In American society, the belief that a husband is called to provide for his wife is quickly becoming an ideal of the past. With the rise of the new feminism movement, women are throwing off the “shackles” of expecting their spouses to take care of them and are stepping into the role previously held by men. With the backlash that comes with this supposedly antiquated view, people have begun to rethink this belief, even some within the church. This is not to say that the church has always been blameless—there are certainly instances where various groups have held beliefs and practices that have been portrayed as biblical, but when held up to the light of Scripture, turned out to be nothing more than cultural preferences couched in Christian terminology. In the midst of such serious debate, how can we discern what the Bible actually says about men providing for their wives, if anything? Is the idea of men providing a cultural or biblical idea?
In his letter to his young son in the faith, Timothy, the Apostle Paul encouraged the newly-ordained minister to faithfully shepherd this local congregation. False teachers/teaching, proper etiquette and attire in the church, standards for fellow elders and deacons, and the gospel message itself are some of the primary topics addressed in the letter. Amidst these various exhortations, we read in chapter 5, verse 8 the following admonition: “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” It seems clear that the mandate to provide is a categorical (as opposed to a contextual) one, which is helpful to know, as we want to rightly understand the author’s intended meaning, why he felt that it needed to be brought to his protégé’s attention, and how it would have been understood by the original audience.
When writing to Timothy, Paul gives concrete, particular examples of what Christian life among the household of God should look like. He reminds Timothy that the true widows of the church should be cared for in their bereavement. There were Christian women in the local church whose husbands had died and whose adult children lived nearby. In verse 4 of chapter 5, Paul makes it clear that if a widowed woman has children or grandchildren, it is their responsibility to “show godliness to their household and make some return to their parents” by providing for her. Paul then contrasts the widow with family with those he calls ‘truly widows’ in verse 5. True widows were those who had lost their husbands and had no biological family to support them. In those cases, it is the role of the local church to come to her aid and provide for her, provided that she is one who ‘has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day,’ (v.5).
Like women today, women in the patristic age worked outside the home—Lydia was a Gentile seller of purple; the wife of Proverbs 31 ‘considered a field and [bought] it’ and ‘perceives that her merchandise is profitable’. Nonetheless, since women didn’t enjoy the same economic and social independence they do today, they were dependent on their male relatives to provide the necessities of life. Provision fell to fathers, husbands, and eventually sons to ensure that those in their households had food to eat, a home to live in, and clothing to wear. To willfully neglect this God-ordained responsibility was to effectively “deny the faith and become worse than an unbeliever” (v. 8), because even unbelievers possessed sufficient common grace to know that they’re obligated to care for the vulnerable and dependent. If the unbeliever knows that, how much more should those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit? In his letter to his fellow Jews, James writes that, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (Jam. 2:15-17). To profess faith in Christ while refusing to care for those in need, especially one’s own relatives, is to show a ‘dead’ faith; essentially denying the faith and showing oneself to be less virtuous than an unbeliever.
Why is provision a man’s unique responsibility and not a woman’s? The answer takes us all the way back to the Garden, when Adam was created. Even before God brought his wife to him, Adam was given work to do; specifically, naming the animals and tending the Garden. Eve was created as his necessary helpmeet in that work, but the ultimate responsibility was Adam’s. Paul emphasizes this in Ephesians 5:23, when he says, “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church…” Authority and responsibility go hand-in-hand—Adam’s authority over Eve was not for his own self-indulgence or pleasure, but for the glory of God and their mutual good. ‘Provision’ is not simply defined in terms of material necessities—a man who supplies social and economic security for his family does very well, but that’s not the sum total of his biblical duty. Husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies and as Christ loves the church, and fathers are not to provoke their children to anger, but to bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. If men are called to imitate their Lord, then part of that example and path is to provide for one’s household the way Christ provides for the household of God.
On the heels of a serious recession, when many young families are struggling to make ends meet, the burden of this responsibility can be crushing. There are many God-fearing men who work faithfully at honorable jobs who are still unable to make ends meet—what do we make of them? Are they denying the faith and worse than a non-Christian because their wives must work outside the home, as well? It’s clear from the context of the passage that Paul is not instructing Timothy to address such men as unbelievers, but those who know of their family’s hardship, have the material means to help, and still choose to disregard their needs. Those Christian men who aspire to live quietly, mind their own business and work with their hands but still struggle to provide for their families should find grace and support in the local church through the diaconal fund.
When we see standards given to Christian men in Scripture, it is easy to be tempted to despair. Many recognize just how far short they’ve fallen in this area. We’re called to provide for our wives’ physical needs (1 Tim. 5:8), to live with our wives in an understanding way and love and care for them as we would our own bodies (1 Pet. 3:7), and to raise our children in the discipline and instruction in the Lord (Eph. 6:4). Many of us know we’ve not lived up to these standards but, instead of looking inward to all our failure, we must lift our eyes to the hills, from where our help comes: Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. He has come as the perfect provider, doing for us what we can never do on our own. He’s provided us His very own perfect life, His sacrificial death, and His triumphant resurrection from the dead. What we needed to stand right before God, He came and provided on our behalf. It is by turning away from our own sinful self-sufficiency and placing our trust in the One who is sufficient in Himself that we find the freedom to rest in Him and then, out of a loving and humble gratitude, to follow our great Provider as we provide for our own households.
Anthony English is the Assistant Director of Mission to the World’s West Coast Office and is currently enrolled at Birmingham Theological Seminary. He and his wife live in Southern California with their three boys.