In college, I struggled with where I fit in as a Christian woman. As a new believer, I wanted to do the right thing. I wanted to honor God and serve Him in a biblical way. I had transferred to a Christian college and was instantly placed into the world of Christian sub-culture. It was healing for me in many ways (as I came out of a lifestyle that was anything but Christian), but in other ways I stuck out like a sore thumb.
Like many college students, I loved taking all manner of online tests, and one in particular still sticks with me. It would align you with the Bible character you were most like. And while I know there were many options for the result, the ones I clearly remember were Esther and Ruth.
One night, one of my friends mentioned that she wanted to be paired with Ruth because Ruth was servant-hearted. Ruth wasn’t even on my radar. I wanted Esther for my “biblical character twin.” Esther was bold. She protected her people from the threat of extinction. Of course, as a woman in the ancient Near East, she was likely in a role of service on numerous occasions, but that’s not how I saw her.
I’ve never been particularly good at service. At the time, I didn’t love cooking. I still don’t love baking (unless it’s so I can eat the result). And I had to work really hard to notice needs the needs of others and then meet them (unfortunately, I still do).
As I’ve reflected on this conversation with my friend over the years, I’ve noticed that this is a common tension among Christian women. We may enjoy theology, be a natural leader, or just really don’t like the work of the home. So we lump ourselves into one type of category. Or we are just the opposite—naturally bent toward service gifts and on the other end of the pendulum. To top it all off, we are prone to using Scripture to prove that our side of the pendulum is the most holy one. But I would argue that either side is the wrong one.
Let’s look at a familiar passage in Scripture to make the point.
Mary and Martha
As women, we tend to latch on to the women mentioned in Scripture and then attempt to glean truths from their lives. I’m sure you are familiar with the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38–44. Martha welcomes Jesus into her house and immediately is distracted by the serving. She gets frustrated with her sister, who is sitting at the feet of Jesus, and then faces a sharp rebuke from the Lord because her sister has actually chosen the better portion—learning from the Lord.
Often when people talk about the work of the home, the Mary and Martha story gets used to highlight the importance of knowing and studying theology over focusing too much on the tasks of the home. The housework can wait. It’s learning about and from God (theology) that matters. So if you are one of the ones who despises all things housework, you may be cheering along as you read this story. That’s right, you might think, I shouldn’t exhaust myself on all this serving when even Jesus says there are more important things to do.
Depending on where you fall on the spectrum, you could either find a kinship with Martha or with Mary. You may judge the person who is servant-hearted, likes cooking, or keeps a tidy home because Martha is the model of unfaithfulness in this text. Nobody wants to be a Martha, right? Or maybe you see yourself in Martha and cringe. You like the housework, but you don’t want to put it in the wrong place in your life.
We Don’t Have to Choose
I’ve heard women talk about this from both angles—Martha idolized the work. Mary saw learning at Jesus’ feet as more important. The tasks of the home aren’t important, you might say. Even Jesus rebuked Martha for all her serving, right?
But the point of this passage is not the banality and pointlessness of the work of the home. It’s forgetting the primary importance of sitting at the feet of Jesus first and foremost. Jesus spent plenty of time in homes, being served by people, and even serving others Himself. He clearly saw both the people and the tasks as important. We must also learn to hold that tension, never forgetting that Scripture actually elevates both (studying theology and showing hospitality) at different times (Rom. 12:13; 1 Peter 4:9).
Martha’s problem is that she missed the better portion—sitting at Jesus’ feet. She missed that knowing the Lord, soaking in His teaching, and being rooted in Him is the primary calling of her life. She wasn’t rebuked for serving; she was rebuked for being distracted in her serving.
The danger for all of us, in our work in the home and in our quest for greater knowledge of Christ, is that we get distracted by the pursuit (either of work or of knowledge) and miss the better portion that is Christ Himself.
For all of us, knowing Christ through His Word informs how we serve and work. It’s not in competition with our work. You can love theology and love the work of the home. This is what was missing in that conversation I had in college all those years ago about Ruth and Esther—both of us were missing the value the other brings to the table and assuming we were the sum total of our interests and gifting at the time.
A theology-loving woman should let her theology inform her service. And a service-loving woman should be informed by good theology. Neither are done in isolation. At the end of the day, you have to humble yourself before the One who trumps all the tasks we can’t meet (or attempt to meet at the expense of others). We have to root ourselves in the better portion first.
Like Martha, we are often tempted to be distracted by much serving. We neglect the better portion because we want people to think well of our homemaking capabilities or can’t find margin to stop the work or any combination of these things. But the same Jesus is speaking to us today.
We must not brush aside humbly sitting at the feet of Jesus. But we also must not brush aside faithful service to others in the work of the home. We will not work faithfully in our homes without His sustaining grace, a deep and abiding knowledge of His Word, and a recognition that the work is not done in our own strength, but only in the strength that He supplies.
Do you fall into one of these two categories—valuing service over theology or vice versa? How can you find “the better portion” in your own life?
This post is based on Courtney’s new book, Glory in the Ordinary: Why Your Work in the Home Matters to God.