What does the Bible say about mothers working outside the home?
There are at least two distinct New Testament scripture references that have something to say about a woman's role in the home.
1Tim. 5:11 But refuse to put younger widows on the list, for when they feel sensual desires in disregard of Christ, they want to get married,
1Tim. 5:12 thus incurring condemnation, because they have set aside their previous pledge.
1Tim. 5:13 At the same time they also learn to be idle, as they go around from house to house; and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention.
1Tim. 5:14 Therefore, I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach;
1Tim. 5:15 for some have already turned aside to follow Satan.
In v.14 Paul teaches that young widows, who are still of marrying age, should remarry, bear children, keep house and refrain from idleness. Based on the context of this passage, we see Paul is concerned about idleness among younger women, who lack a purpose or opportunity to serve others. In Paul's day, women served society primarily by caring for a husband and family, and women had few options for working outside the home.
Therefore, a young widow who remained single might find herself with little or nothing to occupy her days, and she would almost certainly become a financial burden on others in the church, which Paul says is not conducive to promoting godliness.
To avoid this situation, Paul commands young widows to "keep house." When Paul says "keep house," he uses the Greek word oikodespoteo, which literally means to rule a household. Paul was counseling women to desire for the role God gave by remarrying and running a household rather than remaining single and without a purpose.
Fast forwarding to the modern world of today, single (and married) women have many other options to avoiding idleness and dependence on others. Therefore, we know marriage is no longer the only path to godliness and usefulness.
In light of these cultural changes, we must consider whether Paul's command for single women to marry and work in the home are still relevant today? Can a woman seek employment outside the home without violating the instructions of 1Tim 5?
Before we can reach that conclusion, let's consult a second passage found in Titus:
Titus 2:3 Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good,
Titus 2:4 so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children,
Titus 2:5 to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored.
Looking at the passage, Paul again says that a woman should be a worker at home, and his word choice here is similar to his statement in 1Tim 5: Paul means a woman should work to create order in the home. Here again Paul is emphasizing the importance of a woman's responsibility to attend to the duty of running a household. Paul is asking a women to embrace the role of overseer in a home, which is the role God has assigned women to the benefit of themselves, the family and society as a whole. Overseeing the home environment is an honorable and essential mission worthy of a woman's pursuit.
Paul's instructions in Titus 2 are much harder to dismiss as culturally obsolete than his instructions in 1Tim 5. For example, Paul says that young women should be encouraged by older, more mature women to love their husbands and to love their children. Certainly, these commands are still in effect today and not dependent on culture.
Later in the passage Paul says women are to be workers at home, and that they are to be subject to their husband's authority. Once again, we know that the authority of a husband over a wife remains a biblical imperative today, so can we reasonably conclude that only the command for women to oversee the home has expired yet the other commands have not?
It seems far more reasonable to conclude that Paul intended this command to be as timeless as the rest. Therefore, we view both 1Tim and Titus to teach that it is the Lord's desire for every godly woman to fulfill her proper duty in overseeing her household. As long as there are families and households, women are appointed by God to oversee the affairs of the home.
The husband is the spiritual authority over the family, and men also bear significant responsibilities around the house, but a woman has the primary responsibility to care for the home environment, and a husband is wise to acknowledge his wife's responsibility to do so! God created woman with this mission in mind, and so He blessed them with the temperment, sensibilities and instincts best suited to meet the challenges of this role.
So if a woman is God's appointed caretaker for the home, the question remains can a woman meet this responsibilty while also accepting employment outside the home?
An answer is found in Proverbs:
Prov. 31:10 An excellent wife, who can find? for her worth is far above jewels.
Prov. 31:11 The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.
Prov. 31:12 She does him good and not evil all the days of her life.
Prov. 31:13 She looks for wool and flax and works with her hands in delight.
Prov. 31:14 She is like merchant ships; She brings her food from afar.
Prov. 31:15 She rises also while it is still night and gives food to her household and portions to her maidens.
Prov. 31:16 She considers a field and buys it; From her earnings she plants a vineyard.
Prov. 31:17 She girds herself with strength and makes her arms strong.
Prov. 31:18 She senses that her gain is good; Her lamp does not go out at night.
Prov. 31:19 She stretches out her hands to the distaff, and her hands grasp the spindle.
Prov. 31:20 She extends her hand to the poor, and she stretches out her hands to the needy.
Prov. 31:21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household, for all her household are clothed with scarlet.
Prov. 31:22 She makes coverings for herself; Her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Prov. 31:23 Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land.
Prov. 31:24 She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies belts to the tradesmen.
Prov. 31:25 Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she smiles at the future.
Prov. 31:26 She opens her mouth in wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
Prov. 31:27 She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Prov. 31:28 Her children rise up and bless her; her husband also, and he praises her, saying:
Prov. 31:29 “Many daughters have done nobly, but you excel them all.”
Prov. 31:30 Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised.
Prov. 31:31 Give her the product of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.
In this passage, Solomon says an excellent wife honors her husband by working diligently and fulfilling her duties to care for him and his household. The word excellent in Hebrew (chayil) is actually the word for strength or power, reflecting how this wife is an example of a strong and capable woman who excels in the performance of her duties.
Consider the wide variety of duties this wife accomplishes in her work: acquiring wool and flax (v.13); shopping for food her family will enjoy (v.14); caring for the needs of others in the home (v.15); working long hours (v.18); craftmaking (vv.19); showing charity (v.20); shopping for the needs of home (v.13); teaching in the home (v.26); and raising her children well (v.28). These were the normal duties of an industrious mother and wife working to keep an orderly home.
Looking more closely at the list, however, we also notice the wife working outside the home to conduct commerce by making and selling her goods in her own business (v.24); investing money in real estate (v.16); conserving household wealth (v.8); remaining industrious (v.27) and generally working hard in partnership with her husband for the good of the family.
In summary, Solomon says an "excellent" wife works both inside and outside her home to ensure the sanctity and orderliness of the home environment. This passage strongly supports the conclusion that a woman may fulfill her duties in caring for the home while also seeking outside employment. In fact, employment outside the home can directly support the needs of the household when balanced with her duties inside the home, and scripture praises such a woman!
On the other hand, we must point out that if working outside the home causes a woman to neglect the responsibilites inside the home, then the woman is acting against the counsel of scripture. When a mother decides to seek employment outside the home, her God-given responsibilties to run the affairs of the household do not diminish or transfer to the husband. On the contrary, her decision to work outside her home should be calculated to enhance her ability to run the household, not detract from it.
So in considering all three passages quoted above, what do we conclude about a mother's responsibilities inside and outside the home?
First, it's clear the orderliness of a family's home life is the mother's primary ministry, as given by God. While everyone in the family, including the husband, must share in the work of keeping a home, the woman has the chief duty to maintain an orderly home.
Second, keeping the home involves much more than simply doing housework; it includes managing all aspects of a peaceful and nurturing home environment including meals, upbringing of children, supplies, planning and scheduling family life, and even in contributing to the wealth of the household through employment and by careful husbanding of existing resources.
Third, there is nothing in scripture to preclude a wife or mother from seeking employment outside the home, so a Christian woman has liberty to do so. In fact, in some cases outside employment may be the only way to ensure an orderly and secure atmosphere inside the home (i.e., single mothers).
Fourth, if a woman chooses outside employment, she must still attend to her responsibilties to oversee the home. She must find a balance between serving in the home and working outside the home, which will not place her duties to her family at risk
Finally, any woman considering seeking employment outside the home might ask herself the following questions before deciding her course of action:
1. Does her husband agree with her decision? Is she submitting to his authority as she makes this decision?
2. If the woman has children, is her decision consistent with the Biblical command for a mother to "love her children?" Will her choice be in the best interests of her children?
3. Can she serve her family in the keeping of the home as God has required while still serving the obligations of her employer? When her responsibility to her family conflicts with the demands of her employer, is she prepared to give her family priority?
If a woman believes she can fulfill her Biblical obligations in the home while also working outside the home, then she has liberty in Christ to do. Each woman must decide what is best for her and her family in light of the counsel of the Holy Spirit and the word of God.