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        Christian Clothing                                                                    (PDF version here)


Scripture Standards for Dress and Conduct


2. The Duties of Men and Women

God’s Word, which “lives on in defiance of every assault made upon it”,[1] is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him[2] (II Tim. 3:16, 17). The clear pattern presented there for the various duties of men and women, written for our benefit, is binding upon all mankind (I Tim. 2:8-15). Unregenerate persons are under the fatal curse of the moral law (Gal. 3:10), which is revealed by God to condemn them and drive them to seek deliverance in Christ from the guilt and poison of sin (Gal. 3:24). Nevertheless, the same law remains a guide to direct believers in the way of holiness as they strive in the strength of Christ to keep His words. “But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully” (I Tim. 1:8, cf. John 15:5). Thomas Boston (1676-1732) says that for those who are in Christ, the law serves:

1. To magnify Christ in them, shewing them their obligation to him for fulfilling it in their stead . . . 2. To be a rule of life unto them, wherein they may express their gratitude by obeying the law of Christ. So the law leads to Christ as a Redeemer from its curse and condemnation, and he leads back to the law as a directory, the rule and standard of their obedience to him.[3]

And this unchangeable rule of obedience teaches us that the father is to be master in his family, the head of the wife and custodian of his children:

Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body (Eph. 5:22, 23); And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her . . . And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac (Gen. 17:15, 16, 19, cf. Gen. 24:34-38; Exod. 21:22).

Furthermore, we are taught to grant women a privileged position in society, ensuring that they are kept under manly protection: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” (Eph. 5:25). And so Mr Boston says, “Husbands sin against their wives in dealing untenderly with them, . . . most of all in beating them, a thing in use only with furious or mad men, Eph. 5.25, 29.”[4]

And we are taught to see that the lives and occupations of women be based in the safety and privacy of the home and its environs, according to the word of God spoken by King David: “The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it. Kings of armies did flee apace: and she that tarried at home divided the spoil” (Psalm 68:11, 12, cf. Micah 2:9). In like manner the apostle Paul ordains that women occupy themselves as “keepers at home”, or homemakers, giving Titus this exhortation:

But speak thou the things which become sound doctrine: That the aged men be sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience. The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed. Young men likewise exhort to be sober minded (Titus 2:1-6, cf. Prov. 14:1).

“Discreet and chaste stand well together”, observes Matthew Henry (1662-1714), the famous Bible commentator and son of the Puritan Philip Henry;

many expose themselves to fatal temptations by that which at first might be but indiscretion. Prov. 2:11, Discretion shall preserve thee, understanding shall keep thee from the evil way. Chaste, and keepers at home, are well joined too. Dinah, when she went to see the daughters of the land, lost her chastity. Those whose home is their prison, it is to be feared, feel that their chastity is their fetters. Not but there are occasions, and will be, of going abroad; but a gadding temper for merriment and company sake, to the neglect of domestic affairs, or from uneasiness at being in her place, is the opposite evil intended, which is commonly accompanied with, or draws after it, other evils. 1 Tim. 5:13, 14, They learn to be idle, wandering from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not.[5]

Thus the Christian woman’s occupation is homemaking, “her business lying within-doors”.[6] She rises early to give food to her household, and a portion of labour to her maidens (Prov. 31:15), and “her candle goeth not out by night” (v. 18). Her husband, however, “goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening” (Psalm 104:23), and he “is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land” (Prov. 31:23). Mr Henry remarks that when this man “goes abroad to attend the concerns of the public, he can confide in her to order all his affairs at home, as well as if he himself were there”.[7]

The very accounts of the creation and fall of our first parents show us the same divisions of labour; and in our technological age such biblical principles still guide us in the lawful use of occupational opportunities. The Lord God placed our father Adam in the Garden of Eden “to dress it and to keep it” (Gen. 2:15), and brought him a wife as “an help meet for him” (v. 18, cf. vs. 20, 22). When they sinned in eating the forbidden fruit their temporal punishments were meted out according to their differing roles. The woman, as homemaker, was accorded sorrow in childbirth and a stricter subjection to her husband (Gen. 3:16), while to the man was assigned rigorous labour in a harsher and less fruitful environment. As the first man, Adam was of necessity a farmer, a primary producer, and he would now till the cursed soil until he returned to it in death (vs. 17-19). By the promised Messiah (v. 15) all is turned to our good (vs. 20, 21; Rom. 8:28), and the distinctive roles of men and women, established at the time of creation and decisively reinstated after the fall, are not altered. Rather, gospel blessings include the unequivocal proclamation of such distinctions, with the promise of strength to keep them by faith in Jesus Christ. “Cast thy burden upon the LORD, and he shall sustain thee: he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved” (Psalm 55:22).

Young girls should be raised in preparation not for professional life but for the blessing of marriage and raising godly children (Mal. 2:15), because woman was made to be a helper and companion for man and because children are a gift from the Lord:

Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them (Psalm 127:3-5, cf. Gen. 1:28 & 5:4, 9:1; Psalm 113:9; Psalm 128:3; Prov. 17:6).

The inspired apostle wrote, “I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully” (I Tim. 5:14). The English Puritan Matthew Poole (1624-1679) makes the following remarks on this passage:

guide the house, and take care of the government of families within doors (which is the woman’s proper province); give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully; and give no occasion to Jews or pagans (the adversaries of Christian religion) to speak of the church, or any particular members of it, reproachfully, as living beneath the rules of morality and decency.[8]

Consider whether the evil predicted by Paul has not come to pass this day. Is not the Word of God greatly blasphemed among the heathen, and have we not given the adversary an occasion to speak reproachfully? Even a little folly in the Lord’s people sends forth a stench, causing sinners to despise the name of Jehovah, to stumble and perish, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire (Eccl. 10:1; Rom. 2:23, 24; Jude, verse 7). Out of love therefore to God our Father, who visits His children’s transgression with the rod (Psalm 89:32), and to the brethren, and also out of compassion for guilty sinners, let us heed the advice of Scripture in which Christian women are counselled to be discreet and modest, not improperly wandering about “from house to house” or “in the streets” (I Tim. 5:13; Prov. 7:12), but “keeping”, says Matthew Henry, “a pious decency and decorum in clothing and gesture, in looks and speech, and all their deportment, and this from an inward principle and habit of holiness, influencing and ordering the outward conduct at all times”.[9] They are to keep the place and occupation of women, as Mr Henry further explains when elucidating the situation of Abraham’s wife:

Where is Sarah thy wife? say the angels. Behold, in the tent, said Abraham. Where should she be else? There she is in her place, as she uses to be, and is now within call. Note, 1. The daughters of Sarah must learn of her to be chaste, keepers at home, Titus 2:5. There is nothing got by gadding. 2. Those are most likely to receive comfort from God and his promises that are in their place and in the way of their duty, Luke 2:8.[10]

It follows that as unmarried men work in the same professions with their married peers and not among women in the home, so should the employment of unmarried women be within the sphere of women. The status of a married woman is higher than that of a maiden, whose own employment should not elevate her above her allotted and rightful position among women. A virgin has “no distinct estate, being yet in her father’s house”.[11] And whether a woman be married or not, her business differs from men’s (cf. Exod. 1:15-21; Lev. 26:26; I Sam. 4:20). Matthew Henry distinguishes between the two spheres of labour in his exposition of Proverbs 31:

She applies herself to the business that is proper for her. It is not in a scholar’s business, or statesman’s business, or husbandman’s business, that she employs herself, but in women’s business: She seeks wool and flax . . . she lays her own hands to the spindle, or spinning-wheel, and her hands hold the distaff; (v. 19.) . . . and she does not reckon it either an abridgment of her liberty, or a disparagement to her dignity, or at all inconsistent with her repose.[12]

Even Tamar the princess, the unmarried daughter of King David, was employed in her father’s house, from whence he sent her on an errand: “Then David sent home to Tamar, saying, Go now to thy brother Amnon’s house, and dress him meat” (II Sam. 13:7). Matthew Henry says of this lady:

Though she was a king’s daughter, a great beauty (v. 1), and well dressed (v. 18), yet she did not think it below her to knead cakes and bake them, nor would she have done this now if she had not been used to it. Good house-wifery is not a thing below the greatest ladies, nor ought they to think it a disparagement to them. The virtuous woman, whose husband sits among the elders, yet works willingly with her hands, Prov. 31:13. Modern ages have not been destitute of such instances, nor is it so unfashionable as some would make it. Preparing for the sick should be more the care and delight of the ladies than preparing for the nice, charity more than curiosity.[13]

Thus virgins, too, are to be keepers at home under their father’s protection and authority (I Cor. 7:37), as wives rest under their husband’s rule and protection[14] (Ruth 1:9; Gen. 20:16, cf. Ezek. 16:38). For the welfare of both man and woman it is ordained that heads of families – husbands and fathers – have power over their wives and daughters (I Cor. 11:10). The Bible speaks of fathers giving away their daughters in marriage, though not without consent (Gen. 24:58), and taking daughters for their own sons. The godly remnant of Israel vowed “to walk in God’s law . . . and that we would not give our daughters unto the people of the land, nor take their daughters for our sons” (Neh. 10:29, 30). And Abraham’s servant told Rebekah’s father and brother, “And my master made me swear, saying, Thou shalt not take a wife to my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I dwell: But thou shalt go unto my father’s house, and to my kindred, and take a wife unto my son” (Gen. 24:37, 38, cf. Deut. 7:3; I Cor. 7:38). This system provides an analogy of God the Father’s electing and effectual calling of sinners (cf. John 6:37), and of the Church’s being presented to Christ “as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2).

The dominion entrusted to men carries with it a weighty responsibility to see to the welfare and protection of their women:

If a woman also vow a vow unto the Lord, and bind herself by a bond, being in her father’s house in her youth; And her father hear her vow, and her bond wherewith she hath bound her soul, and her father shall hold his peace at her: then all her vows shall stand, and every bond wherewith she hath bound her soul shall stand. But if her father disallow her in the day that he heareth; not any of her vows, or of her bonds wherewith she hath bound her soul, shall stand: and the LORD shall forgive her, because her father disallowed her. And if she hath at all an husband . . . and if she vowed in her husband’s house . . . Every vow, and every binding oath to afflict the soul, her husband may establish it, or her husband may make it void . . . But if he shall any ways make them void after that he hath heard them; then he shall bear her iniquity. These are the statutes, which the LORD commanded Moses, between a man and his wife, between the father and his daughter, being yet in her youth in her father’s house (Num. 30:3-6, 10, 13, 15, 16).

In this passage we see also that it is normal and preferable for virgins to be employed under their father, in his house, as the wife labours in her husband’s house. Accordingly those women without husbands or fathers had to be especially cared for as they were defenceless and without a provider or breadwinner: 

When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow: that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hands (Deut. 24:19, cf. Lev. 19:10; Isa. 1:17; Acts 6:1; I Tim. 5:3, 5; James 1:27).

When a widow, Ruth laboured according to this law, gleaning and gathering after the reapers among the sheaves and staying close by the maidens of Boaz,[15] rather than working for men’s wages alongside the young men; and after harvest, she kept at home. “So she kept fast by the maidens of Boaz to glean unto the end of barley harvest and of wheat harvest; and dwelt with her mother in law” (Ruth 2:23, cf. I Tim. 5:16). Matthew Henry shows how such actions befit an industrious and humble woman:

She also kept fast by the maidens of Boaz, with whom she afterwards cultivated an acquaintance, which might do her service, v. 23. But she constantly came to her mother at night in due time, as became a virtuous woman, that was for working days, and not for merry nights. And when the harvest was ended (as Bishop Patrick expounds it) she did not gad abroad, but kept her aged mother company at home. Dinah went out to see the daughters of the land, and we know what a disgrace her vanity ended in. Ruth kept at home, and helped to maintain her mother, and went out on no other errand than to get provision for her, and we shall find afterwards what preferment her humility and industry ended in. Seest thou a man diligent in his business? Honour is before him.[16]

Though some widows were destitute of all family and therefore able to spend time in “supplications and prayers night and day” (I Tim. 5:5), such were honoured and sustained by the Church (I Tim. 5:3, 9, 10) and were not employed in a domain markedly different from that of mothers. Dorcas made clothes for the poor:

Then Peter arose and went with them. When he was come, they brought him into the upper chamber: and all the widows stood by him weeping, and shewing the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them (Acts 9:39).

In ordinary circumstances both unmarried women and younger widows lived in the house of their father, who was responsible for their protection and provision until they were given in marriage:

Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter in law, Remain a widow at thy father’s house, till Shelah my son be grown . . . And Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house (Gen. 38:11); And Naomi said unto her two daughters in law, Go, return each to her mother’s house: the LORD deal kindly with you, as ye have dealt with the dead, and with me (Ruth 1:8, cf. Gen. 24:23, 28); But if the priest’s daughter be a widow, or divorced, and have no child, and is returned unto her father’s house, as in her youth, she shall eat of her father’s meat (Lev. 22:13, cf.  I Cor. 7:37).

Though the law in Leviticus 22:13 refers specifically to priests’ families and the eating of holy things, the case was that only those who were in the priest’s family, those for whom he normally provided (whether as husband, father or master), were allowed to eat of such things. The widows partook of their fathers’ provisions because they had been re-incorporated into their fathers’ families. John Calvin explains:

The prohibition, therefore, that the meats offered in sacrifice should be eaten by strangers, was not made so much with reference to them as to the priests, who would have else driven a profitable trade with the offerings, or, by gratifying their guests, would not have hesitated to bring disrepute on the whole service of God. The Law consequently prohibits that either a sojourner, or a hired servant, should eat of them; and only gives this permission to their slaves, and those who were incorporated into their families. Moreover, He counts the priests’ daughters who had married into another tribe as aliens. The sum has this tendency, that whatsoever depends on the service of God should obtain its due reverence; nor could this be the case, if what was offered in the temple were not distinguished from common food. Inasmuch as they were human beings, they were allowed to subsist in the ordinary manner; yet was this distinction necessary, which might savour of the sanctity of Christ.[17]

Matthew Henry’s comments also help to cast light on this law, showing that not only wives but daughters also are exempt from earning their own living:

As to the children of the family, concerning the sons there could be no dispute, they were themselves priests, but concerning the daughters there was a distinction. While they continued in their father’s house they might eat of the holy things; but, if they married such as were not priests, they lost their right (v. 12), for now they were cut off from the family of the priests. Yet if a priest’s daughter became a widow, and had no children in whom she might preserve a distinct family, and returned to her father’s house again, being neither wife nor mother, she should again be looked upon as a daughter, and might eat of the holy things. If those whom Providence has made sorrowful widows, and who are dislodged from the rest they had in the house of a husband, yet find it again in a father’s house, they have reason to be thankful to the widows’ God, who does not leave them comfortless.[18]

So if a woman loses her husband who had provided for her (Exod. 21:10), she may return to the house of her father, whose duty it is to extend his protection over her once more. If her father has died or if she has her own family, the duty of care and provision falls to another near relation such as a son, usually the eldest (I Tim. 5:4; Deut. 21:17).

Now when [Jesus] came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not. And he came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother (Luke 7:12-15, cf. Matt. 8:14, 15).

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home (John 19:25 -27).

The case is similar concerning women who never marry. Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha lived in the town of Bethany at the time of our Lord’s sojourn here on earth, and they were beloved of Him (John 11:5). Lazarus being the man of the house, his premature death must have been on that account all the more traumatic for his sisters (vs. 21, 31), who nonetheless believed our Lord to be faithful in all things (v. 22). After the miraculous resurrection of Lazarus from the dead (v. 44), the division of responsibilities in the family continued on in the biblical pattern:

Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him (John 12:1, 2, cf. Mark 1:31 ).

“Here was a decent, happy, well-ordered family,” says Matthew Henry with typical warmth, “and a family that Christ was very much conversant in, where yet there was neither husband nor wife (for aught that appears,) but the house kept by a brother, and his sisters dwelling together in unity.”[19]

Mark the contrast between this loving co-operation in which each family member fulfils his duty, and the behaviour of the woman in the attire of a harlot, who “is loud and stubborn; her feet abide not in her house: Now is she without, now in the streets, and lieth in wait at every corner” (Prov. 7:11, 12, cf. Jer. 3:3, 20; Ezek. 16:30). See also the (now abrogated) judicial law of the betrothed damsel (Deut. 22:23 -27), and Matthew Henry’s observations on the passage:

Nay, her being found in the city, a place of company and diversion, when she should have kept under the protection of her father’s house, was an evidence against her that she had not that dread of the sin and the danger of it which became a modest woman . . . Now if it were done in the field, out of the hearing of neighbours, it shall be presumed that she cried out, but there was none to save her; and, besides, her going into the field, a place of solitude, did not so much expose her.[20]

Chapter 34 of the book of Genesis contains the sad narrative of the defiling of Jacob’s daughter, and the retaliatory massacre of the men of Shechem by two of her brothers. Simeon and Levi, having failed to protect their sister from the wicked and enclose her, as it were, with “boards of cedar” (Song 8:9), added blood-guiltiness to their record and increased their father’s suffering. But notice the “little” folly that let loose such mischief: “And Dinah the daughter of Leah, which she bare unto Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land” (Gen. 34:1). John Calvin observes:

This chapter records a severe contest, with which God again exercised his servant. How precious the chastity of his daughter would be to him, we may readily conjecture from the probity of his whole life. When therefore he heard that she was violated, this disgrace would inflict the deepest wound of grief upon his mind: yet soon his grief is trebled, when he hears that his sons, from the desire of revenge, have committed a most dreadful crime. But let us examine everything in order. Dinah is ravished, because, having left her father’s house, she wandered about more freely than was proper. She ought to have remained quietly at home, as both the Apostle teaches and nature itself dictates; for to girls the virtue is suitable, which the proverb applies to women, that they should be oikouroi, or keepers of the house. Therefore fathers of families are taught to keep their daughters under strict discipline, if they desire to preserve them free from all dishonour; for if a vain curiosity was so heavily punished in the daughter of holy Jacob, not less danger hangs over weak virgins at this day, if they go too boldly and eagerly into public assemblies, and excite the passions of youth towards themselves. For it is not to be doubted that Moses in part casts the blame of the offence upon Dinah herself, when he says, ‘she went out to see the daughters of the land;’ whereas she ought to have remained under her mother’s eyes in the tent.[21]

Thomas Boston, too, speaking of honest employment as a guard against breaking the seventh commandment, deems homeliness to be the distinguishing feature of women’s work:

Honest labour and business cuts off many temptations that idle persons are liable to. Had David been in the field with his army, when he was rising from off his bed in the evening-tide, II Sam. 11.2, he had preserved his chastity when he lost it, and so had Dinah, if she had been at her business in her father's house, when she went out to see the daughters of the land, Gen. 34.1.[22]

Women must endeavour to see that their occupation, dress, behaviour and company is chaste, and men have an obligation to keep away from loose women (Prov. 5:8), and to respect the chastity of virtuous women. Indeed, both men and women must always be looking to the preservation of their own and others’ purity in heart, speech and behaviour[23] (Matt. 5:28; I Cor. 7:1, 2; I Thess. 4:1-7). “I made a covenant with mine eyes”, said God-fearing Job; “why then should I think upon a maid” (Job 31:1). John Bunyan saw the grace of God in his own reticence with women, saying,

And in this I admire the wisdom of God, that he made me shy of women from my first conversion until now. These know, and can also bear me witness, with whom I have been most intimately concerned, that it is a rare thing to see me carry it pleasantly towards a woman; the common salutation of women I abhor, it is odious to me in whomsoever I see it. Their company alone, I cannot away with; I seldom so much as touch a woman’s hand, for I think these things are not so becoming me. When I have seen good men salute those women that they have visited, or that have visited them, I have at times made my objection against it; and when they have answered, that it was but a piece of civility, I have told them, it is not a comely sight: Some indeed have urged the holy kiss; but then I have asked why they made baulks, why they did salute the most handsome, and let the ill-favoured go? Thus, how laudable soever such things have been in the eyes of others, they have been unseemly in my sight.[24]

The Word of God ordains that the man’s occupation, behaviour and appearance are to differ markedly from the woman’s, so that while he was made the governor, provider and protector of the family, the weaker vessel was created to be his honoured companion, a fruitful and submissive enrichment to him: “Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house: thy children like olive plants round about thy table” (Psalm 128:3). As we see in this passage not only the wife but the children also are to be nurtured and protected. Children exist wholly from and by their parents, making “their dependence and subjection absolute and universal”.[25] The fifth commandment is binding for life: “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee” (Exod. 20:12). Nonetheless, we know that as sons and daughters grow up their distinctive positions as men and women begin to reflect those of their parents. This is indicated in Psalm 144: “That our sons may be as plants grown up in their youth; that our daughters may be as corner stones, polished after the similitude of a palace” (v. 12). The sons of the people of God grow to be healthy and fruitful in all their business, especially the Lord’s business, and in the inspired psalmist’s imagery they are placed outside the house. On the other hand the daughters, equally precious, are the stays of the house, beautifully polished. In the words of John Calvin, the psalmist “speaks of the girls as being like corners skilfully and ingeniously cut out, to make the building beautiful; as if he would say that they adorned the house by their comeliness and elegance”.[26] David Dickson (1583-1662), the Scottish preacher and Covenanter, says:

Godly magistrates are a special means of peace and prosperity to the subjects, and should be careful, as in training up young men in grace and virtue, so they may be fruitful instruments of the public good, as plants grown up in their youth; so also in training young women, that they may be beautified with all endowments that may make them godly mothers of the succeeding age: our daughters may be as corner-stones, polished after the similitude of a palace.[27]

Observe, besides, how Thomas Boston in 18th century Scotland advised believing parents to train up children in their respective roles:

They should give them learning according to their ability, and see that at least they be taught to read the Bible, II Tim. 3.15 . . . Christians should train up their daughters to do virtuously, [Prov. 31:29]. For their own sakes, let them be capable to make their hands sufficient for them, seeing none knows what straits they may be brought to. And for the sake of others to whom they may be joined, let them be virtuously, frugally, and actively educated, otherwise what they bring with them will hardly quit the cost of the mischief that their unthriftiness and silliness will produce, Prov. 14.1. Whether ye can give them something or nothing, let them not want Ruth's portion, a good name, a good head, and good hands, Ruth 3.11. Sons should be brought up to some honest employment, whereby they may be worth their room in the world, Gen. 4.2. This is such a necessary piece of parents' duty to their children, that the Athenians had a law, That if a son was brought up to no calling at all, in case his father should come to poverty, he was not bound to maintain him, as otherwise he was.[28]

When their family’s poverty compelled unmarried girls to work outside their father’s house, until the late nineteenth century they were almost invariably given domestic duties – even when working for wages – which overlapped the tasks of wives and mothers.[29] Among mothers, who have greater responsibilities in the family, even the poorest normally worked in and around their husbands’ homes: “And Pharaoh’s daughter said unto her, Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages. And the woman took the child, and nursed it” (Exod. 2:9, cf. Prov. 31:10-31).

In rural settings also, the tasks of mothers, daughters and maids differed from those of the men; and we see in Scripture that on the whole, men obeyed their masters while a maiden served her mistress: “Behold, as the eyes of servants look unto the hand of their masters, and as the eyes of a maiden unto the hand of her mistress; so our eyes wait upon the LORD our God, until that he have mercy upon us” (Psalm 123:2, cf. II Kings 5:2; Prov. 31:15; Isa. 24:2). James the son of Zebedee and John his brother were in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, when came the call of the Lord Jesus to follow Him (Matt. 4:21), and they presently “left their father Zebedee in the ship with the hired servants, and went after him” (Mark 1:20). Their mother did not appear at this time because, as an Israelitess, she was a homemaker, blessed with opportunities to minister unto Jesus with other godly women: “And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him: Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children” (Matt. 27:55, 56). Davis Dictionary of the Bible details the place of women among the people of God:

The younger women of the family, especially in the earlier times and among the nomads, tended the sheep (Gen. 29.6; Exod. 2.16), and they went to the harvest field and gleaned (Ruth 2.3, 8); but the main duties of women were about the household. They brought water from the well (Gen. 24.13; John 4.7), ground the grain for daily use (Mat. 24.41), prepared the meals (Gen. 18.6; II Sam. 13.8; Luke 10.40), spun wool and made clothing (I Sam. 2.19; Prov. 31.13, 19; Acts 9.36-39), taught the children religious truth (Prov. 1.8; 31.1; cp. II Tim. 3.15), and directed the household (Prov. 31.27; I Tim. 5.14). 

The Mosaic law and also public opinion among the Hebrews secured to women the enjoyment of many rights . . . The spirit of the N. T. was equally hostile to woman’s degradation. It insisted that man and woman shall occupy their respective spheres as indicated by the Creator in mutual respect and dependence (Mark 10.6-9; Eph. 5.31; I Tim. 2.12-15). The sanctity and permanence of the marriage relation were taught, and divorce permitted only for extreme causes (Matt. 19.8, 9; I Cor. 7.15; Eph. 5.22-33).[30]

The private instruction of children in the doctrine of Christianity is vital for every family. Fathers must raise their children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4, cf. Deut. 6:7), leading the family in worship morning and evening (II Sam. 6:20; Jer. 10:25, cf. Num. 28:3-6; Heb. 13:15). And God has greatly honoured mothers in giving them a significant share, under their husbands’ guidance, in teaching their children the truth as it is in Jesus (Prov. 1:8, 31:1; II Tim. 3:15, cf. 1:5). Thomas Manton’s “Epistle to the Reader” in the Westminster Confession says, “Especially women should be careful of this duty; because as they are most about their children, and have early and frequent opportunities to instruct them, so this is the principal service they can do to God in this world, being restrained from more public work.”[31]

Private work in the family, and the “duties of the kitchen and farmyard”,[32] remained the domain of women until Christianity gave way to equal opportunity. Indeed, similar patterns continue today, though some of our newsmen would have the nation think otherwise. Conversely, the man’s duty, along with governing his household in the way of the Lord (Gen. 18:19; Eph. 6:4), is usually to earn a living for himself and any dependents. Men’s callings include working for wages (Gen. 29:15; Lev. 19:13; Luke 3:14), running farms or businesses (Gen. 13:2; Mark 6:3; Col. 4:14), labouring on behalf of the people as ministers of the crown or as monarch (II Chron. 19:5; I Peter 2:13, 14; II Sam. 5:3), and serving the Church as elders or ministers of the gospel (Jer. 3:15; I Tim. 5:17, 18; I Pet. 5:1, 2). It is clear from Exodus 21:10 that “by the law the husband was obliged to provide food and raiment for his wife”,[33] and so Thomas Boston writes:

Now the husband as the head of the wife owes her, 1. Protection, so as she may be as safe and easy under the covert of his relation to her as he can make her. For this cause God has given the husband as head to the weaker vessel: and therefore it was an ancient ceremony in marriage for the husband to spread his skirt over his wife, Ruth 3.9 . . . 2. Provision, 1 Tim. 5.8. The husband ought to provide for his wife, and cheerfully furnish her with what is needful and convenient according to his station and ability; and lay out himself by all lawful means for her comfortable through-bearing . . . And on the other hand, the wife ought to be helpful to her husband by her frugal management, Prov. 31.27. And God's word and frequent experiments plainly shew, that a man's thriving or not thriving has a great dependence on his wife's management, Prov. 14.1. While he, then, is busy without doors, she should be careful within; and therefore it is recommended to women to be much at home, Titus 2.5. Yet she may well go abroad when her business calls her, as Abigail did, 1 Sam. 25.[34]

Along the same lines is C. H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) in his monthly magazine, where he compares the believer, the spouse of Christ, with an earthly wife who is diligent in her husband’s house:

But a third position, which I think will be recognised by every wife as being correct, is not simply dependence upon her husband’s care and delight in her husband’s love, but also diligence in her husband’s house. The good housewife, as Solomon tells us, ‘looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.’ She is not a servant, her position is very different from that, but for that very reason she uses the more diligence . . . The making of her husband happy, and the training up of her children in the fear of God, that is her business. The good housewife is like Sarah, of whom it is written, that when the angel asked Abraham, ‘Where is Sarah thy wife?’ he answered, ‘Behold, she is in the tent.’ It would have been well for some of her descendents had they been ‘in the tent’, too, for Dinah’s going forth to see the daughters of the land cost her dear. Now, this is the position, the exact position of the chaste lover of Jesus, he dwells at home with Jesus, among his own people. The Christian’s place with regard to Christ is to be diligently engaged in Christ’s house . . . To neglect our holy life-work is to wrong our heavenly Bridegroom. Put this matter in a clear light, my brethren, and do not shut your eyes to it. Have you any right to mind earthly things? Can you serve two masters? What, think you, would any kind husband here think, if when he came home the children had been neglected all day, if there was no meal for him after his day’s work, and no care taken of his house whatever? Might he not well give a gentle rebuke, or turn away with a tear in his eye? And if it were long continued, might he not almost be justified if he should say ‘My house yields me no comfort! This woman acts not as a wife to me!’ . . .

May you rise up and open to him, and then your hands will drop with myrrh, and your fingers with sweet-smelling myrrh upon the handles of the lock. But remember if you neglect him now, it will cost you much to find him when you do arise, for he will make you traverse the streets after him, and the watchmen will smite you, and take away your veil. Rise and admit him now.[35]

In his first epistle to Timothy, the apostle Paul, ordained a preacher and a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth, makes a marked distinction between the public role of Christian men and the modest, quiet role of their women: “I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting. In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety” (I Tim. 2:8, 9). Men lead in prayer, lifting up pure hands to God (cf. I Kings 8:22; Psalm 24:4; Psalm 28:2), and “women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array. But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works” (I Tim. 2:9, 10). The apostle teaches that shamefacedness (or modesty, the root word implying downcast eyes) is to be a characteristic of godly women, and modest apparel the clothing of humble women, as opposed to the pride, impudence and ostentatious finery that characterise the woman in harlot’s attire (Prov. 7:10, 16, cf. Jer. 3:3). He then proceeds to elaborate on the submissive and homely duties of women, saying,

Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety (I Tim. 2:11-15). 

Writing to the Christians in Corinth likewise, Paul decrees that women keep silence in the public assemblies, and that they ask any questions of their husbands in the seclusion of the home:

Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church (I Cor. 14:34, 35).

Irish commentator Andrew R. Fausset (1821-1910) analyses I Corinthians 11:5, and says of women:

The ordinary rule to them is: silence in public (I Cor. 14:34, 35; I Tim. 2:11, 12). Mental receptivity and activity at home are recognized in Christianity, as most accordant with the destiny of woman . . . Scripture sanctions not the emancipation of woman from subjection: modesty is her true ornament. Man rules; woman ministers: the respective dress should accord.[36]


[1] James Scott, The Story of Primeval Man, (Hobart, Australia, 1890), p6.

[2] ‘Shorter Catechism’, Q2, Westminster Confession of Faith (Free Presbyterian Publications, 1997), p287.

[3] Thomas Boston, ‘The Moral Law, The Rule of Man’s Obedience’, Commentary on the Shorter Catechism.

[4] Thomas Boston, ‘Of the Fifth Commandment’, Commentary on the Shorter Catechism.

[5] Matthew Henry, A Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6 (Ward, Lock & Co.), p1225.

[6] Ibid., on Prov. 31:18, vol. 3, p578.

[7] Ibid., on Prov. 31:11, vol. 3, p578.

[8] Matthew Poole, A Commentary on the Holy Bible, vol. 3 (Macdonald Publishing Company), p785.

[9] Matthew Henry on Titus 2:3, Commentary, vol. 6, p1224.

[10] Ibid., on Gen. 18:9, vol. 1, p68.

[11] Matthew Poole on Exod. 22:17, Commentary, vol. 1, p166. Matthew Henry says: Many daughters, in their father’s house, and in the single state, have done virtuously, but a good wife, if she be virtuous, excels them all, and does more good in her place than they can do in theirs. Or, as some explain it, A man cannot have his house so well kept by good daughters, as by a good wife” (on Prov. 31:29, Commentary, vol. 3, p580).

[12] Ibid., on Prov. 31, p579. See Charles Bridges on the “virtuous woman” in endnote [1].

[13] Ibid., vol. 2, p811.

[15] Abide here fast by my maidens; for those of her own sex were the fittest company for her” (Matthew Henry, Commentary, vol. 2, p669).

[16] Ibid., p671.

[17] John Calvin, Harmony of the Law, vol. 2 (Baker Books, 2003), pp243, 244.

[18] Matthew Henry, Commentary, vol. 1, pp311, 312.

[19] Ibid., on John 11:1, vol. 5, p603. Henry says that the two sisters “seem to have been the housekeepers . . . while perhaps Lazarus . . . gave himself to study and contemplation”.

[20] Ibid., vol. 1, p476.

[21] John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis, vol. 2 (Baker Books, 2003), p218.

[22] Thomas Boston, ‘Of the Seventh Commandment’, Commentary on the Shorter Catechism. Here Boston also condemns “Promiscuous dancing, or dancing of men and women together. This entertainment, however reckoned innocent among many, is evidently an incentive to lust, Isa. 23.15-17 . . . This practice seems to be struck at by these scriptures, Rom. 13.13; 'Let us walk—not in chambering and wantonness', I Pet. 4.3, where mention is made of 'walking in revelling'. It is offensive to the grave and pious, is condemned by our church, yea, and has been condemned by some sober heathens”.

[23] See ‘Shorter Catechism’, Q71, 72, and ‘Larger Catechism’, Q138, 139, Westminster Confession of Faith, pp306, 307, 222, 225.

[24] John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier), p127. The same author describes feminine impropriety in his depiction of worldly lust, or Madam Bubble: “She is a bold and impudent slut; she will talk with any man” (The Pilgrim’s Progress – The Second Part, The World’s Classics, 1963, p300).

[25] John Owen, ‘The Origin of the Priesthood of Christ’, Works, vol. 18 (Banner of Truth, 1991), p18.

[26] John Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 5 (Baker Books, 2003), p268. Spurgeon quotes Daniel Cresswell (1776-1844) on this passage: “It is remarkable that the Greeks made use of pilasters, called Caryatides, (carved after the figure of a woman dressed in long robes,) to support the entablatures of their buildings” (Treasury of David, 1885).

[27] David Dickson, A Commentary on the Psalms (Banner of Truth, 1985), p507.

[28] Thomas Boston, ‘Of the Fifth Commandment’, Commentary on the Shorter Catechism.

[30] John D. Davis, Davis Dictionary of the Bible (Baker Book House, 1990), p870.

[31] Quoted by Thomas Manton (1620-1677), ‘Epistle to the Reader’, Westminster Confession of Faith, p10. The writer continues: “And doubtless many an excellent magistrate hath been sent into the Commonwealth, and many an excellent pastor into the Church, and many a precious saint to heaven, through the happy preparations of a holy education, perhaps by a woman that thought herself useless and unserviceable to the Church.” See endnote [4].

[32] Thomas McCrie, The Story of the Scottish Church (Free Presbyterian Publications, 1988), p349.

[33] Matthew Henry on Isa. 4:1, Commentary, vol. 3, p668.

[34] Thomas Boston, ‘Of the Fifth Commandment’, Commentary on the Shorter Catechism.

[35] C. H. Spurgeon on Jer. 2:36, ‘Gadding About’, The Sword and the Trowel (Sept. 1870).

[36] Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, A Commentary, Critical, Experimental, and Practical, on the Old and New Testaments (1871). Deborah the wife of Lapidoth is sometimes cited as evidence that women may hold public and dominant positions. However, she judged only by divine inspiration (Judges 4:4, 6, 9) and did not mingle with the civil or religious rulers. Rather, she “dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah” while the Israelites “came up to her for judgement” (Judges 4:5). But ordinary judges, always men, sat with the elders in the gate, in the public thoroughfare of a city (Gen. 19:1; Deut. 16:18; Ruth 4:1, 2; Amos 5:15). In the New Testament also, women who prophesied were to maintain the proper distinctions between the sexes (I Cor. 11:5, 9, 10). Andrew Fausset says: “This instance of women speaking in public worship is an extraordinary case, and justified only by the miraculous gifts which such women possessed as their credentials; for instance, Anna the prophetess and Priscilla (so Acts 2:18) . . . This passage does not necessarily sanction women speaking in public, even though possessing miraculous gifts; but simply records what took place at Corinth, without expressing an opinion on it, reserving the censure of it till I Cor. 14:34, 35” (on I Cor. 11:5, Jamieson, Fausset and Brown’s Commentary).

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