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Monday, April 9, 2012

Christian Families, Motherhood, and Womanhood Series, Part Two: Biblical Womanhood and the Proverbs 31 Wife

Any serious conversation about Christian motherhood and womanhood must begin with Proverbs 31:10-31.  Bibles that use section headings call this “Ode to a Capable Wife,” “The Wife of Noble Character,” “In Praise of a Good Wife,” “The Virtuous Wife,” “Description of a Worthy Woman,” and the like.  In the original Hebrew, these verses are written as an acrostic poem, with each verse beginning with the successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  (For an example of this in English, see my post A Modern Psalm of Lament from a Former Pastor.)

The Proverbs 31 wife is the gold standard of Biblical Womanhood.  Biblical Womanhood is a movement within conservative Christianity (including Quiverfull) that emphasizes the role of women to be primarily (if not exclusively) that of wife and mother, often of as many children as God sees fit to give them.  They homeschool their children, are submissive and obedient to their husbands, and if they earn money, it’s through a home-based business that utilizes a traditional homemaking skill (such as sewing, soap or jewelry making, baking, or writing blogs or e-books that help other women to be better wives, mothers, housekeepers, and homeschoolers).  Every woman who keeps a Biblical Womanhood blog, and every woman who regularly reads one of those blogs, can tell you all about the Proverbs 31 wife, and how they aspire to be one.

So let’s start off by seeing exactly what we’re talking about.

Proverbs 31:10-31 (NRSV)

Ode to a Capable Wife

10 A capable wife who can find?
   She is far more precious than jewels.
11 The heart of her husband trusts in her,
   and he will have no lack of gain.
12 She does him good, and not harm,
   all the days of her life.
13 She seeks wool and flax,
   and works with willing hands.
14 She is like the ships of the merchant,
   she brings her food from far away.
15 She rises while it is still night
   and provides food for her household
   and tasks for her servant-girls.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
   with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She girds herself with strength,
   and makes her arms strong.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
   Her lamp does not go out at night.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff,
   and her hands hold the spindle.
20 She opens her hand to the poor,
   and reaches out her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
   for all her household are clothed in crimson.
22 She makes herself coverings;
   her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the city gates,
   taking his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them;
   she supplies the merchant with sashes.
25 Strength and dignity are her clothing,
   and she laughs at the time to come.
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom,
   and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
27 She looks well to the ways of her household,
   and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and call her happy;
   her husband too, and he praises her:
29 ‘Many women have done excellently,
   but you surpass them all.’
30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
   but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
   and let her works praise her in the city gates.

(Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)

Let me attempt to restate this vision of a capable wife into modern terms verse by verse (this is an off-the-cuff restatement, with no Hebrew exegesis involved at all):

10.  She is highly valued.
11.  Her husband trusts her, and benefits in every way from being married to her.
12.  She takes care to consider her husband and his needs in everything she does, and makes sure nothing she does is detrimental to him.
13.  She looks for the finest materials for her household and willingly works to make her house a home.
14.  She looks for a variety of healthy foods to feed to her family.
15.  She gets up early to make breakfast for everyone and to organize the daily duties—if she has a housekeeper or other household servants, she plans their agendas.
16.  She has her own money and makes her own investment decisions.
17.  She works hard.
18.  She knows her work is of good quality, and continues to work hard.
19.  She works hard.
20.  She is generous to the poor and needy.
21.  She’s not afraid of hard times, because she knows her family is well cared for.
22.  She takes care of her appearance and dresses well.
23.  Her husband is a leader in the community and well-respected.
24.  She earns her own money with the work of her own hands.
25.  She is strong, dignified, and confident about the future.
26.  She is intelligent and kind, and teaches others those virtues by modeling them herself.
27.  She is constantly seeing to the well-being of her household and isn’t lazy.
28.  Her children and husband love and respect her, and recognize that she is happy.
29.  She receives praise for being who she is.
30.  She knows that her blessings are from her relationship with the Lord, and not from physical beauty or charm.
31.  She enjoys the fruits of her hard work both materially and by being recognized for all that she does.

There’s a lot I can get behind in that.  I think it’s a wonderful vision for a modern wife and mother to aspire to.  But I have a problem with the way it’s often practiced in fundamentalist circles.

The first problem arises from the belief among conservative and fundamentalist Christians that the bible is the literal and inerrant word of God.  While that problem goes well beyond the interpretation of this fragment of scripture, I’ll sidestep the whole debate (for this post, anyway) and simply point out that if Proverbs 31:10-31 is God’s literal and inerrant description of a capable wife, then it is no longer a vision to be aspired to but a command to be obeyed.  And failure to live up to any part of this description is a violation of God’s command, which can have dire consequences for a woman’s hope for salvation and understanding of God’s love.

From there, one must recognize just how hard it is to be a capable wife according to this proverb.  She gets very little sleep since she stays up working late into the night (v. 18) and gets up early to make breakfast (v. 15), and never has downtime during the day (v. 27).  Again, as an ideal model of industriousness it’s fine, but as a command that must be practiced exactly, it leads to exhaustion and hopelessness.

Most conservative and fundamentalist Christians focus on the hard work and domestic activities of the capable wife.  She cooks her meals from scratch, makes her own clothes, keeps her house clean, teaches her children herself, supports her husband in all that he does, and whatever money she might make from a home-based business goes to help support her family.

But a lot of the benefits that the proverbial capable wife enjoys are overlooked or ignored, frequently because of other biblical passages that emphasize a wife’s submission to her husband, and the husband’s headship over his wife.  These, too, are considered the literal, inerrant word of God, and therefore commands that must be obeyed.  (Don’t ask me why obedience to those commands is apparently more important than obedience to the beneficial commands here—that would get me on a rant, which I’m trying to avoid in these posts.)

I’ve been following some of the blogs written by women in the Biblical Womanhood movement (or, if they don’t believe themselves part of a ‘movement,’ they at least aspire to be Proverbs 31 wives), and some of the references they make to their relationships with their husbands in the ‘About Me’ sections are troubling to me.  One, when stating that she most likely won’t respond to comments that question something she posted directly from the bible, suggests this for women who have questions about the bible:  “I do encourage you to bring it to your husband though, and follow his leading.”  I have no problem with talking it over with your husband (if you happen to have one), but the fact that he’s a guy doesn’t qualify him to lead in biblical interpretation.  I was amused by this statement in the ‘About’ section of the Ladies Against Feminism website:  “LAF is under the oversight of Stanley Sherman, minister of the Lancaster Church of Christ in Junction City, Oregon.”  Apparently ladies who oppose feminism cannot do so without the oversight of a man, or else they might be accused of being feminists themselves?  The one that bothers me the most is the blogger who proudly announces, “This blog is written and carried out under [my husband’s] oversight.”  By her own admission most of her posts are about “marriage, femininity, homemaking, homeschooling, children as blessings, virtuous maidenhood & boyhood and the importance of family discipleship and cultivating a generational vision for the family.”  While her husband may have some legitimate input on a few of those topics, it is clear that this blog is not written cooperatively.  He is overseeing her blog, which is written by a woman for other women, including her posts on femininity, homemaking, and virtuous maidenhood.

Compare that to the Proverbs 31 wife.  Her husband trusts her (v. 11).  That means he lets her do her own thing without his explicit oversight or control.  This is evidenced by the fact that she manages the household virtually on her own, using her own judgment and discretion (v. 13-15).  She has her own money and makes her own investment decisions (v. 16, 20, 24), and gets to spend at least a portion of her hard-earned money on herself (v. 31).  All her husband does is value her (v. 10), trust her (v. 11), is respected in his own right in the community (v. 23), and praises her (v. 28-29).  Overseeing her is never mentioned.

Verse 12 makes it clear that she only does her husband good and never causes him harm.  That aspect is highlighted in modern interpretations, but what is ignored is the fact that much of what the Proverbs 31 wife does has no real impact on her husband at all; they are neutral.  In other words, while she might only do her husband good, she doesn’t only do good for her husband.  She can and does engage in many activities that have absolutely nothing to do with him, so long as they don’t cause him harm.  And it’s assumed that he’s a mature, independent man who isn’t threatened by his wife’s obvious success, and is as supportive of her as she is of him (he wouldn’t be praising her efforts in verse 29 if he wasn’t supportive).

And as for the hard work, let’s not ignore the fact that she has servants (v. 15).  One thing I’ve not yet seen on a single Biblical Womanhood blog is mention of a cleaning lady.  A Proverbs 31 wife today is supposed to be some kind of ultimate superwoman, but the real Proverbs 31 wife had hired help.

Finally, what’s most significant is the fact that the Proverbs 31 wife is happy and fulfilled in her life.  She is strong, dignified, and is confident about her future (and looks great, too!)  She is wise, kind, and generous.  While I’m sure she has her bad days, for the most part she’s playing to her strengths in her life, and this is evidenced by the fact that she knows her value, and her husband, her children, and her community all recognize her worth.  Not every woman is called to this lifestyle.  I know that I’d like to be, and I’m aspiring to be a Proverbs 31 wife, but I also know that I fall far short, and there’s a good chance I’ll never get there in all respects.  I’d like to cook all of my meals from scratch, make my own clothes, have a clean house, homeschool my children, support my husband in all that he does, and make money from a home-based business.  Here’s how I’m doing so far:

  • Most of my meals actually are made from scratch.  I make my own bread (with the help of a breadmaker), all my own baked goods, my own soups, my own tomato sauce, and I’m planning on planting a vegetable garden next year.  We eat very little in the way of prepackaged or processed foods.
  • I’d like to make clothes for myself and my daughter (my husband and son will probably continue to wear store-bought—girls’ clothes are just easier to make).  I just bought a new sewing machine, a new pattern for my daughter and the fabric to go with it, and I have a bunch of old patterns for me that I plan on using soon.  Of course, I still have to make the curtains I’ve been planning since before Spencer was born nearly four years ago, which are now destined for Naomi’s room.  So there’s definitely room for improvement there!
  • Total fail on the clean house thing.  I keep up with laundry and dishes, and the house is usually more or less picked up, but it’s not ‘clean.’  I aspire to hiring a cleaning lady.  In the meantime I triage, and I have a schedule/checklist I try to follow to help me at least keep things from getting too gross.  It sort of works sometimes, but not really.  Like I said, total fail here.
  • I’ve already begun homeschooling my kids, though at ages 2 and 3, we’re taking it pretty slow and relaxed.  I’m beginning to look into curricula, will pick up the pace over the next year, and start in earnest when Spencer’s 5 and Naomi’s 3.  But as of right now, Spencer can recognize upper and lowercase forms of all letters, is beginning to learn the sounds they make and how to put them together, and can count to 13.  Naomi is beginning to recognize her letters, and can also count to 13.
  • I like to think I support my husband in everything he does.  I believe he’d tell me if I weren’t.
  • My home-based business is writing and blogging.  And except for a few old sermons I’ve sold to, I haven’t made a dime.  So far it’s just been a time-suck, though I’m hoping that the launch of my new Quiet Publications website in a month or so will change that.  Again, definite room for improvement.

And all this is a struggle for me.  I can’t say with certainty that I’m playing to my strengths by taking this path.  But I’m taking it because I want to and because I believe it’s best for me and for my family, not because the bible tells me that this is how I have to live or else I’m disobeying God’s command.  When I beat myself up for falling short of the ideal Proverbs 31 wife, it’s not because I fear for my salvation, but because I have a really nasty perfectionist streak.  I have to keep reminding myself that God (and my husband, and my kids) will still love me even if I don’t clean the bathroom today.

In all, Proverbs 31:10-31 is a fantastic model for how to be a Christian wife and mother in 21st century America, but it’s not the only model.  My thanks go out to the practical advice I’ve received on several of those Biblical Womanhood blogs (the housekeeping schedule/checklist is one of those), but I just can’t get behind some of the theology they embrace.  Not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, however, I still check in with them from time to time, and I do feel encouraged by them (when I’m not deeply offended by them, that is!).

But my hope for all Christian (and non-Christian) women, Proverbs 31-inspired or not, is that they will be strong, dignified, confident about their futures, wise, kind, and generous.  Such a woman is truly blessed by the Lord, whether she recognizes it right now or not.