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. Here’s what I mean …
The Proverbs 31 woman doesn’t exist
I have no business talking about women’s issues. As a forty-something-year-old man, I’m the least qualified person to address womanhood in 21st century America. Why, then, am I jumping headfirst into the deep end of the gender pool?
Because I’m tired of hearing spiritual justifications for the unrealistic expectations that hurt women I care about.
The Proverbs 31 woman is one of those justifications. In many Christian circles, it’s the justification — the passage that is held up as an aspirational goal for young girls and a guidepost for adult women who have “gone astray.”
It’s not coincidental that most Bible translations introduce Proverbs 31 with a made-up subheading like, “The Wife of Noble Character.” You can’t get more morally intimidating than that. But the subheading isn’t the worst of it. The real problem is the passage itself.
At face value, the passage seems to describe biblical standard for womanhood that unreasonable and unattainable. If Proverbs 31 is to be believed, the ideal women should be a(n) …
Savvy small business owner
Weightlifting enthusiast (just the arms)
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 other perfect wives.
What a deal.
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.
I think it would be 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 about women at all
On Mother’s Day at Caritas Community, we 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.
If the very idea of this interpretation offends you, too bad. If you’re the kind of person that thinks every word of your 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, I don’t have time for 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.
The church should be a refuge from unrealistic expectations
I’m a husband, a father of two daughters and a 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 the 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.