Does the Scripture teach that men bring home the bacon and women cook the bacon? Are Christians in sin if they do not have a “Leave It to Beaver” household arrangement.
It is of the utmost importance that we conform our minds to what the Scripture states are God’s expectations for our marriages and household arrangements. What exactly does the Scripture really teach?
The Scripture is full of references to what appear to be “traditional” gender roles. Men go off to war, men serve in the government, men act as leaders, men go off with herds of animals, men go fishing (Peter and Andrew), men have professions (Joseph is a carpenter), women makes crafts at home (Prov 31), women can buy property (Prov 31), women cook meals (Peter’s mother-in-law), and women can sell purple cloths (Lydia), and women are expected to be “keepers at home.”
Even this brief survey shows that the Scripture is highly suggestive that gender roles should be traditional, but not in the hard and fast fashion one might expect. We tend to think the ancient world had gender roles like Saudi Arabia today. Though there are similarities, there are also crucial differences.
It is worth saying that many people in the third world, as they did in the ancient world literally live where they work. So, both the husband and the wife work at home in some sense on the farm or producing a craft. However, for practical reasons pertaining to the family’s safety the man tends to be the one who ventures out farther and does the riskier stuff. In Cambodia, in the countryside, the houses are even built to reflect this. Even though there are no flood waters, the houses are built on stilts so that the men can sleep under and outside the house, while the women are upstairs, safe and sound. In a world without alarms and police, such arrangements make sense.
So, the 50s housewife version of gender roles is in some way a gross exaggeration of what traditional gender roles have been for a very long time (and still persist to be in some parts of the world.)
What does the Bible really say about the topic. As we will show, the Scripture clearly emphasizes that women need to have an essential dominant role at home. As for men, the Scripture does not give any clear commandments though we may surmise that they should work.
Most of what we know about this topic can be seen in the Pastoral Epistles. First, let’s look at 1 Tim 5:9, 10:
A widow is to be put on the list only if she is not less than sixty years old, having been the wife of one man, having a reputation for good works; and if she has brought up children, if she has shown hospitality to strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has assisted those in distress, and if she has devoted herself to every good work.
The topic being discussed here is which widows should receive financial assistance from the Church. Paul commands that they must have a good reputation. What makes a woman have good repute? Mainly bringing up children and hospitality. Considering fields and buying them, or selling purple cloths may be part of a Godly woman’s life but they are not the main things that make her Godly. Yet, bringing up children does. This is not preached anymore, but the Scripture is clear about it. This is why the Bible teaches, “But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint” (1 Tim 2:15).
In the same chapter of 1 Timothy, Paul gives more detail when complaining about what widows should not be getting money:
At the same time they also learn to be idle, as they go around from house to house; and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention. Therefore, I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach (1 Tim 5:13, 14).
Paul’s admonition is telling. These women, living perhaps off their adult children or some sort of inheritance, essentially do nothing all day but waste time. Paul does not tell them what we would tell the idle today, “Go get a job.” Instead he tells them go get married, have more children for your husband, and run the house. By doing these things, Satan is kept at bay.
Now think about that for a moment. Simply working, and not being idle, is not sufficient to keep the enemy at bay. Rather, getting married and taking care of kids, just as 1 Tim 2:15 states, gives very real spiritual benefits to the woman. Sadly, this straightforward teaching is not consistent with modern social norms, so it gets ignored even though it is so clear.
Some liberal interpreters will claim that Ephesus had a made up woman-problem and claim these things only apply to Ephesus. Now, there all sorts of problems with this interpretation, but we can see from Titus 2 that Paul had the same expectations for Cretan women:
Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored (Tit 2:3-5).
It is interesting what is missing from this list. Older women are not admonished to teach younger women how to dye that purple cloth, the property laws relevant to buying fields, or how to do anything that would be considered vocation related. Rather, they are to teach younger women how to be submissive wives, doting mothers, and able housekeepers.
Let’s be clear about what all of these admonishments do not say. None of them forbid women from working all together. That would be beyond the Scripture. However, it makes abundantly clear that for the vast majority of women they should be having children, helping their husbands, and by far making these things their first priority. Simply “paying the bills” and making the house the first priority by proxy is clearly NOT what Paul has in mind.
Space only permits us to cover the topic briefly, but how about men? There tend to be only two clear admonishments for men to be the “breadwinner.”
For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either (2 Thes 3:10).
But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim 5:8).
Is a man committing grievous sin, as Mark Driscoll may think, if he is not the prototypical breadwinner? Well, not exactly.
First, those who quote 1 Tim 5:8 are taking it wildly out of context. As we can see in the above, it is a discussion within the context of widows and what is expected of them. Paul is not writing a commandment to men out of nowhere. Rather, he is writing to widows to take care of their parents as one of their vocations. Of course we may infer that men should financially take care of their own household so as not to burden the church, and the use of the pronoun “he” is highly suggestive of it, but being that the Greek does not have a gender-neutral pronouns we may see that Paul addressed the admonishment to “anyone” with parents, both male and female.
Second, we can see in 2 Thes 3:10 that Paul is pretty much addressing the identical issue we see in 1 Tim 5. Widows, among others (1 Thes 4:11, 2 Thes 3:11) are being idle and not working. The “meddling in other people’s business” appears to be a reference to gossiping widows and such. Further, the fact that the admonishment is for “anyone” (the gender neutral Greek word “tis”) shows that Paul is not focusing in specifically on men and men alone. This would be an excessively literal reading of the English male pronoun which in Greek, no other word could have been used.
Now, what do these verses not say? They do not say that men do not need to work and that their sugar momma should pick up all the slack. Further, they do not explicitly forbid a man from bring up children (as their are Old Testament admonishments for men to teach their children the Law and other things.) However, what one can gather is that because a man is not encouraged to specifically prioritize the running of the home like women, a Godly wife should not permit her husband to out-mother her own children!
What shape does a lot of this take in the real world? In the 21st century, a woman can easily make more money than a man. Further, there is public schooling and electric appliances, so someone is not necessarily needed to be literally inside the house at all times. This makes it possible for the wife to work, possibly even make more money than the husband, but at the same time have more time (more paid time off or flexible hours) to attend to the family’s needs. Likewise, none of this forbids a man from staying at home for a few years for a season.
Indeed, there is significant Christian freedom, but as we can see God does have expectations. We are called to obedient to them as much as humanly possible, know that it is not our obedience that saves us from our sin but Christ’s in which He bore our full penalty on the cross.