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
community.

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.

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About krwordgazer

I'm a 40-something Christian from the Pacific Northwest: paralegal, mother of two, wife of 24 years, with a BA in English from the University of Oregon Honors College.
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9 Responses to Does the New Testament Teach that Women Should be Housekeepers?

  1. Tom says:

    The Greek word you cited from Titus 2:4, οἰκουργός, actually does mean “to carrying out household responsibilities, busy at home, carrying out household duties,” at least according the leading Biblical Greek lexicons BDAG and Louw-Nida. The only place in the Bible this Greek word is used is in this passage. Therefore, to compare Titus 2:4 with John 20:15, and make the argument that the two words mean or imply the same thing because they have a similar looking ending is known as an exegetical fallacy. That’s like saying a butterfly and butter are similar because “butter” is common to both words.

    Furthermore, while οἰκουργός may not imply subordination, the Greek word used in the phrase, “to be subject to their husbands (Gk. ὑποτασσομένας),” explicitly states that the wife should be in submission to her husband.

  2. krwordgazer says:

    Tom,

    The source I was using said it was a different word, so I double-checked it in Vines’ Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words,. It seems that you are right in that many manuscripts do have “oikourgos,” “working at home.” According to Vines’, “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 Vines’ shows that many Greek words are combination words like this. So it really doesn’t work to say that “ouros” in “oikouros” (in those manuscripts in which it appears) has no relation to “ouros” in “kepouros,” which Vines’ says is “from kepos, garden, and ouros, watcher.”

    I will concede, though, that some manuscripts have “oikourgos.” 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.

    I’m glad you brought up the different wording in the manuscripts. It’s important to me to be as accurate as possible. But it doesn’t change my mind about this passage.

  3. Tom says:

    Vines is not the best source to use when determining Greek word meaning because it relies too heavily on diachronic methodology to determine lexical meaning. Most modern Greek grammarians and linguists believe that word meaning should be determined based on a synchronic methodology, with the immediate context given the most weight (see Carson, Wallace, or Silva).

    As for the variant reading, based on the manuscript evidence there is little doubt (i.e. there is great certainty) that οἰκουργός is the word Paul used. The variant only shows up in Clement and the Vulgate. οἰκουργός is in all other manuscripts that contain Titus including p32, which is one of the earliest New Testament papyri discovered (200 AD).

    As for using 1st-Century culture to dismiss Paul’s words here and elsewhere (as well as Peter’s) regarding the distinct roles of men and women in the home and in the church is mishandling God’s Word. All you have to do is read Titus 2:1 to realize Paul’s instructions are based primarily on “sound doctrine” and secondarily on the believer’s testimony before unbelievers (which is not the same as “doing their culturally
    mandated jobs”). In 1 Timothy, Paul makes clear that the distrinction in roles between men and women are based on the created order, not current cultural norms.

    As for the rest, I agree with you that Paul is not commanding women here or elsewhere to only be “cooks and house cleaners.” That should be obvious, though, from reading Titus 2:2-3.

  4. Tom says:

    Sorry, the last Titus reference should be Titus 2:3-4.

  5. krwordgazer says:

    Tom, you may very well be correct that the word is “workers at home.” As I said, the home was considered the woman’s province and domain (Paul uses oikodespotes, “rule the house,” in 1 Tim. 5:14 for young women, and I am aware of no dispute of that word or its meaning.

    I did find this, however:

    “The Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges (1906) argued for keeping oikourous:

    οἰκουργούς, ἀγαθάς. Some excellent critics, e.g. Lachmann, Tregelles and Weiss, remove the comma, and treat ἀγαθάς as qualifying the word which precedes it. This, however, is to disturb the rhythm of the sentence, and is not in accordance with the ancient interpretations of the passage. We shall see that ἀγαθάς may very well be taken absolutely, as all the words preceding it are taken.

    The question then arises, Are we to read οἰκουργούς or οἰκουρούς? Diplomatic evidence certainly favours the former, and the passage quoted in the critical note from Clement of Rome may also be alleged to support the opinion that οἰκουργούς was the primitive reading. But the resultant meaning (apparently, for it was an extraordinarily rare word, as the crit. note shews) workers at home is not very impressive. And when we remember that the alternative reading οἰκουρούς keepers at home, supplies an attribute of good wives by which Greek writers generally set great store (Field supplies a large number of apt illustrations) we are much tempted to hold that it was the word used by St Paul. Wetstein quotes Philo, de Exsecr. 4, and the words are worth reproducing as illustrating the whole passage before us: γυναῖκας ἃς ἡγάγοντο κουριδίας ἐπὶ γυησίωυ παιδῶν σπορᾷ, σώφρονας οἰκουροὺς καὶ φιλάνδρους. Another passage from Philo (de Prof. 27) is interesting. Of a virtuous wife he says κοσμιότητι καὶ σωφροσύνῃ καὶ ταῖς ἄλλαις διαπρέπουσιν ἀρεταῖς, ἑνὶ προσέχουσαν ἀνδρὶ καὶ τὴν ἑνὸς οἰκουρίαν ἀγαπῶσαν καὶ μοναρχίᾳ χαίρουσαν. In short, οἰκουρούς is the word we should naturally expect in such a catalogue from a writer in St Paul’s circumstances; οἰκουργούς is of very doubtful meaning, nor is it supported by such overwhelming external evidence as to require its adoption. Hence we are disposed to hold by the A.V. keepers at home (or perhaps ‘keepers of their homes’) in preference to the R.V. workers at home.”

    As for your argument that I should not use the culture to “dismiss” Paul’s words, I am not doing so. I am using the culture to understand Paul’s words in their historical context, as is proper exegesis. I suppose I must take it as read, then, that you would read this passage as also supporting the institution of slavery as a Biblical doctrine, and not a cultural norm that Paul had to address. I will take it as read that you would support a form of slavery here and now in our world, if masters were treating their slaves in accordance with what Paul and other NT writers’ instructions.

    What your doctrine does is render Galatians 3:28-4:7 pretty much useless as far as having any bearing on how Christians should live in this world. Please see my essay on this: “What Galatians 3:28 Cannot Mean:

    http://krwordgazer.blogspot.com/2011/12/what-galatians-328-cannot-mean.html

    The phrase in Gal. 4:6, “adoption of sons,” was a special legal term in the original Greek, referring to the full legal standing of an adopted male heir.. Adopted male heirs had the same status as freeborn male sons, with all the privileges and benefits that sons enjoyed in that culture.

    Paul is saying that “in Christ” Jews and Gentiles, slaves and freemen, males and females, all have full and equal status as adopted freeborn “sons” in the family of God. It was not Paul’s intention that a freeborn Jew, after reading this passage, would feel able to tell a Gentile or a slave, “There, you get to be saved just like us; now be content with that, because positions of leadership in God’s family belong only to freeborn Jews.” Such flesh-based distinctions are part of the “elements of the world,” (Gal. 4:3), and these “elements” are not part of God’s covenant community in Christ. And according to the same passage, this applies to “male and female” distinctions too.

    Your understanding of Titus as being primarily about “sound doctrine” based on verse 1 ignores verse 5, where Paul actually states his purpose is to have Titus “straighten out what is unfinished” in the order and conduct of the church. Passages on order and conduct do not trump passages on the foundational nature of the New Covenant kingdom, which is what Gal. 3:28-4:7 is about.

    In short, I reject your interpretation, whatever the meaning of the word Paul was using for women at home.

  6. Tom says:

    One final word / caution on your Greek lexicon references: the most respected / used lexicon of Biblical Greek amongst scholars is BDAG. The Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges is badly outdated and again relies on diachronic methodology.

    As for using the culture to understand Paul’s words in their historical context, as I mentioned before Paul makes it clear elsewhere that role distinction and male headship in the home and in the church is based on creation and theology (1 Tim 2; Eph 5). God ordained and established marriage in the garden. God also ordained and established the church. God never ordained the institution of slavery. Therefore, it is fallacious argumentation to say we must “read this passage as also supporting the institution of slavery as a Biblical doctrine.”

    Got to run, but I encourage you to continue working through these issues with relevant resources and a desire to submit yourself to the text and not submit the text today’s cultural norms.

  7. krwordgazer says:

    Tom, thank you– but I do not believe Paul intended “male headship in the home and church” to be “based on creation and theology.” I think he is doing something quite different with his references to creation and theology. I would also encourage you to continue working through these issues with a desire to read each portion of the text in light of its historical context and its place within the whole of the creation-fall-redemption plan of God set forth in the Scriptures– and especially in light of the nature of the New Covenant as anticipated in the Old and described in the New Testament. As for relying on BDAG, I have noticed that many who take your position rely on it until they disagree with it, at which point they cite other sources– which is nothing different from what I have done. As I have said, whether or not the word is “oikourgos” or “oikouros” is not a single pillar supporting my whole argument.

    I do not disagree that God ordained marriage and established His church, while He did not establish slavery. But these are not the issues. The issue is whether He ordained and established male headship as part of marriage and the church, or whether it is an accretion of the Fall which He is accommodating in the NT cultures, even while insisting that His kingdom that has come and is coming, is entirely different.

    The issue in Titus is not marriage, but male headship within marriage. If you are going to insist that Paul is there setting forth male headship as “correct doctrine,” I don’t see how you could fail to apply that to slavery as well. Not slavery and marriage, but slavery and male headship (in fact, the whole pater familias system) is in Paul’s view in Titus 2. Either both are “correct doctrines,” or neither is. Either the pater familias structure is divinely ordained, or it is human and fallen. I think the NT as a whole overwhelmingly supports the latter.

  8. Andromeda says:

    male headship is slavery. DOn’t try to tell me otherwise.

  9. Don Johnson says:

    Titus 2 is often taken out of context. The context is Paul telling Titus what to do to ensure that all people are taught. This was revolutionary in this time and culture, as it was not considered worthwhile to teach women except so they could be courtesans for men and discuss things intelligently. Paul is being careful that the word of God not be maligned, so as much as feasible, the people are to conform to cultural expectations, but these are 1st century expectations, not necessarily 21st century expectations. A basic principle of Scripture is that when circumstances change, then the APPLICATION of principles can change; this is not taught much as it is a very scary idea for those that want to make the Bible into a rule book.

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