I’ve been talking to some moms lately who wonder if it’s okay to contribute to the economics of their households.
A few biblical passages come to mind…
The Proverbs 31 woman had kids, and she sold belts and bought a vineyard from her own checkbook. Though well-to-do, she still contributed to the family income. Centuries later, when Paul described the ideal of older women teaching younger women “to be workers at home” (Titus 2), he was speaking to a culture in which about 85 percent of “industry” happened in the domicile. People knew no such thing as a factory worker and a stay-at-home mom. Both husband and wife shared the jobs of stay-at-home parent and worker. Both raised kids, taught kids, and participated in industry.
People did ironworks or basket weaving or meat curing or whatever at home. Dorothy L. Sayers more than sixty years ago—even before Second-wave Feminism—wrote Are Women Human? in which she noted that much of women’s restlessness happened after the mind-engaging work was taken from the domestic setting (international trade, equipment purchase, negotiation, people contact) and sent to factories. Couples began to see raising kids as women’s work rather than as a partnership (“moms parent, dads babysit”). On those few occasions when dads “babysat,” these inexperienced fathers found the job overwhelming. And people began to reason that women had some innate coping mechanism that made them uniquely suited to handle the whining and absence of intellectual interaction.
Often middle- and upper-class Christians say that the ideal is for moms to stay home, but that’s only half of it. The ideal is for both moms and dads to stay home. Now, that doesn’t mean they’re down on the floor playing with kids all day. Rather, they take their children along as they work, support the weak, and help the suffering.
We sometimes hold up Ward and June Cleaver’s set-up as the biblical ideal. We say “if only…” the church would return to “that wonderful time” when Ward headed to the office while June vacuumed in pearls and high heels… Truth is, when the whole family headed off to the factory, we needed child labor laws, and it became a mark of socioeconomic status for one parent to stay at home with kids. But that meant middle-class (mostly white) men went to the factories and left their wives at home all day. And The Industrial Revolution brought devastation to many families. The divorce rate skyrocketed.
Some today understand Paul’s admonition that “if a man does not provide for his own, he is worse than an unbeliever” as a proof-text for the man-alone-as-breadwinner model (1 Timothy 5:8). The verse even has six male pronouns in many English translations. Yet Paul used the gender-neutral “someone” and “one’s own,” not “he/his.” So: “If someone does not provide for one’s own… ” And in the context he was speaking of widow-care. Ironically, the passage is more focused on women caring for mothers and mothers-in-law than on men providing (see 1 Tim 5:16). Imagine a culture with no nurses. Who bathes the patient? Paul’s talking about the family vs. the church caring for the elderly and infirm.
Questions about women’s economic contributions tell us something about our culture: We are rich. We may think we’re poor compared to Bill Gates, but more than two billion people live on less than two dollars a day. And I doubt if a single one of them wonders if it’s biblical for a woman to contribute to the economics of her household.
Paul’s emphasis was on being workers at home, not on being workers at home.