As the father of three boys and a girl, I’m aware of how different it is growing up today in terms of gender roles. When I hit puberty during the feminist revolution of the seventies, it was tough enough. Raised to open the door for a lady, I discovered that (at least in L.A.) this was a no-no. Confusing, to say the least. Today, kids are encouraged to experiment not only with roles but with gender itself.
We’re more confused than ever about the role of women. It’s a lot easier if you’re in either a neo-Amish type of conservative church or a mainline “more-gender-bending-than-thou” church. On one hand, women are expected to be Proverbs 31 wives and mothers; on the other hand, there is the cultural expectation for women to do it all. Schizophrenic ourselves on these questions, we unwittingly place these contradictory and unlivable expectations on our sisters in Christ.
The demands of the work world and the trajectory of biological clocks also pit both desires against one another. Women are expected to spend their prime childbearing years building their careers, although some decide at the outset to be a wife and a mother. The women who do balance work and family feel subtle yet significant pressure (often from other women) to “work at home” (Titus 2:5).
As much as we lament the breakdown of the traditional family (fueled in part by pressure for a two-income household) and gender confusion, we don’t want to turn the clock back to past cultural norms that oppressed women. I couldn’t have gone to college without my mom working outside the home, and many men couldn’t attend seminary without their wives’ tireless labors both outside and inside the home. And since churches don’t offer the support they once did for those training to be pastors, they’re hardly in a position to make their dedicated spouses feel guilty for picking up the slack.
What I want to challenge is the particular stress of being “Wonder Woman.” The issues of ambition and restlessness pressure both men and women to make work an idol. In addition to being a driver and housekeeper, Mom has to be a pastor, teacher, volunteer, social worker, and chef. More than men, Christian women are being squeezed by both ends of the culture wars. I’m not saying anything pro or con about women working outside the home; I’m suggesting that the burdens we place on women can make them anxious and drive them to expect dissatisfaction with the normal aspects crucial for the development of wisdom and nurture for the whole family.
Women do have callings outside the home—they’re not only wives and mothers, but also friends and neighbors cultivating culture in countless ways. Many also have additional callings for which they have been educated and trained. Avoiding legalism and antinomianism, we need wisdom. Each case will differ, and single women and couples should decide for themselves what is best for them, drawing on biblical principles and their own situations.
Michael S. Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation.