest calling” myth, we wondered, what is the origin of the so-called biblical ideal that the mom is the primary parent and that the dad must earn the money? Addressing that question required us to grab both our history books and our Bibles.
The Question of Staying Home
The widespread question of whether women could or should work outside of the home came on the tails of the Industrial Revolution. Before the late eighteenth century, manufacturing happened primarily on homesteads. And who owned homesteads? Wealthy, primarily white, people.
Clearly, ethnicity, class, and gender are all mixed up in the question about wives working at home and fathers working away from home earning paychecks. For example, in the United States when black women spent their days caring for white children, even people who claimed to believe the Bible did not tell those caretakers and employees that the true vocation of all women was to be in their own homes caring for their own kids.
The Change in How Families Work
So, with the racial dynamic as a backdrop, how has the Industrial Revolution affected family work?
When most Americans lived in an agrarian society, mothers and fathers worked side by side with their children gardening, raising animals, and making their own clothing. According to research on the history of childcare in the US, children for generations joined moms in their work—which produced either goods or income or both for their families. And that work happened close to home.
With industrialization, however, factories took much of the work—and the income it brought—out of the home. This dynamic split the family, and according to Alice P. Mathews in Marriage Made in Eden, the divorce rate skyrocketed. The ideal had been both parents (and extended family) at home with the children and everyone helping to produce goods and income, but that shifted to one parent being home and one “out” producing income, if a family could afford it.
Enter an assumed Christian-cultural ideal, packaged with the Titus 2 label. When the apostle Paul told Titus to have the older women in Crete teach younger women how to “be workers at home” (Titus 2:5), people reading through a contemporary economic grid assumed Paul meant that God designed humans such that “moms stay home to take care of house and kids while dads work in industry.” Yet Paul spoke into a context in which factories and offices were non-existent.
His emphasis was less about limiting a sphere where women could spend their days and more about how they did so—by working hard—because Cretans seemed to have a cultural vice of sloth. Paul noted this by referencing one of Crete’s own prophets, who described them as “liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12, emphasis ours).
And in recent history, most people read Titus 2:5 in the King James Version which said “keepers at home.” But they were relying on late Greek manuscripts that had a letter gamma, or “g,” missing in this word—which slightly altered its meaning. Today most scholars like the translation that’s based on older, better manuscripts that have a compound word (oikos + ergou; from οἰκος, ἐργου) “home-workers.” And that seems to be the point—work.
In fact many of the homes in the first-century Roman Empire were like storefront businesses, with a counter and shop in the front and domestic space in the back. So a woman’s involvement in income-producing enterprise was not necessarily a “leaving home vs. staying home” situation. Seeing it that way is reading an industrialized culture back into a pre-factory world.
The women in Paul’s day were home, with all but those in the upper classes contributing to household incomes. And he wanted these women to work hard rather than doing the equivalent of lying around popping chocolates.
In post-Industrial Revolution America, when significant income earning left the household, families had to determine how best to care for children. So hard decisions needed to be made for those with the luxury to choose: who works to provide for the family and who takes care of the kids? In the process, Westerners’ interpretations of the scriptures pertaining to childrearing and caring for the home shifted as well.
Now, in the US, seventy-five percent of mothers with children seventeen or younger are employed. Many of them earn incomes outside the home, despite the fact that fifty-nine percent of US adults believe that children with two parents are better off when one parent stays home at all times. Under the influence of a flimsy understanding of Titus 2, many evangelicals see in such stats a failure to obey God’s instructions for women to “work at home.”
But there’s another issue. Isn’t it also God’s instruction for fathers to be the ones to provide? Yet does the Bible really say providing for family is the man’s job?
Who’s supposed to provide?
The perspective that men are responsible to provide for their families has some Bible interpretation issues of its own. Some ground this thinking in a flawed interpretation of the Fall’s consequences. As one commentator wrote, “The woman’s punishment struck at the deepest root of her being as wife and mother, the man’s strikes at the innermost nerve of his life: his work, his activity, and provision for sustenance.” But that ignores what we know about family dynamics in the ancient world. Fathering was an integral part of a man’s day, and income-producing work, an integral part of a woman’s until relatively recently.
A person might also think it’s “the man’s job to provide” based on certain translations of 1 Timothy 5:8: “But if anyone [sometimes elsewhere translated “If a man . . .”] does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (ESV, emphasis ours).
There’s only one problem with the three male pronouns in this verse—they’re only part of the translation, not stated overtly in the original. The actual intent regarding gender (social gender, not gender as linguistics) in the original reads more like this: “If anyone does not provide for that one’s own relatives, and especially for members of that one’s own household, that person has denied the faith. . . .” In the language, the pronoun is “male”; but just like in Spanish some pronouns are grammatically labeled with “genders” as male or female, but masculine endings do not always specifically apply only to men.
In other words, 1 Timothy 5:8 provides a flimsy foundation on which to base one’s argument that fathers are given sole or even primary responsibility to provide financially.
Co-laborers in the Home and Marketplace
Let’s try to remove our Western-culture glasses and think about the foundation laid back in Genesis. In the garden God gave both man and woman, as a team, the job of having dominion over and multiplying and filling the earth (Genesis 1:27–28). The first couple were companions and coworkers. Yet once we hit the account of the Fall (3:16–19), we see how sin ruined their partnership. Nevertheless, the curse did not cancel the design.
A Wise Woman As Our Example
Thumbing forward from Genesis comes Proverbs 31. And here Lady Wisdom is personified as both an industrious worker in the home and a capable producer in the marketplace—from selling belts to real estate. She is the very picture of a woman’s abilities and God-given freedom to thrive in industry, with her husband and children there supporting what she is doing.
Biblical Parenting Today
The extended family, along with the church, is a fundamental unit of society. And God gave the responsibility of training up children to both fathers and mothers (Ephesians 6:4). In fact the scriptures lay out the ideal of both mom and dad spending significant time with their children, discipling them—not just one or the other (Deuteronomy 6:4–7).
When I (Sandra) was a mom with a young daughter, I would teach grad school in the evenings after my husband—who has always handled all the grocery shopping—got home from the office. And I’d work as a magazine editor while our girl took naps or went one morning a week to mothers’ day out. When she hit the teen years, my husband started working from home. He began handling all of our daughter’s school and medical appointments, and I took on more freelance writing and teaching on the weekdays. She had constant access to us throughout this transition into young adulthood.
In the current marketplace, couples have numerous options for earning income while parenting their children together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Steve Smith, a work-in-the-home dad and seminary graduate, thinks “there is something very satisfying about having the entire family involved in a lifestyle that both provides a living and also makes a life—home and family as both workplace and living space. Industrialization pulled families apart.” Smith believes that with today’s capabilities of technology combined with economies increasingly built on contract and freelance work, it may become more feasible to move toward a more united family/workplace scenario.
All this is not to say families who divide the labor with dads at the office and moms at home with the kids are inferior. I (Seana) stay home full-time with three children while I also finish my seminary studies and write. It works best for our family right now.
I (Sandra) am no longer in my childrearing years. I don’t have an iron in this fire other than this—I care about the biblical text and how we handle it. And I care about my hard-working mom friends being guilted into thinking that parenting is all on them and that they are failures as moms if they earn a salary. But I also care about my hard-working dad friends guilted into thinking all the income-earning to support their families is on them—and missing out on a lot of their kids’ lives. It’s supposed to be a partnership. And flexibility is allowed.
When answering the question “What is the ideal as we answer the high calling of parenting?” a key question parents—not just moms—need to ask is this: “In light of our God-given responsibility to train up our children in the way they should go, and in light of our training, gifts, passions, and vocational experience, what configuration of vocation and childcare most honors God as we work to shape our children’s souls and provide for our family’s needs?” The answer may differ from family to family and even within the same family from season to season. Parents are accountable only to God for their children, and there is no one-size-fits-all for handling biblically the division of labor and childcare. Hearing his voice and obeying—that is the greatest calling.
 Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 338.
 Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, rev ed.: Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 93–94.
Cover image by Brooke Lark.