November 5, 2012
Misreading Mr. Mom
Man fails, biblical womanhood, and cultural presuppositions.
For many Christians stay-at-home dads are today what “Joe the Plumber” was for the 2008 presidential elections. No one really cared what Joe did, or whether he was a good plumber or a bad one. It was what he represented that mattered. In the same way, the stay-at-home dad is a figurehead, and he represents different things to different people. To some, liberation from antiquated gender stereotypes, a new and improved vision of masculinity and femininity. To others, the disintegration of biblical authority.
Owen Strachan, for example, writes here that the “‘Dad Mom’ concept is a ‘man fail.’” “Men are not called by God to be “working at home” as women are in Titus 2:5. For Strachan the Bible clearly teaches that a woman’s “intended sphere of labor and dominion-taking was the home (Genesis 3:16). This is true of the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 as well.” By contrast, he writes here that the man’s God-ordained sphere of labor is outside the home: “the men of Israel. . .leave the home to provide food for their families (see Genesis 37, for example); the husband of the Proverbs 31 woman sits with the elders in the gates while she cares for her family and home in manifold ways.”
Thus the stay-at-home dad illustrates how “the cultural decline of men continues apace” because secular values have seeped into the Christian consciousness, confusing the clear biblical message about where God intends men and women to work.
And then there’s Rachel Held Evans, whose recent book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, (Thomas Nelson, 2012), is creating quite a stir. Evans set out to live the biblical commands for women literally for one year. She seems to conclude that any such attempt will require us to pick and choose which of these commands applies in our contemporary setting. And different people pick differently.
According to Trillia Newbell, the central problem with Evans’ book is that, “God’s word was on trial. It was the court of Rachel Held Evans. She was the prosecution, judge, and jury. ... And with authority and confidence, she would have the final word on womanhood.”
Newbell (and other critics of Evans’ book) feel Evans—like the stay-at-home dad—has compromised too much with culture. They fear she reads the Bible as a product of its cultural context, and therefore as a human book, and not as the Word of God.
Based on what I’ve read, the issue isn’t truly whether you view the Bible as the Word of God or not. The issue is to what degree you think your cultural biases affect how you read the Bible. Another way to say this is that our culture influences what we see in the Bible and what we overlook. I’m convinced, for example, that we tend to read the “two spheres of labor” value into the Bible, not out of it. Proverbs 31 (cited above) provides an excellent example. According to some, the proverb proves the husband’s realm is outside and the wife’s inside the house.
This assumption causes readers to seize on certain details and ignore others. If you assume the woman’s sphere is the home, you might focus on the verses that describe the wife as the model homemaker: she sews things (31:13, 19, 22); she cooks (31:15); she stays “busy at home,” as Paul put it (31:27b; Titus 2:5).
But you are likely to overlook the fact that she does things outside the house which today would be relegated to the sphere of her husband. She does her research and purchases property (outside the home), and with her profits she plants a vineyard (31:16); she makes and sells clothing, and she trades the items with merchants (outside the home) and makes a good living (31:18, 24).
Meanwhile her husband, who is outside the home, “takes his seat among the elders of the land” (31:23). He is not described as earning any money. Sitting at the gate is not a paid position. It was a position of honor for an elder who no longer worked. And in order for him to take his place there, his wife must do everything: keep the house and make the living.
The issue of egalitarianism and complementarianism is not at stake here. A man can be a stay-at-home dad and be the spiritual leader of his household. Jonathan Edwards was an eighteenth-century complementarian who worked from home. And he didn’t make enough as a pastor to support his family, so his wife, Sarah, picked up the slack. Proverbs 31 suggests a woman can earn a living, inside or outside the home, and still be the model of biblical womanhood. At stake here is elevating certain cultural conventions to the level of biblical principle. In the 1950s, the (suburban) dad left the home all day and the (suburban) mom stayed home (or in the neighborhood). In the 1930s, both dad and mom worked the farm, moving from house to barn/field multiple times a day, but both were based in the home. What about Christian farmers in Asia whose children are raised by grandparents because mom and dad both work in the field?
Instead of relativizing Scripture by squeezing it into a particular cultural mold, acknowledging our biases helps us read the Bible more objectively. Practically, it helps us see that being a biblical woman involves more than cooking and cleaning; it includes, at least, “opening her arms to the poor and extending her hand to the needy” (Prov. 31:20). And biblical manhood is more than bread winning and washing a few dishes after a hard day’s work.