Mother, Where are You?: What Scripture Says About the Task of the Woman in the Family
The United Nations General Assembly of 8 December 1989 proclaimed 1994 as the International Year of the Family, setting the theme for the year as 'Family: resources and responsibilities in a changing world.' This UN International Year (which now almost has come to an end) was about stimulating local, national and international actions to strengthen families as 'the smallest democracy at the heart of society'.
The aims were to strengthen the functions of care and nurturing which all families hold in common and to intensify the resolve of national institutions to develop, implement and monitor policies which will support families.1
When one hears this at first, these aims sound very laudable. The more so since during the last decades of the 20th century family life has come more and more under attack.
Yet when reading the discussion paper prepared by the Australian National Council for the International Year of the Family, published in March 1994, one realises what is behind all this. This National Council was appointed to advise the Commonwealth Minister for Family Service on Australia's response to the International Year of the Family (IYF). Amongst other this response was to include issues and challenges posed by existing social and economic change which impact on Australian families.2
As regards these changes the discussion paper states, "Family policies can no longer be based exclusively and without reflection on a so called 'traditional' concept of men as sole breadwinners and women as the child carers ... Following the labour force changes of the last 20 years, increasing numbers and proportions of families with children have two earners." 3
Since the early 1970s, women's labour force participation has increased substantially, and the most dramatic increases have been for women with children. The report mentions the following percentages:
In 1980, 46 per cent of the married women with children were in the labour force. This had increased to 60 per cent in 1993.
In 1993, 53 per cent of couples with dependent children were both in employment. Where husband and wife were employed, both worked full-time in 42 per cent of the cases.4
As regards the increasing numbers and proportions of families with children who have two earners the report states, "The primary reason for being in employment for both men and women is economic. However, employment also provides a sense of accomplishment, increases self-esteem, independence and personal satisfaction. Both men and women see their breadwinning as an extension of their parenting responsibilities, essential to their family's standard of living." 5As a result husband and wife have to share responsibilities with respect to family life, particularly where it concerns child care and household work. In this context amongst others the report pleads for better access to community services to support work and family choices, including affordable and appropriate child care of high quality for pre-school age children and out-of-school hours child care, day care, and day centres.6– Mother, where are you?
All this is based on the fundamental value of equality between men and women. The report states,
The rights of men and women to be treated equally in family life, employment and public life derive from the inherent dignity of the human person. Equality between men and women is based on the fundamental and equal worth of each person. 7
Indeed today it is seen as discriminatory to deny a married woman the opportunity to have a job and to take part in social life in the same way as her husband. The burden of raising children should be shared in an equitable way. It is already a thorn in the flesh of some feminists that only a woman can bear the burden of being pregnant. However, that is a 'natural phenomenon' which no one can change. (If they could, they certainly would.) The inequality should not be made worse by forcing a different role upon a women and denying her equal rights with a man. That's today's modern philosophy.
More and more it becomes a rare phenomenon that a mother stays home all day to run the household. Many consider it degrading for a woman to be confined to dusting, cooking, and making beds, as it is sometimes called in a denigrating way. That's a dull, boring job. Intelligent women in this era of feminism deserve better.8
In this paper I would like to address the question how we as God's children are supposed to react to this modern philosophy, the reason being that also within the church we see an increase of working mothers. Yes, is it wrong when a married woman with children works outside the home. In order to answer this question properly, we will need to ask what the Bible teaches us about the place and task of the woman.
Going through some of the scriptural data I would like to take as starting point Gen. 1. I do so on purpose since the apostle Paul speaking about the position of man and woman does exactly the same. He does not simply join the current ideas of his day about women, but he speaks about the position of the woman from the perspective of the place God has given her with creation. Thus not the cultural climate of his day determined the teaching of this apostle of Christ, but instead he led himself be guided by the order of creation which precedes all cultural ideas that surfaced later on throughout the ages. Well, that's why today I too will take my starting point in what, we read in Gen.1 about the creation of man and woman.
In Gen. 1:27 we read, "So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." Thus creating man in His own image God straight away also made a distinction in gender. This means that concerning the image of God a society of only men does not or cannot show this image, nor does or can a society of only women. The image of God is not a one-sided affair of just one sex. Instead it has pleased God to establish the riches of His image by creating man male and female; two sexes that differ from each other, not only bodily but also in many other respects. Functioning as a male or a female concerns one's whole being.
From this we learn that today's emancipation movement which will make us believe that man and woman are equal does no justice to what Scripture teaches us. Creating man in His own image God has given both to male and female each its own characteristics to show this image; characteristics that complement each other.
After God had created man male and female, we read in Gen. 1:28 that He blessed them. In so doing God endowed man with power from above so that as male and female they would be able to carry out the task God would give them. This task (often called the cultural mandate) is recorded in the continuation of verse 28. First of all God says, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it." It is good to note that God says this after He had blessed man. This clearly shows that also as far as conceiving children is concerned, man could not do this in own strength. It is God alone who can open the womb and who at times will also close it. Therefore it should not be man who determines to have children, but it is God who gives children in His time.
There is a close connection between Gen. 1:27 and Gen. 1:28. Because God created man male and female God enabled man to bring forth children. It became one of the aims of marriage. This is not the only aim of marriage, yet it is one of the aims. Therefore it is totally contrary to Scripture when nowadays one can hear voices, even in our own circles, that getting married does not mean that a couple also straight away has to accept God's blessing in receiving children. When as couple you are not yet ready for it, for whatever reason, you can wait till a more suitable time. When reasoning this way one wonders what is left of receiving children as a blessing of the Lord. This not only applies to the first child, but also later on in marriage when husband and wife must deal with the question how they can continue to be instrumental in building Christ's church by receiving more children from God's fatherly hand. It is on purpose that God did not create mankind all at once, as He did with the angels, for example. God made man instrumental in the procreation of the human race. That's why this command is given in Gen. 1:28. It is through this command that God wanted to fill this earth with people who would praise His Name in reflecting His image.
That's Gen. 1. What now can we learn from this part of Scripture with respect to today's topic? To find an answer we return to the apostle Paul who points us to certain elements which by superficial reading we perhaps had overlooked. Facts as that Adam was created first and afterwards the woman, and also that it was woman who yielded to the temptations of Satan, where after she gave Adam to eat from the fruit of the tree, facts as these perhaps we would have simply noted them without attaching much significance to it. Yet the apostle Paul inspired by the Holy Spirit teaches us in 1 Tim. 2 that these are facts with a message. It is on this order of creation that he bases his statement that no woman is permitted to teach or to have authority over man. "For – 1 Tim. 2:13 – Adam was formed first, then Eve." Thus the apostle points to a certain order. When Eve denied this order and acted on own initiative without consulting her husband, things went wrong. That's how Satan succeeded. In 1 Cor. 11 the apostle Paul points to this same order when he writes, vss. 8 & 9 of this chapter, "For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man." One cannot deny this order which has now also consequences for the position and task of the woman.
Does this mean that man can exercise his authority without any limits and that the only task left for a woman is to submit to this male authority? Surely not. In 1 Cor. 11:3 the apostle Paul writes the head of the woman is man, but the head of man is Christ. This clearly shows how a man should exercise this authority, namely to the honour of God. Moreover God gave the woman to man as a helper fit for him. Man on his own could not carry out the task God had given him. He needed a helper. Well, this should make man humble and appreciative of the woman he received from God.
As regards marriage God gave husband and wife to each other to become one flesh. Yet as the apostle Paul writes in Eph. 5 no one tyrannizes his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church. In this part of Eph. 5 (which is also quoted in the Form for the Solemnisation of Marriage) the apostle Paul explains in a beautiful way the headship of the man. In his headship over his wife the husband must show the image of Christ. Well, Christ being the Head of the church does not rule His congregation with an iron hand. On the contrary He gave Himself up for His congregation. That's how a husband should guide and love his wife. If this happens it is no longer difficult either for a wife to be submissive to her husband. But then she thankfully accepts his guidance and becomes willing to assist her husband in all good things.
2.2 After the fall into sin
Thus far we have dealt with God's wonderful order from the beginning. The fall into sin affected also the relationship between Adam and his wife. This becomes quite clear when Adam speaks to God about his wife as "the woman whom Thou gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate." God Himself also addresses this relationship when He says to the woman, "your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you." In the past these words were often seen as a certain order set by God which man should not resist. Yet they form part of God's curse over creation, whereby the desire of the woman for her husband means she no longer accepts it as a matter of course that the man is the head. The woman wants to be equal disputing the fact that her husband has to take the lead, has to give guidance. That's how it will be now sin has entered this world. It will ruin also the relationship between male and female, between husband and wife. God thus declares here that the woman will no longer be content with the position given to her by God. Her desire shall be to be equal to man, disputing his position, i.e. the position given to man by God.
Man from his side shall not tolerate this. He shall hit back lording it over the woman. He shall rule over you, says the LORD. This shows how as a result of sin everything has been put out of joint. Instead of living in harmony, male and female will now dispute each other's position, even within marriage. War breaks out between the sexes. The woman shall misuse her position of being created as helper for the man, she shall misuse this position to fight for herself. Whilst man from his side shall abuse his position of head to lord it over the woman, at times even tyrannizing her. Thus God's wonderful order of creation will turn into disorder. That's God's curse. And haven't we seen this curse coming true throughout history, not only in man exploiting the woman but also in today's emancipation movement; the latter opposes God's wonderful order from the beginning as much as the former.
Sin thus ruined also that wonderful relation between male and female, between husband and wife. After the fall a marriage relationship is no longer automatically good. Husband and wife do not always live in harmony; behind the scenes there is sometimes a lot of arguing or even fighting; physical abuse, and you name it. Yet despite all this God did not do away with the institution of marriage. After the fall God did not say, "this will never work again, and therefore the two sexes should from now on always live separately." God kept marriage intact, whereby the husband remains the head of his wife, and the wife a helper fit for her husband. No, then this has nothing to do with the one being superior to the other, but instead in the place where God has set us (be it as husband or as wife) we may help each other and complement each other. True, then it might not always be easy to respect the order set by God, to reflect the image of God in being head, or in being a help for the husband. This too is something we can no longer do in own strength, but only by power from above. Yes, only in Christ there is the assured restoration of marriages which have been overshadowed by the consequences of sin. When husband and wife find each other at the cross of Christ and live by that mystery which is hidden from unbelievers, the bond which God has established between them will grow stronger and stronger. And then as children of God they will also use their marriage for the furtherance of God's kingdom. Then this will always have priority.
Thus far something about the place and position of man and woman before and after the fall into sin. The question now is what does this teach us with respect to today's topic about the task of the woman and in how far from a scriptural point of view there is room for a woman to work outside the home?
When looking at Gen. 3:16-19 we can come to no other conclusion than that God punishes both man and woman in their primary task: the woman in receiving children and man in his task to provide for livelihood. Here is a close connection with Gen. 1:28. In Paradise man and woman together had received the task to fill and subdue the earth. A tremendous task. At that point of time as yet there were no children. So man and woman could easily have said, "that can wait since there is so much other work to do in God's kingdom." Even more so after the fall into sin. But then the remarkable thing is that God punishes the woman in the area of childbearing. Apparently this belonged to her primary task.
Thus after the fall into sin in the same way as man also the woman was punished by God first of all in the a area where she had to fulfil her primary task. Since Gen. 3:16 the joy of motherhood is diluted; not only in delivering children with pain, but also in raising the children entrusted into our care. Many tears are cried in secret, especially when children grow older. The joy of having children is often soured by trouble and sorrow.
However, Gen. 3:16 speaks not of punishment only, but also of grace. For although from now on receiving and raising children will be soured by pain and trouble, nevertheless children will be born. This means first of all the promise of Gen. 3:15 shall be fulfilled. The woman shall bear seed in order that God's plan of redemption can be fulfilled. For finally from the seed of the woman a male child shall be borne who will crush the head of the serpent. Moreover in this way God wanted to fill the earth with people who once again wanted to acknowledge Him as the only true God reflecting His image in a world full of sin. No, then man is not able to do this in own strength. From ourselves we are unable to counteract the forces of the evil one. That's why we have to live by faith. Well, that's what also the woman has to do in fulfilling her task after the fall into sin. I think here of what the apostle Paul writes in 1 Tim. 2. Among other in this chapter he speaks about the position and task of the woman in the congregation of Christ. He says, 2:11, "Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness." A statement by which he undergirds his argument, appealing to what God did with creation and to what happened with the fall into sin, vss. 13 & 14. But then he continues, vs. 15, "Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty." Of course, this does not mean that women can be saved only by bearing children. Salvation is received by faith in Jesus Christ; it can be obtained even if God does not give children or when one stays single, for example. However, what 1 Tim. 2:15 does make clear is that caring as mother for children is not something inferior as today's feminist movement will have us believe. In 1 Tim. 2 the apostle Paul wants to make clear that an office bearer who teaches and a mother who cares for her children, both are instrumental in building God's church. As regards man, Paul writes in 1 Tim. 3:1, "If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task." Well, likewise it can be said about women, if any one aspires to motherhood, she desires a noble task. In motherhood God returns to the woman the task He had given her from the beginning. A task which she after the fall into sin has to fulfil with pain and sorrow, but nevertheless it is wonderful task, in the eyes of God worthy of all honour. After all, it was only in this way that the Messiah could be borne; and it is also only in this way that the New Jerusalem will be inhabited by the full number of the elect. Let us, therefore thank God, that even after the fall into sin women are called to such a wonderful and glorious task, despite the pain and sorrow it involves.
Yet there are also single women, what about them. Perhaps I may point them to what Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, esp. Ch. 7. A chapter in which the apostle as such does not speak negatively about marriage as sometimes is thought, but he points out that both being married and being unmarried is a gift of God, whereby the one gift is not more important than the other. To the one God assigns to be married, to the other He assigns to remain single. Yet whatever state God has assigned to us, in that state we are called to serve Him and to lead a life that is pleasing Him. An unmarried person has, then, to make the most of his single state to serve the LORD, whilst a married couple has to make the most of its marriage to make it subservient to the coming of God's kingdom. Indeed, God calls both married couples and single persons to serve Him. Indeed whether we married or single God's kingdom should always rank first in our life. Thus the primary task of a married wife is to take proper care of her household.
Does this now mean there is no room for a married woman with children to work outside the home? What then about a chapter like Proverbs 31, for example? When reading this chapter it is remarkable how active this woman is. Her task is surely not limited to the sink and the vacuum cleaner. She is busy with wool and flax. She cares for her house, her family, her maidens. When she considers a field she buys it. From what she earns she plants a vineyard. Her merchandise is profitable. She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out to the needy. She makes clothing for her family and for herself. She is also a wise a loving counselor. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. And yet this woman does not compete with her husband. On the contrary, all her activities are part of her God given task to be a good help meet for her husband.
That's how this acrostic starts, vss. 11 & 12, "The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life." And that's how it also ends, "Her works praise her in the gates," vs. 31.
Yet it is her husband, and not she, that sits among the elders. This does not mean that her husband was unemployed, lazy, good-for-nothing, who sits by the gate of the city while his wife works her fingers to the bone. No, the gate of the city was the place where the elders of Israel were gathered. There they were busy with the rule of the nation; there they were judging the matters of the church. So the husband of this woman had an honoured position. Yet at the same time this husband was also honoured with having a virtuous wife, who looked well after his family and business. Indeed this care for her husband and children runs through this acrostic like a continues thread. All the activities of this woman are aimed at good care for her family. She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens. She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet. She looks well to the ways of her household. As a result children rise up and call her blessed and so does her husband speaking highly of his wife. This is the virtuous woman according to Scripture: her attention is directed to her husband and children.
This woman of Proverbs 31 is indeed a woman of many virtues, but the root of them all is found in the conclusion of vs. 30. She is a woman who fears the LORD. It is this fear of the LORD that determines her activities. She does not forsake marriage in order to pursue a career. She does not live a glamorous life in the sphere of the work place, seeking the fulfillment and the rewards that the women of this world seek, giving her marriage and family a second place to her career. Quite the contrary, the kingdom of this wife in Israel is the home. Vs. 27, "She looks well to the ways of her household." This is completely in line with what we read in Proverbs 13:1, "The wise woman builds her house."
Today there are those who appeal to Proverbs 31 to prove that a godly wife can have at the same time a family and a career outside of the household. 10They point to vs. 16, for example, and say this virtuous woman was a real estate agent. Yet this verse does not say this at all. But it speaks about adding a field to the family estate. This woman does all this for the good of her husband and her family. For – vs. 16b – she buys this field to make it fruitful, planting a vineyard for the supply of her household. Others point to vs. 24 and say it looks like she had a retail clothing business, since she makes linen garments and sells them. Yet why not consider this as working at home in order to provide her household with a little extra income by delivering to the merchants the clothing she made. Notice also the place of this particular text. She makes this fine linen, these girdles, only after taking care of all her other labours. Only after providing her family with good meals and winter clothing, etc., does she turn to her projects for the merchants. There is nothing in this passage to suggest that this woman divides her interest between household and career. And this is not because this woman is stuck in the home since she cannot afford day care for her children. But she does all this work because she ought to do it and because she wants to do it, for the fear of the LORD and for the sake of her husband.11
Of course when reading Proverbs 31 we should keep in mind the differences in position between a housewife in Israel and today's housewife. The daily life of the wives in Israel was completely interwoven with that of their husbands. In today's society there is not much left of that. Due to all kind of social developments, e.g. industrial revolution and urbanization, there is no longer that close connection between family and work. Yet despite all these differences Proverbs 31 still teaches us the priorities for a 'working-woman', even in this last decade of the 20th century. Her first task is to care for husband and family and this in the most broadest way, which when the need arise may also mean: not only vacuum cleaning but perhaps also some work on the computer to help her husband in the business. In fact no one can run a business well, when he doesn't have the back up of a virtuous wife. And this applies to many jobs, even in the church. What can an elder do, for example, when spending many evenings away from home, if he did not know his family in the good care of his wife.
2.3 The New Testament echo
The apostle Paul writing his pastoral letters echoes this important message of Proverbs 31. If I may mention just a few examples.
In 1 Tim. 2 v 14 he writes, "So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, rule their households, and give the enemy no occasion to revile."
Earlier on I already pointed to 1 Tim. 2:15, where Paul writes, "Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty."
I also think of Titus 2: 4 & 5, "Train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, and submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be discredited."
Finally, 1 Tim. 2:9, 10, "Let a widow be enrolled ... and she must be well attested for her good deeds, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the feet of the saints, relieved the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way."
The Form for the Solemnization for Marriage summarizes this role of the wives as follows, "Take proper care of your family and household, and live modestly, in faith, love and holiness."
Having gone through some scriptural data, I would like to finish off with some conclusions.
- One cannot deny that the position of the woman has changed throughout the ages, especially due to all kind of social developments. Before the industrial revolution the family was much more a family at large, whereby more often than not three or even four generations lived under one roof. Within this family at large each member had his own specific task. Within the setting of an agricultural society the father was working outside the house on the field and his wife often gave him a helping hand together with the grownup children. Grandfather did all kind of jobs around the house, whilst grandmother looked after the other children, did the cooking, yes more or less ran the household. Such a family at large was at the same time a little self- supporting economical unit. In the same way as it is pictured in Proverbs 31. I think that mothers of families within the lower brackets who lived before the industrial revolution could identify much better with the woman described in this portion of Scripture than nowadays mothers.
As a result of the industrial revolution which was followed by the urbanization (more and more people moved towards the city), family life changed as well. The walls around the family became so to speak more porous, influences from outside became much stronger. In the second half of the 20th century these dangerous influences from outside became even more serious when radio and tv received a place within most of the living rooms.
At the same time the task of the mother within the family became easier. She no longer had to help her husband out in the field, whilst in addition she also received more and more modern help within the house: automatic washing machines, dishwashers, microwaves, etc. As a result she had more time on her sleeves. What to do with it? This question became even more urgent, now most females also have followed some studies and want to do something with it.
Yet if I may now comment on these developments, the first thing I would like to say is that although the task of being housewife has become easier, the task of a mother has become more difficult. I now think of the tremendous task of raising the seed of the covenant in a secular society. True, here lies a task both for mother and father, but at the same time mother often is the pivot in the centre to whom the children come first. Mother plays an important role when it comes to the climate, the atmosphere, within the family. She indeed is the one who can make or break it whether the home is a real home both for her children and her husband. I think a working mother needs too much time for other things, instead of always being there when she is needed.
- Having said all this I do not mean to say that everything should come on the shoulders of the mother. A husband should wherever possible give his wife a helping hand within the family. This too belongs to "helping each other faithfully in all things that belong to this life and to the live to come," which in the Form for the Solemnization of Marriage is mentioned as the first purpose of marriage. Husband and wife should not live each their separate life but have interest for each other, also in the things they do during the day. Again, when mother has next to her task within the family a permanent job outside the home, so easily it can happen that husband and wife live along side each other, due to time restraint have hardly any time for each other, and in the long run this will also have its negative effect on the children. On the other hand a harmonious marriage will have positive effects on the children.
When the husband is the sole bread-winner, this does not mean that his wife can only hold out her hand to receive the money she needs. It should not be that weekly she receives a certain amount of money, whilst her husband can't be bothered whether or not she is able to manage. Husband and wife are both responsible for looking after the family also financially, even when the husband is the sole breadwinner.
Does this now mean that a married woman with children should never be working in a job outside the home for an income? Having gone through some scriptural data we must conclude that the Bible doesn't give us a clear cut answer to this question. Today's secular viewpoint is that a woman's prime goal in life should be to achieve equality. Working outside the home is seen as a liberating force and as an advancement. I don't think that anyone of you would subscribe to this viewpoint. And yet there seems to be a trend also among us whereby it is no longer seen as wrong when a married woman with children takes up a job outside the home. As soon as the youngest child starts school full-time mothers become restless and try to look for something else. They feel empty-handed, sometimes useless. And therefore they seek for a job outside the home and work along with their secular counterparts. And of course now you want to hear from me today whether this is right or wrong. Let me summarize my answer as follows:
- Under certain exceptional circumstances it may be necessary for a mother to earn money, e.g. due to financial strain within the family. Although don't have the deacons then a task? Especially when it would mean that mother can no longer be a real mother for her children. This is indeed the determining factor. It should not be that children after school come home and cannot find their mother. This is the time that mother is needed. For this reason it is not good either that then a mother still has to do all the house-work, since during school hours she went out to work.
- Each family is different and has different needs. Therefore it is difficult to give an uniform answer to the question whether a married woman with children may never look for a job outside the home. Yet the bottom line remains: the primary task of women in the church is to raise families, and when the children grow older and we find more time we should first look for doing good within the family at large, the communion of saints. That's the Biblical rule. Even if we have time we should not first of all think of ourselves, but of others within the household of faith.
More could be said, but it is time to close of. I think we should be very careful that we do not let a worldly lifestyle creep into the church, not even subconsciously. A next generation would not see any wrong with it at all. It is this next generation that we should be concerned about and therefore a mother needs to spend time with her children. No, she is not the only one. Fathers should not neglect their task either. Nevertheless it is a mother that makes the home. Make sure then that you are always there whenever your children need you. After all, to be a mother is the most wonderful task and also the most honourable task God has given to a woman in His kingdom.