Few things cause more debate and confusion than women and work. Can a woman work? Can a woman be successful in her work? What does that look like? What about moms? The questions are endless. And sometimes the emotions surrounding the questions are endless, too. Thankfully, Carolyn McCulley and Nora Shank have entered the fray with a helpful look at women, work, and the home from a biblical perspective. Their recent book, The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home tackles these very questions, and more. I recently talked with Carolyn about the book and her hopes for women as they navigate these difficult issues. As an added bonus, Amazon is offering the Kindle version for $4.99 through March 18!
In the book you talk a lot about the home being a place of productivity versus a place of consumption. What do you hope women will take away from your book regarding their own understanding of the home?
So much happened in the last 200 years to change our understanding of work and home–for both men and women–that if we don’t understand that history, we will read our modern context into the Biblical passages that reference the home and misunderstand the strategic importance of those verses. That’s why my collaborator, Nora Shank, and I spent the first third of the book going back over the history of work so that we could understand what the original readers of those Scriptural accounts would have understood in their day. Unlike many places today, historically the home was the small business unit of the local economy. The idea that women’s work did not contribute to their household’s income and aggregate wealth didn’t exist until the Industrial Revolution created the idea of the wage-earner and then the U.S. Census stopped counting household income in favor of wage-earner income. It typically wasn’t the same kind of work as what men did, but it was still vitally important to the family’s income.
So, for example, when Paul wrote that women should marry, raise children, and manage their households, he was not being sexist. He was not saying women should manage their homes so as to attract Pinterest fans. Nor was he saying women that should work at home because they aren’t competent to work anywhere else. Paul was being strategic. He was pointing all of us to the eternal implications in these passages: honoring God’s Word and giving the Enemy no opportunity to slander. He was saying that women’s work is important to gospel purposes. That’s why Paul could work and minister with working women like Lydia and Priscilla while writing those verses in his pastoral epistles. Their productivity was part of their partnership in the gospel. In a culture that prized pleasure (a time very similar to our own), Paul wanted women to shun the promiscuity of their day and remember their shared creation mandate to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” for God’s glory.
How does this understanding of the home apply to women in varying seasons of life?
Because of these seismic shifts in work patterns since the Industrial Revolution, our culture prizes the public sphere–the marketplace–and rewards professional achievement. Therefore, we can be tempted to derive our identity from our productivity. We can justify our existence by what we do. But the Bible emphasizes over and over again that we are merely recipients of grace. As 1 Cor. 4:7 says, “For who makes you so superior? What do you have that you didn’t receive?”
How then should we measure success? We should think as recipients who will one day given an account for how we managed what we were given. We are stewards of all that we have received, including our relationships, time, talents, resources, opportunities, capacities, and work skills. We may work in highly esteemed professions or we may not be paid at all. Those roles are not our ultimate identities. We may be wives or mothers, but as important as these roles are, they are roles that end in this life. We continue on into eternity as children of God and sisters to those who have been rescued by Christ. Therefore our job is to multiply all that we have been given for the glory of God. We aren’t in charge of what we have received, but we are in charge of investing it. There may be seasons when this investment requires our full focus at home. There may be seasons where that investment is made out of the home. We need to think in terms of the entire arc of a woman’s life so that we can prayerfully consider which season requires which focus.
Most of us are fairly familiar with the “mommy wars” and the debate about women working or staying home. How does your book enter that discussion and provide encouragment for women on every side of this issue?
I’ve been told from women in many walks of life that this book offers freedom. Not freedom to indulge self-centeredness, but freedom to follow Christ in faith and throw off shackles of comparison and one-size-fits-all boxes. Nora and I do not offer any templates for success, because we are confident that the Lord who gives the gifts and opportunities to be multiplied for His sake can lead His people successfully and provide them with the wisdom and faith they need to be productive for His glory.
I would also add that since the “mommy wars” are largely focused on the first half of a woman’s life, our book pushes beyond that boundary to challenge women to think about life after 50 and what to do in the second half of life. So many of the battles fought around the “mommy wars” are because we’re not asking women (and men) to think about productivity in the second half of life, and therefore many women are exhausted from the impossible demands of “doing it all” all at one time.
In your chapter “Coaching for Success” you say that coaching or leading is actually helping someone be the “best they can be in order to achieve a larger goal”. How can women do this for each other in the church, home, or work place?
This comes from the final segment of the book. After exploring the history of work, we then offer some theological ideas about productivity, rest, identity, and ambition in the second segment. It’s not until the third and last segment of the book that we begin to offer ideas for different stages of life. We termed the midlife stage “coaching for success,” because no matter whether you are a stay-at-home mother rearing teenagers or a mid-level manager supervising a team at the office, the premise is the same. You are building a team that is eventually to function independently and without your direct supervision as they work hard toward well-articulated goals. This can be done without sacrificing any ounce of femininity, for as Wayne Grudem writes in Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, “What we find in the Bible is that God has given commands that establish male leadership in the home and in the church, but that other teachings in His Word give considerable freedom in other areas of life. We should not try to require either more or less than Scripture itself requires.”
Management is often compared to coaching a team, and for good reason. Good coaches keep the team focused on objective goals, insist that personal conflicts be worked out or kept off the field, and build up team members through skills development and timely praise rather than threats and anger. Coaches exist to develop a team that operates better together than as a collection of individuals. These attributes are not gender-specific and they are applicable in multiple settings, including the church, home, or work place.
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