In my last article I tried to demonstrate how I believe I have discovered Scriptural support for stay-at-home daughterhood, not as a role that every unmarried woman must follow but as the Lord’s general preference for the daughters of intact covenant families. It should be said that my comments are directed primarily towards younger women who fit this description and want to refine what they believe on this matter. I encourage all readers to read what I say in light of Scripture and with the oversight of their covenant authorities.
Going on from the previous article, now might be a good time to address one of the very few Scripture-based arguments against stay-at-home daughterhood, from 1 Corinthians 7:34, which says:
There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband.
“See?” the argument goes. “Unmarried women get to follow the Lord’s will, not their father’s will. Submitting to a man’s will comes later, after marriage.”
Some might even go so far as to say that by staying at home and developing skills that will benefit her as a married woman—cooking, cleaning, changing diapers, teaching little siblings—a young woman is spending too much time pleasing a future husband and not enough pleasing the Lord.
The argument almost refutes itself. But let me spell it out a little.
It should surprise us that when this verse is used to encourage us to “care for the things of the Lord” rather than a father or a future husband, “the things of the Lord” is taken to mean…a career in high finance. Or teaching. Or missions.
But Paul says it means “being holy in body and in spirit.” Holiness means being set apart from the world, dedicated to the service of God. Doing God’s will. Being sanctified.
Sanctification has an inner and an outer manifestation. The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it this way: “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.” Inwardly, it is the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, making us willing to outwardly obey the Lord’s commands in our day-to-day lives—to “live unto righteousness.”
In our pursuit of holiness, we look to God’s commandments to know how He defines holiness. How does He want us to live? Too many young women talk about being “called” to careers or mission work when if they actually studied Scripture they would find a completely unmistakeable call to something else:
I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully (1 Timothy 5:14).
I understand that there’s only so much a woman can do to get herself married, but we need to take verses like this seriously and stop trying to be holier than God is. We are too gullible. We have a Disney faith, just following the promptings of our own hearts, or the path of least resistance, or worst of all the leading of some other spirit—and we call it the Holy Spirit. We need to test whether the promptings in our hearts actually are the Holy Spirit or not, and what the Lord gives us for that task is Scripture.
So what does the pursuit of holiness actually look like? God has left us with plenty of examples of Godly unmarried women in Scripture. Take Ruth, who cared for her widowed mother and rather aggressively pursued marriage. Was her obedience to Naomi a failure to care for the things of the Lord according to 1 Corinthians 7:34? How about the daughters of Shallum in Nehemiah 3:12, who we see working with their father on the wall of Jerusalem? Was their work with their father a failure to care for the things of the Lord? What about the Proverbs 31 woman, who is said to have been doing her husband good all the days of her life, including, by implication, before she met him? Was her preparation for marriage—character development, entrepreneurial skills, getting of wisdom—a failure to care for the things of the Lord?
There is a false dichotomy here. Being holy in body and spirit means obeying God’s commandments and seeking God’s will expressed in Scripture. God’s commandments to unmarried women include honouring their parents (including with their oaths and commitments, Numbers 30:3-5) and getting married, and His commandments to their fathers include providing for them (or he will be “worse than an infidel”, 1 Timothy 5:8). The examples He gives us of obedient women include much preparation as well as servant work in the home. Seeking first the kingdom of God is not something that most of us have to leave our families—full of members of the Kingdom—in order to do.
Context, context, context
It’s a basic principle of hermeneutics that Scripture should be interpreted in the light of Scripture. God doesn’t contradict himself. When we read I Corinthians 7:34 we need to understand that it’s exhorting us to greater conformity to the written commandments of God, not to a misguided spiritualism that magically allows us to discern the Holy Spirit’s guidance in the path of least resistance. The Holy Spirit actually guides us in Scripture. Let’s take a closer look at the chapter.
In I Corinthians 7, Paul answers questions about marriage. “Should we be getting married? Should we be divorcing our unbelieving spouses?” ask his correspondents. This is a famously tricky passage, but I want to point out two main things. First, a good deal of the discussion in this chapter is directed to husbands and wives of unbelievers, new converts who daily face the hard choice between pleasing their spouses and pleasing God, people who do not have the blessing of doing both in the same actions. Second, Paul does tell his readers that he wishes they could all be unmarried. This would seem to fly in the face of 1 Timothy 5:14 as quoted above, where he says that young women should get married and have children. Since Scripture does not contradict itself, many commentators agree that Paul’s comments preferring his readers to remain unmarried are qualified by his reference to “the present distress” in verse 26. In other words, Paul isn’t so much saying “Don’t get married” as he is saying “Now isn’t the best time.” “I would have you without carefulness” as he says in verse 32.
Paul’s comment in verse 34, therefore, is in the context of arguing why women shouldn’t marry, given the present distress. There’s a great example of this in the Old Testament, when the Lord told Jeremiah the prophet not to take a wife or have children: “they shall die grievous deaths” (Jeremiah 16:2). Reading the rest of his story drives the point home: Jeremiah’s life was regularly in danger, he was often in prison, and the Lord was about to judge Israel harshly. In such times of judgement, the Lord prefers us not to marry.
One of the reasons for this, as I Corinthians 7:34 suggests, is that being married can make it difficult to obey God in times of distress and persecution. I’m reminded of Jesus’ commands to hate father and mother and brothers for His sake. This is the same One who commanded us to honour our father and mother. The two commandments do not contradict each other. God remains a bigger priority for us than family ties, so much bigger that our love for our family should look like hate compared to the love we have for Christ. And we need to be absolutely ready to obey God rather than man if that choice is forced upon us. But the fact remains that in most cases He calls us to honour Him by honouring family ties, not by ignoring them.
I Corinthians 7:34 tells us that when having a husband would tend to pull us away from perfect obedience to God, we should preferably not seek marriage, because obedience and holiness is a greater good. It certainly does not tell us that family responsibilities are somehow opposed to the cultivation of holiness.
Descriptive, not prescriptive
It should be clear to us that marriage is a great means of sanctification. If God had truly preferred celibacy in all circumstances, He would not have given Eve to Adam, the Bride to Christ, or any other wife to any other husband in history. Nor would he have said that “whoso who findeth a wife findeth a good thing,” nor said that women “shall be saved in childbearing”. Think of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Would she have been a holier mother for the Son of God if she had remained single?
Paul is not tossing out the rest of Scripture here. He is not telling us, as the argument against stay-at-home daughterhood implies, that marriage is less holy, nor that married women are free to stop caring for the things of the Lord. Imagine it! “Congratulations on your marriage! Holiness no longer applies to you! Have fun!”
Obviously not. You cannot turn the first half of this verse into a commandment (“How can you live with and serve your family when you know you must focus on the things of the Lord instead”) without turning the second half of the verse into a commandment too (“Now you know you should be pleasing your husband rather than God, don’t you?”).
This verse does not command us how things are supposed to be. Rather it describes a tendency, a weakness, among married women to please their husbands above God. The same tendency does not apply as strongly to unmarried women, even in their own families, but if it does, the Lord still tells us we must “hate” our parents and siblings.
Taking this verse as an instruction turns it into a parody of itself. We need to realise that neither marriage nor service at home should be distractions from “the things of the Lord” but powerful means of serving the Kingdom. Were the daughters of Shallum caring for the things of God, or for the things of their father? Both.
The Lord’s heart for unmarried women, communicated again and again in Scripture, is to see them in their homes where possible, under the headship and provision of their fathers, serving and working. These are “the things of the Lord” for us.