‘When will you get married and become a real Christian woman?’ The unspoken (or in some cases, spoken) demand made of thousands of Christian women in this country. For the many single women in the Church there is no choice in the matter; unless you are one of the rare few with a trust fund, the world of work is a major part of life, taking up most of your waking hours. Yet how do most churches view or support professional working women?
How are they affirmed in their roles of decision-making and leadership in the marketplace?
For the newly married Christian woman, the clock starts ticking: ‘When are you going to have children?’ is the next question. Only when you have fulfilled the call to motherhood can you truly be a part of the ‘women’s ministry’ of the Church and belong to the tribe of ‘Christian women’. Woe betide the woman who suffers with infertility issues – she will have to keep working at her job and marriage while fending off questions about why she might be too selfish to have children.
For the married Christian woman who is able to have children, there is another dilemma – should I go back to work or not? In many churches the natural assumption is that the Christian woman will stay at home and look after her children without taking up any other employment. The ideal of the stay-at-home mother is deeply entangled with church culture. But is it really practical? Or biblical? How many Christian women are married to a man who earns enough to keep the family on one salary? Not many. And does the Bible hold up an ideal of a woman whose sole focus is her own children and house? I’m not sure it does.
The women we see commended in the Bible include the wife of noble character, who is held up for her business acumen, her child-rearing and her spiritual teaching. She is able to juggle a number of different roles, and her focus is not only on serving her relatives but the wider community as well. I am not trying to say here that all Christian mothers should have a paid job outside the home (biblically acceptable as this is). But I do believe that those who can afford to stay at home with their children full-time need to consider the voluntary service of others in the community and not just their own children and house.
Work is good – it was a part of the pre-Fall creation, and women who are mothers have huge capacities and gifts with which to serve others. Are we not also accountable for how we use and steward the education, skills and investment that has been made in our lives? I wonder if the wider vocations of women were more affirmed in the Church, including raising children (but not exclusively), we might see the kingdom of God advanced, people’s talents and vocations genuinely discipled, and the cause of Christ upheld in the workplace and our wider communities.
This is an issue for church leaders as well as the wider church family. My husband was once offered a job working in a leadership role for a church on the condition that I gave up my job. The particular church wanted its male staff to have their wives at home, regardless of whether they had children or not.
Such expectations of women are not worldwide, nor have things always been this way in Britain. In the underground churches in China, 40% of the leaders I have met have been women, and women are actively evangelising in their workplaces. During the evangelical revivals in Britain and the missions movement of the 19th century, women played hugely significant roles, whether working in the Salvation Army or the China Inland Mission.
If our current hang-ups in the Church about women and work are relatively recent and are cultural rather than biblical, there is hope that this generation can resolve them. Rather than Christian women judging each other for the vocational choices they make, maybe we can build a Church within which every woman is encouraged to seek the Lord about her vocation, and to fulfill the calling on her life with an attitude of service to others and to Christ. I certainly hope so.