Saturday, May 12, 2012
Does The New Testament Teach that Women Should Be Housekeepers?
Here’s Titus 2:3-5 in the NIV (1984) translation:
Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be
slanderers or addicted to much wine,but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the
younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to
be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will
malign the word of God.
Here it is in the King James Version:
The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false
accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; That they may teach the
young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, To be discreet,
chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God
be not blasphemed.
And in the New American Standard:
Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips
nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the
young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible,
pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of
God will not be dishonored.
All three versions make it sound like what Paul asking Titus to do is make sure young
women learn to be homemakers, or housekeepers. On the basis of this verse, many
Christians today say that a woman’s God-given special domain is the home-- that God’s
ideal is that women marry, stay home and keep house. But the actual Greek word
there does not mean “busy at home” or “workers at home. The KJV “keepers at home"
is much closer, but only if we understand that the word “keeper” in the age of King
James did not mean someone who stayed in a place and kept it clean.
The actual word is “oikouros,” a combination of the word “oik,” meaning "house," and
the word “ouros,” meaning "guard." The word for the "gardener" whom Mary Magdalene
thought she was speaking at the Resurrection (John 20:15) was that same word "ouros"
combined with the word for "garden." Mary Magdalene asked the man if he had moved
the body. Why? Because he had the authority to do so! Being the "ouros" of
something was a position of responsibility with accompanying authority. The “keeper of
the garden” was not merely the man who pruned the shrubbery. He had the power to
take bodies out of the tombs and put them back again. He guarded and protected the
tombs and managed the interment of the bodies. He was in charge of the garden.
“Oikouros" – “guard of the home” is not about being "domestic." The same word “guard”
in verb rather than noun construction, is part of "phroureo" in 1 Peter 1:5. "Phroureo"
combines "phr" ("before" or "above") with "oureo" ("to guard/watch") and means "to
watch over." 1 Pet 1:5 in the NIV translates, "shielded [phroureo] by God's power." God
is our “Ouros.” This is not a word that implies subordination.
The statement in Titus that women should "guard the home" was based on the
historical/cultural understanding shared between Paul and his readers (in this case,
Titus) that the home was considered the wife's special domain. In the first-century
Greco-Roman culture, the pater familias (ruling father) was the chief authority in the
family—but when it came to the actual running of the domestic side of the household,
he deferred to his wife. This understanding is also present when Paul says in 1 Timothy
5:14, “So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes
and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.” (NIV 1984-- The New American
Standard renders it “keep house.”) But the word translated “manage their homes” or
“keep house” is actually that same word “oik” for house combined with “despotes,”
which means “to rule”! Paul was telling Timothy that younger widows should marry and
rule their houses, which was the cultural expectation.
This cultural expectation is reflected in the repetition of the thought in both 1 Timothy
5:14 and Titus 2:5 that the purpose for Paul’s teaching is “so that no one will malign the
word of God” or “to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.” Paul expresses in both
verses this same basic idea, in light of which he counsels in Titus 2:5 that women
should be “subject to their husbands” (the word does not mean “be obedient,” as the
KJV translates it, but is the same word used in Ephesians 5:21-22 meaning “voluntarily
yield.”) Paul, Timothy and Titus all understood that the surrounding culture expected
wives to be obedient to their husbands (although, as I said, the husband deferred to his
wife in the running of the house). Paul was counseling that wives instead voluntarily yield to their husbands as a Christian act, for the sake of the good name of the Christian
This is clearly seen when looking at Titus 2:3-5 in its immediate context. Paul goes on in
Titus 2 to talk about two more groups: young men and slaves. At the end of each
section he repeats, in slightly different words, the same concept: In verse 8 he says that
if the young men will be self-controlled, then "those who oppose you will be ashamed
because they have nothing bad to say about us." Then in verse 10 he says that if slaves
will please their masters and not steal, then "in every way they will make the teaching
about God our Savior attractive."
Paul was interested in how the gospel message appeared to the surrounding culture.
That's what he was telling Titus: to make sure everyone behaved themselves according to
the bounds of propriety. Otherwise, the young church in Crete might fail.
Some Christians, misreading the KJV where it says "so that the word be not
blasphemed," think the verse is saying that wives not being submissive is somehow
directly "blaspheming" the word of God. But the context shows that this is not what Paul
was talking about. He meant that if wives were not submissive to their husbands, the
surrounding culture would think there was something wrong with Christianity.
In order to give no offense to the non-Christians surrounding the young churches, Paul
asked both Timothy and Titus to make sure that women were doing their culturally
mandated jobs. This included authority to rule, protect and guard their homes. He was
not saying that the cultural structure of pater familias and subordinate wife was God’s
own mandate for all time. And he certainly was not saying that God’s divine plan and
design for all women in all ages was that they be housekeepers.
Update: August 2012:
I must correct one point in the above. It seems that many manuscripts do have “oikourgos,” “working at home.” According to Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, “oikourgos” is a combination of “oikos, (house) and a root of ergon (work).” Vines’ then goes on to say, “Some mss. have oikouros, watching or keeping the home (oikos and ouros, a keeper).” There is a slight textual variation, therefore, that can go either way. But even if what Paul originally wrote was “working at home” (which is not certain), this does not erase the historical context and the immediate literary context of the passage. Nor does it fundamentally alter the meaning. Paul was telling Titus to advise people in different walks of life to do their culturally-perceived duty. For wives, this included both working in (or guarding/keeping) the home and being submissive to their husbands. As I went on to say, the immediate context proves this is the case, as Paul gives Titus the same advice in different words to give young men and to slaves– do your duty as society expects you to, and it will give the gospel and its followers a good name.
What Paul is certainly not doing is telling women that God designed them as cooks and house cleaners, and that’s what they should always do. If that’s what he had meant, he never would have sent Phoebe as his spokesperson to bear his letter to the Romans (Romans 16:1-2), or commended so many other women for working hard for the gospel. Nor do I believe he was advocating husband-rule as a divine mandate, any more than he was advocating slavery as a divine mandate.