The Good Work of Women, Part 1

“In the Bible, there are a diversity of women with various vocations and marital statuses who contribute to God’s great narrative of redemption.”    

Though I don’t presently feel the heat of battle, I am told that the “Mommy Wars” are still alive and well here in America. Whether you identify as a SAHM (stay at home mom), WOHM (working outside the home mom), WAHM (working at home mom), or are still TTC (trying to conceive), the world loves to figure out what neat little group to fit you in. There are tiger moms, free-range moms, helicopters, lawnmowers, and attachment parents. Those without kids are usually thankful to claim neutrality.

But in the church, and in my own life, I don’t feel that any of these terms quite express how I view my place and purpose in this world. If I were to propose a new acronym, it would be something like IBWWWH. That is, Image Bearer Working with Willing Hands. Because truly—married or single, with any number of kids that we birthed ourselves or welcomed into our homes, no matter our work hours or office location—we see in the very creation story of Genesis how God calls every Christian woman to bear his image and work faithfully in His service.

“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27).

In the Bible, there are a diversity of women with various vocations and marital statuses who contribute to God’s great narrative of redemption. Eve, by her very name is described as a “life giver” who births all mankind. Deborah is a prophetess who sits under her palm tree to offer wisdom in judicial cases. Ruth gleans from the field to care for her mother in law. The “excellent wife” described in Proverbs 31 performs a whole number of traditional domestic duties like sewing and cooking, yet also sells her goods in the marketplace. Lydia and Phoebe were financial donors to the ministry of Paul and other early apostles. In each case where a woman (or man for that matter) is mentioned for service to God, it is not of primary importance what she does but how faithfully she does it.

But for those who are interested in the topic of biblical womanhood, it would be unwise to overlook the fact that many of the passages outlining instruction for women contain home-centric encouragement. The woman praised in Proverbs “looks well to the ways of her household” (31:27). Paul instructs Titus to have the older women “train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be...working at home” (2:4-5). 1 Timothy calls young widows to “marry, bear children, manage their household” (5:14).

While there is much debate over the degree to which these passages are prescriptive for all women or responsive to a particular culture or problem, at the very least we must reckon with the fact that they are included in God’s word. And if God is in charge and gives us His good word, then we don’t get to pick out any parts that don’t quite fit into our worldview. We must strive instead to conform ourselves to God’s worldview.

By way of example, consider the call in Titus 2 to teach the younger women to be “workers at home.” The passage does not say “workers only at home” nor does it omit “home” altogether. So we must hold these two truths in careful tension: God wants us to be workers, and our work is going to include, somehow, the home. It is also valuable to note that men are given specific, home-centric instruction as well (Ephesians 6:4, 1 Timothy 3:4). This means that married women will join with their husbands in caring for home and children.

As we consider the notion of “home,” it's helpful to understand a bit of the history of work and how certain tasks and responsibilities expected of women have evolved over time. Katelyn Beaty, the print managing editor of Christianity Today, devotes a chapter to this topic in her recently released book on women and vocation, A Woman’s Place. As we look at passages like Titus 2 or Proverbs 31, we see that “home is a place of industry, not idleness” (92). Beaty explains that prior to the industrial revolution, “a man would oversee the entire operation [of his profession] at his home, working alongside his wife, children, and neighbors to make ends meet. Now many men spend the entire day away from their families” (107). Consequently, the notions of a “breadwinner” and the “separate spheres” of work and life are also post-industrial revolution ideas. Beaty urges a broader perspective on vocation, echoing the blessing God gives to Abraham in Genesis 22: “We were never meant to work just for ourselves or just for our families. We were meant to work so that flourishing, wholeness, and delight would spread to the furthest reaches of creation” (78).

But how does our call to bless the nations work itself out practically in the context of a marriage? John Piper, in laying out his vision for the complementary roles of husband and wife, poses what is both my favorite and simultaneously most frustrating question:

“That you not only pose the question: career or full-time homemaker?, but that you ask just as seriously: full-time career or freedom for ministry? That you ask: Which would be greater for the kingdom—to work for someone who tells you what to do to make his or her business prosper, or to be God’s free agent dreaming your own dream about how your time and your home and your creativity could make God’s business prosper” (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 56).

I love his use of the term “freedom for ministry” because it appropriately honors the work I see in my many friends who have chosen to leave paid employment for the fruitful work of raising their children and serving the church. I think it’s a tremendous question to ask at different stages of child-rearing: given our current family situation, what type of ministry engagement is God calling me to pursue? It is also a wonderful question for women of all walks of life to consider, whether or not they presently have children.

But I am equally frustrated by the juxtaposition of career versus “freedom for ministry” because it inadvertently implies that unpaid ministry is somehow more holy than the good, faithful work that God desires of the banker, the mechanic, the teacher, or the architect.* It also assumes that all families have this choice, which we will discuss more in depth later in this series.

Whether you are considering what to study in college or wondering what God has in store for you now that your kids are teenagers, the next post will outline a couple of big-picture questions that are helpful to revisit periodically when considering what it means to be an image bearer working with willing hands.
* I should note that I don’t believe Piper intends to make this claim based on the other writings from his website but simply that the articulation of this idea can cause confusion.

Part 2: Navigating Work Choices in Marriage

Part 3: Practical Tips for Integrating Work and Family

Part 4: Trust in the Right Hands

Part 5: Work When There is No Choice