Last week, a Pew study revealed that in four out of ten American households with children, the mother is the sole or primary breadwinner for the family, the highest share on record. News of the study resulted in some controversy after a heated exchange between Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly and members of an all-male on-air panel on the subject sparked strong responses across media outlets.
For those of us who grew up in certain sectors of the American church, the controversy is not surprising or new. Perhaps you too remember James Dobson taking to the airwaves to tell men that it is their divine responsibility to provide and women that it is their divine responsibility to nurture (as though the two are mutually exclusive). Some Christians continue to characterize fathers who share parenting responsibilities or stay at home with their children as “man fails” and “worse than unbelievers,” instructing women to intentionally avoid earning more money than their husbands, even if it is less practical for their family to do so, or else they will injure their spouse’s ego.
There are a few reasons why these legalistic approaches to gender roles are unnecessary impositions on Christian families and those seeking to participate in the life of the Church and why, without diminishing the importance and value of homemaking or childcare, we should not “shut the door to the kingdom” to families based on their socioeconomic status, unique callings and gifts, household structure, or earning arrangements.
First, the household structure of a “breadwinning” father and a “homemaking” mother is a cultural phenomenon, not a biblical one.
Again, this is not to say that such an arrangement is less valuable than others; it just means we have to be careful of idealizing or idolizing it.
The single-earner nuclear family as depicted in "Leave it to Beaver" and "Father Knows Best" is a relatively recent development, a byproduct of post-industrial revolution American culture. Other cultures, both past and present, produce different family and financial arrangements. In more agrarian cultures, for example, women must be skilled in a variety of occupations and may share manual labor and earning power with their spouses. As cultures and circumstances change, roles tend to change along with them—both at the societal level and the individual level. And as we see in Scripture, God can be glorified and honored in a variety of cultures and families, from the nomadic lifestyle of Abraham and Sarah to the shared tent making work of Priscilla and Aquilla. Zippora and Rachel were shepherdesses. Lydia was a wealthy tradeswoman. Deborah was a judge and military commander. Even the poetic Proverbs 31 Woman, so often cited as the model for homemaking, has a thriving business and uses her own earnings to invest in real estate.
So there is no single “biblical” model for arranging household income. Instead, families will look different from culture to culture and family to family. (And the people described as "worse than unbelievers" in the instructions from 1 Timothy 5 were relatives of widows who were shirking their responsibilities by exploiting the church's provisions for widows. The verse does not refer to stay-at-home dads.) Furthermore, as more and more young adults delay marriage until their late twenties or early thirties, the Church has the opportunity to reclaim its once high esteem for singleness and the contribution of singles—including single parents— to the Kingdom. Becoming men and women of valor isn’t about sticking to a list of rules and roles; it’s about loving God and loving our neighbors well, no matter our circumstances. We can do that in a variety of roles. And that's good news.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, the option of having a single “breadwinner” in the home is available only the relatively privileged.
Current minimum wage in the U.S. is just $7.25. Not many families can live on the income produced by a single minimum-wage earner. In many developing countries, wages are much less, and as journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have noted in their widely-acclaimed book Half the Sky, the empowerment and employment of women can have a direct and profound effect in curbing poverty, infant mortality, maternal mortality, and violence. So why on earth would we discourage women in those situations from working?
I've said it before, and I'll say it till I’m blue in the face: if our theology doesn’t work on the ground, among the poor and the marginalized to whom Jesus first brought the gospel (Luke 4), then it doesn’t work. (See “Jesus Started with the ‘Outliers’”). It is inexcusable for pastors to take to their pulpits to demean families who are sharing the workload, sometimes barely making ends meet, and label them “failures.” This is exactly what Jesus was talking about when he criticized the religious leaders for “tying up heavy burdens” and placing them on people’s backs. For a large percentage of the world’s population, turning their families into the Cleavers is simply not an option, so we would be doing harm to the Kingdom to require it.
Liuan Huska wrote an excellent piece for Her.Meneutics about how her Spanish-speaking immigrant church treats childcare as a community calling, especially considering the fact that many of the mothers and fathers in that community are working hard just to make ends meet. It’s an inspiring and encouraging story—a beautiful picture of what it means to be part of a church family.
These families should be treated with the same respect and dignity as those in which the father is the single breadwinner; they are no less "biblical" than the suburban nuclear family. They are a beautiful part of the Kingdom.
If the gospel we’re preaching isn’t good news for the poor; it’s not the gospel.
Third, the suggestion that men cannot handle having partners who out-earn them is emasculating, as is the suggestion that they are incapable of sharing the responsibilities of parenting.
This is the side of patriarchy that doesn’t get talked about a lot: the way it narrowly defines men as well as women.
When I told Dan about some of what has been said on the blogosphere about men who earn less than their wives, he laughed, rolled his eyes a little and said, “It’s not emasculating to have a successful wife. What’s emasculating is when someone tells me my frail ego can’t handle it. Our marriage isn’t a competition; it’s a partnership.”
Furthermore, while earning money and contributing to a family’s financial needs can indeed be rewarding—for both men and women!—it is not the only way that a mother or father “provides.” Some fathers will provide by working part time and watching the kids in the afternoons. Others provide by caring for the kids full-time while their spouse goes to work. Some families trade off the responsibilities of earning and childcare, day to day, year to year, season to season; others tag-team it. And as Sean Palmer put it so well last week, “as long as the narrative continues which articulates that men lack what it takes to nurture and raise children, as long as some argue that the cultivation of children is the domain of women only, we will continue to produce dads who believe they risk their ‘man-card’ by trying.”
A man who spends most of his day reading storybooks, wiping noses, changing diapers, and driving kids to basketball practice is not a failure. Such work is not "beneath" him. Rather it is an embodiment of the very servant heart of Jesus and should be celebrated and honored as such.. Same goes for stay-at-home moms.
(See also "Ask a Stay-At-Home Dad")
Yesterday, I tweeted that "it bugs me when folks work off the assumption that men are threatened by the success of their wives. Many, like Dan, are buoyed by it.”
As it turns out, Dan is not alone.
Hundreds of men and women responded to the tweet with encouraging, affirming words about their spouses. I wish I could share them all, but I'll just have to share just a few: