The Proverbs 31 Wife (Complementarian Edition)

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Matthew Shallenberger

I recently read through the book of Proverbs. When I got to Proverbs 31, the well-known chapter about the virtuous wife, I couldn’t help but notice that some of the things the virtuous wife does seem contradictory to the complementarian model of marriage.In complementarianism, men and women have distinct roles in both home and society.

Men take the leadership role as the authoritative head of the home; women take the supporting, submissive role, and are not to usurp the authority of men. In decision-making, women might give input, but men have the final word. If there is disagreement about how to move forward, men have the tiebreaking vote.I imagined how this chapter might read if it was modified with complementarian ideals. For example: “She considers a field and buys it” (but not before consulting her husband); “out of her earnings she plants a vineyard” (only after her husband has given his approval).Or:“She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue” (but she only instructs other women and children; it would be wrong for her to teach a man).And of course:“She watches over the affairs of her household…” (but her husband always has the final say in any decisions).Then lastly:“Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate” (but make sure to acknowledge her husband is the head of their home and is ultimately responsible for everyone in the family).

The truth is that the Proverbs 31 wife doesn’t fit into the complementarian mold; she shatters it. She exhibits leadership qualities, makes financial decisions for the family, plans and prepares for their future, and shows great wisdom and an ability to teach others.And these are things for which her husband praises her. He is not threatened by her business acumen or her leadership ability. There is no indication that he reserves the right to review her decisions to have the final say.

On the contrary, she is portrayed as capable of independent thought and action, and her husband is not just OK with it, he encourages it.Marriage works best as a partnership, with open communication and shared decision-making between husband and wife. Both men and women are capable of rational thought and both contribute to the leadership of the family. Management of various aspects of the home should be based on competency, not on gender. For example, if a woman has a keen mind for business and numbers, it makes more sense for her to manage the family finances than her husband who has little interest in such things.What I see described in Proverbs 31 is a partnership where the husband trusts his wife and puts full confidence in her abilities, rather than a complementarian or patriarchal system where he must have the final word on everything, and his wife must always submit to his decisions. He empowers her to reach her full potential; he does not restrain her so that she can never surpass his limitations.

It’s time we reconsider whether complementarianism is really a biblical model, or simply a traditional cultural model onto which we’ve imposed a proof-texted interpretation of Scripture. The Proverbs 31 wife is not a quiet, retiring housewife who exists simply to fluff her husband’s ego and carry out his whims. She is a boss! And she is presented as a model for women everywhere. What lessons might we learn from her today?

Photo by Carli Jeen on Unsplash