In two previous articles we saw that men are called to lead and protect those under their care. We now turn to the third responsibility: provision. We look again to our definition of mature manhood.
Out of a heart of courageous love, mature manhood senses and assumes a God-given responsibility to lead, protect, and provide for the temporal and eternal benefit of those under his care.
Like the first two responsibilities to lead and protect, this instruction is preceded by the qualification that mature manhood “senses and assumes” the duty to provide because there may be times when he is unable to provide for his family due to injury, health, or temporary unemployment. The man’s ardent desire to provide, however, will remain, and he will do what he can to aid in this area of provision and probably wrestle with frustration when he is unable to do so. In such a case, a mature man who is unable to work will sense that it is his responsibility, although he will not be able to assume that responsibility.
The notion that men should be the primary providers for the family has come under attack in recent years. To suggest that men are given the unique responsibility to provide material sustenance to their families through their daily work is to bear witness that you are trapped in a past age of misogynic societal conventions that promoted, implicitly and explicitly, the oppression of women. Modern feminism, so the narrative goes, has freed us from such tyrannical thinking and enlightened us to the truth that women are just as competent as men to provide an income for the family, and should be given equal opportunity to work outside the home without hindrances of repressive cultural expectations. The idea that men are uniquely called and designed by God to provide for their families is a notion best kept in the dust bin of history.
While this is not the place to provide a full history and critique of the feminist movement in America, it is useful to note that not all women feel this way about the merits of feminism or the supposed repressiveness of traditional roles where the man provides for his family and the wife cares for the home and nurtures the children. Several women within the evangelical tradition have written extensively in order to defend the biblical view of men and women’s roles and demonstrate the weaknesses of feminism.1
Nor is it my aim to question women’s competence in comparison to men. When it comes to the ability to provide for her family, women have proven themselves over and over to be competent, highly-valuable employees and skillful entrepreneurs. In the case with single mothers, some women have no choice but to enter the workforce in order to provide for their children. The issue is not one of competence or ability, but of design and order. Scripture itself exalts female entrepreneurship and recognizes the worth of a woman who earns income for her family (see Prov 31:16-18, 24). But Scripture also teaches us that God has designed the man and the woman to fulfill specific roles and responsibilities that correspond to our respective genders. I want to look at Genesis 3 with special attention on what God did after Adam and Eve sinned.
Immediately after God confronted Adam and Eve, He made a promise of redemption: from Eve’s offspring would come a man who would destroy the serpent (Gen 3:15). What the serpent did by tempting Adam and Eve, and what the couple had done by disobeying God would someday be undone. But after offering His first couple with this profound encouragement, God leveled them with the curse.
This curse would affect the man and the woman differently. But it is how the curse would affect the man and woman respectively that is particularly instructive. As we will see, God cursed the man and the woman with respect to their roles. Notice first God’s words to Eve and then to Adam:
To the woman He said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in child-bearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
And to Adam He said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten the tree of which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground; for out of it you were taken, for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”Gen 3:16-19
Eve would experience the curse in her specific calling to bring new life into the world. Adam, however, would endure God’s curse in the sphere of his calling to bring forth bread and produce from the ground. One might argue that the curse upon the ground will be Eve’s to bear as well. Therefore, we don’t have warrant to draw conclusions about male and female roles from this passage. While it is true that Eve would, in some measure, experience the “thorns and thistles” of daily existence in a cursed earth, what we must notice is that each curse was intended to touch upon the uniqueness of the man and woman’s respective roles. Only the woman, for example, is able to bring forth new life. The man is biologically and physiologically unable to bear and birth children. The woman’s calling to bring forth new life is unique to her as a woman. The man’s calling to bring forth bread and produce from the ground is unique to his calling as a man.
Notice the parallel language between these two curses (emphasis added):
To the woman He said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in child-bearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
And to Adam He said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.”
First we see the announcement of the curse. For Eve, God would multiply her pain in child-bearing. For Adam, God would curse the ground. Second, God explains how they would each experience the curse. In both cases, Adam and Eve will bring forth the fruit of their labor in pain. As one author explains,
When God creates the first human beings, he commands them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) and builds into them unique characteristics to carry out this task. The Creator designs the woman to bring forth and nurture offspring. Her name, Eve, means, the Scriptures tell us, “the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20). The cosmic curse that comes upon the creation shows up, for the woman in the pain through which she carries out this calling—birth pangs (Gen. 3:16). The man, as the first human father, is “to work the ground from which he was taken” (Gen. 3:23). Adam, made of the earth, is to bring forth bread from the earth, a calling that is also frustrated by the curse. In this, Adam images a Father who protects and provides for his children.2
These parallels highlight that God had cursed Adam and Eve according to their particular, God-designed roles as man and woman. While it is true that the woman did not have similar restrictions when it came to producing bread from the ground—she is biologically and physiologically able to perform such tasks—it seems most plausible to see God’s assignment of the curse as relating specifically to roles that were unique to Adam and Eve’s respective manhood and womanhood. The remaining biblical narrative will affirm this interpretation, particularly the New Testament.
For example, we find in Paul’s letters a consistent pattern of instruction regarding how men’s and women’s roles differ according to what we just saw in Genesis 3:16-19. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul provides his young pastor with a detailed plan of how the church should care for widows. Older widows were to look first to their family for support so that the church can avoid needless financial burdens. Such an arrangement pleases God and corresponds with His commandment for children to honor their parents (1 Tim 5:3-4; cf. Exod 20:12).
But if a widow meets certain criteria—she is older than sixty and has a reputation for godliness—the church is obligated to provide for her material needs. Younger widows, however, are not to be enrolled in the church’s widow-support program. The reason for this restriction is because a widow without children who receives financial support from the church will be tempted toward idleness, gossip, and conducting herself as a busybody (1 Tim 5:13).
What is Paul’s solution to this potential problem? “So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander” (1 Tim 5:14). In order to avoid a slothful, unprofitable lifestyle, Paul would have the young widows in the congregation marry, bear children, and manage their household. For the woman to pursue these activities is for her to walk in step with her God-given design. Paul gives similar instruction in his letter to Titus, in which he offers some important instruction on discipleship within the church.
Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.Titus 2:3-5
The content of the older women’s instruction to the younger women should be, among other things, specific guidance on how to love one’s husband and children, and work profitably at home.3
But if we go back to Paul’s instruction concerning the older widows who can receive provision from her children and grandchildren, we will find the man and his role mentioned in the passage in the context of a stern warning. Paul says, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8). To whom is Paul talking with this statement? He is speaking to those adult children who have mothers or grandmothers who are dependent upon them for material provision (v. 4). If these children or grandchildren do not supply their widowed mother or grandmother with what she needs, these men have “denied the faith and are worse than an unbeliever.” Why such a serious charge? Because even unbelievers know intuitively that it is a healthy adult child’s responsibility to provide for his parents and grandparents.
What is most interesting in this passage concerning our discussion of men and women’s roles is that Paul addresses the man when he levels his warning about not providing for one’s widowed mother or grandmother. “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8, emphasis added). To Paul, the distinction in roles between the man and the woman with regard to provision was clear. Such a distinction is seen elsewhere in Paul’s writings.
In his second letter to the Thessalonians, for example, Paul rebukes strongly those who have, in their supposed zeal for spiritual things, neglected their duty to work for a living.
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.2 Thess 3:6-15
Drawing from his own example of hard work and his refusal to financially burden anyone in Thessalonica, Paul instructs those who have neglected work to turn from their laziness and “work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Thess 3:12). Notice, however, the nouns and pronouns Paul uses throughout his admonishment: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. . . . If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thess 3:10, 13-15). While it is likely that there would have been single women in this congregation who needed to hear this admonishment to labor productively for one’s sustenance, the instruction is aimed primarily at the brothers at this church, I would argue, because Paul recognizes that men have been uniquely designed and called by God to work and bring forth food from the ground (see Gen 3:17-19).
There is also an important parallel to note between this passage and the passage in 1 Timothy 5:13-14. In the case of younger widows, Paul helps them avoid idleness and gossip by pursuing marriage and attending to the home and children. Similarly, Paul would have the men in Thessalonica avoid idleness and a lifestyle characterized by useless meddling by attending to profitable work (2 Thess 3:11). In other words, a woman avoids the snare of laziness when she attends to her calling as a woman (managing the home and children) and the man avoids the snare of laziness when he attends to his calling as a man (working to provide).
The calling for a man to provide for his family is brought into even sharper focus in Ephesians 5:25-33.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.“ Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
According to this glorious passage of Scripture, a husband’s calling by God is to love his wife as Christ loves His church. And how does Christ love His Church? By laying down His life for her and by pursuing her holiness by washing her with the water of the Word. In the same way, Paul tells us, men are to love their wives as their own bodies. Why? Because according to this passage and the passage in Genesis it references, the woman is his own body. The man and his wife are “one flesh,” and it is obvious no one neglects or fails to care for his own body. It only makes sense, then, that the husband would nourish and cherish his wife.
The word “nourish” is particularly significant for our present discussion. This word, ἐκτρέφει (ektrephei) is used throughout the Septuagint and the New Testament to refer to rearing children (see Eph 6:4). But it also refers specifically to supplying another’s physical needs.4 Note how the word is used in the story of Joseph:
Genesis 45:11: [In the land of Goshen] I will provide for you, for there are yet five years of famine to come, so that you and your household, and all that you have, do not come to poverty.
Genesis 47:17: So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys. He supplied them with food in exchange for all their livestock that year.
Given these uses, therefore, we are able to conclude that Paul’s intent in Ephesians 5:29 is to instruct the Christian men to provide for their wives just like Christ provides for his wife: spiritually and physically. 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.”5 A man’s masculinity hangs on whether or not we 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.”6 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?
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, 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. The 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 we’ve studied, 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.Phil 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 will we 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.
Provision and the Single Man
For the single man, this inherent calling and sense to provide for women will not presently find an outlet in providing for a wife and children. An important question, then, is how does a single man fulfill this calling? Here are a few ideas. First, you may have a mother or grandmother or a sister who needs help financially (see 1 Tim 5:3-4). It might be the case that God has called you to fulfill your calling to provide by caring for your relatives. Second, you can give to your local church generally, but also specifically to a benevolence fund or widow’s fund if one is available. Third, when going out to a meal with a group of ladies, you can offer to pay for the women’s meals. Fourth, if there are single mothers in a local congregation, you may sense a desire to help provide for her in a way that is fitting and appropriate. Finally, it is the calling of all Christians to work to provide not only for themselves, but for those in need (see Eph 4:28). Single men, therefore, have the opportunity to provide for countless needs in their church and wider community. These are just a few ideas, but they demonstrate that it is possible and desirable for a single man to fulfill his calling to provide, even if he is not providing for a wife and children.
God calls men to courageously exercise leadership, to protect the vulnerable, and to provide for others. This is a heavy burden to bear. And if we attempt to bear it apart from the gospel, our leadership, protection, and provision will be bereft of humility and love.
Everyday, therefore, we must remind ourselves of the glorious truth that Christ Jesus has fulfilled every aspect of biblical manhood perfectly in our place. We do not lead, protect, and provide in order to get right with God or to make Him love us. We already have all of His favor through Christ. His love for us is immovable, and we are secure in Him. God has designed that we fulfill these massive commands from the security of our salvation, not for it. And when we fail—and we often will—the gospel supplies us with hope for the future. We have a loving Father who is ready to forgive our sins, pick us up, and place us back on the path of godly manhood. When we refresh our minds regularly in the good news of God’s love to us through Christ, we will be able to say along with John, that God’s commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:3) and with our Savior, that His yoke is easy (Matt 11:30).
- For example, see Jaye Martin and Terri Stovall, Women Leading Women: The Biblical Model for the Church (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008); Elizabeth Elliot, Let Me Be a Woman (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1999); Carolyn Mahaney, Feminine Appeal: Seven Virtues of a Godly Wife and Mother (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004); Courtney Reissig, The Accidental Feminist: Restoring our Delight in God’s Good Design;Dorothy Patterson, “The High Calling of Wife and Mother in Biblical Perspective,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 364-77; Dee Jepson, “Women in Society: The Challenge and the Call,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 388-93; and Elizabeth Elliot, “The Essence of Femininity: A Personal Perspective,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 394-99.
- Russell Moore, Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 70.
- Of course, not all women will be married, and not all women who are married will be able to bear children. In these cases, it might be more challenging for a woman to avoid temptations to idleness. Given Paul’s commendation of singleness, however, we can have confidence that women without a husband and children can live a life of fruitful service to God (see 1 Cor 7:8; 34-35). But the reality that some women may never marry or have children does not change the fact that Paul recognizes a fundamental difference between men and women’s roles. Generally speaking, the man is expected to be the provider, and the woman is expected to care for the home and children.
- Frederick William Danker, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd edition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 311.
- John Piper, This Momentary Marriage, 86-87.
- See Gretchen Livingston, “Growing Number of Dads at Home with Kids,” The Pew Research Center, June 5, 2014. Accessed February 24, 2017. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/06/05/growing-number-of-dads-home-with-the-kids/.