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Rev. Bruinsma is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

In our last article on the subject of working mothers (December 15, 2004) we included a letter written by a sister in our Edmonton Protestant Reformed Church. We included that letter because, first of all, it expressed in a very positive way the desire of a godly mother to be a “keeper of the home.” The glorious task of caring for a family is all but forgotten in our society! It is refreshing to hear that mothers in the church see their labor in the church not as degrading and ignoble, but as lofty and challenging.

But we also included this letter in our last article because it raises a matter that needs further clarification. It seems that the sister (and I am sure that she is not alone) struggles with the question: Is it a sin for a mother to earn money by working outside of the home. She asks this question in her letter: “The last question is: do you place this in the realm of Christian liberty? Or is it commanded?” Although different matters are brought to the foreground in her letter, they in essence center in this one question.

Before considering this question, we would do well to reread the article I wrote that is being questioned. This article appeared some time ago, in the April 1, 2004 issue of the Standard Bearer, entitled “Working Mothers.” In that article I called attention to the attitude expressed by some who wish to lay down a law to govern this matter: “There is that eleventh commandment, you know, that we must abide by in every instance, ‘Mothers, thou shalt not work outside the home.'”

To this statement our sister takes exception. She writes in her letter, “This statement came off sounding rather sarcastic, leaving me with the impression you were about to embark in a whole different direction than your previous article” (cf. Standard Bearer, March 1, 2004, “God’s Command to Mothers”). She also took exception to this statement I made in the article “Working Mothers”: “There are conceivably times when a mother will work outside the home and family.” All this indicates that the basic question she is grappling with is: Does God’s Word lay down a law according to which we can conclusively say it is sin for any mother to work outside of the home? Or, may a mother at times, when necessity dictates it, find work to supplement the income of the family?

Before answering this question, I want to make it clear that in the article “Working Mothers” I did not approve of career women who neglect their families in order to pursue their own goals in the work force. I stated that the Bible does not give its approval of those women who find little or no satisfaction in the home and family raising children but can find “fulfillment” only outside of the home pursuing a career. That was clear enough in the article. The issue in question here then is that of women who, together with their husbands, have considered finding some work that will help supplement family income, without jeopardizing time spent with children. This is the matter in question.

In these instances the question is raised: Is a mother’s working outside of the home expressly forbidden by the Scriptures or is it a matter of Christian liberty? The answer is: It is a matter of Christian liberty.

There seems, however, to be a misunderstanding of the concept of Christian liberty. The idea seems almost to be that placing something in the realm of Christian liberty gives license to people to live the way they want to live, with no regard for the way that God wills for them to live. This misunderstanding reveals itself in the letter of the sister. If something is not a command of Scripture, if it is not a black and white issue, then it is “fraught with indecision and no clear direction from God.” If I indeed insist that the matter of working mothers be placed in the area of Christian liberty, she asks, “will not there be mothers who now feel they have just cause to pursue work outside the home since Rev. Bruinsma has given them the ok?”

Placing a matter in the area of Christian liberty does not leave us without clear direction from God. And God forbid that placing a matter in the area of Christian liberty gives anyone a right to follow what a mere man says, rather than what the Scriptures clearly point out. The matter of a mother working outside of the home is indeed governed by Scripture! The Bible very clearly sets forth the principles by which we ought to live in this area of daily living. We made a point of setting forth those principles in the article, “God’s Command to Mothers.” The Bible draws the picture of a mother in the home in Psalm 128:3. She is a vine by the sides of the house. Paul commands younger widows in I Timothy 5:14 to “marry, bear children, guide the house.” The Word of God in Titus 2:4, 5 instructs older women in the church to teach the younger women to be “keepers at home.” It is obvious from the Word of God that the principle that a mother ought to follow is to be a keeper of the home.

Yet, in none of these passages is a law set forth: “It is sin for a mother to work outside of the home.” We do not read that anywhere in the Word of God. Neither can this be inferred from any of the commandments that are given us in the Decalogue. This can be done, of course, in other instances, where the Bible clearly ties an exhortation together with a commandment. For example, we believe that unlawful divorce is a sin because the Bible expressly teaches that it is a violation of the seventh commandment. The same is true of remarriage when one’s spouse is still alive. It violates the seventh commandment. The Bible is clear in these instances. But there are other times when the Bible sets forth the principles of godly living and gives them over into the hands of God’s people to live them out, by the grace that dwells in them.

The Bible is equally clear concerning the idea of Christian liberty. In Philippians 2:12, 13 the apostle gives us important instruction in this area. As God’s people we must be deeply aware that it is God that works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure. On that basis we are called to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. We are called to take the principles of Scripture and, without a law dictating exactly what we must do, live out of that new life of Christ that God has worked in our hearts. The apostle gives similar instruction in Titus 3:8, 9, “This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men. But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law [emphasis mine—WGB]; for they are unprofitable and vain.” The idea that the Word of God sets forth here is clear. We are called to walk in all good works by applying unto ourselves the principles of God’s Word. But at the same time we must do this without enslaving ourselves to a law that the Scriptures do not give.

When the apostle Paul exhorted the Galatian church with these words in Galatians 5:1, “Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage,” he did not mean that we were free from law. He did not mean that God’s law and commandments serve no more function in the life of a child of God. They do! We are not lawless. But what Paul meant here is: do not entangle yourselves with all kinds of laws that the Bible does not make. Live in your liberty. Take the principles of God’s Word and apply them diligently to your life so that you walk in a way that pleases God and not self.

It is not true that the way of Christian liberty is “fraught with indecision and no clear direction.” Neither does the way of Christian liberty destroy the antithetical life. But the way of Christian liberty allows each child of God to take the principles of God’s Word and work them out prayerfully in his own life in a way he believes is in keeping with God’s Word. When the Bible teaches us the principle that a mother ought to be a keeper of the home, it allows freedom to a husband and wife, in whom God has worked to will and to do of His good pleasure, to work that out in their lives. That will indeed vary somewhat from one home to another. But that is okay too. There ought not to be “strivings about the law” in this matter.

The problem that arises in connection with this area of Christian liberty is that our sinful flesh so often wishes to control it. When this happens, two extremes can show their ugly faces. On the one hand, there are those who will use their liberty in order to satisfy their flesh. Such mothers will indeed take the attitude: “Well, Rev. Bruinsma has given us permission to go out and work, so we can do this.” These do not take into consideration the principles of God’s Word. They are not concerned about the effect that their working might have on their children. They have their eye on money and will stretch their liberty to satisfy their covetousness. To these, Paul writes in Galatians 5:13, “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh….” Or again, in verse 16, “This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.”

But there is another extreme that all too often shows itself. It is equally ugly and sinful. Instead of living that life of liberty in those areas of godly living, there are those who wish to make a law in every area of life (sounds like the Pharisees, does it not?) and force everyone to live by that law. Here, they contend, is the hard and fast rule: all women who work outside the home sin! It is wrong! Such is the position they take. I believe that the only difference between this and the opposite extreme is that this extreme sounds so much more pious. These seem to base their position on what they glean from the principles of Scripture. The Word of God says that a woman must be a keeper of the home, therefore all those mothers who work outside of the home sin. It does not take much to see the sin involved here too. This binds heavy burdens and grievous to be borne on men’s shoulders (Matt. 23:4) and it boxes the child of God in so that he no longer is given the freedom to live out of the life of Christ that dwells in his heart. Let my husband earn the living for my family. Even if it requires of him two jobs, maybe three, to keep us above water financially. But then, is not my husband shirking his responsibility to be in the home too? (See Standard Bearer, January 1, 2003, “God’s Command to Fathers.”) What becomes of the principle that a wife is a help to her husband in all things? It does not apply in this instance? By whose law does it not apply? Who is going to determine whether one hour of work for which I am paid is wrong, or three hours? Who is going to determine whether working for free (volunteer labor) outside of the home is permissible but working for money is wrong? Who is going to determine what is actually working outside the home and what is not?

When we go to this extreme, then everyone becomes suspicious of the other. That person is not living as godly a life as I am. I abide more closely to the rule than she does. When we make a law, then we begin to determine whether we are a better mother than someone else because “I abide by that law more faithfully than that other mother does.” We set ourselves up as judges in the church and we become highly critical of other people’s lives without even giving thought to the struggles and burdens that perhaps that other family is bearing but which are not evident to the eyes of others. This extreme too is wrong.

In summary, we have been given the Word of God. It teaches us about godly living in the home and family. As believers we must apply our hearts to that Word of God. We must study it and know how it applies to our lives. As believing mothers and fathers who have within us the Spirit of our risen Lord, we must be deeply conscious of the need to be with our children in order to nurture them in the things of God. We desire that, do we not? We are not those who are governed by the evil society in which we live—a society that has no idea how to raise children properly. Then as believers we must prayerfully take God’s Word in hand and follow after its instruction to us. Each of us as married couples must determine for ourselves our calling before God and live out our salvation in the home and family with fear and trembling. Then we will not use our liberty to satisfy the lusts of our flesh. But neither will we bind each other so that every home and family must conform to a standard not required in the Bible. God grant us to live in our freedom!