Genesis 1:27–28 links the creation of the human race as male and female with God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. The existence of the two sexes in the human race arises from the need for human community and reproduction. The two sexes, male and female, are differentiated in such a way that their joining together allows children to be born and raised. Human reproduction begins with sexual intercourse, but the full process of reproduction moves beyond the conception of the infant; human reproduction includes raising children and transmitting human society from one generation to another. Throughout human history, the basic social unit structured for the full process of reproduction has been the family. The roles of men and women in human life cannot be understood without understanding the structure of the family.
The second chapter of Titus begins with an exhortation to “teach what is in keeping with wholesome doctrine.” It then continues with directions for teaching older men, older women, younger women, and younger men. As the life of the Christian community developed, it more and more clearly expressed a concern for soundness in the most important structures of daily life. The gospel, the message which gives birth to the Christian community, centers upon Jesus and his salvation for the human race. But that salvation brings a new life, a life which expresses itself in patterns which reflect God’s plan for how life is to be lived. There is Christian teaching on the pattern of family life, a pattern which develops Old Testament teaching on family life. The New Testament teaching on family life provides the basis for all New Testament teaching on men and women, because the family is the primary place in which man and woman join together in partnership.
This chapter will focus on the roles of husband and wife in the family. This is by no means a complete discussion of Christian teaching on the family. A complete treatment of the family would include discussion of the sexual relationship, courtship and marriage, divorce, and many other topics. However, the concern of this book is with the roles of men and women in Christian teaching. Therefore, when studying the family, the primary concern is with the differentiation of roles between the man and the woman in the family as taught by the scriptures.
This chapter and the rest of this book are primarily concerned with the Christian teaching on the roles of husband and wife, and therefore primarily with New Testament teaching. Since the New Testament teaching builds upon Old Testament teaching, the chapter will frequently refer to the Old Testament, but the Old Testament is helpful here only insofar as it provides useful background for the New Testament. The New Testament contains the most authoritative Christian teaching of God’s plan for family life.
The fullest and most directive teaching in the New Testament on the roles of husband and wife appears in Ephesians 5:22–36, Colossians 3:18–21, and 1 Peter 3:1–7. These passages will be discussed in Chapter Four. However, to understand these passages properly, one must obtain a fuller grasp of the roles of husband and wife than these passages themselves provide. The directives for husband-wife relationships found in Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter are misleading unless understood within the wider context of the roles of husband and wife in daily family life among the early Christians. This chapter will describe this wider picture of husband-wife roles. It will primarily make use of passages in the New Testament which illustrate features of the roles of husband and wife among the early Christians that are often misunderstood by people in Western technological society. The Old Testament and occasionally other early Christian sources will be drawn upon as a means of filling in the picture. In general, the scriptural material will be used to illustrate the roles of husband and wife rather than to narrate a social history of family life.1
The basic unit of society in scriptural times was the household, a household that differed greatly from households in modern technological society.2 First, Jewish or Greco-Roman households were more important to society than most contemporary households are to our society. More constructive activity went on within them. They were not just places where people rested and spent some of their leisure time, and where children were raised for the first years of their lives. First-century households—both rural and urban—were economic units. The farm family worked together, caring for the family’s economic life as a unit. A similar arrangement existed among urban families. Craftsmen and merchants normally worked where they lived and their family members shared their work. Much more of the childrearing happened in the family than is the case today. Children grew up in the family, received much of their schooling in the family, obtained vocational training in the family by working in the family business, and found most of their social life in the family (and not with a peer group). Moreover, children usually did not leave the family after reaching an adult age except for girls when they married. Adult men and unmarried women either lived and worked along with their parents, or kept a close tie to them which usually included some kind of economic partnership. Finally, the family provided health care, financial aid, and insurance in cases of sickness and accidents. For Christians, the family was the place where children received their Christian instruction (catechism classes for children are a recent invention). In the early centuries of the Christian church, the family seems to have been a center for evangelism, care of the needy, and care of travelers.
A second characteristic of the first-century household was its extension beyond the nuclear family to include a wider family network spanning generations. Relatives play an important role in some contemporary families, but the extended family was much more significant in the times the scriptures were written. The nuclear family was part of a vital, wider system. The father possessed active authority over his sons until he died, and the elder brother possessed some kind of authority over his younger brothers. Clan chiefs and tribal chiefs could exercise some authority over the extended network. This is not to say that the nuclear family always lived in the same dwelling with other nuclear families. Sometimes they did (see Mt 10:35–36), but often they did not. Still, wider family ties were more important and the clan system provided a great deal of support for the nuclear family. The wider family would pass on its own good fortune to its members and would be a source of help in times of financial and personal need. The “insurance system” was not just the nuclear family, but it was the extended family. The extended family was the nuclear family’s greatest resource. The extended family was probably somewhat less important among the first generation of Christians than among their contemporaries, Jew and Gentile alike, because they would often have to sever or weaken their family ties to become Christian. Nonetheless, the extended family network was likely to be much more important to the church in the scripture than it is to a contemporary reader of scripture.
These facts are helpful background for understanding New Testament passages. When scripture talks about the husband, it means a man who has a wife and children. The husband could be the head of a larger household, possibly including his children and their families and his servants and their families. Or the husband could be the head of a unit within a household, or simply the head of a nuclear family living in its own dwelling. Later chapters will directly consider the implications of the differences between the family in scriptural times and the family today. This chapter—which is mainly concerned with the scriptural teaching on husbands and wives—will consider these differences only to the extent that they assist understanding our topic.
1 Timothy 3:1–7, a passage concerning the selection of “bishops” for the Christian community, includes a few lines that provide a helpful understanding of the role of the husband in the family. The following is one of the qualifications for a prospective bishop:
He must rule his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way [or: keeping his children submissive with all dignity]; for if a man does not know how to rule his own household, how can he care for God’s church? (1 Tm 3:4–5)
This passage contains a number of significant features. First, it says that one qualification for a new bishop is the man’s ability to rule his own household. The reason behind this criterion is important: There is something very similar about ruling a household and ruling the Christian community. In fact, a few lines farther on, the Christian community is described as “God’s household.” Thus, there is a parallel between being head of a household, the smallest unit in the Christian community, and being head of the whole community.3
Second, the passage talks about the man’s “ruling” his household. The Greek term here (proistamenon) could be translated “preside over” or “govern” or “manage” or “control” as well as “rule.”4 The word refers to the function of governing people. The passage singles out one aspect of the man’s government that would show that he is governing well—he must keep his children “submissive” or “subordinate,” to use the translation used in the last chapter. A man’s ability to successfully exercise authority with his children is an indication of his ability to exercise authority in the Christian community. He must rule his household in such a way that his children conform to the standard of Christian character (see Ti 1:6). In short, the head of a Christian community has to be the kind of person who can direct others and direct them successfully. One test of his ability to do this is his success in directing his own household. Here is one of the clearest teachings on the role of the husband. The man in the family must govern the family well. He should govern in a way that produces submissiveness in the children and causes them to mature into stable Christian adults.
Finally, the term “to rule his house” parallels the term “to care for God’s church” in such a way that the term “care for” is the counterpart to “rule.” “Ruling” and “caring for” are seen as different aspects of the same activity, or possibly even different ways of describing the same activity. Someone cannot “rule” in the sense used in scripture without also “caring for.” The Greek term translated “care for” (epimeleomai) is not common in the New Testament.5 One of its other uses is the parable of the Good Samaritan where the Good Samaritan finds the man who fell prey to robbers:
. . . When he saw him he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper saying, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.” (Lk 10:33–35)
Jesus pointed to this care as the kind of care one neighbor should give to another to fulfill the commandment of love of neighbor. The Good Samaritan provided for the needs of the wounded man and did whatever he could to see that he healed properly. He expressed this care partly by helping the man personally, partly by entrusting the man to another and paying for the help.
A similar picture of “caring” appears in John 10, which portrays Jesus as the good shepherd. In John 10, “caring” and “ruling” are explicitly linked in the person of Jesus. The term “shepherd” was a term of authority in the scripture.6 The kings and other rulers of Israel were known as the shepherds of Israel. When Jesus describes himself as the shepherd of his followers, he says that he cares for the sheep (10:13), and he cares for them even to the point of laying down his life for them (10:15). He cares for his followers so that they might have abundant life (10:10), that is, so that they might prosper. In other words, the kind of ruling Jesus claimed involves care for the well-being of the people. Such ruling, in other words, involved both the unity-subordination and the care-subordination discussed in the last chapter. This kind of care provides for a person’s needs, protects the person from harm, and sees that the person’s life is going well.
To return to the passage in 1 Timothy 3, then, the head of the family is protector-provider (carer) as well as ruler. The head rules his household and expects submission, but he rules the household so that he can care for its members. It might not be drawing too much out of the text to say that one reason he rules them is to care for them better. His ability to care for them, then, also would depend on how well they are subordinate.
Another picture of the ideal head is found in the account Job gives of himself in Job 29.7 This passage helps fill in the picture of the role of the husband because it shows the life of a man who rules well outside the family. The description shows Job as something of an ideal type:
Oh, that I were as in the months of old,
as in the days when God watched over me;
. . .
as I was in my autumn days,
when the friendship of God was upon my tent;
when the Almighty was yet with me,
when my children were about me;
when my steps were washed with milk,
and the rock poured out for me streams of oil!
When I went out to the gate of the city,
when I prepared my seat in the square,
the young men saw me and withdrew,
and the aged rose and stood;
the princes refrained from talking,
and laid their hand on their mouth;
the voice of the nobles was hushed,
and their tongue cleaved to the roof of their mouth.
When the ear heard, it called me blessed,
and when the eye saw it, it approved;
because I delivered the poor who cried,
and the fatherless who had none to help him.
The blessing of him who was about to perish came upon me,
and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.
I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;
my justice was like a robe and a turban.
I was eyes to the blind,
and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the poor,
and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know.
I broke the fangs of the unrighteous,
and made him drop his prey from his teeth.
. . .
Men listened to me, and waited,
and kept silence, for my counsel.
After I spoke they did not speak again,
and my word dropped upon them.
They waited for me as for the rain;
and they opened their mouths as for the spring rain.
I smiled on them when they had no confidence;
and the light of my countenance they did not cast down.
I chose their way, and sat as chief,
and I dwelt like a king among his troops,
like one who comforts mourners.
(Job 29:2, 4–17, 21–25)
Several features of this portrait of Job would characterize a good head of a family. First, Job is a man who commands respect. He does so partly from the position he holds. Job was apparently a village elder (v. 25) and also a man of economic means and of power. In much of Old Testament times, a man with communal authority had to have wealth and a leading position in a family. But the passage also indicates that Job commanded respect because of the way he lived. He fits much of the description in 1 Timothy 3:1–7. He is portrayed throughout the book as someone who lives righteously, and also as a man who is trained in wisdom. People rise to greet him out of respect, wait for him to speak, listen to his words, value his opinion. He is a man who wields authority, formal and informal, and who does it effectively. He is in a position to see that the life of the village goes well. He would be the kind of man who might speak the words of Psalm 101, the psalm of a ruler:
I will sing of loyalty and of justice;
to thee, O Lord, I will sing.
I will give heed to the way that is blameless.
Oh when wilt thou come to me?
I will walk with integrity of heart
within my house;
I will not set before my eyes
anything that is base.
I hate the work of those who fall away;
it shall not cleave to me.
Perverseness of heart shall be far from me;
I will know nothing of evil.
Him who slanders his neighbor secretly
I will destroy.
The man of haughty looks and arrogant heart
I will not endure.
I will look with favor on the faithful in the land,
that they may dwell with me;
he who walks in the way that is blameless
shall minister to me.
No man who practices deceit
shall dwell in my house;
no man who utters lies
shall continue in my presence.
Morning by morning I will destroy
all the wicked in the land,
cutting off all the evildoers
from the city of the Lord.
Another characteristic of Job is equally important: Job cares for people, especially for those who are in need. He cares for the poor, the crippled, the widow, and the orphan. He sees that they are provided for and protected. In fact, he sees that righteousness prevails everywhere he has influence, not just among the disadvantaged. He uses the strength that the Lord has given him in the cause of justice. He expresses his authority by caring for people and by seeing that life goes well among those he is responsible for. Job takes a concern for the life of the community that is similar to the concern a father takes for his family.
A few important points emerge from the passages considered so far. Ideally, the husband exercises authority over his family in an effective way. He does not have to be harsh or overbearing, but he does have to govern effectively. He is not the “nice guy” that is sometimes the model for the loving Christian husband, an amiable man who is always willing to yield to the pressure of his wife and children. To the contrary, the husband in scripture is not primarily guided by a desire to accommodate others’ wishes (although he will do so when it is right to do so), but by an understanding of what will be most effective in leading the family to where it should be.
Second, the husband cares for the members of the family. He provides for their needs, sometimes directly and sometimes by seeing that others do what is needed, and guards the family against danger and misfortune. The husband’s authority means that he has a responsibility for the family and a responsibility that he has to give account of (Heb 13:17; 1 Sm 3:13).
Finally, the husband not only cares for his family and house, but also takes a concern for the life of the community. If his family life is going well, he can be effectively responsible for the life of the community. How he exercises that responsibility differs according to his position. He may be a village elder, or an elder in his kinship grouping, or simply one of the heads of households (or families) in the community. However, his responsibility within his family is always the model for (and the basis of) his responsibility outside of it.
Modern people cannot easily understand the scriptural portrayal of the husband’s role in the family unless they understand the difference between the biblical and contemporary view of authority. Contemporary people often react against the ideas of rule, government, and exercise of authority. Some of the reasons for this reaction were considered in the last chapter. But there is a further reason that bears upon one’s understanding of the role of the man in the family and community. Contemporary Western people often react against the exercise of directive authority in the lives of others because they see direction mainly as the imposition of one person’s will and way on others. Indeed, since people in modern society often do not have any objective standard of right and wrong or good and bad, they cannot imagine directive authority being anything but arbitrary. Contemporary Western society especially lacks a consensus on values, particularly values that apply to people’s personal lives. Consequently, the only way someone could give a directive to another person, except when working under a policy laid down by some institution, is to impose his or her values or preferences on another person.
The scriptural writers were familiar with the arbitrary exercise of authority in which one person imposed his decisions and preferences on another. However, they normally did not consider this exercise of authority inevitable. The scriptural writers could have a real alternative because they believed in an objective right and wrong and an objective good and bad standard of right living revealed by the Lord. In their view, the Lord revealed a pattern of human life that reflects his own character. Therefore, a ruler or a head can know what is right and good. He can know if the life of his household, community, or kingdom is healthy because he possesses a standard that both he and his subordinates acknowledge as objective.8 In fact, scripture teaches emphatically that a ruler must first submit to the Lord’s standard and become a righteous man in order to become a just ruler over others (see Dt 17:18–20).9 His rule then becomes an extension of the Lord’s rule.
Christian (and Israelite) teaching of objective moral truth makes a great difference in government and the exercise of authority. The head of the family, as well as the heads of the community, are expected to know what should be happening in people’s lives. Their responsibility rests primarily in governing according to a pattern and standard that the Lord provides. Indeed, without a clear understanding of the Lord’s teaching, heads are not in a good position to govern. According to Old and New Testament tradition, wisdom played an important part in government. If the head was to govern the family and the nation well, he needed to be wise.
To be sure, modern society presents a very different situation. Modern people are faced with many decisions that do not seem a matter of right and wrong or good and bad. Today one must decide which of many entertainments would be best, which food among our abundance of food one should eat, what styles of clothing one should wear. Modern people face choices about occupation, residence, manners, and opinions that people in traditional society did not face in the same way. Not all of these decisions are arbitrary, but there is a greatly expanded number of decisions that cannot be handled easily in terms of traditional wisdom. At this point, however, it is enough to observe that the scriptural ideal of the exercise of authority functioned according to a standard that was objective to both the head and the subordinate. It was not based upon arbitrary decision-making or the imposition of personal preferences and values.
The most concrete description of the wife’s role in the New Testament occurs not in any of the celebrated passages on husbands and wives, but in a passage in 1 Timothy about widows. The early church established an order of widows, partly as a way to support needy widows and partly to organize a group of older women who could offer special service in the community. 1 Timothy 5:13–16 contains instructions on when and how to enroll widows in this group. Two sections of this passage are particularly helpful for understanding the life of a Christian wife. The first is the verse which includes a list of the activities a woman should have performed over the years in order to be enrolled as a widow. This list therefore describes particularly meritorious services that a good wife performs:
She must be well attested for her good deeds, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the feet of the saints, relieved the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way. (1 Tm 5:10)
So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, rule their households, and give the enemy no occasion to revile us. (1 Tm 5:14)
. . . and so train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind and submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be discredited. (Ti 2:4–6)
These passages reveal several significant features about the role of the wife. First, the description of the wife’s role is household-oriented. The wives are directed to have a concern for the homes that they belong to. The center of this concern is love for their husbands and children. The passages do not forbid wives to leave the house or to take a concern for anything outside of the house. However, the home is certainly the center of the wife’s concern.
Second, the wife has a ruling function within the household. This is most clearly expressed in 1 Timothy 5:14, which states that wives are expected to “rule their households.” The Greek word here is oikodespotein, to “house-rule.” The verb despotein is related etymologically to the English word “despot.” The wife’s role thus involves a real governmental function. Although the husband is head of the house, the wife functions under him as someone who rules the house. Chrysostom describes her as a “second authority.”10 In other words, the husband’s headship over the house neither relieves the wife of responsibility nor makes her passive. Nor does it make her a simple servant in the house. Instead the wife’s subordination to the husband expresses an order of authority with the wife’s ruling function carried out subordinate to the husband’s.
Third, 1 Timothy 5:10 lists worthy services that wives should perform in the course of their lives. The list contains what we might call “charity work” or “works of mercy” or even “social services.” The widow who is being enrolled should have served people’s needs. She should have brought up children. She certainly should have raised her own children, but possibly the passage here refers to orphan children as well. She should have received and provided for guests, whether long-term guests or daily visitors. The widow should have refreshed others in the Christian community by caring for their physical needs and, most likely, by her good Christian conversation as well. She should have cared for those who were suffering, providing them with food or clothing or nursing. This verse mentions activities that might be called charity work today, but in New Testament times these services were often provided in the context of the home.
As with the husband, a passage in the wisdom literature fills out the New Testament picture of the role of the wife. Proverbs 31:10–31 has been called “the portrait of the ideal wife,” but a more accurate and more traditional title would be “the woman of valor” or “the wife of valor” (“the courageous wife”).11 In recent Jewish tradition (and possibly during the years the New Testament was written), the husband and children recited this passage at the sabbath ceremony to honor the wife. It is a passage that the New Testament writers were undoubtedly familiar with and which was therefore a background to their thoughts on the role of the wife:
A good wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.
She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
She is like the ships of the merchant,
she brings her food from afar.
She rises while it is yet night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her maidens.
She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
She girds her loins with strength
and makes her arms strong.
She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
She opens her hand to the poor,
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid of snow for her household,
for all her household are clothed in scarlet.
She makes herself coverings;
her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Her husband is known in the gates,
when he sits among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them;
she delivers girdles to the merchant.
Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
“Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her of the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the gates.
The above passage is part of the wisdom literature in the Old Testament. It is placed within the book of Proverbs, which is a somewhat miscellaneous collection of materials that might be described as an anthology of wisdom literature.12 Wisdom literature presents its own special difficulties of interpretation. Not all of it is straightforward teaching and some of it is even written tongue-in-cheek.13 Proverbs 31 is predominantly serious in tone, but not descriptive in the normal sense. One woman, commenting on Proverbs 31 after a first reading, asked if the vocation of a wife was to work herself to death. The poem certainly seems to be describing an Israelite “super-woman.” It describes many characteristics of the ideal wife, yet the description of them is deliberately stated in a strong or exaggerated way. It is probably intended to be an ideal portrait highlighting the element of valor, the soldierly element in a good wife’s life.14 The passage’s usefulness lies in the way it portrays many features of a wife’s life that shatter some common misunderstandings of scriptural teaching on the role of woman.
First, the wife in Proverbs 31 is clearly the ruler of the house. Moreover, the house she rules is a sizable enterprise. Her husband is a wealthy man, one of prominent position (a village elder, as we shall see later on). She could have been, for example, Job’s wife. As the ruler of the house, she assumes responsibility for a large number of people. She directs them, corrects them, and teaches them. Some men may be included in this group. Although on a large family farm most of the men and the sons would have worked primarily under the husband’s direction, there might well have been men working at the house under the wife’s supervision.15 Moreover, the whole passage suggests that she had some overall concern for the whole farm-household, especially when her husband was absent on community responsibilities.
Secondly, the wife in Proverbs 31 is strong, active, and competent. One writer describes her as something of an Amazon. The language of the poem stresses this aspect of her character. The word “valor” in “woman of valor” (v. 10, translated somewhat weakly in the RSV as “a good wife”) is also the word for “soldier” and is used occasionally for “army.” Hence the term implies strength like that of a soldier. The word translated “gain” in v. 11 is the word for “booty” and the word translated “food” in v. 15 is the word for “prey.” In other words, the woman goes about her work as a wife in a soldierly way, with valor.16 This portrait of the woman amazes many modern people. They have the mistaken idea the scripture pictures woman as weak, passive, and over-emotional. The mistake comes from identifying the Victorian ideal woman with the scriptural ideal. The Victorian woman was supposed to be somewhat delicate, much in need of her husband’s help. The Israelite ideal wife was a sturdy helper, able to shoulder significant responsibilities.
Modern people are also surprised because the modern tendency is to identify personal subordination with weakness. Much contemporary thinking about subordination presumes that subordination is rooted in the weakness of the subordinate. Traditionally, however, some of the best examples of subordination come from armies—groups of strong men who are all subordinated so that they can be united and able to fight together more effectively. Traditionally, men have had the role of physical protector and have been physically stronger. However, it does not follow that women therefore have to be weak (or are ideally weak) in order to be subordinate. On the contrary, a strong subordinate strengthens the unit the head leads and makes the head more effective. The woman of valor in Proverbs 31 is a strong woman, even physically strong, and her strength is an advantage to her husband.
Moreover, the woman of valor is competent. She does not always need to have her husband telling her what to do. She is not devoid of initiative. Again, many modern people have the mistaken notion that subordination must rob an individual of initiative and competence. To be sure, some subordinates—such as the traditional foot soldier in an army—are rarely expected to take personal initiative. However, other forms of subordination prize initiative highly. Many athletic teams and certain kinds of army units such as the officer corps are not composed of passive automatons. Their training creates men who are well-drilled and able to obey orders, but they are also able to take personal initiative when required. Subordination in the Old and New Testaments does not produce weakness or incompetence; it is a relationship of unity which produces greater effectiveness.17 The early Christians did not hesitate to apply army imagery to the family to illustrate just this point. For example, Chrysostom does this in his Homily 20 on Ephesians where he explains why Paul enjoins subordination on wives:
For there is nothing which so welds our life together as the love of man and wife. For this many will lay aside even their arms, for this they will give up life itself. And Paul would never without a reason and without an object have spent so much pains on this subject, as when he says here, “Wives, be in subjection to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” And why so? Because when they are in harmony, the children are well brought up, and the domestics are in good order, and neighbors, and friends, and relations enjoy the fragrance. But if it be otherwise, all is turned upside down, and thrown into confusion. And just as when the generals of an army are at peace one with another, all things are in due subordination, whereas on the other hand, if they are at variance, everything is turned upside down; so, I say, it also is here. Therefore he says, “Wives, be in subjection to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”18
Two activities included in the description of the ideal wife’s role in Proverbs 31 may be especially surprising. The first is her teaching function. Like the husband, the wife was expected to teach in the household. Verse 26 says, “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” It does not suggest that she holds formal classes (although that is not necessarily ruled out). Teaching is often most effective when it is done informally. But the verse does describe this function in terms which are drawn from the wisdom literature’s vocabulary for teaching. First, the wife speaks wisdom (hokmah), the kind of wisdom taught in the book of Proverbs. Then, the teaching (torah) of kindness (hesed) is on her lips. The word for “teaching” is the Hebrew word used for the first five books of the Bible, a word often translated “the law.” It refers to the kind of instructive activity that a scribe or sage would engage in, or even that Moses and God would engage in. Hesed is the term for the kind of love that characterizes committed faithful relationships. “Kindness” is a reasonable English translation, but all English translations are somewhat weak as equivalents. The woman of valor, then, gives instruction in what we might call personal relationships and in the obligations involved in different personal relationships. She instructs the household, possibly men and women alike, in how to live according to God’s teaching. In a similar vein, earlier in Proverbs, men are exhorted to “hear your father’s instruction and reject not your mother’s teaching” (Prv 1:8; see also 6:20). Teaching, then, was an important part of the work of the wife and the husband.
The wife in Proverbs 31 also engages in economic activity. She not only performs housework in the contemporary sense of housework, but, in her ruling or management of the household, she has a substantial amount of managerial responsibility in economic affairs. She not only organizes a large work force, but also takes the initiative to make some investments out of money that she has saved.19 Of course, her economic activity derives from the life of the household.20 But the household itself is a locus of economic activity and not just a place for rest and leisure. The household was probably the main economic unit of the society in which the woman of valor lived.
Lastly, the woman of valor has an important effect on the life of her husband. Proverbs 31:23 says, “Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land.” This does not mean, as some modern people think, that the husband was sitting around, out talking with the other men, neglecting his family and living off his wife’s work—a classic picture of the exploited woman. To the contrary, the men at the village gate were conducting important communal and commercial business. The gates of the village in Israelite society were the place where the important commercial transactions were handled.21 It was also the place of justice, government, and other public business—analogous to city hall or the county court house. The elders of the village—the rulers of the village and the judges for the local area—held court at the gates.
Verse 23, then, says that the woman who has been depicted is the wife of a famous magistrate. He is a man who was probably known for his wisdom as a judge and competence as a ruler. The wife’s competence in ruling her household freed her husband to assume greater responsibility for the affairs of the community. The passage does not imply that he took no responsibility for the household. Other parts of the wisdom literature discuss the folly of neglecting household and wife. Nor does the passage imply that the husband did not provide for his family. As with Job, his effective management of his wealth undoubtedly allowed him to provide for his family and for many others. But the passage does show that he trusted and respected his wife and was able to entrust to her a great deal of responsibility, confident that she would alert him if he needed to handle something. She was probably even able to fill in for him in his area of household responsibility. His wife was his partner, not in the sense that they did everything together, but in the sense that their complementary partnership in life allowed them to be a family which set a pattern for other households and ruled in society through the husband.
The same relationship between husband and wife was the proper pattern for all men, even those who were not elders. In the book of Sirach, a work written by a Jerusalem sage in the early years of the second century BC, we find one of the best expressions in all of Jewish tradition of the importance of a good wife to her husband:
If a woman’s tongue is kind and gentle,
her husband has no equal among the sons of men.
A man who takes a wife has the best of possessions,
a helper that suits him, and a pillar to lean on.
If a property has no fence it will be plundered.
When a man has no wife, he is aimless and querulous.
Will anyone trust a man to carry weapons
who flits from town to town?
So it is with the man who has no nest,
and lodges wherever night overtakes him.
Without a wife, a man cannot function well. Only when he has a wife does stability enter his life. She is a source of strength to him and makes it more possible for him to work and contribute to the life of the community. If she is a good wife, the man is very fortunate. In other words, the wise Israelite understood the importance of his wife in making him a strong effective man. The early Christians understood this too.
To summarize, the passages examined here illustrate some important elements in the role of the wife in scripture. The wife is the ruler or manager of the household. She is the heart of household life, ordering the life of the household and seeing that the needs of the people in the household are met. She takes an active responsibility for the affairs of the house and is expected to handle them competently. She rules the household in subordination to her husband, but she rules the household nonetheless. Within the household, her special concern is to see that the members of the household are served in their needs: fed, clothed, provided with what each needs to function well. She makes the household a home, a place where others are strengthened and refreshed. The wife is a source of strength to her husband and to the other members of the household because of her personal service to them. Finally, she is actively involved in what we call charity work. She serves the needy of the community either personally or by seeing that other members of the household provide help.
So far, this study of the roles of the husband and wife in the family has only incidentally noted the parents’ responsibilities for raising children. But as was noted at the beginning of this chapter, family life and its structure can only be understood from the perspective of the passing on of life from one generation to the next. Thus childrearing is a central element in the roles of men and women in the family. Childrearing involves a differentiation of roles between men and women, a differentiation which endures from their different roles at the moment of conception to the death of either the parents or the children. The man in the family—the husband—is also the father, and part of his role in the family is to engender and raise children. The woman in the family—the wife—is also the mother, and part of her role is to bear and raise children. The roles of husband and wife in raising the next generation are closely related to their roles in all aspects of family life.
Three passages in the New Testament provide a useful orientation to the raising of the sons in Jewish and early Christian families. The first is found in the Gospel of John where Jesus speaks about his relationship with his father. The second is Luke 15:28–31, the elder brother section of the parable of the prodigal son. The third is Hebrews 3:5–6, another description of the relationship between Jesus and his father.
Truly, truly, I say to you, the son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the father doing; for whatever he does, that the son does likewise. For the father loves the son and shows him all that he himself is doing . . .
Some scripture scholars understand these lines as a type of parable.22 Jesus uses a common understanding of the father-son relationship in his society to explain his own relationship to his heavenly father. Jesus’ words refer to an important feature of the Jewish family that is rarely part of contemporary Western families. In Jewish society in Jesus’ day, the mother had primary charge of all the children from their birth until approximately five to seven years of age.23 At that time care of the boys would pass from the mother to the father. From this age on, boys would be raised by their fathers or, in some cases, by another male relative or male friend of the family. This meant that the boy would live his life with his father. He would work along with his father, helping him and thereby gradually learning farming or his father’s trade. During that time the father would form his son as a man. He would raise his son in his own presence and teach him what he knew. In fact, much of the son’s training would consist of the father’s example. The son would see what the father was doing, and would thus learn what the father knew. This is the father-son relationship Jesus is referring to in John 5.
The rabbis summed up a man’s responsibility for his son by saying that the father had to “circumcise him, redeem him, teach him torah, teach him a trade, and get him a wife.”24 Circumcision and redemption refer to the initiation rites shortly after birth by which the newborn boy was received into the people of Israel. The other duties occurred during the rest of the boy’s early life. His father was expected to equip him to function as an adult male. The father had to teach his son torah—the basic truths about God and man and the basic understanding of how to live in accordance with God’s commandments. He had to train his son in a skill (usually the father’s own) that would allow him to earn a living. Then, the father had to provide him with a wife. The boy was not really raised until his father had equipped him to function as a man.
The elder brother section of the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:28–32 reveals another important feature of the father-son relationship that is rarely seen in contemporary Western families. The elder brother returns from the fields, finds a welcoming party for his prodigal brother, and responds as follows:
He was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered, “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!” And he said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad; for this your brother was dead, and is alive, he was lost, and is found.”
Two of the statements in this passage are particularly helpful for seeing how the father-son relationship functioned. First is the elder brother’s statement, “these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.” The second is the father’s statement, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Hebrews 3:5–6 is another passage which illustrates the same aspect of the father-son relationship. This passage occurs in another description of the relationship between Jesus and his father:
Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ was faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if we hold fast our confidence and pride in our hope.
Both of these passages show how the father and son in Jesus’ time continued to have a relationship of mutual obligation even after the son reached adult years. In most contemporary families, an adult son lives a life that is independent of his father; the contacts between them are normally mainly social. The father even provides for himself in his old age if he can. But in Jesus’ time the relationship was different.25
The exchange between the elder brother and the father shows the normal pattern of this relationship. The father-and-son relationship continued throughout the father’s life. Father and son were often part of the same household, and the son would function both as son and heir while the father was alive. He would exercise his father’s authority in the household, but subordinate to his father. The household would be his as the heir as well as his father’s. The son might continue to live in the same building with his father, as did the older son in the parable, or he might live separately. But he would still be tied to his father (and to his brothers) by kinship links and mutual obligations that were well understood.
In a Jewish household, some readjustment did occur when the son became an adult. There were even ways in which the relationship could be redefined. The younger brother in the parable of the prodigal son chose one of the ways in which the relationship could be significantly redefined. However, even the prodigal son did not separate from the father as thoroughly as would a modern son who had decided to leave home. The elder brother’s accusation “this son of yours has devoured your living” indicates that the father still had a claim on the part of the inheritance that he had given to the younger son. The younger son, rebellious and reckless as he was, still was expected to fulfill certain obligations toward his father. Much of the seriousness of the younger son’s actions came from what he did to his father’s living that his father had given him to use as the heir but from which the father could still expect support in his old age.26
These two passages point to a feature of Jewish and early Christian experience that stands in sharp contrast to contemporary Western society. In New Testament times, the father-son relationship was as much a relationship among adults as between an adult and a child. In fact, the adult relationship was the paradigm of the father-son relationship. When New Testament writings speak about “sons” (or “the son”) they normally are referring to adults in an adult relationship with their father.27 The son carried on the father’s house and family. He had been raised to continue on the line, to take his father’s place.28 He would succeed to his father’s place after he died. It was the eldest son, not the mother, who became the head of the family after his father’s death, although the mother held a special position within the family. Most significantly, the son shared in his father’s position and authority even while his father was alive. The adult son had been raised in his father’s image and likeness and was able to represent his father and act on his behalf. He was subordinate to his father, serving him and obeying him, but, if the son had been raised properly, the father and son were one. The elder son had the title of “the son” or “the heir,” which conferred authority upon him within the household, an authority that was almost identical with the father’s.
It is important to note one qualification to our description of the father-son relationship. Sometimes the son was not raised by his own father but was apprenticed to another man (usually a relative, although not always).29 A boy might be apprenticed because his father was dead, ill, or otherwise incapable of raising him. Or a son might be apprenticed because his parents wanted him to be raised in a different way than his father was able to raise him, usually so that the son could be trained in a different trade or occupation than his father. The rabbi-disciple relationship was an example of this kind of apprenticeship, and the Jews understood the rabbi-disciple relationship as a father-son relationship.30 The disciples of a rabbi carried on his life and work just as a craftsman’s or farmer’s sons would carry on his life and work. This understanding of the rabbi-disciple relationship provides a context for understanding the meaning of Jesus’ training of his disciples and his giving of his Spirit to them.
Daughters were raised in a way similar to sons.31 The daughters would stay with the mother when the sons went to their father to be raised, although a daughter could in certain circumstances be sent to another family to be raised just as a son could be. The daughter was reared by living and working with her mother. The mother would teach her daughter how to live as a good Jewish or Christian woman and would train her to rule a household and be a good wife and mother. When she reached marriageable age, her father would see that she was married to the right kind of man. After marriage, the daughter would go with her husband and consequently would not stay with the mother in the same way that the son might remain with the father. Yet marriage would not break the bond with her family. In fact, her marriage might have been arranged to link two families more closely.32 The daughter was raised to carry on her mother’s life, just as the son carried on his father’s life.
The parents had a joint responsibility for raising the children but each had different roles. The father had the overall responsibility and authority. For instance, the father would have final responsibility for the discipline of the family.33 If the children were not submissive, he was responsible for their punishment and reformation (1 Tm 3:4). However, the mother had authority as well. Sons and daughters were expected to honor both parents (Eph 6:2), and this honor included obedience (Eph 6:1). The sons were not subordinate only to their father; they were subordinate to the parents who were one person in their joint responsibility for the family. At the same time, the husband and wife had a clear division of responsibility in the raising of the children. The mothers were primarily responsible for the daughters and boys too young to work; the fathers were responsible for boys over about age five to seven. There was a unity of concern and authority, yet a division of care.
Contemporary parents often think of their childrearing responsibilities in terms of pre-school training. When children reach age five to six, parents then turn them over to schools and other social institutions for the bulk of their formation and training. New Testament childrearing practices differed drastically from this model. The parents were expected to raise the children to become mature adult Christian men and women. This is the reason for the concern expressed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 that a man be able to raise his children well. This is also the context for accurately understanding the instruction in Ephesians 6:4:
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
The term “discipline” (paideia) in this passage is particularly significant. The word could also be translated “training,” “instruction,” “punishment,” or even “formation.” The Hebrew equivalent (musar) appears often in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. “Training” is perhaps a better translation than “discipline” in this context, because discipline of children in English almost always refers to punishment. Although punishment plays a role in musar-paideia, the concept is broader. “Training” in the scriptural sense is an educational activity which changes the way a person lives. It does not mean only knowledge or mental understanding. It means training to act in a certain way. Moreover, the teaching a person receives when he is trained in the scriptural sense is authoritative teaching backed up by punishment. The trainer bears responsibility for how people turn out. He does not just provide them with ideas and let them do with those ideas as they will. He forms them as people.
Some conclusions about childrearing practices in the New Testament can now be made. First, the process of bearing and raising children was intended to carry on the life of the parents. The fathers raised the sons to be men like themselves; the mothers raised the daughters to be women like themselves. The sons carried on the family of the father, but sons and daughters together carried on the life of the people as a whole. Secondly, raising children meant that the parents trained or formed their children. Parents did not simply give their children physical life and send them out to society to be formed and established. The parents trained them in the training “of the Lord.” Children were formed to be like their parents. For Christian parents, this meant forming the children to be men and women of God. They taught their children how to live as Christians, and thereby the image of God was formed in them. They trained their children to carry on the life of the body of Christ. The parents passed on to their own children the way of life they themselves had received. This is why some Christian writers have called the Christian home “the school of Jesus Christ.” Finally, formation as men and women was part of the children’s Christian formation. The fathers trained the sons or any other young men they were responsible for to be men. The mothers trained the daughters and any other young women they were responsible for to be women. They trained them by living and working with them, passing on their lives as they lived it.
The above description of childrearing in the Christian family brings more clearly into focus the two main structural lines of the Christian family. In some contemporary writing, it is common to stress only the husband-wife relationship as being truly constitutive of the family. In this view, raising children is then a task that the husband and wife take on together. Those who take such an approach will often lay great stress on the idea that man and wife are one flesh. However, there is another structural line of great importance—the parent-child link, especially that between father and son, but also the link between the mother and daughter. Not only was the one flesh important, as a truth of family life, but the passing on of the image and likeness so that the life of the parent could be carried on was likewise important in scripture as a truth of family life. In fact, the father probably spent more time with his sons, especially as they grew older, and the mother spent more time with her daughters, than husband and wife did with each other. The children did not grow up into someone else’s family (their parents’), but they were as much part of the family as the parents were. The eldest son, in fact, had the same authority as the father, though subordinate to him while the father was alive. In short, the bond between the generations was as strong as the bond between the husband and wife, and both bonds together allowed the family to fulfill its functions effectively.
The New Testament presents a simple pattern of roles of men and women in the family, a pattern rooted in Old Testament teaching, especially in the teaching of the wisdom literature. There are some variations in approach to family life and to the roles of men and women from book to book of the New Testament. There were also variations through the evolution from early Israelite society to later Jewish and early Christian society. These variations and changes will be noted as they are relevant, especially in Chapter Eleven. However, the basic relationship of husband and wife, their relationship to their children, and the basic division of responsibility noted in this chapter characterize most of both Jewish and Christian tradition. The Christian teaching on the roles of men and women in the family and in the Christian community can be understood only by seeing the basic patterns and structure of the Christian household. The next chapter will examine other features of Christian teaching on household and family life, and then will summarize the New Testament teaching on the roles of the man and the woman in the Christian family.
47*The fullest treatment in the New Testament of the roles of husbands and wives can be found primarily in what has been called the household codes (the Haustafeln), that is, in Eph 5:22–6:9, Col 3:18–4:1, and 1 Pt 2:18–3:7. The next fullest treatment can be found in the pastoral epistles. In the Old Testament, the most helpful material can normally be found in the wisdom literature, with legal material providing the next most helpful source. The wisdom literature is especially helpful because it is designed to provide an orientation toward daily living and practical problems. The legal material is more helpful for some of the underlying questions of social structure. Since the focus in this book is on daily living of social roles, the wisdom literature is cited more frequently. Much of the New Testament material in the areas of daily life, in fact, can be traced back to teaching in the wisdom literature. The value of the wisdom literature for the understanding of the New Testament is being increasingly stressed by some (see Crouch, The Origin and Intention of the Colossian Haustafel [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1972], 95, for some remarks and further references). The bulk of the treatment in this chapter covers material from the pastorals and the wisdom literature, and the following chapter will deal with the material in the household codes.
49*The quotation is from the RSV, but the word “rule” has been retranslated in accordance with the commentary given below. The translation in brackets is a leading alternative translation of the passage.
50*This term appears three times in the New Testament: twice in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:34–35) and in 1 Tm 3:5. It signifies a “taking care of” which involves forethought and provision. The prefix epi indicates the direction of the mind toward the person or thing that is cared for. The related term melō, which occurs in the Good Shepherd passage in John 10:13, indicates that something is an object of care. Melō occurs ten times in the New Testament, in Mt 22:16; Mk 4:38; 12:14; 1 Cor 9:9; and 1 Pt 5:7. The last passage, from 1 Peter 5, is a clear example of care operating in the context of headship and subordination.
69*The phrase “of the Lord” here refers to either the content of the training or the manner of the training (i.e., “train them the way the Lord trains”) or both. The term “instruction” in the RSV is a translation of nouthesia, which could be almost an equivalent of paideia or could possibly mean “reproof” or “correction.” In the first case the phrase would be a hendiadys. In the second it would be a New Testament example of the common pairing in the Proverbs of musar and tokahat (e.g., Prv 12:1). See also Bertram, TDNT, 5:596–625.
69†In the wisdom literature, “training-instruction” is commonly used for the activity of both parents and masters in a master-disciple training relationship. In the Proverbs, in fact, it is sometimes impossible to tell for certain whether the exhortation “my son” is spoken by a father or a master.