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Calvin, “Fools Scorn Motherhood”

I continue to be blessed by Calvin’s exposition of 1 Timothy (see previous post). While preaching 1 Timothy 2:15 Calvin took considerable space to reflect on how this text shows God’s approval of the state of motherhood. His words are strikingly contemporary as today we are also needing to re-assert the value of this wonderful work. Calvin is countering a false idea of spirituality which disdained such “earthly work” even considering marriage “of this world,” encouraging women instead to pursue “spiritual” work by entering convents.  In contrast Calvin stated:

Let us learn therefore that if a woman be among her household, and be busied about her children, to wipe them, and comb them, and dress them; or if she be nursing them, up day and night, suffering cold and heat to nurse them, if she bears it patiently, knowing that it is God’s good appointment, and he approves of it, this is a sweet smelling sacrifice to him.

Calvin then took on the “pretend chastity” of nuns, saying that was “nothing” in comparison with the daily work of being a wife and mother.

all the chastity they pretend is nothing before God in comparison to that which he has appointed, that is to say, that although it seems to be a vile thing, a matter of no account, for a woman to take pains about housewifery, to make clean her children when they are arrayed, to kill fleas and other such like, although this is a despised thing, yes and such that many do not even want to look upon it, yet they are sacrifices which God accepts and receives, as if they were things of great price and honorable.

So killing fleas was a common aspect of mothering in the 16th century!

He goes on to say,

Therefore let women say, “Well, although the world has no regard of me, yet must I find myself occupied here, for so God commands me.” And moreover also they have to consider that when they do their duty and execute their office, God accepts well of it, although men despise it.

In his day, as in ours, there were those who scorned “women’s work.” I couldn’t recall how many times my wife has been asked if all she does is stay home with our children or she has been asked if she wouldn’t really like to do something valuable or if she might use her gifts in a manner more beneficial to society. Calvin answers well:

“Indeed there are a number of fools that when they speak of women’s distaffs [i.e. domestic duties], of seeing to their children, will make a scorn of it and despise it.  But what then?  What says the heavenly Judge?  That he is well pleased with it, and accepts it and puts it in his reckoning.  So then let women learn to rejoice when they do their duty, and though the world despise it, let this comfort sweeten all respect they might have that way, and say, “God sees me here and his Angels who are sufficient witnesses of my doings, although the world does not approve of them.”

Calvin strongly affirmed a distinction of roles, but he exalted the value of mothering and called on husbands to appreciate the labors of their wives.

Again when a man sees his wife employ herself all the day long to do her duty, let him also consider whereunto God has called him, that he also for his part may do his duty.  For a man is not born to idleness, nor is a woman.

These are good words for us today as well. On one hand, we can see that affirming the role of wife and mother is not a recent phenomenon. We also see that Calvin, in spite of the mean caricature of him which is often portrayed, is at pains to support wives and mothers, rebuking strongly those who would demean them. And most importantly, we are reminded of this biblical teaching so that mothers might be encouraged that as they work hard at the often mundane tasks of motherhood they are pleasing God- no matter whether anyone else ever notices. And, we, husbands, are exhorted to make sure someone does notice- and we are to give thanks to God for faithful wives and mothers, sharing in the labors, and making our appreciation well known.

[quotes taken from Sermon 19, in Sermons on Timothy & Titus. A new edition is forthcoming]

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