Women hear a lot about Titus 2 woman–to–woman discipleship, with the oft quoted:
Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self–controlled, pure, working at home, kind and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. Titus 2:3–5
I spent quite a few years believing and pushing the idea that women’s discipleship should be limited by Titus 2:3–5. First, I believed that women should disciple other women only within the boundaries outlined in this section of Scripture. I did this because a lot of what I was reading from Christian authors all those years conveyed this idea either explicitly or implicitly. Second, I believed that only a woman’s husband should disciple her in the Christian faith. What this meant was that a woman should get her theology or understanding of Scripture only from her husband. The assumption being that if she learned about God or the Bible from any other source, it may teach her something contrary to what her husband thought/believed, thereby undermining the authority of her husband. Therefore, to insure the authority of her husband is not “challenged,” a woman ought not participate in a Bible study with other women, or learn about God from anyone other than her husband. This was also to insure that the husband did not abdicate his job to “sanctify” his wife according to Eph. 5. If the wife looked elsewhere to learn the Scriptures, then it would make it easier for her husband to abdicate this responsibility.
I would call that reading of Titus 2:3–5 a “regulative principle” applied to women’s discipleship, akin to the regulative principle of worship, in which Christians will only engage in worship modes and practices that are explicitly given by example in Scripture. This means that discipleship is conducted only according to what is specifically spelled out in those verses (e.g. how to keep home and take care of husband and children). It means we only use methods which are directly commanded in Scripture, so if it doesn’t directly say “women teach other women the Scriptures,” then its not allowed.
As I have become more gospel-centered, shifting the locus of my faith to Jesus instead of my family, to Jesus instead of my womanhood, to Jesus instead of secondary and tertiary theological doctrines—to Jesus at center, with everything else in life revolving around him—I have become unsettled by such a narrow reading and application of Titus 2:3–5 in some women’s discipleship circles.
Lest I be misunderstood, I am not saying that women should not help encourage and exhort one another in loving their husband and their children or caring for their home. There is no anti-family sentiment here. To the contrary, it is because I care about the natural family and the spiritual family—the Church—that I’m so concerned about this.
When it comes to the discipleship of women there seem to be several views out there. One view advocates that it is the husband, and the husband only, that should disciple the wife. In another, a woman may have a discipleship relationship with particular “older” women, so long as they are measured up to the Titus 2:3–5 parameters, and so long as the scope of discipleship remains within the topics enumerated therein. Yet another view is that women can be discipled by many women around them, attempting to apply the whole of Scripture, with the gospel at center. This latter view is the one my husband and I hold. I am also blessed to be in a church which encourages such discipleship. It is what undergirds and marks my Bible teaching and my discipleship relationships. It is the one I believe to be biblical because it takes all of Scripture into account and is inclusive of women who do not have husbands, and women who are both young and old.
There is a danger in taking one passage of scripture and zooming in on it; the danger is in missing or excluding the whole. For example, before there was Titus 2:3–5, there was Titus 1:1–2:3, and after Titus 2:3–5 there is Titus 2:6–3:15. And before the book of Titus there is the entire Old Testament and the majority of the New Testament canon. And after the book of Titus we have Philemon through Revelation. I think it is truncated at best, and robs women of the richness of the Scripture when we bound women’s discipleship within these three verses, to the exclusion—or to the flattening—of the rest of the Bible.
HOW A NARROW READING OF TITUS 2 DISCIPLESHIP HURTS WOMEN
What happens when women’s discipleship concentrates only on Titus2:3–5? The problem is not chiefly sending younger women on a long and sometimes vain search for the older woman suitable to the task. The root of the problem is in pursuing a “regulative principle” of Titus 2 discipleship: the notion that women should only spiritually build each other up into loving their families, their homes, and their submission. The first and gravest pitfall in such an orientation toward discipleship is that a woman starts seeing her spirituality tied only to her role as wife and mother.
What this says to women is: Your relationship to Jesus is dependent on how you are performing as a wife and mother. If you are a good wife and mother then you are “godly,” “righteous,” “a good Christian woman.” If you are struggling in your role as wife and mother, then you are not. If you are not married or cannot have children, you cannot be godly, or at least “as godly.” Sure, God forgives, and he may forgive you, but right now your job is to work harder. See these older women who have it all together? Why can’t you be more like them? Here’s a Bible, it will tell you what to do. When phrased in this way, it’s easy to see that this is a theological error. In very few circles will it be said as starkly as I’ve written it here, but this is the implication, it is how it feels to the struggling mother and wife. The underlying assumptions and this way of thinking are present in the church.
And what about the single woman? Where does she fit in this type of discipleship model? If she is young, she gets brought in and taught to wait for a husband and children and how to behave when she gets them. As far as older singles are concerned, well, they can easily just fall through the cracks.
Discipling women in this manner stumbles them from obeying what Jesus said was God’s greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37). A typical response says, “we show love for God by loving our neighbor and a woman’s closest neighbor is her husband and children, hence she is loving God.” This type of argument is based on a partial truth. Yes, it is true that one of the ways we show our love for God is by loving our neighbor. That neighbor can be family, friends, co–workers, next-door neighbors, a person on the street, etc. But discipling women to love and serve their families is in no way discipling them into all it means to love God. It is a necessary condition, but it is not a sufficient condition.
GOSPEL–CENTERED DISCIPLESHIP FOR WOMEN
When women want to know how to become better wives and mothers I tell them “learn about Jesus, fall in love with Jesus, and you will find that you start becoming a ‘better’ wife and mother.” Would we not tell men the same thing? When a man desires to become a hard worker, a “better” husband or father, a “better” pastor, a “better” leader, etc. would we not tell that man “seek first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you?”
The gospel will unlock first a woman’s hunger to know her God. The gospel does this by bringing us face-to-face with Jesus. This forces us to find out who he is, what he has done, why he did what he did, why he said what he said. It forces us to ask: how should we live and think in light of this knowledge. That hunger, driven by the Holy Spirit will lead a woman to look to all of Scripture to find answers and learn how to love the Lord her God with all her heart, mind, soul and strength, and to learn how to love her neighbor as herself. When women disciple each other they are helping each other to grow in maturity and in conformity to the image of Christ. The Titus 2:3–5 passage rests on Titus:2:1, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.” This verse is a directive from Paul to Titus. We know from our study of Scripture that the “sound doctrine” referred to here is the gospel. Paul instructs Titus to teach Christian living which is grounded in the gospel. So Titus 2:3–5 discipleship is indeed gospel–centered if we remember to keep it within the context in which Paul has put it. We lose that gospel–centrality once we move it out of its intended purpose and set the narrow boundaries on it which I mentioned above.
As I have thought about this issue, I see gospel–centered discipleship for women as discipleship which leads women to live all of life filtering everything through loving the Lord their God. What does it mean for a woman whether she is married or not, whether she has children or not, to love the Lord her God with all her heart, soul, and mind? It means first she has to know him. How can a woman love God if she doesn’t know all that much about him? How can she love him fully if what she knows of him has only come from certain biblical prescriptives? How can a woman love God with soul, heart and mind unless she studies him? How can she love God if she doesn’t love Jesus, the fullness of the glory of God? How can she grow in her love for Jesus without knowing much more than “he died on the cross for my sins?”
If a woman is blessed to have a believing husband and that husband is seeking to love her as Christ loves the Church then she is receiving the benefits of this kind of grace. This does not, and should not, limit discipleship relationships with other women, either in number or scope. Gospel–centered discipleship, using the fullness of Scripture as I mention above, will reap spiritual fruit. It is one of the most significant means the Holy Spirit will use to enliven the faith of women. It is a means by which the Holy Spirit will empower women to fulfill all the roles to which God has called them.