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.