Two weeks ago, I reached a small milestone: The ripe old age of 45. When I was 10, I thought 45 is old! Then again, it was older than my parents were at the time. Maybe 45 qualifies me as an “older woman”, maybe it does not.
However, I think it is finally time to teach a text in which the Bible calls older women to teach (urge, in this particular translation) younger ones:
3 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. 4 Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 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. – Titus 2:3-5
What this passage does not teach:
Many women were taught an interpretation of this text which is not in there. So, we will start with what it does not say. For that, compare these two quotes, and then see if you agree with me which one is like verse 4 :
a) “Linda, please teach Maggie how to bake an apple pie.”
b) “Maggie and Linda, your role in life is all about baking apple pies. You have to bake apple pies and nothing else from morning to night, every day. And the other people who are hearing me say this – they do not need to ever bake apple pie.”
Now, look at the passage again.
The text does not say: “Women, old and young, it is your gender role to be reverent while men should be irreverent/ to not slander while men should slander/ to love husbands and children while husbands should not love wives and children/ to be busy at home while men should not … etc.” It wants one group to teach another group something, which presumes that these things should become part of the skill set of younger women.
If this was about gender roles, it would have been partnered with a complementary message to men. For example: “Let older women urge younger ones to be self-controlled, let older men urge younger ones to let someone else control them. Urge women to be busy at home and men to be busy elsewhere…”
And now for what the text does say:
The context is the book of Titus, which was written to Titus, pastor of the bad neighborhood, Crete:
12 One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.”
(I wonder if the insult “cretin” comes from this reference to Cretans?) Titus was left in Crete to put in order (1:5) what was left unfinished, and to appoint elders.
Looking at the community they were working with, it seems the elders had to do a job sometimes comparable to social work: A social worker may try to get a drug addict or negligent parent to cope a bit better. She would most likely seldom if ever motivate people to be megachurch pastors, athletic world champions or business tycoons.
Likewise, this letter is about helping the bad neighborhood, the one where Titus needs to look for older women who are not alcoholics (“addicted to much wine”), who could urge younger women to basic things like loving their children.
Considering that the book is about setting up elders, I believe older women who should teach imply these women were to be regarded as female elders.
It says that older women should behave in a holy manner, not accuse falsely, not drink too much, and teach good things. This is not a gender role – God would want old or young, male or female, to act holy, not accuse falsely, be sober, and to teach good things if they teach.
If anything, it suggests older women have influence or should have influence: Accusing falsely would only matter if the words of these women have weight in society, and wanting them to teach good things means they should teach. Does the Bible say older women should teach? Yes – Titus 2:3 say they should.
They should urge younger women to:
> love their husbands and children – Obviously, this is implied for women who have husbands and children. This is not a gender role – men are told to love their wives (Eph. 5:33a) and bring up their children in nurture (love) (Eph 6.4). All believers should love their neighbor. The word translated “neighbor” literally refer to those next to you or closest to you – for a wife sharing a household with a spouse and children, those are the first people she should love.
> be self-controlled and pure – Once again, this is not a gender role. Men should also be self-controlled and pure. Notice that being self-controlled also imply being controlled by yourself – not by another person.
> be busy at home – once again, look at the apple pie example. Telling someone to teach someone else apple pie baking does not mean the second person should never bake anything else. Women should have “being busy at home” in their skill set, they should know how to keep busy at home. However, this does not mean they should never be busy outside the home.
Also, households were also the primary workplaces before the industrial revolution (which only began in the 18th century, in some places a lot later). Even if you think of men as wage earners, when this text was written wage earners was busy at home.
> be kind – kindness is a fruit of the spirit, not a gender role.
> be subject to their husbands – In a certain sense, spouses are subject to one another, regardless of the Bible: Man or woman, your partner’s moods, desires, gifts, and weaknesses will affect you.
Of course, a wife who is subject to her partner is subject to a husband, and a husband who is subject to a spouse is subject to a wife (no gay marriages in that era). This does not make it a gender role.
Also, many people who study how hupotasso (the word translated as “subject to”) was used in the Bible world, say has a meaning range which does not imply hierarchy. Here I quote from Marg Mowczko’s article, “Submission in marriage“:
Catherine Clark Kroeger writes that hupotassō has a broader range of meanings than just “submit.” It can also mean: “to support,” “join with,” “identify or associate with,” “behave responsibly toward” or “relate in such a way as to promote meaning and understanding.”
… Thayers Bible Dictionary [says]: “ In non-military use, [hupotasso] was ‘a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden’.
(Methinks, “assuming responsibility” and “acting responsibly towards” makes “submission” as today’s English speakers understand it impossible – to take responsibility includes making decisions, unilateral submission is to simply yield to what the other person chose, regardless if it is wise or not.)
Why do all this?
“…so that no one will malign the word of God“. If Christian women did not do these things, the unbelievers around them would speak badly not only of the women, but of their minority faith too.
We, too, should ask if our behavior cause unbelievers to speak badly of God: I have heard unbelievers speak badly of how modern Christians do not help the poor, uses religion to justify sexism and other prejudices, don’t do what the Bible says, uses religion as an excuse to vote for corrupt politicians, etc. What can we do differently so that the word of God is not maligned by our behavior?
Reading this passage in context, it is not sexist at all. It is not about gender roles. It does not call women to do things men should not. It does not limit women to the home. It calls women to do good things, it makes them no different from other believers. It implies women could teach – and could control themselves.