A grass-roots movement has been growing for the last 20 years among evangelical/fundamentalist Christian families. Using a literalistic approach to the Bible, these families withdraw from modern culture into a strict patriarchal structure where birth control of any kind is eschewed and fathers control an ever-growing brood of children, home-schooled by a submissive wife. Considering children to be a “quiver of arrows” in the culture-wars over “family values,” people in this movement describe themselves in many terms. “Quiverfull” is perhaps the most convenient.
This movement defines Christianity largely in terms of the raising up of “godly families” to lift up God’s standards to the surrounding culture. Women are asked to lay down any individual hopes and dreams, for the sake of motherhood as their “highest calling.” The wife is there to support the vision and calling of the father, and the children are to do the same until (if they are boys) they become fathers themselves, or (if they are girls) they are given by their father to a husband, so that they can fulfill their own call to motherhood. Women can also have a ministry in this movement of teaching other women to be good wives and mothers– but all of a woman’s existence revolves around these roles.
But as we look at Jesus’ practices and teachings, and the practices and teachings of the apostles, we simply don’t find anything to indicate that the kingdom of God that they preached about consists of, or is to be ushered in by, the raising up of “godly” families– or any evidence that this is what the kingdom consists of for women.
The best way to determine the main message Jesus preached is to look at His words at the beginning and the end of each gospel: the words that set up and wrap up His earthly ministry. Matthew 4:17 encapsulates Jesus’ basic message like this: “From that time Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” In a nutshell, Jesus taught that His listeners should listen to His message and change their ways, for a new kingdom was coming and was already among them. Most of the rest of what He taught was either a fleshing out of what He meant by “repent,” or of what He meant by “the kingdom of heaven” — or both.
Luke’s gospel sums it up best. Jesus began His ministry by teaching that the Scriptures about the coming of the Messiah had been fulfilled in Him (Luke 4:18), and wrapped it up by saying that He had completed “what was written” about Him, and that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations. . . and ye are witnesses of these things.” Luke 24:47-48.
Jesus’ message was that He was bringing in the kingdom of heaven through His life, death and resurrection. The kingdom, He taught, was a new way of simply being in harmony with God, a new way of living in God’s abiding presence (John 15:10) which would grow and mix with all of life until it had changed everything. (Matt 13:31-33) The kingdom is characterized by loving our enemies (Matt 5:44), laying down power and authority (Matt. 20:25-28), and putting our trust in Christ (John 3:15). Jesus said nothing whatsoever to His disciples or to the people along the lines of “Now go and marry godly women and raise up children to be arrows for the kingdom of heaven, to raise up God’s standard in the culture around you.” He said instead that His followers were to “go and make disciples” to follow Him as he had taught them. Matt. 28:19. In a patriarchal society that was very focused on fatherhood, Jesus consistently taught that human fatherhood was not to be the focus of His disciples: “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” Matt. 23:9.
Paul showed throughout his ministry that he had dedicated himself to this message and no other. 2 Cor. 5:20; Gal. 1:8. The only other injunction that was laid on Paul (besides being an ambassador calling, “be reconciled with God”) was that he should “remember the poor.” Gal. 2:10. And though Paul taught principles for the conduct of marriage and family, he did not treat marriage or family as anyone’s “high calling” — rather, he taught that marriage was one option only, for both men and women: “I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I.” 1 Cor. 7:8.
If the calling of women as Christ’s followers is a call to homemaking, marriage and motherhood– if women’s place is to serve their families and support their husbands in their callings– then what can we say about Christ’s words to Martha in Luke 11:38-42? Martha was working in the kitchen to prepare a meal for the men while Mary joined the other disciples and sat “at Jesus’ feet” (which meant to be taught as a disciple — see Acts 22:3). Martha was fulfilling everything this teaching says it is a woman’s role to do– but it was Martha, not Mary, whom Jesus rebuked for focusing on what was not “needful.” And it was Mary whom He defended as having chosen “the good part.” Jesus said nothing to either of them about getting married, having children, and supporting their husbands’ callings. Instead He commended Mary for choosing to sit with the other disciples and be a disciple herself.
Homemaking, marriage and family are simply not held up in the Scriptures as the focus of the kingdom of heaven for anyone– and women as well as men can be co-workers in the gospel (see Phil. 4:3). Many women traveled with Jesus in His earthly ministry (Luke 8:2-3), and Paul commended many women in Romans 16 for their discipleship. Neither Paul nor Jesus ever told these women that they should be home having children and taking care of the house.*
I believe the idea that Christianity is about getting married and raising up children to be “godly arrows” in warfare against worldly cultures, is a distortion of the gospel that Jesus brought, and of everything He came to do. In Him men and women alike are set free. I would encourage anyone who wants to follow Jesus, to stick with what Jesus actually taught, and not to be distracted by what Paul would have called “another gospel.”
*Paul did tell Titus that younger women should be taught to love their husbands and children and be “keepers” of the home– but that word was the same word used for the “keeper” of the garden where Jesus was buried. It did not mean “homemaker” or “housekeeper,” but “guard/watcher.” And he said this should be done so that the gospel movement would not get a bad reputation in the surrounding (patriarchal) culture they were trying to reach– not so that women would be restricted to “keeping the home” and nothing else. Titus 2:4-5 (compare with Romans 16:1-15)
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NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce