The biblical expectation is that Christian men will provide for their wives just like Christ provides for his church: spiritually and physically (see Eph 5:22-33). While it is true that the call to nourish one’s wife includes more than physical provision, it can never, for able-bodied men, include less. Indeed, Paul has already told us in 1 Timothy 5:8 that a man’s supposed spirituality is called into serious question if he refuses to provide material sustenance for his family.
After his own study of this passage and the word “nourish,” one author helpfully concludes, “So the point is at least that the husband who leads like Christ takes the initiative to see to it that the needs of his wife and children are met. He provides for them.”1 A man’s masculinity hangs on whether or not he will take up the responsibility to provide the material needs of his family.
A recent and growing phenomenon in America, however, is the “stay-at-home dad.”2 For various reasons—temporary unemployment, a wife’s superior education and ability to earn income, the perceived domestic strengths of a particular husband and wife, or out of love for the other spouse—more men than ever are exchanging their role as provider for a role as homemaker and nurturer. But is this practice acceptable for Christians?
Yes, there may be seasons when a wife will need to fulfill the role of provider. A man may be injured or unable to find a job and therefore unable to provide in the way he would like. For the sake of the family, he will yield to the wife’s ability to earn income for the family. But he should desire to return to his role as soon as possible. Why? Because God has designed him to carry out his calling as a man—not as homemaker and nurturer—but as the one who provides for his family.
Given what we’ve seen in Scripture, we must conclude that it is entirely unfitting for an able-bodied man to be dependent upon his wife for physical provision, regardless of circumstances. In a home without children, it should go without saying that a man should work, irrespective of how much his wife makes (see 2 Thess 3:6-14). When children arrive, Scripture does not restrict entirely the woman from working (see Prov 31:16-18), but it does make it clear that her priority is to care for the home and her children, and that her labor for provision should honor and facilitate these priorities. Scripture, however, never relieves the man from his duty to provide.
What About a Couple’s Perceived Strengths and Weaknesses?
Occasionally I will hear couples argue for the “stay-at-home dad” position from the perspective of the respective strengths and weaknesses of him and his wife. The argument usually goes this way: “I am better at caring for children than my wife is, and as it turns out, my wife is better than me at earning income. Wisdom would compel us, therefore, to flip these traditional roles for the sake of our family.”
While I might grant that there are cases where a man may possess—due to his upbringing, education, and general interests—a greater initial capacity than his wife to care for children, I do not believe a man’s alleged superior parenting ability can ultimately surpass the woman’s ability to care for children and the home. The woman may feel or actually be deficient in the area of child-rearing and homemaking, but if what we have learned about God’s design is true, then her weakness in this area—as well as her husband’s strength—is only superficial. Because her capacity to care for children is fundamental to her very personhood and design from God, then her diligence in this area will lead to genuine growth and she will soon surpass her husband as nurturer and homemaker.
What About Income Earning Ability?
Another argument for the stay-at-home dad position comes from an economic perspective. If the wife is able to earn more than the man, then it seems financially foolish to maintain traditional roles. Individual financial scenarios notwithstanding, this kind of argument typically reveals a man and woman’s priorities. If it is true that God has designed man and woman for different roles, and that He calls us to live within these roles for His glory and our good, then to suggest that we should reverse these roles for the sake of more money shows us immediately what our heart really values. Often, couples have become attached to a certain lifestyle so they are unwilling, when children arrive, to take a step down financially in order to fulfill God’s calling on their lives. In order to ease the conscience, a couple might even appeal to wisdom for their decision, claiming that they need to plan for the future.
This is one reason why my wife and I counsel young couples to live only off of the husband’s income when they are first married. This practice makes it much easier for the couple to give up the woman’s income once children enter the picture. If couples develop a lifestyle that is based on a dual income, it will be very difficult for them to forego a second income when children come along.
While I am not suggesting that families in this situation all-of-a-sudden upend their family structure, I am saying that in light of what Scripture teaches, we must be willing to obey the Lord and trust Him to provide for us. We may not be able to afford the home, cars, and vacations we could otherwise afford, but we will be walking in obedience to Christ, and that’s better anyway.
What About Love?
Some stay-at-home dads may appeal to love in their decision to stay at home with their children while their wife works. The argument usually goes like this: “I love my wife and value her happiness. Because she enjoys and finds fulfillment in her job, I want to give her this gift to enjoy by staying at home with the children while she pursues her career.”
I certainly do not want to chide men who esteem their wife’s happiness and who seek creative ways to express love to their wives. May more and more men grow in active and attentive love toward their wives! But it is possible to believe that we are expressing love toward our wives when we are, in fact, inhibiting them from what actually best serves their happiness. We are fallen, and our minds and hearts are easily led astray from what is right and good. Love is not enough. We need to learn how to love, and what true love looks like. That is why Paul prays the way he does for the Philippian church.
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.Philippians 1:9-11
Paul desires that our love abound, not as a mere feeling, but as a godly affection guided by knowledge and discernment. Accordingly, only when our love is led by knowledge and discernment we will be able to approve what is excellent, be filled with the fruit of righteousness, and, therefore be pure and blameless in the day of Christ. Said negatively: If we do not grow in knowledge and discernment, we run the risk of approving what is actually unworthy of praise and inhibits our practical righteousness.
While I don’t doubt the sincerity of the men who say they stay at home out of love, I do question the spiritual maturity of this kind of love. If a woman has been designed and called by God to bring forth children, care for them, and manage the home, it may feel like self-sacrificial love for the man to relinquish his role as provider, but it is ultimately an act of unkindness, and therefore not true love (see 1 Cor 13:4). Nor does it qualify as Christlike love because it is not acting according to what is true (see 1 Cor 13:6).
Rather than surrendering his role as provider, self-sacrificial love in this case would probably be expressed in a man’s willingness to have some very difficult discussions with his wife about God’s design and how, in the long run, the wife’s yielding to God’s call on her life for His glory will lead to her greater happiness. This kind of love will require the man to exercise courage and to be willing to make an initially unpopular decision for the good of his family. That’s real love. It may not feel like it right away, but the Spirit is faithful to warm our affections as we walk in the truth.
1John Piper, This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 86-87.
2See Gretchen Livingston, “Growing Number of Dads at Home with Kids,” The Pew Research Center, June 5, 2014. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/ 2014/06/05/growing-number-of-dads-home-with-the-kids/.
You can read more about this topic in Derek’s book, Strong and Courageous: The Character and Calling of Mature Manhood published by With All Wisdom Publications.