A Place for Women Outside the Home

Hang on to your hats, because this may shock you: I’m a working girl.

(Yes, I know what it means)

More accurately, I’m a working wife and a working mother, AND I have the audacity to believe that I’m still pursuing godly womanhood (though I do not have the audacity to believe I have achieved it).

In some Christian circles, choosing to be a working mom elicits gasps and whispers and hand-wringing about the death of the “Proverbs 31 Woman” devoted solely to the chores and tasks that run a home and nurture her husband and children.

Up front, there's nothing wrong with being a work-at-home mom (I prefer that term to “stay-at-home mom” because anyone who’s been there knows that all that nurturing IS work). I just want to encourage women: the Bible is loaded with examples of godly women who, as far as we can tell, carried out some pretty significant tasks, even jobs, outside their homes; jobs that weren’t directly connected to running a household or nurturing husbands and children.

A bit of history

Before the Industrial Revolution (mid-1800s), the vast majority of people – men and women – worked in and around their houses. Men and women did chores, cultivated their land, raised their children, and maybe worked a trade either from their land or on an “on-call” basis. The rise of factories where people “went” to work started dividing families to where one person “worked” at home and one “worked” outside it – but both men and women might work in factory jobs.

Sociologists believe that the concept of a “stay-at-home mom” really arose in Western world during the Post-WWII era of prosperity, when households could be supported with a single income, and in the wake of men returning from war and re-integrating into the workforce. That flood of able-bodied men filled many of the jobs women had been working during the war.

That means that before 1945, the concept of “stay-at-home mom” didn’t really exist.

So were all the good, godly women we read about in the Bible just a secret precursor to the modern stay-at-home mom? As we’ll see, I don’t think so.

For one thing, being able to support a family entirely on one worker’s salary is an unbelievable historical luxury. In much of the world even today, wives work side-by-side with their husbands just to earn enough to keep their families fed.

But what about the situations in which a mother just wants to work outside the home? I think there’s biblical evidence to support that, too.

Working women in the Bible

Consider Eve (Genesis 2). Even from the start, God saw that man, Adam in this case, needed a helper – someone with whom the work of life could be shared. Given that Eve was created separate and apart from children (obviously, she had them later) and as a helper and companion for Adam, Eve likely worked the land alongside her husband. It seems unbelievable that she would have been concerned only with the keeping of a home, even after the Fall.

Consider Deborah (Judges 4). The Bible records her as a prophetess of the Lord, the only female judge, who helped lead a successful military campaign against the ruler of Canaan.

Consider Ruth (there’s a whole book about her). In her case, mitigating circumstances led Ruth into the fields to gather food for herself and her elderly mother-in-law. We don’t know whether she worked outside the home prior to that; however, when she meets Boaz (her eventual husband), he asks that “the Lord repay you for what you have done,” referring to her working away from her home.

Consider Lydia (Acts 16:11-15). Paul encountered Lydia during one of his missionary journeys and notes that she was “a seller of purple goods” and “a worshipper of God.” According to Paul’s record in Acts, Lydia listened to Paul’s message and was subsequently baptized along with her household. Obviously, we don’t know exactly what “her household” meant, but we do know that her life working outside her home paved the way for the baptism of her household.

Consider Priscilla (Acts 18). Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, are both tentmakers and disciples who devoted themselves to the church. Again, we don’t know whether they had children, but we have a clear picture that her work was more than the operation of a household.

What do these examples tell us?

What’s most striking to me about these biblical references to women is not so much that they worked or had influence outside of their own homes; rather, it’s that the biblical accounts spend little or no time telling us what they did IN their homes. In other words, the value of these women was not intrinsically tied to how well they kept a house or whether their children had perfectly packed lunches. Instead, we see pictures of women using the gifts and talents and opportunities with which they had been blessed to impact the world around them for the good of God’s people and His church.

So why does this topic weigh on my heart? It’s because I’ve tried both of these roles.

I believed with all my heart that I would someday be a stay-at-home mom, and I was … for about seven months. During that seven months I realized something about the way God created me: I’m not gifted, at least not in this season, with the attributes to be a stay-at-home mom.

So I started working again, part-time at first and then full-time with a lot of flexibility. And I realized something: I’m a better mom and a better wife when I’m engaged in work outside of my home. I truly believe (and my husband would attest to this) that I nurture my home more lovingly and in a more godly way when I’m serving and being challenged by my efforts outside the home.

Maybe that isn’t you. And that’s okay! It’s fantastic, even. The thing is, the Bible is a beautiful book full of the very best and the very worst that humanity has to offer. It records a vast diversity of life and culture and experience, lots of roles in which to live out a life with God. Let’s allow the Christ-followers we encounter every day the grace to find their place in God’s wide vision for a life lived with him.

Image: "Self-Portrait at the Easel," by Sofonisba Anguissola