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Religion and Politics from a Young Christian in Northern Virginia

A Biblical Case for Women to Have Careers

July 24th, 2012

Many conservative evangelicals believe the Bible teaches a woman’s responsibilities in the home must be so consuming that it is her only sphere of action.  They indicate that a woman’s worth ought to be so related to the roles of “wife” and “mother” caring for husband and children it is wrong for her to have a career (except possibly if she has no children or after all the children are out of the house).  There are many variants on this perspective-some more restrictive and some less restrictive.  While the question of a woman having a career could could be viewed as an issue of Christian liberty, some would want a clear command or example for women to be “permitted” to do this.  I believe a biblical case can be made for this from at least two passages.

The first passage to examine is Paul’s command to Timothy concerning widows. (I Timothy 5:3-8)  Here Paul commands children and grandchildren of widows to provide for their widowed older family members v.4 .  This command is not gender specific, but rather is a universal command to all children and grandchildren.  If Paul meant that only males should provide for their widowed parents or grandparents he could have made the command to sons and grandsons.  He chose to make this a gender neutral command.

The conclusion of this passage is a very famous verse which is very often read and applied out of context.  Verse eight says, “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.”  People often read this verse as proof that men must be the sole providers for their immediate family.  This interpretation disregards the critical hermeneutical duty to interpret a verse in context.  Only by reading a passage for the author’s meaning can we avoid the temptation to use it to justify the beliefs we already have rather than allowing it to shape our beliefs.

In context I Timothy 5:8 concludes Paul’s command to children and grandchildren to provide for their elderly parents and grandparents.  In this context a child or grandchild refusing to provide for their widowed relations “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”  The verse five carrots of this being a way “to show piety” and something that “is good and acceptable before God,” combined with the substantial stick in verse eight make this a command to take seriously.

Now if women are to provide for their elder widowed female relations, how are they going to do that without money?  You could argue well they can just get their husbands to provide for them. Does passage say that? The initial command does not distinguish between male in female in their duty or in how they will fulfill that command.  The passage could have said men should provide, and women should get their husbands to provide.  It doesn’t.  Instead it makes an equal command to men and women by using the gender neutral term “children and grandchildren”.  Now if a woman has a duty to provide in the same way or at least a similar way men do, how will they do this without money and a job to earn that money?

This analysis is not meant to say that husbands should not help their wives fulfill this command, or that women are breaking this command if they do it through the support of their husbands.  This is simply an effort to point out that this command from Paul does not distinguish between the genders.  As Paul does not distinguish between the genders in issuing this command, there can not be a problem if the genders fulfill it similarly-with money they earned in the normal course of their careers.

I am also not denying that women should get married and raise children.  Paul very clearly commands young widows to do this in an effort to keep them from being idle a few verses later in verse 14.  However, the command to become wives and mothers does not exclude working in or out of the home for income.

Maybe I am forcing my interpretation on the text, and finding gender neutral language to prove what I want to prove.  I admit this would be an understandable response to my interpretation.  Twisting scripture to make it fit a desired interpretation is wrong.  So, does the scripture ever praise and lift up a woman who works hard providing financially for her family?

The Book of Wisdom concludes with the king’s mother’s description of a “virtuous wife” whose “worth is far above rubies.”  (Proverbs 31:10)  ” Her children rise up and call her blessed; Her husband also, and he praises her: ‘Many daughters have done well, But you excel them all.'” (Proverbs 31:28-29) Clearly this is a woman we should take note of and examine as a model.  (Proverbs 31:10-31)  If the Christian conservative view of what a woman should be is true, this woman should be one who stays home and spends her days taking care of the children, cleaning house, and submissively obeying her husband.  Interestingly the description does not describe the work she does training and raising her children.  Yes, there are a couple references to her doing domestic things like “holding the spindle” (v.19), and “making tapestry for herself.” (v.22)  She even “makes linen garments” (v.24).  However, the purpose of this sewing is to sell them and profit.  (v.24)

The concept of the woman as a hard worker engaged in economic activity comes through more than any other idea.  She engages in at least ten different types of economic activity.  This woman is a business manager with servants under her who tirelessly runs a well oiled economic engine that provides the bulk of the financial revenue and material needs for the household.  “She seeks wool and flax, And willingly works with her hands.  She is like the merchant ships, She brings her food from afar.  She also rises while it is yet night, And provides food for her household, And a portion for her maidservants.” (Proverbs 31:13-15) Interestingly she doesn’t just cook food for her household, but actually provides it.  This woman earns enough money and has enough business knowledge to purchase property and have a vineyard planted.  (v.16)  She makes sure she her “merchandise is good.” (v.18)  “She makes linen garments and sells them, And supplies sashes for the merchants.”  (v.24)  This woman exudes independence and takes initiative.  She works harder and is just as profitable as any modern business owner.  Interestingly the only references to her husband are that he trusts her (v.11), and “he sits among the elders of the land” (v.23), and as one who praises her (v.28).  He is not described as the breadwinner and she does not seem financially dependent on him in any way.  While I am not arguing that this must be normative, the passage seems to describe the relationship of this exemplary husband and wife as one where the wife runs the economic engine of the household while the husband is involved in the affairs of the community.

You have to work to read Proverbs 31 without seeing a woman who runs a financial enterprise with workers under her that is independent of her husband and provides a substantial amount of the revenue for the household.  How can this be held up as the virtuous wife, while the idea of a woman with a career or business violates scripture?  The Bible contains both a command and example that seem to support rather than condemn the idea of women being productive members of the workforce.  A Biblical view of scripture supports rather than opposes the idea of women having careers.

This article is simply meant to push back against the idea that it is wrong and unbiblical for a woman to have a highly successful career.  It is not meant to say they must have a career or that they shouldn’t be a homemaker.  They should be free to choose to do what is best for them and their families without feeling condemned or questioned by scripture for having a highly successful job or career outside the home.

  • Christie G

    Thanks for your post Willie… I’m wondering if you looked up the Greek for the “children and grandchildren” in the 1 Tim. passage? In the original, is the term also gender neutral?
    Also….. Carolyn Mahaney, in Feminine Appeal relates all of the activities of the Prov. 31 woman as contributing to her home and family, and she see’s these activities in light of being a good manager of the home. I agree with you that Scripture does not forbid a woman to have a career, but perhaps her motives for having a career are important. Does a woman want a career for self affirmation, or the accolades of our culture? Or does her career contribute to the successful management of her home? Some women work because they are not married, or they are widowed, divorced, or have a disabled husband, in which case their work is necessary. But for many in our society today, the wife/mother works outside the home out of a selfish desire. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that :)

  • http://williedeutsch.wordpress.com williedeutsch

    Christie,

    I’m not a Greek scholar so I have to rely on what others say. Barne’s Notes on the Bible includes the following on the commentary on this passage. “The Greek word here – ἔκγονα ekgona – has the latter meaning. It denotes those “sprung from or born of;” and then descendants of any kind – sons, daughters, grandchildren. The Greek word would not, in fact, properly include nephews and nieces. It embraces only those in a direct line.” It is pretty similar with what I am finding other places. It seems to be a pretty gender neutral term. If others find things that prove the opposite I am definitely willing to listen.

    In terms of your second point… Motive is critical for anything anyone does. Motivation should impact how a husband and father works. Is he consumed by his work that he has no time for his family? Is an undo desire for fame or power impacting how or where he works in an inappropriate way? There are plenty of other questions that could be asked about motivations for how a man works. I think neither are forbidden by scripture from working, and both need to be careful of their motivations as well as communicate with each other to decide what are the best opportunity the husband or wife should pursue at a certain time.

    • Christie G

      Thanks for the notes on the Greek. I wouldn’t even bother to bring up motive on this post, except that if you are not on the “ultra conservative, women should never leave the home” side of things, there is a tendency then to swing the other way and put more value on a career than on raising your children and caring for your home. As always, there needs to be balance in life, and I thought it worth bringing up :)
      Thanks for your thoughts on this issue

  • http://williedeutsch.wordpress.com williedeutsch

    Balance is crucial in every aspect of life. My thoughts on this and a number of things that I will be posting about will be pushing back against the dangers and abuses I have seen in the hard right position on gender roles. I am trying to defend the middle grown between feminism and patriarchalism that I believe the Bible actually advocates. However, I am trying to defend that ground by pushing against the extreme on the right as opposed to the extreme on the left that many usually push back against. Just saying this so you understand where I am coming from. Also please feel free to question me and make me think if you think I am going too far to the left as I push back against the extreme on the right. Balance is a hard thing to achieve. :)

  • emsolideogloria

    Yes, Carolyn Mahaney also teaches (women, of course) here: ”That is why God created Eve from Adam. She was created to be a helper suitable to him, to complement him, to nourish him and to help him in the task that God had given him.”

    And, likewise Doug Wilson: ”He needs a companion suitable for him in the work to which God has called him. He is called to the work and must receive help from her. She is called to the work through ministering to him. He is oriented to the task, and she is oriented to him.”

    Bruce Ware seeks to explain 1 Cor 11:8-9 (but without considering verses 11-12):
    ”His point, I believe, is this: because man was created by God in his image first, man alone was created in a direct and unmediated fashion as the image of God, manifesting, then, the glory of God. But in regard to the woman, taken as she was from or out of man and made for the purpose of being a helper suitable to him, her created glory is a reflection of the man’s.[20] Just as the man, created directly by God is the image and glory of God, so the woman, created out of the man, has her glory through the man. Now, what Paul does not also here explicitly say but does seem to imply is this: in being created as the glory of the man, the woman likewise, in being formed through the man, is thereby created in the image and glory of God. At least this much is clear: as God chose to create her, the woman was not formed to be the human that she is apart from the man but only through the man. Does it not stand to reason, then, that her humanity, including her being the image of God, occurs as God forms her from the man as ”the glory of the man”?”

    I don’t read any of that in the Scriptures, where man and woman are given dominion over all of creation, to steward it and cultivate it on God’s behalf.

    Genesis 1:26-28
    ”Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let THEM rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
    So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created THEM.
    God blessed THEM and said to THEM, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” ”

    I do read it in Milton, who describes in Paradise Lost the created woman as “resembl[ing] less His image who made both” The man is like the sun and the woman like the moon – ”He for God and she for God in him,” says the author. For Milton, sin began with the ”effeminate slackness” of man, rather than with the rebellious decision of woman, then man, to eat what God had forbidden.

    It’s not a new concept. It’s not a rare concept. But is it a TRUE concept?

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Religion and Politics from a Young Christian in Northern Virginia