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.