Can stay-at-home Dads be “real men”?

I guess I came in late for this controversy: from 2008 there’s a YouTube clip of a famous preacher and his wife, responding to the question: “What are your thoughts on stay-at-home dads if the woman really wants to work?”[1]

“Too many guys take too little responsibility” was part of the answer, one with which I fully resonate. We have a culture where men play at being boys well into their adult years. At a time when their fathers and grandfathers had buckled down to marriage and a job or were off fighting Nazis, some guys focus on playing the field or playing paintball until they’re, well, practically my age. The women are complaining, as they ought to be. These guys need to hear a Word about their behavior.

But let’s put them to one side, since the gist of their response was something else: If men are not the primary bread-winners in the family, they are not doing “what the Word says.” Parenting must be done principally by the mother, not just “anyone,” not even the father. The idea of a father staying at home to focus on raising children is a perverted idea, taken from our modern culture, not the Bible. These men are “conformed to this world.” Such behavior would even by “a case for church discipline.”

Okay, let’s see what the Word really says. They based their opinion on 1 Tim 5:8 – “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8). Here the ESV version uses masculine pronouns (his, he) to represent what is really generic language in the original. Our case is a prime example of how we read verses as applicable to men, when in fact they apply to everyone. Here “his or her” would be an appropriate translation: men and women are worse than unbelievers if they do not provide for their household. [2]

Let’s go further: in 1 Timothy, as in all the New Testament, “household” does not mean the nuclear family of dad, mom and minor children. Households in that time typically included the extended family of in-laws, uncles and aunts, grandparents and cousins. In fact, this passage demands to be read that way: it refers to a widow who is asking the church for financial support, but her Christian relatives – perhaps people who live under the same roof! – aren’t taking care of her. Those children or grandchildren should “care for, or provide for” their mother or grandmother. Even your pagan neighbors might be offering their aged parents support and a roof over their head – will you do less than they?

1 Tim 5:8 speaks to men and women who think the church should give their aged relative financial help, while they themselves have not done what they can. It has nothing to do with who is the breadwinner. It has nothing to do with male and female family roles. It doesn’t even have to do with earning a salary and sharing it.

The picture we have of Dad going off to work while Mom stays at home with the children, even teenaged kids, is hardly a biblical one. It owes as much to culture since the Industrial Revolution as to the Scriptures. In 1st-century society there would be less division between bread-winner and stay-at-home parent. Fathers usually worked in or near their homes and spent much of the day with their children nearby. When the boys were young teens, they would work alongside of their fathers rather than spend time at home with their mothers – past a certain age, fathers did the primary raising of the boys, mothers of the girls.

When Paul said that women should be “busy at home” (Tit 2:5), he didn’t mean as opposed to working at a job, but busy as opposed to gadding about, not in their own house, but wandering “from house to house” (see 1 Tim 5:13; might a modern parallel be, “wandering around other office cubicles rather than tending to her own”?). Even within Paul’s circle of friends, women worked as the primary bread-winner (Lydia, Acts 16:14, whose trade in super-luxurious purple cloth probably means she was an internationally networked businessperson) or worked side-by-side with their husbands (Priscilla, Acts 18:3, who helped make tents – decidedly a step below Lydia on the economic ladder!). If Priscilla and Aquila had children – and there’s no reason to supposed they didn’t, the New Testament usually doesn’t mention if a family has kids – then both parents were around to raise them. I see no verse where Paul takes Aquila aside to rebuke him for raising children or permitting his wife to work.

There are too many cases of men who are lazy or lack direction; we are up to our chins with Peter Pans. But let’s not hassle those real men among us who choose to raise their own kids.

Related posts:

‘Dad, are you my priest?’ The role of the father in the Christian home

I’m a Dad – what does God want me to do?


[1] The other half of the question was “Or even if both want/need to work?”, but this part was not addressed in their answer. [Update: It’s now okay to reveal that the preacher in question is Mark Driscoll, and that he was speaking at Mars Hill. He has since lost his ministry, in part because of what some (myself included) perceived to be his anti-women bent and his abuse of power in general (, misogyny and power abuse often go hand-in-hand). However, my observations here have to do with this particular approach to parenthood, not with any one preacher’s articulation of it.]

[2] For readers of Greek: 1 Tim 5:8 had τις/tis, the indefinite pronoun being correctly rendered as “anyone” in the ESV, so as to refer to men or women. Nevertheless, the ESV goes off-track with των ιδιων/ton idion, which does not mean “his” household, but is generic, “his or her household.” The main verb ου προνοει/ou pronoei should not be rendered “he has denied the faith;” this time, the verb is generic (no subject is stated), meaning “he or she has denied the faith.” Paul is thinking back to 5:4, correctly rendered in the ESV as “if a widow has children or grandchildren [in the Greek, the “children or grandchildren” could be male or female], let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents.” Thus: men and women should provide for their families. The NRSV of 5:8 has “And whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for [immediate] family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” This is not a “politically-correct” or unisex translation of the verse, but a solidly literal one.

“Can stay-at-home Dads be “real men’?” by Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Professor of New Testament at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

10 thoughts on “Can stay-at-home Dads be “real men”?

  1. This post is old, but I just found it. I won’t type a long explanation, but just a simple thank you. Your wisdom here is so refreshing and we needed this today. Saying a prayer of blessings for you right now.

    1. Hi there! Oh, I’m pleased you found it a blessing! Did you notice the two links to similar articles at the bottom of the page?

      Many blessings, Gary

  2. I think that this post is fantastic! Every believers need to read this…there is so much within the church that is based on American culture rather than Biblical context. Thank you so much.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Mark! It’s an easy trap to fall into, I know it is for me:
      I believe the Bible
      I believe this about XYZ.
      Therefore, what I believe must be biblical.

  3. Good thoughts, Gary. Thanks. Especially on the cultural bearing of our usual thinking here.
    How would 1 Tim.5:14 fit into all this? Seems like it (especially with the use of oikodespotein) indicates some kind of mother priority in the immediate affairs of child rearing? Your thoughts?

    1. Hey Fred, always a pleasure!

      First of all, I think the Pastoral Epistles are meant to be normative instruction, as is the rest of the canon. I’m not at all happy with a glib label of “oh, that’s just cultural.” On the other hand, taken from another perspective, every verse of the Bible is “cultural” in that they are written within a particular culture: God’s truth incarnate, not unattached from the world.

      With regard to the fascinating 1 Tim 5:14, I would say that the verb oikodespotein means something like “manage a household” rather than the more specific “keep house,” which in English has certain implications that Paul did not intend. It’s a managerial term. It could be applied to a mother with one small child and a tiny home; it could apply to running what in effect would have been a home industry.

      Interesting enough, the cognate noun oikodespotes (“manager of the house”) is a term that was applicable to men or women. In fact, the references that I’m looking at in non-biblical koine texts seem to point to men or God with great frequency. The New Testament uses it 12 times, and it looks pretty certain that all 12 references are to male heads of households. He would be “master of the house;” or in a reference to a woman, she would be “mistress of the house.” See the reference to the head of a large farm in Matt 13:27; a large vineyard in Matt 20:1; the master of the house where Jesus took the Last Supper in Mark 14:14, Luke 22:11. The word is applied to Jesus himself in parabolic form in Matt 10:25, Luke 13:25. So, I would take the verb in 1 Tim 5:14 to be work that would be appropriate for women or men.

      So why does Paul say that women should be doing “managing the household”, and also that they should be “carrying out household duties” in Titus 2:5? In 1 Tim 5, the problem is young widows – and in that culture, a widow could be a young teenager. Paul sets out two alternatives: widows go from house to house, are idle and gossip. If that is going to be their behavior, they should remarry, have children and carry out their household duties. So it’s either be a gadabout and neglect your work, or do your work, which would usually be domestic. Paul does not consider a third option, such as Lydia’s running a dye import business: in instructions of this type, he expresses himself in broad terms and doesn’t want to dull his teaching with a thousand qualifications.

      In Tit 2:5, older women too should manage their households and be otherwise righteous in their behavior.

      But, in the same way, a man (a candidate for “overseer”) also should “must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive,” that is, manage the household and have a role in rearing children (1 Tim 3:4, 5). The dark side for men would be similar to the sin of a young widow, being “idle talkers and deceivers” (Titus 1:5) as opposed to keeping to their work.

      Thus, for both men and women, that is, those in the social position of having a household, should faithfully carry out their work in managing it. I certainly don’t wish to say that they have identical roles, especially since, as you say, child-bearing (he does not say child-rearing) is a part of the woman’s work in 1 Tim 5; nevertheless, it strikes me that we approach the question from a modern perspective, which tends to isolate “work” from “home”, making it easier to say “man at work, woman at home.” That also makes it easier to picture “mom at home with the kids, dad with the kids when he’s not working.” In the 1st century, as in many cultures over the centuries, home and work were overlapping categories, and the roles of men and women were not so neatly partitioned.

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