Let me write this in defense of many good men who, I think, are being led down the wrong path. Let me write this in support of many good women who are being relegated to a singular calling. Let me write this because I’ve experienced this issue myself.
On multiple occasions, I’ve encountered horrible misinterpretation of 1 Timothy 5, and, in each encounter, I’ve felt that the speakers and authors are either undertrained, influenced by singular-minded authorities, or are downright malicious in their reading of the scripture. When I say malicious, I mean it seems that some people are so focused on a certain way of life- that is not otherwise supported by Scripture- that they have purposefully yanked a verse out of context to make their point, knowing full well that they violate all hermeneutical principles.
The verse I’m thinking of specifically is 1 Timothy 5:8, which 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” (ESV).
Influential Christian speakers and writers have misread this verse to mean that a husband must always be the breadwinner in a family, and that any husband or father that is not the bread winner is a sinner. They then say that out of work husbands need to take any job possible for providing for their family so that the women don’t have to work. They have challenged stay at home fathers with this passage. They also encourage young men to take the first job that comes along without long-term consideration of what would be the best path for their family.
First, they make this argument by creating a unique translation of the verse. It reads in their publications, “A man who doesn’t provide for his household is worse than an infidel.” This translation is similar enough, but a quick review of common English translations will show that translators understand the subject of this sentence to be broadly interpreted male or female. (Only the Douay-Rheims translation of 1582 uses the masculine pronoun, but probably without intending only a masculine reading.)
Second, they make this argument by ripping this mistranslated verse out of its context. I boldly say that in context this verse cannot in any way relate to how a husband provides for his wife or family. Unequivocally, this verse cannot relate to the male head of a family for one very clear reason- the man in this passage is dead!
Anyone who reads this scripture in context will quickly note that the verse is a part of a discussion about the care of widows. By definition, a man cannot continue to be the breadwinner for his widow because he is not employable as a dead person. (Of course, today, there are ways in the modern world that a man can support his family after death, such as insurance, or developing a business or legacy income. However, these expositors are not talking about that kind of support at all.)
So what’s the harm with this interpretation? Many things.
First, it is legalism that puts uncalled for pressure on both men and women. As a man who’s had a stent of being underemployed, I know how hard it can be to find employment. I’ve worked hard to get jobs, but we could not have survived without my wife’s income. To make it clear, McDonalds won’t hire me. As a man with a Master’s degree and doctoral work, I’m not a good investment. So, the suggestion that a man should take the first job that comes along just can’t work for a lot of men. I know of many other men who are in a similar boat through the difficult economy. The command for men to be the breadwinner is not a command of God, and therefore is a distraction from the Gospel of Christ.
Second, it takes away from what the Apostle Paul was talking about in this passage. Paul was talking about caring for elderly widows. His point was that families must care for one another; that the family must support their elders. To change this passage into a command for the husband misses the point and weakens what it was intended to say.
Finally, to exercise this kind of hermeneutic destroys our understanding of the Bible. When people pick and choose the way they use scripture, they may appear more holy to those that don’t know better, but they do more harm to the text than one who refuses to use the scripture at all. Surely, if these people want to make a cultural proclamation that is not supported in the Bible, they can and should make it out of an extra-biblical argument, like social research or psychology. In doing so, their arguments could be evaluated on their own merits, without opening scriptural interpretation to all kinds of abuses.
Clearly, it is good for a man to support his family. That can happen in all kinds of ways. Most, I’m sure, would like to have a full-time job that brings income to pay the bills and buys food for the family. Some will stay at home with the children. Some will work towards a carrying out of their low-paid calling. Some will seek a high education that prepares them for carrying out their calling.
As Proverbs 31 shows, women are called in a number of ways too. Sometimes, but not always, in this day, women are called to be the primary bread winners. Those women should rejoice when their incomes are sufficient to free their spouse as God calls.
Irrespective of who makes the most money in a family, the first goal of all is being a light of Christ’s love in the world, especially to the next generation. Our churches should be less about prescribing a single method for making this happen, and focus on the fact that discipleship of the children should be happening consistently in all families and faith communities.