Session 7 - True Womanhood and the Work of Women in the Church
A wife of noble character who can find?
- The new woman or true womanhood.
- Over one hundred years ago, a debate emerged in churches of
the restoration movement as to the nature (as well as the role) of women
in Christ. Two basic positions anchored this debate.
- True womanhood Fathers left the home for the
workplace and women were left with the chief responsibility for maintaining
the home and providing spiritual and moral training of children. The
roles of wife, mother and homemaker were idealized (Victorian era).
Attributes which were emphasized included purity, piety (perhaps moral
superiority), submissiveness, and domesticity. There was also the
implication that the ideal woman was passive, had little interest
in sex, dependent, deferential and childlike (men were considered
superior in mind and body). For this reason, women should not seek
the right to vote.
- The new or real woman - Stressed the survival
ethic of the working-class woman and encouraged women being physically
fit, receiving a well-rounded education, and working outside the home
(if necessary) while at the same time loyalty to family and home.
Did not reject male headship. Did not support the womens rights
movement but did support womens right to vote, womens
reform societies (such as the Womens Christian Temperance Union),
and a more public role for women in the church. She knows the
world around her and takes an active part in it.
- These two descriptions of the characteristics of the Christian
woman probably reflect a reasonable spectrum of views among churches
of Christ today. For example, the description of the new
woman is pro-family yet encourages education and working outside the
home (which would prepare the wife, if she were to lose her husband
to death or divorce, as well as the single woman to meet the challenges
of living without a mate). The description of the true
woman emphasizes the focus of many Christian women today upon the
centrality of the family in the womans life and especially the
spirituality (piety) of the Christian woman.
- Proverbs 31 provides insight into the nature of women in the Old Testament
and is relevant to this longstanding debate regarding the ideal nature
of Christian women.
- The Status of Women in the Ancient Near East.
- Status as wife A girl was expected to marry on reaching
puberty. Betrothal arrangements were usually made by the father yet the
girl had some freedom in the choice of a husband. There probably was mutual
love and warmth between husband and wife (unlike some texts would lead
us to believe). The wife was expected to care for the husband and his
household and present him with children. Wives worked actively at household
chores. Though polygamy was accepted, monogamy was the rule among persons
who were not from royalty. Sterility was almost always considered the
fault of the wife (and could lead to a concubine or divorce). If she was
widowed, her care fell to her sons. The beauty and charm of women were
typically valued (love poems of Egypt and Mesopotania).
- Economic status A woman could own property (bought, sold and
leased fields) and invest income from the property. They might develop
a cottage industry (such as textiles). They might work outside the home
in food and textile industries. Almost all women were uneducated formally.
- Legal status Rape was punishable by death when the woman was
married or betrothed or when the man used force. If a man sought a divorce
through no fault of the woman he usually had to pay a fine. A wife who
was abused could deny her husband conjugal rights. In the case of adultery,
the woman was always considered the guilty party.
- Religious status Women played a minor role in cultic life. Sacred
prostitution was practiced in some places. Women, however, were prominent
- Political status Women from all strata of society on occasions
ascended to the leadership of their countries (e.g. a low born female
tavern keeper was the founder of the Third Dynasty of Kish).
- The worthy woman. (Proverbs 31: 10 31)
- Basic comments on the text.
- This is an acrostic poem -- a poem in which the first letters of
successive lines in Hebrew appear in alphabetical order (each of the
22 verses begins with one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet
in alphabetical order, perhaps making this easy to memorize -- see
Psalms 112.) This is the most complimentary passage about women in
the Old Testament.
- The author of this section is apparently King Lemuel (perhaps a
symbolic name for Solomon or an ideal king means
dedicated to God) but the section has been anticipated earlier in
the book (18:22). The woman described is probably not a specific person
but rather an ideal type (Lemuel was warned about another type of
woman by his mother 31:2, 3). The admonitions of a faithful
mother are followed by the praise of a wife of noble character.
- Although polygamy was permitted under the law, we see no hint of
it in this passage (or in the entire book of Proverbs).
- There is little evidence that the woman in this text is in any
way the weaker sex. (v. 17) The woman is said to be wise
(as the women of Tekoa [II Samuel 14:2]) but for the most part is
praised for her industry and economic abilities (not necessarily considered
- She has not usurped authority in the family nor oppressed the poor
given her independence (as did the Samaritan women in Amos 4:1), but
rather works in the service of her family and the poor.
- Nevertheless, she is most independent, especially given customs
in the East during this time (contrast with an Egyptian proverb of
the fifth century BC, Let you wife regard your wealth; do not
trust her with it).
- The text.
- A wife of noble character means strength of character
and assumes an active force. (v. 10 --see Ruth 3:11 where the phrase
is also used).Who can find? A rhetorical question (an
exclamation of praise) compare with Proverbs 20:6.
- She is a liberated woman but has not turned her back
on the family. In fact, her husband has full confidence in her (this
is what is meant by the heart of her husband trusts in her
in some translations).
- Though her husband is head of the family, he has left household
(and business) management to her. (v. 11) She manages affairs very
well. (v. 12) He apparently is involved in political and spiritual
matters (he sits at the center of public activity). There is no evidence
that their roles clash.
- She not only labors, she enjoys her labor. (v. 13)
- She does not stay at home (like the merchant ships, she brings
things to the home from afar, that is, buying in the best markets,
even if they are at some distance). (v. 14)
- A lamp is always burning during the night in Eastern houses. Because
it was small, the woman must arise during the night to replenish the
oil and at that time often began her daily tasks (Man may work from
sun to sun, but womans work is never done). (v. 15)
- She buys a field. This is more responsibility than usually indicated
in the Old Testament for women (and more status). Except under certain
circumstances, women could not own property and the circumstance described
here would probably not qualify (v. 16)
- Strength and vigor (v. 17) may sound somewhat strange for the weaker
sex yet it indicates this woman prepares herself for unhindered
work (she rolls up her sleeves).
- She evaluates her work with satisfaction (v. 18). She continues
her work into the night, perhaps because she feels good about her
- Even though this woman appears to be of high rank, she works hand
in hand with her servant girls (she stretches out her hands to useful
work). (v. 19)
- The woman shares her prosperity and from the context, it appears
she shares this independently. Literally, she opens her arms to the
needy. (v. 20) Her life is home centered, but not confined to her
own home. She takes an active interest in the community.
- The houses were not heated except for a small pot of charcoal.
Scarlet was chosen because it absorbs the heat. It snows on average
about two times a year in Jerusalem (just a ground cover) but it can
snow more. Climate in Jerusalem is very similar to Raleigh. (v. 21)
- She dresses and makes clothe suited to her station in life (she
is neither excessively plain nor ostentatious in her dress for purple
was valuable but her clothes were linen, not silk). (V. 22)
- Her husband sits in the opening of the gates (the chief place of
public life). It is her industry which permits him to do so, that
is, she is partially responsible for his position at the opening of
the city gates. (v.23)
- She makes linen, again a reference to her industry. Her products
are not ordinary. What she makes here is probably a girdle for women
which was a luxury item. (v. 24)
- She is invested with a moral force which protect her against care
and worry. Because of this (and her industry) she has no fear of the
future but rather laughs at what may come. (v. 25)
- She is not without intellect and wisdom. She is not merely a good
housewife, attending to the material interests of the family. Perhaps
this wisdom derives from her ability to look after her household and
her concerned for the poor, that is, a practical wisdom. (v. 26)
- Her eyes are turned everywhere in concern for her household. She
never ceases being diligent and conscientious. (v. 27)
- She is praised by her children and her husband (her work does not
go unnoticed). She is not a trophy wife, for she is not
praised for her beauty or charm. (v. 28)
- This verse (v. 29) appears to be spoken by her husband. She is
praised for her noble character, her excellence.
- Beauty, charm and perhaps sexual attractiveness are not mentioned
among her positive qualities (in fact, they are considered misleading
in judging her worth). She is not praised for her knowledge of scripture
nor for her spiritual leadership, yet she clearly is a faithful believer
in the Lord. (v. 30)
- Her works speak for themselves (literally the fruit of her hands)
and she should be given the benefit of her labors. Use of her hands
is mentioned many times in this section. If the author literally means
that she should be praised in the gates, this would be extraordinary
in the East during this period of history. (v. 31
- Comments upon the text.
- The picture painted of the wife of noble character is an ideal
picture. Many women described in the O.T. might have come close to
the description in Proverbs (Miriam [Micah 6:4], Deborah [Judges 4,
5], Ruth, Abigail [I Samuel 25], Esther, the Shunammite woman [II
Kings 4: 8 37], and Huldah [II Kings 22:14]). These women were
exceptional but perhaps the woman in Proverbs was the ideal to which
any woman might aspire.
- Most commentators note that there is a clear division of labor
indicated in this text. The clear division is that the woman had many
responsibilities but she was not the spiritual/political leader of
the family or the community (she was not called to sit at the city
gate). (This woman is not a Deborah, leading Israel.) The primary
responsibilities of the woman were domestic, though the boundaries
of the domestic stretched far beyond the home itself. Israel remained
- Regardless, her activities were widespread and included buying
and selling, manufacturing and land ownership.
- The text refers to a married woman and we cannot abstract the role
of the single woman from the text easily. Nevertheless, the independence
of the married woman in this text might suggests that the characteristics
described would apply to the single woman (except in reference to
- Conclusions from the text.
- Even in patriarchal Israel, the activities of the woman of
noble character were widespread and clearly were more similar to the new
woman than the true woman. The influence of Victorian society
(and the Victorian ideal) upon the early Restoration movement is real
and must be considered when seeking to understand the characteristics
of the ideal Christian woman. In fact, the O.T. suggests many models for
both women in extraordinary situations (such as Deborah) and women who
were in ordinary situations (such as the woman of noble character in Proverbs).
- The conflict within the Restoration movement regarding the role of
women during the 19th century , however, was not present in Israel in
relationship to the activities of the noble woman. Rather, the sinful
woman is singled out as causing strife, e.g. Proverbs 6:20 35.
- The characteristics of the woman of noble character that might be abstracted
from the text in Proverbs 31 include:
- She is independent in most matters.
- She is energetic (not a picture of the weaker sex).
- She has far reaching responsibilities (especially economic).
- She is active beyond the boundaries of the home.
- She is concerned for the welfare of persons beyond the boundaries
of the home.
- She exhibits practical wisdom (not necessarily womans
- She is a teacher (probably in the home and probably usually through
- She is primarily focused upon the welfare of the family.
- Her role is primarily that of a wife and mother.
- She fears the Lord.
- She is known for her works.
- She is not focused upon physical beauty or charm.
- These characteristics must be considered in light of a new covenant,
yet they are remarkable in and of themselves given the status of women
in the ancient Near East.
- Craig, D: A Worthy Woman. Salem Oregon, Valor Press, 1983.
- Lewis JP: The capable wife (Prov. 31:10 31) , in Osburn CD (ed.):
Essays on Christian Women in Earliest Christianity. (Vol. II). Joplin, MO,
College Press, 1995, pp. 155 - 180.