Community / Faith / Family / Work and Rest

Who Brings Home the Bacon?

In the current tug-o-war about gender responsibilities in Christian marriages, many couples have the challenge of deciding who “brings home the bacon.” The tension is made more acute by the unstable economy and the uncertainty of employment. Who has the more marketable and employable skills? Then, many couples face the upheaval and imbalance created by military service, long-term sickness, or education. If she has a promising medical career before her, should he consider being a stay-at-home “Mr. Mom”?

For us as Christians, the question really is: Does the Bible speak directly to, or may we draw reasonable inferences from the Bible about who is to be the primary bread winner for the family?

As Karl Johnson (executive director of Chesterton House Center for Christian Studies at Cornell University) observes—correctly, I believe—in many ways this is a very modern question. It’s not the sort of question we would have asked prior to the modern industrial era in which the family’s income-producing economy was moved outside the home. We currently live with a dramatic operational disconnection between income-work and family-work, and this is a real challenge for us as Christians as we try to live all of life coherently to the glory of God.

While I lay no claim to being a sociologist, it seems to me that what we have now in the average American family is really a two-economy system: a non-income producing economy of the home is funded by an income-producing economy outside the home. In this two-part system, there are at least two ways families are managing these 2 economies. 1) One spouse attends to the income economy outside the home, and the other spouse attends to the non-income economy inside the home. 2) Both spouses attend to the income economy outside the home, and responsibility for the non-income economy inside the home is contracted out to hired labor (childcare, house cleaning, yard care, etc).

In the more agricultural model of pre-industrial times (and certainly Bible times), the relationship of work and family was extremely fluid, one overlapping with the other without much distinction yet not excluding the assistance of contracted labor. It’s possible that a more technologized (is that a word?) culture, at least with respect to work and family, is creating the possibility of a dynamic more like that of the agricultural model (e.g. telecommuting from home… although it didn’t work out so well for Jon & Kate Plus Eight).

Any understanding about the relationship of work and family has to begin by looking at Genesis 1-2. Work predates the Fall and is part of God’s good world and is part of the design for his very good image bearers. Men and women are jointly charged with stewardship and flourishing of the earth, both preservation and creative development, maintenance and cultivation. So, before we are tempted to think about male/female or husband/wife roles, we have to think about what is foundational—if you are human, you are made to work. It’s important that we define work as both sustaining provision (our daily bread) and creative fulfillment (fruitfulness).

As Paul elaborates in Romans 12:1-2, our work is worship, a spiritual service primarily offered to God. “I appeal to you,” he writes, “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” And if specific acts of work are a consequence of spiritual gifting, then work is also for the edification (the building up and completing) of those we serve by our work. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).

Certainly part of “the common good” is income-generation or wealth-production for the benefit and provision both of self and others. But it gets complicated within the context of the family since income is only one of several significant priorities important to sustaining the family system in general and a Christian family in particular.

Having offered these brief background thoughts, let’s return to the main question: “who brings home the bacon?” The short answer is that I can find no explicit directives in Scripture given to families for identifying whether the husband or wife is to assume responsibility for the production of income. I believe one reason for this is that the Bible does not regard money as the standard by which we value our selves or our accomplishments. In our modern culture, money has become the standard of worth, not person or work.

Nevertheless, I don’t believe the Bible is completely silent on this question of income-producing responsibility, but its wisdom comes to us more by way of inference.

The husband is given the responsibility of being head of the family. However, the primary focus of this responsibility is sanctification—taking the lead, setting the tone, of submitting his life to Christ as a means of saving grace so that (as St. Paul states explicitly in Ephesians 5) his wife may be presented to Christ gloriously whole and holy. Paul also encourages spouses and parents to shape marital and parental decisions with the Spirit’s sanctifying work in view (1 Corinthians 7:14). So, how we order our family life (including who brings home the bacon) has the goal of encouraging sanctification.< Does the way we are ordering our work and family responsibilities move us more and more toward Christlikeness and closer and closer to relationships that affect sanctification and wholeness in Christ?

There is the very practical consideration of childbearing and rearing. Because women and wives bear children, it seems very natural for men and husbands to bear primary provisional responsibilities during that season of life. However, how seriously do we take the need that children have for the nurture and presence of both parents? The task of provision does not exempt a father from nurturing his children, nor does the task of childbearing exempt a mother from contributing to the provision of the family.

When children are in view, does the way we distribute the responsibilities for nurture and provision fully engage both parents, regardless of whether that provision is income producing?

Then there is the general sense of male/female differences. Generally speaking, men and women value different priorities in life and in marriage. Security tends to be a priority for women—men know this because this is what they attack when they use their power against women. Security for women is important in part due to the general difference in physical strength between men and women, a difference that tends to make women more attentive to relationships. Men, by contrast (and in part because of their physical strength) tend to be more task-oriented—their identity hangs more upon what they can accomplish. Because of these differences men tend to see themselves and be seen as the material providers. However, following these general distinctions, women then tend to see themselves and be seen as the non-material providers, as the providers of what is needed for the sustaining of relationships. But these are generalizations that prove more or less accurate in individual situations.

What then are factors that might contribute to sorting out the decisions about ordering the family?

1. Husbands, are you taking the lead by laying down your life for your wife’s sanctification, the process of her becoming more and more glorious, more and more like Christ?
2. Wives, are you supporting your husband’s leadership by laying down your life for his sanctification?
3. Are you sharing in the mutual responsibilities of nurture and provision? Are you valuing each other for the contribution the other is making?
4. Are you looking at your life as worship? Or, is the “good” in life wholly determined by economics, the quantifiables of money and accomplishment?
5. How are you using what is currently in your hands (nurture and provision) for the common good? The distribution of God’s material provision is not merely for self and family, but also as his means of grace to your neighbors and to your Christian fellowship.
6. Are you focused on more deeply uniting your lives, or do you continue to feel the pull of and the need for individual distinction, accomplishment, and affirmation?
7. Are you growing in your trust in God—that he will care for you as his beloved children and that he will provide for all you need? And as a consequence, are you growing in your trust for each other, a deepening confidence that each is seeking and committed to the other’s highest good?
8. Are you trusting your own intuitions in cultivating discernment and making wise decisions, or are you leaning on the means of grace in the community of God’s people?

This is not a formuliaic or simplistic yes/no answer. However, it is the most faithful answer I can offer given what I understand the Bible teaches. The bottom line is that God does not give us a script that makes decision-making simple. I think one of the significant reasons God frames our lives in this way is so that we lean hard on him—were we self-sufficient and independent, we would have little need for him, and a life lived apart from his grace would be disastrous for us.< To all those prayerfully considering how to honor your Lord and King by ordering your family wisely, obediently, and for his glory, remember that the Spirit of God is present with you as you pray, study, discuss, listen, and learn. Do not be immobilized by the myth of having to make the perfect or ultimate decision. Like the manna God provided, you will have wisdom for today’s decision, even the wisdom to refine yesterday’s decisions. If you find yourselves getting angry at or withdrawing from each other, you may be sure that the real issue at hand is not the bacon.

Finally, do not forget that bacon is one of Satan’s most effective ploys to defeat and distract you in your marital and parenting relationships. Do not underestimate the fact that in handling money you are opening yourselves up to the idolatry of money even though the occasion for taking up the discussion is your desire to honor God in our family. Be on guard. Don’t be afraid, but don’t be naïve. You will face pressure to comply with the demands of culture and parents to shape your family to please others. But your goal is to make decisions as faithful stewards of the grace entrusted to you, so that, paid and unpaid, inside and outside the family, all your work is to the glory of God and the good of those you serve by your work.