At Work & Public Square & Theology 101

Whether It’s at Home or at the Office, Does it Matter Where Women Work?

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Editor’s note: Today we introduce Carolyn McCulley, the newest contributor to the IFWE blog. She is a the founder of CityGate Films. In addition to her film work, she has authored several books, and her latest, The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home, won a Christianity Today 2015 Book Award

Japan has a problem that foreshadows the future for many developed nations: a falling birth rate.

Its fast-shrinking population means Japan’s future labor force and tax base will shrivel, while its costs to maintain the elderly will grow.

This looming economic crisis has forced Japan’s leaders to consider how younger Japanese women should be used to solve this dilemma.

Are women more useful, so to speak, to the Japanese economy in the bedroom or the boardroom? Should more Japanese women be employed to grow the economy or should they have more than their average of 1.3 children?

Japan is not alone. This discussion is part of many cultures today.

Ultimately this “bedroom versus boardroom” discussion is a shortsighted question.

It arose largely after the Industrial Revolution changed the home from being a place of economic productivity to being a place of consumer goods consumption.

This either/or question ignores the fact that in both scenarios a woman is creating value.

The Value Women Create

When viewed in strictly economic terms, the value that mothers create is the nurture and development of human capital. They bear and rear future workers.

Mothers are invested in this process for only a segment of their adult lives. Most women will have sixty years as an adult in which to create value through her own labors.

The challenge is how to do that wisely in a culture that largely requires parenting and income generation to be done in separate places.

Young women need to understand that our current understanding of home and work is not how most of humanity thought about these issues. Women were always economically productive.

Historically, a woman’s work revolved around creating textiles and getting food to the table. This work was vital to survival, and could also be done while bearing and caring for children.

Historical Examples

As a person of faith, it has been helpful for me to look at what the Bible says. Surprisingly, you don’t find the either/or dichotomy there, either.

The superlative example of feminine productivity written thousands of years ago – the paragon of excellence in Proverbs 31 – was a financially savvy woman who traded in textiles, managed employees, reared her children, and honored her husband. She wasn’t a real woman, but a portrait of what excellence looked like in the virtuous wife.

Travel through time and you soon find industrious women like Kate Luther in the Reformation era and Sarah Edwards in colonial America.

These women were married to men whose writing and teaching profoundly affected their eras (Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards, respectively). But their husbands were not the sole income-producers. Their wives managed the estates that generated their family’s income, and did so while rearing large families and housing numerous guests.

A Beautiful Portrait

And so we come back to this current question: bedroom or boardroom?

It may be surprising to many, but this question can be resolved in the Christian faith.

The Bible’s creation account calls men and women alike to be workers and to be fruitful and multiply. Then it says that work will be hard in a broken and fallen world. But there’s hope for something better!

Offering a beautiful portrait of life everlasting in a new heavens and new earth, the New Testament calls men and women alike to be openly ambitious – but to direct that ambition beyond themselves in treasures that will “carry forward” in eternity.

These Scriptures prize marriage, children, and family, but remind believers that these roles are only for this life. They exist to “adorn the gospel” and point to eternal truths.

But the roles that will carry on to eternity are in the family of God – as brothers and sisters in Christ and children of God the Father. So to define women solely by roles that end in this lifetime is theologically short-sighted. Jesus asks for all of that and then far more.

In his parables, Jesus repeatedly calls his followers to shrewdly invest what they have received. By giving illustrations where people receive different amounts, he makes it clear that this distribution is not even.

The amounts are not important. Stewardship is. Jesus requires a hearty effort of his followers to invest those gifts and see them multiplied for his glory.

Therefore, women are to look at all they have received – the gifts, talents, time, opportunities, relationships, and capacities – and determine how and when to invest them across the full arc of a lifetime.

Not everything can or should be done at once. Even while living in a youth-oriented culture, we should be planning for fruitful stewardship in the second half of life.

Measuring Success in Light of Eternity

Our culture creates identity out of productivity and rewards what it perceives to be more important or of greater status. That’s not what Jesus modeled for us and this life is not where the greatest rewards will be given.

How then should we measure success in light of eternity?

The Bible says we should think as recipients who will one day give an account for how we managed what we were given.

In various seasons of life, we may work in highly esteemed professions or we may not be paid for our daily labors. We may be wives and mothers or we may not receive those relationships.

Either way, those roles are not our identities. They are merely opportunities to be invested for the glory of God. Those things God gives us in terms of relationships and opportunities, he wants multiplied for the sake of his kingdom.

A Co-Labor of Love

It’s been said that you can’t take anything from this world except what you can carry in your heart. Even your job is defined this way.

In the biblical narrative, your marketplace activities are a co-labor of love with the God who is always working to bless his creation. You may think you are only a cashier in a grocery store or driver for a commercial bakery.

But your work is literally an answer to someone’s prayer for daily bread. God can answer prayers with divine intervention, but largely he works through us to provide physical sustenance and care to his world.

Therefore you don’t lean into your job to make the most of yourself. You do it to love others.

Bedroom or boardroom, the Bible makes it clear that God wants us to think strategically about how to create everlasting value through our labors at home and in the marketplace.

There’s no one-size-fits-all template for how to do this, but the Bible promises that as we seek him, God will deliver the timely wisdom and guidance we need to prioritize all that he has given us to do.

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  • You’ve made some good points in this article. One question in particular popped up:

    Under the heading “A Beautiful Portrait,” you point out that while family-based roles are important, they are temporal and that we should invest more in the eternal roles within the family of God, and not define women solely by the earthly family.

    Following that, you encourage us to “shrewdly invest what [we] have received,” that is, one’s “gifts, talents, time, opportunities, relationships, and capacities,” investing them “across the full arc of a lifetime.” How is this more eternally oriented than home-based roles (if I understand you right)? I understand your point that women need not see their value as strictly in the home, but are you saying that boardroom-work (so to speak) has a more eternal impact than bedroom-work?

  • Jonathan Waterman

    Hi, I’m curious as to exegetic role of women. You noted Proverbs 31 but didn’t mention Titus 2. So, how do you see these two passages working together?

  • HMDenigan

    “To define women solely by roles that end in this lifetime is theologically shortsighted.” Thank you for that! “Singles” get categorized so much by the lack of a particular relationship, especially women. I’d like to see young women challenged to see what they can add now — I’ve seen so many girls just try to kill time until they get married and they’re afraid to invest themselves in the workplace lest it make them “unmarriable.” Some of them are still drifting, now in their late twenties.
    I’ve also been reading George Friedman’s “The Next Hundred Years” and he discusses how children are seen as an economic drain in the postindustrial society, such that it doesn’t make sense to have more than replacement rate. Thank you for reminding us that although children aren’t needed to work in the fields by age 14, the freedom to spend 18-22 years on education has value to the world. God told us that children are His blessing, no matter the statistics of economists and sociologists.
    Anyway, I read and enjoyed and benefitted from The Measure of Success. Thank you for writing!

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