ABSTRACT: In Paul’s list of qualities for older women to teach younger women, he includes oikourgous, which the ESV translates as “working at home” (Titus 2:5). This Greek word appears only here in the New Testament, calling for a careful look at the cultural and biblical contexts. Culturally, the Pastoral Epistles reveal prominent false teachings circulating among the Ephesian and Cretan churches — teachings Paul sought to oppose, in part, with lists of Christian virtues like the one in Titus 2. Biblically, both the Pastoral Epistles and the broader scriptural context give shape and definition to a woman’s “working at home.” While Paul does not limit women to working only at home, he does call wives and mothers to give sufficient attention to their husbands and children, and to beware any teaching or ambition that causes them to follow some first-century women in neglecting their families.
One of the challenges of biblical exegesis is transitioning from what a passage meant in its original setting to what it now means in our current cultural context. This is why exegesis is a multistep process. We start with what a passage says, try to determine what it meant then, and then see how that meaning comes into our own context.
No statement is totally cultural. No statement has meaning in one context and no meaning in another. No statement in Scripture can be tossed aside as irrelevant. The eternal meaning may be dressed in cultural garb and therefore difficult to understand, but our task is to find that meaning and bring it faithfully into today.
The Pastoral Epistles — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus — include several statements that are often passed off as merely cultural and irrelevant for today. “I desire . . . that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands” (1 Timothy 2:8) — hands must be lifted. “Women should adorn themselves . . . not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” (1 Timothy 2:9) — women can’t wear jewelry. “[Women] will be saved through childbearing” (1 Timothy 2:15) — all women must have biological children (though this statement is more misunderstood than misapplied). “Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor” (1 Timothy 6:1) — Paul condones slavery. “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits” (2 Timothy 2:4) — pastors can’t have second jobs.
In each of these cases, when the original meaning is understood properly, the passage does not come into our context as irrelevant. Men are to pray without anger; the position of their hands is not mandatory. Women are not to dress in a way that brings attention to their social standing but instead are to focus on their character. Women (and men) work out the implications of their salvation not by following the false teachers and their prohibition of procreation (as one example). Paul plants the seeds of what becomes abolition and expressly opposes “enslavers” (1 Timothy 1:10). Pastors are not to be “entangled,” but that is different from having a second job.1
Titus 2:5 and its apparent insistence that women be “working at home” falls into this category of often misunderstood passages. It has been used to teach that women can work only at home and cannot work elsewhere. Let’s look at the Pastoral Epistles to see if this is accurate.
Paul spent over three years in Ephesus (Acts 20:31). When he traveled back through the area, stopping at Miletus, he told the Ephesian elders, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30). Paul’s prophecy came true, and some Ephesian elders turned from the truth and were teaching falsehood.
It is critical to understand how bad the situation in Ephesus, as in Crete, had become.2 Only in seeing this background will we grasp the right interpretation of our passage. Allow me to offer an extended quotation from my commentary.
The opponents are factious (Titus 3:10), advancing into ungodliness (2 Timothy 2:16); they are rebellious, senseless babblers (Titus 1:10) and bring reproach on the church (1 Timothy 3:2, 7, 10; Titus 1:11–14). At one time they were part of the church community but later rejected the truth of the gospel and turned away to the heresy (1 Timothy 1:6, 19; 4:1; 6:10, 21; 2 Timothy 4:4; Titus 1:14; cf. Galatians 2:4; 2 Corinthians 11:4). They were not tricked by the heresy but rather made conscious decisions to turn away (1 Timothy 1:19). They are deceiving the Ephesian and Cretan church (Titus 1:10); they are hypocrites and liars (1 Timothy 4:2), and they profess to know God but deny him by their deeds (Titus 1:16). They are therefore self-condemned (Titus 3:11), and their consciences (1 Timothy 4:2; 6:5; Titus 1:15; cf. 1 Timothy 1:5) and minds (1 Timothy 6:5; 2 Timothy 3:8; Titus 1:15) are corrupted. They have a sickly craving (1 Timothy 6:4) and are robbed of the truth (1 Timothy 6:5). They are ignorant (1 Timothy 1:7), foolish, understanding nothing (1 Timothy 6:4), worthless for any good work (Titus 1:16) or for the gospel (2 Timothy 3:8). The opponents are perverted (Titus 3:11), unholy (2 Timothy 3:2), ungodly (2 Timothy 2:16), and lacking in love (1 Timothy 1:5), and their folly will eventually be evident to all (2 Timothy 3:9). They are dogmatic (1 Timothy 1:7) and devoted to their teachings (1 Timothy 1:4; 4:1). Even their motives are corrupt, wanting prestige (1 Timothy 1:7), money (1 Timothy 6:5–10; Titus 1:11), sex (2 Timothy 3:6), and pleasure (2 Timothy 3:4). As would be expected, they do not accept Paul’s or Timothy’s authority (1 Timothy 1:1–2; 4:12, 14; 6:12).3
In other words, they weren’t godly people! On top of all this, they appeared to focus their attention on the women in the church.
The opponents had significant success among the Ephesian women (2 Timothy 3:6), and some of their ascetic teaching was directed toward them (1 Timothy 4:3; possibly 1 Timothy 2:15). The opponents were actively seducing the women (2 Timothy 3:6), especially the young widows (1 Timothy 5:11–15), which helps explain the repeated call for marital faithfulness among the church leaders (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6). While it appears that the prominent leaders of the opposition were men, the women were also helping to spread the heresy (1 Timothy 2:12; possibly 5:13). According to one interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:8–15, it is possible that the opponents were teaching the women to rebel openly against their husbands, and perhaps all male authority, and to dress seductively as an expression of that rebellion (see Comment on 1 Timothy 2:9).4
This explains Paul’s later description of some of the false teachers: “Among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:6–7).
The point for our purposes is that the false teachers were aggressively asserting their heretical teaching and were finding fertile ground in the church, especially among the women.
Nature of Paul’s Lists
Another peculiarity of the cultural context and how Paul addresses it is the nature of his lists. Throughout the Pastoral Epistles, we see lists of qualities that true Christians, and especially leaders, are to possess. Significantly, many of the qualities in these lists are the opposite of the characteristics of the false teachers. For example, the false teachers had brought reproach on the church (e.g., Titus 1:16), so church leaders are to be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6) and have a good reputation (1 Timothy 3:7). The false teachers were seducing women (2 Timothy 3:6), so church leaders had to be faithful in their marriage (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6).5
This is a critical point. Paul’s requirements for all people, men and women, young and old, while true in and of themselves, must be understood against the backdrop of the historical setting. Paul is not just listing good virtues; he is listing virtues that would set the true Christians apart from the false teachers. In a sense, he is saying, “Pursue those virtues that are good in and of themselves — and that will also distinguish you from the sinful qualities of the false teachers.”
For example, 1 Timothy 2:15 may seem like one of the strangest verses in all the Bible. “[Women] will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” Why does Paul emphasize having children, as if he were teaching salvation by procreation (an interpretation for which no one would seriously argue)? The answer may lie in the fact that the false teachers were forbidding marriage (1 Timothy 4:3) and therefore, presumably, also forbidding having children. This backdrop also helps to explain Paul’s later admonition when he says, “I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander” (1 Timothy 5:14).
The church’s women were to work out the implications of their salvation not by following the false teachers, but, among other things, by accepting the callings for which God had created them.
Paul is saying that a woman’s salvation and the practical outworking of that salvation (cf. Philippians 2:12) do not consist in altering her role in the church. Rather, she is to accept her God-given role, one of the specific functions being the bearing of children (synecdoche). Of course, her salvation — and man’s — ultimately is predicated upon perseverance; she must live out her salvation in all faith and love and holiness, with modesty. This is the standard Pauline thought that salvation requires continual perseverance (cf. 1 Timothy 4:16), and good works, which, far from meriting salvation (cf. 1 Timothy 1:12–17), are evidence of that salvation (cf. Romans 2:6–10, 26–29; 1 Corinthians 6:9–11; Galatians 5:21).6
We come to understand verse 15 as we see it against the cultural backdrop, comparing Paul’s positive instructions with the negative example of the false teachers. The same is true of our passage, to which we now turn.
‘Working at Home’
Titus 2 contains a list of instructions for older men (verse 2), and then older women, including the admonition to “teach what is good” (verse 3). Unfortunately, the NIV translates the first word in verse 4 (Greek hina) as “then,” using it to start a new sentence. The NLT loses the connection between the two verses altogether. But Paul’s point is that their good teaching was to be “so that” (hina, NASB, CSB, NRSV, cf. ESV), “in this way” (NET), they could encourage the younger women “to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home [oikourgous], kind, and submissive to their own husbands” (2:4b–5a).
Both oikourgos and its variant oikouros occur only here in the New Testament and rarely in secular literature. Under these situations, we have to look at the morphology of the word and its biblical context to determine its meaning. Oikourgos is a compound word formed from oikos + ergon, “house/home” + “work.”
The variety of English translations shows the difficulty of defining oikourgos: “workers at home” (NASB, CSB), “working at home” (ESV), “to work in their homes” (NLT), “busy at home” (NIV), “good managers of the household” (NRSV, which does not see hagnas [“pure, chaste”] as its own category but as modifying oikourgous), “fulfilling their duties at home” (NET), and “to be good housewives” (TEV).
Note that there is nothing in the word’s morphology that suggests working only at home, nor does the word define the nature of the work. In fact, due to the rarity of the word, we would be wise not to define it too specifically. This is where the biblical context comes into the discussion.
Titus 2:5 in Biblical Context
Context provides an important clue. As we saw above, Paul is listing the good qualities that contrast with the bad qualities of the false teachers and their adherents. “Working at home” contrasts with the activity of the younger widows, who “learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not” (1 Timothy 5:13). “Working at home” also contrasts with another description of some of the women and the influence of the false teachers, as we’ve already seen (2 Timothy 3:6–7).
Obviously, these passages do not capture Paul’s assessment of all women of all time, but they do offer his description of some of the women in first-century Ephesus and Crete. Paul’s argument is that the older women are to urge the younger women to not be like the seduced younger women.
Another important piece of context is Paul’s instruction that younger widows were to “manage their households” (oikodespotein, 1 Timothy 5:14). There is a vast difference between a domestic slave (as some might understand “working at home”) and a wife who “manages” her household.
Broader biblical context also assures us that godly women can fulfill Titus 2:5 while also working outside the home. The noble (or strong) woman of Proverbs 31 certainly does not work only at home. “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard” (Proverbs 31:16). It is instructive that the book of Ruth follows Proverbs in Hebrew book order; Ruth is one embodiment of the noble woman of the previous chapter, who did work outside the home.
Titus 2:5 Today
Notice that Paul’s instruction in Titus 2:5 is not grounded in creation, as is 1 Timothy 2:12–13. The reason for the instruction is “that the word of God may not be reviled” (Titus 2:5). Paul uses this argument two other times in the immediate context: “so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us” (verse 8); “so that in everything they [the slaves] may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (verse 10).
It is fair to say that in all cultures of all times, being “gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not” is always wrong (1 Timothy 5:13). It is always wrong to be “weak . . . burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:6–7). Doing anything that genuinely damages the cause of Christ is always wrong. To this point, the eternal truths behind the first-century cultural expressions come straight away into our culture.
Applying Titus 2:5 further requires us to consider what Paul does not say. Paul doesn’t say that women can work only at home. He doesn’t say that the burdens of managing the household don’t also fall on husbands. But what he clearly does say is that women, whether ancient or modern, are not to be like the ancient Ephesian and Cretan women, who were deceived, gullible, and neglecting their homes.
Applying the passage today also calls us to consider the drastic differences between the ancient and modern home, and the division of labor between husband and wife. Crucially, however, the family is not to be neglected, which was the very issue in Ephesus and Crete. I would argue that, today, a woman’s “working at home” calls her to focus on her children and her marriage. These are the biblical priorities that would be neglected with any activity resembling Ephesus and Crete.
Application would also have to take single mothers into account. When there is no husband to primarily shoulder household responsibilities, balancing work and home can be extremely difficult. While some can balance these priorities, many others struggle to do so. This is where the biblical challenge of caring for widows and orphans surfaces. If a single mother is struggling to “work at home,” maybe the church should step in to care for those in need.
When applied to modern culture, where working outside the home would not invite “the word of God [to] be reviled” (Titus 2:5), the cultural expression of Paul’s injunction would not apply.
In my opinion, however, if both parents work outside the home, and if the children are being neglected and the home is not being fruitfully managed, the verse does have something to say. In today’s culture, it is still true that when the focus of a wife (and her husband) are exclusively outside the home, the marriage and the family and the children suffer, which would then invite “the word of God [to] be reviled” (Titus 2:5). This is as wrong now as in ancient Crete.
It certainly is possible for a wife to work full time outside the home and not invite Paul’s critique, but I think it is quite difficult. My wife stayed home with our three energetic, rambunctious children. To make that happen, I committed to work two jobs and to be available evenings and at least one day a week. I hesitate to think of the negative impact a part-time mom or a disconnected dad would have had on our children’s personalities and values and faith, and on our witness in the church and the neighborhood.