The myth of the Proverbs 31 woman

by | FAITH + SPIRITUALITY

They say Proverbs 31 is a blueprint for womanhood. It’s not. It’s a passage that’s been misinterpreted to make women feel like their best is never good enough. The church should be a refuge from unrealistic expectations — not a purveyor of them. 

The Proverbs 31 woman doesn’t exist

At face value, Proverbs 31 provides a description of the ideal woman. It paints a picture of a woman who performs a dizzying range of roles and in the process, creates a standard that no one is capable of living up to — regardless of their talents or capabilities. Here’s what I mean: According to Proverbs 31, a woman living up to the standard of “biblical womanhood” should be a(n):

  • Adoring wife
  • Super mom
  • Third-shift worker
  • Savvy small business owner
  • Textile manufacturer
  • Weightlifting enthusiast (just the arms)
  • Selfless philanthropist
  • Vineyard master
  • Teacher of the year
  • Home-based HR manager

And what does this poor woman get as the reward for her labor? She gets to watch her husband kick back at the city gate with the husbands of all the other perfect wives.

What a bargain.

Let’s stop pretending that Proverbs 31 is pro-woman

Over the years, I’ve heard well-intentioned people interpret this passage literally, as an instruction book for the traditional Christian housewife. More modern interpreters use it to propagate the idea that women can be a Stepford wife to their spouse, a June Cleaver mom to their kids and a Sheryl Sandberg to their employer.

Neither of these interpretations is useful. Or accurate.

Maybe we’d hear a different story if the interpreters could see what I’ve seen: women in tears because they feel like they’re failing to live up to the expectations placed on them by this passage and people who peddle the insane idea that anything less than perfection is nothing.

Some of the most talented people I know are women. Lived experience proves that women can excel in whatever roles they choose. Homemaker. Parent. Professional. Pastor. And yes, president.

If you think I’m espousing some medieval notion that woman shouldn’t have careers or can’t have it all, you couldn’t be more wrong. I’m saying that doing it all perfectly shouldn’t be the bar for womanhood.

But unfortunately, the image of womanhood found in Proverbs 31 is reinforced by the media we consume. From the airbrushed images of women painted on the covers of magazines to TV shows with moms who spend their days in the C-suite and their nights in an immaculate house making gingerbread houses with their adorable kids, the expectations we place on women are beyond cruel.

With so many voices telling women they aren’t good enough, shouldn’t their faith community be the one place where they feel accepted for who they are?

Proverbs 31 isn’t actually about women

On Mother’s Day, my faith community, Caritas, engaged in a frank conversation about Proverbs 31 and the expectations we place on women.

Part of the discussion addressed the elephant in the room — the simple concept that Proverbs 31 isn’t about women at all. In fact, you can make a pretty strong case that Proverbs 31 describes something that is relevant for all of us: divine wisdom.

Throughout the book of Proverbs, the writer uses the metaphor of a woman to refer to divine wisdom. Don’t believe me? Check out Proverbs 1:20-21, 3:13-18, 4:5-6, 7:4, 8:1-2, 9:1-6 and other passages.

If the very idea of this interpretation offends you, too bad. If you’re the kind of person that thinks every word of the King James Bible must be taken literally, please don’t waste your energy sending me an email. You and I are going to disagree about a lot of things and honestly, let’s not waste our time on pointless arguments.

But whether you see it or not, Proverbs 31 isn’t a blueprint for womanhood — it’s a blueprint for life. From marriage to parenting to the workplace, this passage describes the many activities in which women and men would do well to rely on divine wisdom.

Christian spirituality should be a refuge from unrealistic expectations

I’m a husband, a father of two daughters and a former pastor. Although I’m on the outside of womanhood looking in, I’ve seen the damage unrealistic gender expectations have on women. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ve seen it, too.

The women I know tell me that they don’t need to be patronized by their faith. They just need to know that they’re not living under a microscope. And they need their church or faith community to be a refuge from the unrealistic expectations they face every single day.

The gospel is about freedom and women’s value isn’t found in the things they do (or don’t do). It’s not found in their performance in the bedroom or the boardroom or anyplace else life takes them. It’s found in the realization that we are all perfectly flawed human beings made in the image and likeness of God.

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