Friday, May 7, 2010

What can Proverbs 31 teach about Male Headship?

Proverbs 31:10 begins a famous section about the excellent wife, so it is not the passage that most people think of when they think of a description of male headship in the home. First, let me say, that I am committed the the position of complementarianism. In the marriage, God has designed different roles for men and women.   I am not so much as going to defend that thesis, but launch into a somewhat controversial thesis. I want to suggest that too many committed husband will never have a Proverbs 31 wife because they have a warped view of complementarianism. It is not complementarianism that is the problem. It is Biblical and of course as Biblical always attracts its cultured despisers. What I want to suggest is that some so misunderstand complementarianism that their wife would never or is never permitted to live out the life of 'the excellent wife.' It is not that we have so few honorable Christian women--it is that we have so few honorable Christian men who love and nurture their wives into actually becoming 'the excellent wife.'

Instead of holding our wives up to the standard set in Proverbs 31, as husbands we should be holding ourselves up to this standard asking: "Do I treat my wife with such trust and honor her above all else that I actually free her to fulfill her God given calling--to be a helpmate and a mother?" The main issue that goes to the main way that husbands exercise headship is simply this: trust. Some husband are so concerned with 'leading' and 'their responsibility' that they never actually trust their wives. If a wife is not trusted she will never become an excellent wife. Headship is in the home and marriage is never about the kind of control that lords authority over others. Some wives are not able to do anything, go anywhere or make any substantial decision without checking with or being instructed by the husband. On good marker is money: some wives cannot spend more than $10 or buy more than groceries without checking with their husbands who "control the finances." Some husband never trust to the level that they can give responsibility to others--and I suspect it goes deeper than how they treat their wives but it does manifest itself there. But consider Scripture:
Proverbs 31:10 An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. 11 The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.

1. The excellent wife is entrusted to prepare food and clothes for her family.
Proverbs 10:13 She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. 14 She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from afar. 15 She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens.
Here the excellent wife works diligently in the home. Most husbands have little problems with this so long as it "stays in the home." But consider in the ancient culture the amount of trading and commerce that would be needed to acquire wool and flax. The wife would have needed to have access to funds and the freedom to step out and make arrangements to acquire these things. Consider how shocking this would be in an ancient culture where woman often were treated no better than objects suitable for child bearing. Yet the godly woman works hard and the husband has such confidence in his wife that he trusts her ability. Notice the husband does not merely get the flax and wool for the wife to stay home and make clothes--the woman is entrusted to seek these things out. This means she has intelligence (again almost an unheard of way of treating women in the ancient world)--she knew enough about wool and flax to acquire the best.

Applications to are day are hardly controversial. In Christian homes women often are out shopping for food and clothes. They often cook and prepare meals for the family. Yet do husbands allow their wives the freedom and ability to seek out and extend themselves far and wife like a merchant looking for the best deal--even spending money when needed. Some husbands hardly respect the intelligence of their wives--the wife may know something, but the husband always knows better. This is often not headship but pride. While the husband may have an over-arching responsibility, it is deep character flaws and a legalist or perfectionist spirit that forces him to 'do' everything or oversee things in a way that most or all things must come back through him--cross his desk as it were.

2. The excellent wife is entrusted to earn and spend money.
Proverbs 31:16 She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. 17 She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong. 18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night.
Is it Biblical true that a wife and mother can never work outside the home? The wife is so entrusted that she is able to buy a field--no minor purchase. But most husbands see "headship" and their "authority" of oversight so narrowly that they would never consider to let the wife make a major purchase. But imagine the wife buying a computer, property, a car, replacing furniture for the house--all without the husband feeling the need to "look over the shoulder" or double check to  see that she got the best deal.

Two caveats should be made: (1) I realize that cars, computers or land are not every woman's fancy--but some women do indeed have skill in this or other areas of finance. There is nothing in Scripture that says the husband must pay the family bills and balance the family checkbook. Headship does not mean the husband must control the purse strings. What if the women was involved in careful invest and planning for the couple's future retirement? What if the wife was an entrepreneur running her own business outside the home? (2) This verse says nothing about going into debt. It is sad that in our day the caricature abounds "men make the money and women spend it." Stereotypes of women doing nothing but running up the charge-card bill are far too real in too many marriages. The women in Proverbs 31 is not a rabid spender but a wise and careful user of money. It is a tool in her skilled hands--and the husband is blessed by his wife's skill and care.

In our verse the wife actually works engaging in commerce. It is not just a little selling or buying, she is up late at night with her "business." Consider how many men will not allow their wives to do anything productive outside the home because "a women's place is in the home." Sadly too many men feel their headship is threatened if the wife brings home anything more than a few dollars for personal spending.

The women in our passage is also a strong and confident women. This of course does not mean that she lacks grace and feminine charm. This does not mean that she shuns the strong loving arms of her husband to "strike out alone"--but what it does mean is that the women is not a push-over. She has strength of character and she is a diligent hard worker. She is not afraid "to break a nail," or "let her hair down and get her hands dirty." This women is no dainty Victorian women who never ventures out without a sun umbrella. Some men are in their marriage, quiet frankly, afraid of a women who shows any type of strength--physical or in character. But her again, rather than the husband be threatened by such spirit and physicality, the husband is blessed by it.

Again three caveats (1) there is a difference between a women being "butch" shunning womanhood to be man-like and a women being strong in her feminine character. While a wife should not be manly and just "one of the guys" in every sense, a godly Christian wife may enjoy things like playing baseball with guys, going to a football game, fixing a car--an in their own ways 'having a strong arm'--or she may be quite adept at actually working outside the home. (2) All this does not mean the woman can neglect her role as a mother if God has blessed her with children. Some women for various reasons need or must stay home--but Scripture nowhere obligates that a women never work "outside the home"--indeed this verse advocates a productive wife, so long as she does not neglect her children and household. Her role starts in the home caring for her family and spills over--too often today women reverse this order. Obviously some women never maintain this balance and sadly neglect their role in favor of their career. But the point is that the boundary for the women is not 'keep it inside the home.' (3) Husbands are never to neglect providing for their family and 'delegate it' to the wife. A productive wife is no excuse for a lazy husband.

3. The wife is so adept at providing for the home her business flows beyond the home.
Proverbs 31:21 She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet. 22 She makes bed coverings for herself; her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Proverbs 31:24 She makes linen garments and sells them; she delivers sashes to the merchant. 25 Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.
Here the wise provides for her family. But she also extends beyond the family. Again she is involved in the commerce. She and not her husband is delivering her goods to the merchant. She is strong and dignified. But she is active and prepares. She makes plans and prepares for the future not merely resigning that to her husband. Of course, this women is not rebelling against the care of her husband. Yet the husbands care does not restrict the wife.

4. The women is entrusted in raising and training up the children.
Proverbs 31:26 She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. 27 She looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.
The teaching of the children in the home is shared by the wife and the husband. Obviously, the husband cannot neglect his role in teaching Scripture in the home. But in his wife, the husband has a partner. Some husbands consider themselves to be the theologian and Bible student/scholar of the family. A good husband will never neglect or shun the wisdom of his wife. He will fully trust the abilities and gifts that God has given his wife to teach the children. While the husband should exercise responsibility and leadership, notice that in our passage their is no fear over what the wife might say--'what if she is not doctrinally precise?' Rather she is wise--and I would suggest that the husband today needs to pay extra attention to the wisdom that God gives wives. These verses do not preclude the idea that the wife might even be wiser then her husband (consider Abigail in 1 Samuel 25) or even more intelligent or even more knowledgeable in the Scriptures..

Some have so perfected the Biblical teaching of headship and submission that in all functionality their practice screams "a wife should be seen and not heard." As a husband do you listen to your wife's wisdom? Do you see her wisdom and trust her teaching abilities. Children cannot go without their fathers teaching and nurturing--but neither can they go without their mothers. Do they see their fathers honoring their mother? Or is the father so controlling that he is constantly checking up of his wife, looking to 'fix what might go wrong,' looking over her shoulder because 'he is the leader of the home'?

Leadership in the home that never entrusts things to the wife nor actually entrusts things under her careful hand is no leadership in the home at all.

5. The wife is entrusted to minister to the needs of those in the community through caring for the poor.
Proverbs 31: 20 She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy.
For some men, the wives would never be allowed to give out money to the poor and needy. Maybe she can write the tithe check--but any major decision, sponsoring a child, an end of the year donation, even an immediate need for help or hospitality, must be run through the 'head.' But again her our 'excellent woman' opens her own hand to the poor and reaches out her own hands to the needy. Again, in too many 'Christian' marriages headship is exercised in such a way that the woman would never be "allowed" to exercise these things--and so I suggest that many husband are what keep themselves from experiencing the Biblical 'excellent wife.'

There is much Proverbs 31 can teach us about the excellent wife--the kind of godly woman who is an asset and blessing to her family. She should be praised and exalted. This woman is so active and seems so energetic, it is no wonder many women stress out just reading this verses--to a perfectionist these verses seem hardly comforting when the wife is just trying to keep her head above water, her house from explode, and her kids for 'killing' each other. Being a wife is no easy task.

We have not dealt with outlining all Scripture says about marriage and headship. It is true that many favor egalitarian approaches or even feminist approach in their Christian marriages. Such approaches are unbiblical but they are not our concern her. Our concern is a wrong exercising of headship by the husband who believes the role of husband and wives are complimentary, which indeed they are.

But our verses in Proverbs 31 should equally serve as instruction to the husband. Not how to keep score over his wife, but how to trust his wife. The headship of a husband is not confining and restrictive a kind that merely lays out rules and simply 'tells the woman' what to do. The godly husband must nurture and care for his excellent wife. Entrusting her with freedom and liberty--treating her as a woman made in God's image who is given wisdom, talents, and insight--is precisely what causes the excellent wife to flourish. Now it is not as if it is the husband who makes his wife excellent--that would take this passage to far and indeed turn it on its head. Rather our point is simple: too many husbands exercise their headship in such a wife that the wife will never actually do what a Proverbs 31 women could do. Perhaps these husbands even think to themselves "my wife isn't this diligent and excellent"--instead of pointing at their wives and wondering why they aren't like that, they should look at how they treat their wives and ask: "How can I encourage her to be whom God has made her? How can I help her fulfill the tasks to which God has called her?" Too many husbands say they trust their wives, but they never actually entrust things to her care both inside and outside the home.


stivee said...

"Do I treat my wife with such trust and honor her above all else that I actually free her to fulfill her God given calling--to be a helpmate and a mother?"

Sometimes I think Christianity devalues women who can't have children. If, as complimentarians assert, a woman's role is to be a caretaker, then what do you do with a woman who can't have children? That's the problem with placing her value on her ovaries. If a woman can't raise a family or doesn't want to, then what?

Tim Bertolet said...

You are right that sometimes Christians, and people in general, devalue women who cannot have children.

We need to be careful however in delineating that the woman's role in marriage as 'helpmate' which God gave her in Genesis 2 speaks of her God-ordained role within marriage even prior to Adam and Eve having children.

A woman is no less valuable as a person if she is unable to have children in the same way that a woman is no less valuable as a person made in God's image if she is not married.

I regret that my generalization seems insensitive to this important group of women who are unable to have children.

"The Voyages..." Forays into Biblical studies, Biblical exegesis, theology, exposition, life, and occasionally some Star Trek...