Manhood vs Grandma?
In the thirty-three years since I said “I do,” I’ve heard many messages and read lots of books on marriage. And if I’ve heard and read one thing about the job of the husband, it’s that “provider” is one of his key roles.
The proof-text for this has been, without exception, 1 Timothy 5:8—“If a man does not provide for his own, especially his own family, he has denied the faith, and he is worse than an infidel.” Five male pronouns make it clear: providing is his job. I’ve even heard some say that a wife whose income exceeds that of her husband’s threatens his sense of manhood. (Such fragile manhood these people think men have!)
Here’s the problem. When I took Greek, I discovered that 1 Timothy 5:8 contains all gender-neutral pronouns. It goes more like this: If someone does not provide for one’s own, especially one’s own family, that person has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
Once I made that revealing observation, I took a closer look at the passage. And to my astonishment, I discovered it was weighted toward children and grandchildren, and even more so toward women. The context is not marriage or manhood or leadership, but caring for widows. And at the end of the passage, the author says this: “If a believing woman has widows. . . .” In a world with no nurses or nursing homes, the most natural person to bathe and feed an infirm matron would have been her daughter, granddaughter, and/or daughter-in-law. With this in mind, read the passage again:
1 Tim. 5:3 Honor widows who are truly in need. 5:4 But if a widow has children or grandchildren, they should first learn to fulfill their duty toward their own household and so repay their parents what is owed them. For this is what pleases God. 5:5 But the widow who is truly in need, and completely on her own, has set her hope on God and continues in her pleas and prayers night and day. . . 5:8 But if someone does not provide for one’s own, especially one’s own family, that person has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. . . . 5:16 If a believing woman has widows in her family, let her help them. The church should not be burdened, so that it may help the widows who are truly in need.
After traveling outside of the US, I made a further discovery. Only in a context of relative wealth would anyone interpret 1 Timothy 5:8 as telling a woman to guard her husband’s manhood in the provision department. In a poor, agrarian society, if her chicken sales exceed his beef sales, the Christian family rejoices over God’s provision. The husband even praises her as a P-31 kind of woman!
As I learned more about the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle class, I saw the roots of our misguided interpretation. When a man went off to the factory, it became the mark of success to leave behind a stay-at-home wife. Her presence at home became cause for respect. And for most families that set-up worked best as the ideal (though most did not obtain it). But it crept into our thinking as the “biblical” ideal.
We need to rethink this one. The goal of marriage is oneness, not conformity to the standard of a materialistic culture.
At the school where I teach, couples often decide that the wife will work and provide health insurance benefits for her family while her husband studies full-time, gets the kids to school, and makes dinner. Two people mutually decide how they can best use their resources to glorify the Lord. What men and women of God!
We can discuss whether God calls husbands to be the primary providers for their families over a lifetime. But let’s quit using 1 Timothy 5:8 as our proof-text. In viewing these words of Paul as gender-specific advice for husbands, we miss an essential application for men, women, children and grandchildren alike: do the holy work of honoring our aged family members. In caring for them we prove that we believe, and in the process, we take a load off the church and free up resources to aid those who are alone in the world.
Culture Strikes Again
Oh, those tricky pronouns! Forcing us to fess up to our cultural bias. Great post and such an important application point as well. And really, isn't it better that we're all essentially expected to care for and provide for one another.
Judy Nelson Lewis
Thanks, Sandy. This makes so much more sense. There's no such thing as a non-working woman in most cultures around the world. Why has the American church put such an emphasis on the "providing" part of manhood? Power struggle? Ugh. Thanks again.
I had no idea. It worries me that we single language readers perhaps can't fully rely on the translations in our hands. Which English version of the Scriptures do you have the most confidence in?
NET, Of course
Nobody is paying me or twisting my arm to say this:
Part of why I write for this site, use the NET Bible in my Coffee Cup series, and carry a copy of the NET Bible in my purse is that the translation team has been more sensitive than many other English Bible translators to how they reflect the intent of the Greek relating to gender. For example, if the NT author used the word "adelphoi," which has normally been translated as "brothers," the NET translators render it "brothers and sisters" if it's obvious from the context that the writer had in mind the entire church. In the same way "amigos" can mean male and female friends, "adelphoi" can mean male and female believers, and the NET does a good job of flagging when that happens.
That said (bias warning:), I think every woman should have a working knowledge of the Greek. If you can pass two years of Spanish, you can pass two years of Greek. You don't even have to SPEAK it. Just read it. My favorite NT is the NET's diglot, with Greek and English side by side.
Well done on discovering
Well done on discovering this! And thanks for pointing out the role the Industrial Revolution played in our current gender roles. The role the Industrial Revolution played on gender roles is often completely overlooked, and instead we assume something is just the way it's "always" been, or that it's "the biblical way" because it's been this way for a few hundred years.
I’m Not the First
Thanks, Heather, but you should know I'm not the first to notice. Many before me have made the same observation in the text. I just didn't know about it until I saw it for myself.
I've since been told that Erasmus and Calvin spilled plenty of ink pondering whether 1 Timothy 5:8 referred only to females, or whether it was applicable for all Christians.
Always giving great insight!
Love the better interpretation and application as a result! As usual…we thank you for helping us think biblically and more accurately! (Not sure I can make 2 years of greek:):)
Its good to go deeper, thanks, Sandy
Excellent insight and a fine example of how a few wrong words can lead to so many believing the Bible says what it does not say. So good to hear your voice on these issues.
Staggering insight, Sandi–we owe you a debt of gratitude! Having just returned from Eastern Europe where the majority of people are barely subsisting, I can appreciate how our American wealth has created an untrue filter of how we interpret scripture. Bless you. Again.
Seeking the definition of
Seeking the definition of family in 1Timothy 5:8.
Does it include your biological children who don't live with you?
My ex thinks that because our children don't live with him he is except from financially supporting them in God's eyes. He also has three other kids from two other women which I don't believe he gives money to either.
Interested in the Biblical view on this.
Definition of Family
The text does not define what it means by "one's own." But in context it appears that it would include any relative whose care requires the church to step in and provide when the believer could do so him- or herself.