Few topics produce as much discussion, concern, and even anxiety as the topic of money. Most of us spend a good portion of our days trying to earn, save, and figure out how (not) to spend it. In the context of marriage, financial pressures and the constant need to make decisions about money can sometimes be a strain. In fact, one 2012 research study published in the Family Relations journal, Volume 61, found that couples who argued about money early in their relationships were at greater risk for divorce. One of the authors of the study, Dr. Sonya Britt, stated quite clearly in a Huffington Post interview that “Arguments about money [are] by far the top predictor of divorce. It’s not children, sex, in-laws, or anything else. It’s money – for both men and women.”
Clearly, money matters. In this third article in our series on gender and Christianity, we examine some different perspectives on the relationship between gender roles and handling family finances in Christian marriage. Our goal is to explore this complex and important subject from several angles while offering some scriptural references to help you reflect on and draw your own conclusions about those points of view.
Money and Work
In the familiar clichés about the “traditional” household (Christian or not), men go out to “work” and earn money while women stay home. To find such a household most of us would have to travel back in time and into the imaginary world of black and white TV. “I Love Lucy” and “Leave It To Beaver” featured couples who resembled this stereotype. Shows like these, and the stereotypes they represented, reflected and perhaps reinforced the notion that work was something men did. The fact that men worked was more evidence of their status within the home: their going out to work and earn was another sign of their leadership. Women’s work was either invisible or trivial. Houses on those shows were always clean and well furnished, and neither Lucy Ricardo nor June Cleaver ever seemed to be doing too many household chores.
“Arguments about money [are] by far the top predictor of divorce. It’s not children, sex, in-laws, or anything else. It’s money—for both men and women.”
Even back then, however, real life was quite different for most people in the U.S. and around the world. Many households then, and most households today, are supported in whole or in part by women who earn money. Still, even with the tremendous social and economic changes since World War II when there was a great surge in the number of American women working outside their homes, the notion that men ought to work and be the primary wage earners hasn’t completely faded away: these supposedly “old fashioned” cultural expectations about gender and work seem to linger. Moreover, changes in women’s work patterns and social status—the fact that so many women work outside the home and are treated more equally in society—mean that this lingering stereotype can become a source of tension in families. In other words, the linking of men to family leadership and family leadership to earning money can make things tricky when husband and wife contribute equally to household finances. It can get even trickier if a wife earns more or if a husband does not earn income at all. For many couples, these kinds of issues do arise, especially if a couple believes in a model of family relationships that designates men as leaders. Even if they don’t hold to such a model, couples still have to negotiate personal and cultural expectations about who earns money and what that means for a relationship.
Insights from Scripture
The questions for Christian couples are not just “What does culture reflect or value?” or “What works for us?” but rather, “What insights and guidance can the Bible offer us for negotiating these matters and handling finances in a responsible way?” The Bible has a lot to say about money. It reminds us to be generous (Luke 12:33); it warns us against greed (1 Timothy 6:10) and against taking bribes (Psalm 15:15); and it repeatedly calls us to avoid overvaluing money by making it more important than anything else (Mark 10:25; Luke 12:19-21). The Bible also offers us clear instruction about work, calling on us to avoid laziness (Proverbs 10:4; 12-24) and to work to support ourselves and our families (1 Timothy 5:8). A number of verses emphasize the fact that a willingness to work is clearly a very important character trait. It should be noted too that Scripture never says that one has to work for wages in order to prove that one is not lazy. Honest unpaid labor (for example, most household chores) is never singled out as different from, or less valuable than, paid labor.
We would also be hard pressed to find biblical passages that prescribe how men and women, or husbands and wives, should work. Indeed, people represented in the Bible were largely farm families in which every able bodied person contributed to the family welfare in one way or another. Moses was a shepherd; his wife Tziporah tended her father’s sheep. Rebekah, the wife of Abraham’s son Isaac, tended flocks and watered camels. Ruth, David’s great-grandmother, famously gleaned in the fields to support herself and her widowed mother-in-law (Ruth 2:1-6). In other words, biblical accounts show both men and women working.
[In the bible] honest unpaid labor (for example, most household chores) is never singled out as different from, or less valuable than, paid labor.
Proverbs 31, the much quoted passage on the “Virtuous Woman,” also sheds some important light on the matter of gender and work. The passage offers an extensive description of a woman who buys and sells merchandise and property (31:14-16), sews her own clothes (19, 24), cooks for a household (15), gives to the poor (20), and plans for the family’s financial future (21, 27). To top it all off, she’s extremely well dressed (22). There’s no mistaking that this is a working woman, and the chapter emphasizes the importance of everything she does. I once heard a commentator note jokingly that when the husband of this woman is finally mentioned in the passage, he’s not working; he’s sitting down chatting! (Proverbs 31: 23). Kidding aside, it is clear that the woman’s diligence, wisdom, business sense, and kindness help to support husband, family, employees, and needy people outside her household. The Proverbs 31 woman is building and leaving a great legacy. It’s also worth noting that this isn’t a depiction of a particular woman; it’s a portrait of an ideal type. In other words, the passage offers a general model of how a woman of virtue would act. Scholars have also noted that in the Hebrew this passage is an acrostic: it’s arranged so that it’s easier to memorize. Some suggest that that indicates a desire on the part of the author, who is inspired by God, to have people take special note of the passage.
Proverbs 31 therefore shows us a woman doing all kinds of work on a large and small scale while supporting her family and others. It says nothing about a requirement to restrict her earning potential. It says nothing about the work that a husband in such a household would do. In light of the passage, then, it appears to be quite difficult to defend a position that married women are obliged not to work out of some kind of deference to their husbands.
If, then, the Bible calls all of us to avoid laziness and handle money carefully, regardless of our gender, and if a significant passage of Scripture (Proverbs 31) depicts a household in which a woman manages financial affairs and supervises the earning of household income, then it would seem that the cultural cliché that men are required to be the only or even the main “breadwinners” in a household is at odds with scriptural teaching. Proverbs 31 gives strong support to the notion that wives can, and indeed should, use their energy and talents to help support their families in whatever way they can.
Questions to Consider
In a previous article in this series, I described two common models that are often used to frame gender roles within marriage. The first, the “complementarian” model, sees marriage as the union of people with different roles and responsibilities. In this model “husbands hold positions of authority and primary responsibility within the family, although that authority manifests itself mainly in sacrificial love.” As I noted before, “believers in the complementarian model hold that these different roles (husband as primary decision-maker and final authority; wives as essential and important helpers who inform but ultimately defer to that authority) are God-ordained from before the Fall.” (For more on gender roles and family leadership see the article “Following the Leader” in New Identity Magazine, Issue 22)
Although the kind of work men should do is not specifically prescribed anywhere in the Bible, men’s work often correlates with their leadership position in this model of married life: they often are the primary or sole breadwinners in their families. But that is not inevitable. Ultimately, even couples who choose the complementarian model for their relationship must decide whether or not a man’s status as leader requires work outside the home, or precludes a woman’s work outside the home. Can a man lead only if he is the sole or primary breadwinner? Is a woman’s working outside her home somehow a threat to that leadership? Those are some of the questions “complementarian” couples need to work through. The Proverbs 31 passage discussed above would suggest that the answer to the second question is “no,” but the cultural expectation that men be providers might lead some to conclude otherwise.
The egalitarian model of marriage, in which there is no designated leader or head, and both husband and wife contribute to family life according to the couple’s inclinations and talents, is perhaps the more common model within Christian families and in the culture at large. Although the question of leadership doesn’t seem to be as important here, practically speaking, because American culture links money to social status, the spouse who earns more money can be seen to have more say in decisions. For these couples, one question that arises is quite simply, “Does higher income equal de facto leadership in a relationship?” Indeed, significant differences in income could disturb the whole notion of total equality on which this egalitarian model rests. Therefore, couples who embrace this model have choices to make about how each spouse’s earnings could affect their roles at home. Furthermore, since the egalitarian model doesn’t necessarily require that women work outside the home to contribute to the couple’s well-being, there’s nothing to prevent avowedly egalitarian couples from dividing up labor traditionally with the wife working at home and the husband being the primary wage earner. The question then becomes how to maintain that sense of equal value and equal status when each spouse’s financial contribution to the family is significantly different. A couple in that situation would need to buck the cultural trend that privileges paid labor outside the home over unpaid labor within it.
Living the Life
In our previous article in this series, we heard from married Christians who embraced different models of family life and were living out their decisions day-to-day. One of the women interviewed, Mandy Myers, described her own consciously complementarian marriage to her husband Ben as one that “didn’t fit the stereotypes” of an oppressive, male-dominated marriage, and was instead flourishing and mutually rewarding, with both spouses striving to love, respect, and honor each other in their different roles. Asked about money matters, Mandy noted that she was the one who oversaw the family finances because she had more of the knack and inclination to do so. For their family, Ben’s leadership role doesn’t preclude Mandy’s handling the money matters. The couple has this arrangement even though Mandy works mainly inside her home raising their 3 children, while her husband works outside the home as a writer and professor.
Maureen McGowan, whose 38-year marriage to her husband Winston is probably best described as a mix of the complementarian and egalitarian models, has worked in and outside her home at different stages of her family life. She says she “always planned to be at home” if she had children, “especially during their formative years.” She attributes the decision not to a cultural expectation or a religious conviction, but to her own “pretty personal views about how children should be brought up.” She adds that another important reason for her choice was that she had seen “some destructive things happen to children because both parents were working.” While she says she and her husband never considered the idea of him staying home permanently, she doesn’t believe that being at home is solely a wife’s responsibility. In her mind, “whoever has the gifting for it, both the willingness and the ability” should stay home with children. Maureen did note, however, that while her status or respect within her family didn’t diminish because of her decision to stay home, it definitely affected the way people in society saw her. “Society considers things in terms of ‘onlys,’ not recognizing that you have different skills and different abilities” she notes, “so you’re ‘only’ a housewife [if you stay at home].” Reflecting on changes in attitudes toward stay-at-home mothers, she adds, “in my later years I think people have recognized the value of [staying home to raise children] and have validated me for it.”
“Society considers things in terms of ‘onlys,’ not recognizing that you have different skills and different abilities.”
Hartley Robertson, a husband and father who also leans toward the complementarian model of marriage, believes that couples need not make salary differences a point of contention in marriage. Asked about his view on the matter, he says, “The verse that comes to mind immediately is ‘submit yourselves one to another’ (Ephesians 5:21), so there has to be mutual submission regardless of who makes more money or who is more educated. I think generally it’s easier when the man is making more than the woman because the cultural mindset is that the man should make more money, but if there’s mutual submission, if you realize that ‘you know what, we’re all in this together,’ then it can work.” Referring to the experiences of close friends, he says, “I know people for whom it’s a real problem. I know someone who married a woman who was more educated, so she made way more money. It used to really bother him. But [this person] said because she never talked about the fact that she was making more money, or spent as if she was making more money and just acted like everything was theirs, it worked.” Hartley affirms that “the aspect of mutual submission makes the marriage work well regardless of who is making what. In that light, if you keep in mind 1 Corinthians 13, then money should not matter. Of course, that’s in a perfect world, [but] if you go in on the principle of what love is, if you think of what love is, and you submit to one another, then you should be OK. You’re building a life together so it doesn’t matter if you bring in $5 dollars and I bring in $20 because we’re all in this together.”
Negotiating the cultural expectations surrounding gender, work, and finances is not always easy, but as we’ve heard from these Christians who are dealing with these very questions, it is not impossible either. Many Christian couples can and do manage to minimize the possible sources of contention about this aspect of their finances. A few things seem to be crucial to their success. Here are just a few of those:
1. Seeking God’s guidance on the proper use of money.
Money is a key aspect of life, whether or not we’re married. If we are striving to live well as Christians, we can and should seek God’s guidance through prayer, reading Scripture, and asking trusted Christian friends and mentors for advice. Instead of depending on our own wisdom, or just doing things the way we feel like it at the moment, Scripture calls us to make decisions carefully, always in the light of God’s word. Things should be no different when it comes to money matters.
2. Valuing unpaid domestic work.
Whether we embrace the complementarian view of male leadership in households, or the egalitarian view that there is no designated leader, we need to value all the necessary unpaid work that supports a household, whether that work is done by a husband or a wife. How much is it worth to have a clean, safe place to return to at the end of the day? How much is it worth to have the kids cared for and kept safe? How much is it worth to have someone oversee finances and pay bills? Many people—most of them women—do that kind of necessary, invaluable work day in and day out and receive neither pay nor thanks. Love calls us to respect those kinds of contributions, if for no other reason than that they make it possible and easier to work outside a home.
3. Refusing to attach personal value to income.
In Matthew 10:29, Jesus reassures the disciples that they are precious in God’s sight. In John 3, Jesus also teaches that we are so precious that God sent his only son to die as punishment for sins. That’s how much each of us is worth. In light of those truths, we can and should see ourselves and each other as far more valuable than our pay stubs say we are. Whether we make $1 a day, $7.50 an hour, or $500,000 a year, we are precious in God’s sight. Income levels have nothing to do with worth, inside or outside of marriage.
Finally, as you consider these money matters in relation to questions of gender and family life, take time to reflect not only on what the Bible teaches about money, but also about love—God’s love for us and the ways that we are called to love each other. Feel free to ask for guidance in handling this and all the other matters that make up our daily lives. Pray for wisdom as you make choices. God hears our prayers and promises to provide the answers and guidance we need.