Marriage at work (7) Wives and work

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In this chapter, I will argue that not only does Ephesians 5:22 allow wives to work, but they may also take the role of lead wage earner.  I am arguing on the basis that our exegesis has demonstrated that whilst “headship” and “submission” are transcultural requirements, their expression is culturally contextualised, so that:

“The wife’s submission and the husband’s headship are not intertwined with the stereotyped roles as homemaker and breadwinner.  The headship of the husband exists no matter what his occupation is, because God has established it.  The wife’s attitude may be submissive no matter what her occupation.”[1]

By setting out my thesis in such stark terms, not only that wives can work but that they may have the lead earner role, I am seeking to emphasise the point that not only is it permissible for wives to work, but that this often can be a positive application of Ephesians 5 rather than a mere concession to human weakness.

I note that even amongst Complementarians there is generally some allowance for women to work outside of the home, even if that permission appears at times to be reluctantly given.  To argue that wives may be the main wage is, however, unusual.[2]   Knight is more typical of the Complementarian position, arguing;

“Therefore it is important in marriage and the family for a man to realize his responsibility as the primary breadwinner and to assume that responsibility willingly and gladly.  It is equally important for a woman to realize her responsibility as the primary one to care for the children and the home, as these verses indicate, and as Proverbs 31… also indicates.”[3]

This conjures up a particular idealistic picture of the wife remaining at home, cooking, cleaning and raising the children whilst the husband heads off to work.  The assumption then is that apart from the aberration of feminism, this has been the norm.  So, we need to set out the case against this assumption.

6.1. Argument 1 –The Historical perspective

A survey of the history of women and work shows that even before the Industrial Revolution, women were often to be found in the workplace. As Fraise observes,

“The woman worker came into extraordinary prominence during the nineteenth century.  She of course existed long before the advent of industrial capitalism, earning her keep as a spinner, dressmaker, goldsmith, brewer, metal polisher, buttonmaker, lacemaker, nursemaid, dairymaid or houseservant in the towns and countryside of Europe and America.”[4]

This is not to suggest that women have enjoyed some long history of social and economic equality with men.  Even at the same time women were taking on responsibility alongside men for running family businesses with their husbands, or when they died, [5] we find that in the 15th – 16th Century, daughters were still denied the right to inherit[6] and women were denied access to the trade guilds.[7]

The point remains, however, that even within a hierarchical society, the role and power of women has been more variegated than sometimes our mythology assumes.   This works against the two extremes of romanticised history; there was neither the Complementarian golden age suggested above, but neither was there the great heroic feminist struggle for the right to work sometimes assumed at the other end of the spectrum.[8]

Now, of course, these arguments from history may simply be examples of human rebellion against God’s perfect order, so let’s have a look at the wider picture of women and work in the Bible.

6.2. Argument 2 –The Biblical perspective

When setting out our methodology, we noted the dangers of leaping straight to the wider context, not least the particular exegetical problems that each example raises. There is a point at which we do need to set our own passage within its canonical context and so we do so now, whilst proceeding cautiously.  I have selected three passages which I believe will help inform our application of “wives submit” to the question of women and the workplace.  They are Genesis 2:18-25, Proverbs 31:10-31 and Titus 2:5.[9]

6.2.1. Genesis 2

In Genesis 2, woman is made as man’s helper. Whilst we have already noted that the implications of this in terms of the Egalitarian – Complementarian debate are disputed, there are some observations we can make.

Firstly, there is consensus that whatever this might mean in terms of role subordination, Genesis 1-2 teaches equality of nature. Eve is not a different creature –her “helping” should not be equated with being enslaved like some beast of burden.[10]

Secondly, God’s purpose in creating Eve can be seen within the context of the passage.  God says that it is not good for Adam to be alone.  This is not simply about loneliness; rather, the statement comes within the context of Adam’s work and worship.[11]  Note that this is about worship as well as work.  There are two reasons for saying this.  Firstly, the “work” words are also “worship” words linked to temple activities.[12]  Secondly, the immediate context is God’s command regarding the Tree of Knowledge. God sets a test for Adam.  Will he trust and obey him?  So Eve is there to help Adam to trust and obey.  In other words, although the passage is about aloneness and help, not about loneliness and company per se, it is about much more than functional support.  Eve is there as a companion who will know Adam.  Intimacy is an important aspect of this.[13]

Such observations mean that whilst women clearly do contribute specifically in the area of child rearing, we should not limit our understanding of women’s role to that.[14]   

6.2.2. Proverbs 31

First of all, we need to establish the relevance of this particular proverb to our study.  The question of relevance could depend upon the purpose of the Proverb.  Is this passage to be read in praise of an actual person, or the ideal wife, or is it in fact a metaphor for wisdom and nothing to do with practical family life?[15] 

I would argue that even if the Proverb is not about an actual person who has achieved all of these things then it is still relevant to our question.  Even if it is intended to praise wisdom, then its imagery is still rooted in a particular picture of family life and no matter how idealistic, the image drawn is still intended to be a positive one so that if we find descriptions of women operating in the economic arena and taking leadership responsibilities, those are positive, not negative images.[16] Furthermore, I would argue that the imagery here is particularly relevant to the Ephesians 5 context because, on the one hand, the “valiant woman’s” description sits firmly within the context of submission

“This woman is described predominantly from the perspective of others, particularly her husband… This type of woman is one who makes husband, children and household happy.”[17]

However, the way that she achieves this is through being economically powerful and industrious.  As Longman comments, “the description of the woman is permeated with allusions to her strength and also often uses explicitly military terminology to describe her.”[18]

The result is that the husband is able to focus on other affairs and become involved in public life.  He is not completely absent from the picture but certainly trusts her enough to absent himself from these economic decisions.[19]

6.2.3. Titus 2

The verse sets submission to husbands within the context of the wife’s role at home.  Does this place the wife’s focus solely on domestic concerns?   It is worth noting here that unlike in Ephesians, the instructions to young wives are set against the background of how the Gospel will be seen by others.  What is expected for that specific cultural context may vary from what is required in a more general context.

Even in this context, however, it is unlikely that Paul is setting an overly restrictive condition upon women.  To help our understanding here we need to take notice of a textual variant which will affect our interpretation of the verse so that the emphasis could be on wives staying at home or being busy at home.  The preference of most scholars is towards the latter.[20]

The idea is that the wife has responsibilities towards the keeping of a happy home, but that this is not her exclusive realm.  So Stott comments,

“It would not be legitimate to base on this word either a stay at home stereotype for all women or a prohibition of wives being also professional women. What is rather affirmed is that if a woman accepts the vocation of marriage, and has a husband and children, she will love and not neglect them.  J.B. Phillips’ word ‘home lovers’ sums up well what Paul has in mind.  What he is opposing is not a wife’s pursuit of a profession, but ‘the habit of being idle and going about from house to house.’”[21]

6.3. Argument 3 -A response to the wider concerns about women and work

In our third argument, we look at a particular concern raised by some complementarians with regards to wives going out to work.  Dorothy Patterson sums up these concerns brilliantly:

“When a wife goes to work outside the home, often her husband and children go through culture shock.  Suddenly the husband has added to his vocational work increased family assignments.  He is frustrated over the increase in his own assignments and guilty over his wife’s increased fatigue and extended hours to keep up at home.”[22]

Douglas Wilson goes so far as to argue that the husband is failing as a leader and failing to love his wife properly when he sends her to work.[23]

“Feminist dogma, engineered by ungodly men, has managed to maneuver (sic) multitudes of women into the workforce outside the home.  But this has not changed how men and women relate to one another at all.  It cannot.  Even though the workplace has far more women in it, the authority of men is still firmly intact.  With the rhetoric of equality, women have been duped into working outside the home; they have taken a second job and then have been unable to get their husbands to share the load of the first one.”[24]

This accusation is important to our study.  Does a husband allowing his wife to work equal a failure to love?  Is he placing an additional burden on her?  The reality is that this is all too often the case.  From the other side of the debate, Egalitarian writers such as Tucker refer to wives working a second shift, taking on the domestic chores after returning home from their paid employment.  She comments,

“This is unfair not only to her but also to the family – and to the marriage relationship.  How many women really desire sexual intimacies after working a second shift?”[25]

There is, however, as Tucker notes, an alternative solution to the problem whereby the husband takes a greater share of the work in the home and greater economic prosperity enables to the employment of other resources and help in the home, whether that’s through automated equipment or employing people to help with housework and childcare.[26]  Clementina Black observed one group of families the 19th century who benefited from two incomes in this way, commenting that,

“Such women are nearly always conspicuously competent and are marked by an independence of mind… Almost invariably their houses are well kept and the family accommodation adequate.”[27]

The other side to Wilson’s argument about a lack of love is that it might be argued that a husband who refuses to allow his wife to use her talents and skills in the workplace demonstrates a lack of trust for her or recognition of her gifts and crushes her spirit.  This too is a bad witness.

6.4. Making the decision to work

We have argued that a wife’s submission is for the purpose of becoming one with her husband in the service of God’s will.[28]  This being so, the important questions about work will not so much be seen in the external roles taken on[29] as in the underlying motives and attitudes that the couple exhibit as they reach a decision about the question of work.

Indeed, it is possible to assume that we have obeyed Ephesians 5 by taking on traditional roles, but if the husband is harsh or abdicates responsibility and the wife is embittered, disgruntled with life and acting out of a sense of compulsion, then real love and submission are not present.  These things are about a heart attitude.

So attempting to apply Ephesians 5:21ff outside of the conventional norms challenges us to think about the state of our hearts. What are our real motives?  What is the genuine state of our relationship?

This does mean that there are some wrong reasons for wives taking paid employment.  Whilst wise stewardship requires that we think about the economic implications for family life and support of Gospel work, it is wrong to make the decision because of material insecurity – either the desire for more or the fear that God will not meet our needs.

Another wrong motive is picked up by Kirsten Birkett.  Birkett notes that the motive for women to find paid employment within feminist though is the desire for freedom or independence from the perceived drudgery and slavery of home life.[30] She cites feminist author Simone de Beauvoir who argues that, “As long as there is restriction on a person, be that financial, social, family or whatever, that person is not living a true life to themselves.”[31]  Birkett comments,

            “This is what de Beauvoir refers to as transcendence-getting beyond the             mundane inanities of day-to-day life, having the freedom to dream and live out             dreams, be more than just a survivor and become someone who truly lives.”[32]

So feminism sees women as having an existential need for freedom and independence.  It is possible to view paid employment as a means of achieving this. 

However, as we have seen, unity not independence is the norm within Christian marriage.  This means that the decision should be for the greater good, not personal benefit.  Her decision to work must be aligned with her husband’s priorities which themselves should be aligned with Christ’s.  In other words, will her decision to work act to further the gospel?


[1] , Susan T Foh, Women and the Word of God. A Response to Biblical Feminism (Phil.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979), 187.

[2] Foh’s statement above is the only one I have found from a Complementarian stand point.

[3] See also Titus 2:5. George W Knight III, “The Family and the Church: How should Biblical Manhood and Womanhood work Out in Practice?” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood.  A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem.  Wheaton, Il.: Crossway, 1991), 348.

[4] Joan W Scott, “The Woman Worker,” in A History of Women in the West Volume IV Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War(Ed Geneviève Frasse and Michelle Perrot. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), 399.

[5] Mary Prior, “Women and the Urban Economy: Oxford 1500-1800” in Women in English Society 1500-1800  (Ed. Mary Prior. Repr. London: Methuen, 1986), 103.

[6] Prior, “Women and the Urban Economy,” 108.

[7] Prior, “Women and the Urban Economy,” 96.

[8] Kirsten Birkett, The Essence of Feminism (The Modern Beliefs Series. Kingswood, NSW.: St Matthias Media, 2000), 106.

[9] I have included a translation and sentence flow for each of the additional passages referred to in this section as appendixes to this dissertation.  In addition, I have listed the relevant commentaries and monographs consulted in the bibliography.  Please refer to the Introduction for discussion on some of the interpretative issues affecting our understanding of the key passages.

[10] See e.g. Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God (Leicester: Intervarsity Press, 2003), 120, Raymond C Ortlund, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship: Genesis 1-3,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood.  A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem.  Wheaton, Il.: Crossway, 1991), 101 and Dorothy Patterson, “The High Calling of Wife and Mother in Biblical Perspective,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood.  A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem.  Wheaton, Il.: Crossway, 1991),  372-373.

[11] Cf. Ash, Marriage, 121.

[12] עבד appears in Deut 4:19 and Num 3:7-8 giving, the sense of serving God through religious duty and especially through priestly tabernacle service. שׁמר is used in Numbers 1:53 with the idea of guarding the tabernacle from intruders.  Man is to serve/worship and protect/guard.  The two words come together again in the priestly duties (Numbers 3:7-8). Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (WBC 1. Dallas, Tex.: Word, 1987), 67.

[13] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 68.

[14] Cf Gen 3:16-17.

[15] Longman says, “The description is an ideal and should not be used as a standard by which to measure and critique women.” (Tremper Longman III Proverbs (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament, Wisdom and Psalms. Grand Rapids, M.: Baker Academic, 2006), 540.) To some extent, whether or not this is an achievable ideal depends on the meaning of verse 18.  Does this mean that she works exceptionally long hours well into the night?  Waltke thinks that a more likely explanation is that this is a reference to the prosperity that comes with her productivity.  Rich people sleep with the lights burning, not in total darkness.  (Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs Chapters 15-31 (NICOT. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005), 526-527.) On the other hand, Perdue and Murphy lean towards the woman here being a metaphor for wisdom.  “The poem on ‘the woman of worth’ provides a striking inclusion to the book of Proverbs, which opens with poems dealing with Woman Wisdom in chapters 1, 8, and 9 and now concludes with the concrete example of the wise woman in an Israelite or Jewish house-wife and mother, who, while admittedly wealthy, engages in the sapiential virtues of care, hard labor, wisdom, and the fear of Yahweh.” (Leo G Perdue, Proverbs (Interpretation. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox, 2000), 279.  See also Roland Murphy, Proverbs (WBC 22. Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson, 1998), 246.).  However, Wolters sees this is a form of heroic hymn in praise of the ‘valiant woman’.  He bases his conclusion on observed similarities with Psalm 112 on which he comments, “Psalm 112 is universally classified as a wisdom psalm, yet it is a kind of mirror image of its twin, Psalm 111, which is usually classified as a hymn.  It too, is a perfect alphabetic acrostic, contains a list of praiseworthy deeds (including compassion and liberality), and culminates in the theme of the fear of the Lord.”  (Al  Wolters, The Song of the Valiant Woman: Studies in the Interpretation of Proverbs 31:10-31  (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001),5.)  He goes on to argue that, “There is no reason to restrict the term ‘hymn’ to songs in praise of God.  Historically at least, the Greek hymns applied to poetry ‘in praise of gods or heroes’.” (Wolters, The Song of the Valiant Woman, 6.)  Waltke agrees, noting the parallel with Ruth who also was a ‘valiant woman.’  He argues that, “Had the author intended an identification with figurative Woman Wisdom, it is unlikely that he would have referred to her as a ‘valiant wife,’ which denotes a real woman in its other occurrence (12:4)” (Waltke, Proverbs 15-31, 519.)  So, the jury is out in terms of the commentators.  I would suggest that we need to distinguish between how the Proverb functioned in its original form and its canonical role.  Thus, its original and most basic interpretation may be seen as praise of a valiant woman.  However, it may have an additional function within the canon as an inclusio pointing to Wisdom’s qualities.

[16] Ruth A Tucker, Women in the Maze. Questions & Answers on Biblical Equality (Downers Grove, Ill: Inter-varsity Press, 1992), 75.

[17] Longman, Proverbs, 540.  See also Waltke’s comment on v15 that “a lioness hunts food by night, but not an aristocratic woman!  The figure connotes that in keeping with her character she puts the well being of the household before her own comfort.” Waltke, Proverbs 15-31, 524.

[18] Longman, Proverbs, 540.

[19] On v11, Murphy suggests that, “The mention of her husband seems almost casual: he serves only to underscore her excellence.” “The husband’s trust in her is manifested by the relative absence of any significant mention of him in the poem, except for his lounging at the city gates, v23, and praising her, vv28-29.” Murphy, Proverbs, 246. I think that this is to overplay the husband’s absence.  Firstly, because the suggestion is not so much that he is “lounging” as that his trust in her enables him to take a significant role in city life.  Secondly, because the nature of the wisdom literature suggests that we need to read the book of Proverbs as a whole, the wife’s role is emphasised here: elsewhere, the focus is exclusively on husbands and sons.  See Waltke, Proverbs 15-31, 519.

[20] The choice is between oivkourouj and oivkourgouj.  In terms of the decision of the committee responsible for the UBS Greek text,  Metzger comments, “Instead of the word oivkourouj …A majority of the Committee preferred the latter reading because of  superior external support, and because it was regarded more probable  that an unusual word should have been altered by copyists to a well known word, than vice versa.” .” Bruce M Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament  (Repr. 2ed.   Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2000), 585.

[21]Cf. 1 Tim 5:1 and Tit. 1:11 on “house to house.” John R.W. Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy & Titus (Leicester: Inter Varsity Press: 1996), 189. 

[22] Patterson, “The High Calling of Wife and Mother in Biblical Perspective.” 375.

[23] Note this is the extreme position where wives are in effect not permitted to work at all.  However, I would suggest that it is these concerns that underline the generally cautious approach to women and the workplace found amongst many Complementarians.

[24] Douglas Wilson, Reforming Marriage (Moscow, Id..: Canon Press, 2005), 31.

[25] Tucker, Women in the Maze, 237-28.

[26] Tucker, Women in the Maze, 237-238.

[27] Clementina Black, “Introduction,” in Married Women’s Work (Ed. Clementina Black. 1915.  Repr. London, Virago Press, 1983), 7.

[28] See especially Chapters 3 and 5.

[29] See the quote from Foh above.

[30] Birkett, The Essence of Feminism, 59.

[31] Birkett, The Essence of Feminism, 64.

[32] Birkett, The Essence of Feminism, 64.  I think that Birkett has particularly in mind de Beauvoir’s comment that, “Since the husband is the productive worker, he is the one who goes beyond family interest to that of society, opening up a future for himself through co-operation in the building of the collective future; he incarnates transcendence.  Woman is doomed to the continuation of the species and the care of the home – that is to say immanence.”  Simone de Beavoir, The Second Sex (1949.  Repr. Trans and Ed. H. M. Parshley, Hammondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1984), 448. This is important because if Birkett is right, existential philosophy is behind feminism and if so, then potentially even if not self consciously, may undergird Egalitarian thought.  I do not mean that Egalitarians are Existentialists, but that they may have imported Existential thinking to their approach.