What is the biblical role of a woman as a wife and mother? Where can we find practical principles for success in these and other challenging roles of a woman?
Human history gives a very confusing picture of the proper role of women in the family and in society. In some cases she is the dominant figure, while in many cultures and throughout much of history she has been viewed as second-class at best, and little more than property or chattel at the other extreme.
What did God really intend when He created Eve?
In the beginning …
The Bible gives many examples of women, including those who were righteous and those who were wicked, those who were strong and those who were weak. Through these examples, we can glean lessons about God’s intended role for the women He so lovingly created.
If we go back to the beginning, in Genesis 2:18, we see Eve was created after Adam as a “help meet for” (King James Version) or “helper comparable to” Adam. What does this mean? Was she just an afterthought?
After creating Adam, God gave him the task of naming all of the animals. It seems clear from verse 20 that this was to show Adam that none of them were “comparable” or suitable for him. To show Adam how special the woman was, God created her from a part of Adam himself—his rib, thus indicating that husband and wife truly are one flesh in God’s sight.
Then we read, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Together they were complete and whole.
“Help meet” in the Bible
The expressions “help meet” or “helper comparable,” found in the King James Version and the New King James Version respectively, are sometimes viewed negatively. But God did not intend woman to be a weak or inferior person.
The Hebrew word translated “help” or “helper” is used 21 times in the Old Testament, and most of those are in the context of the help that would come from God Himself. God’s help would not be weak or inferior!
The role God created for Eve was that of strengthening the family. Adam was not complete by himself, and Eve was given the ability to help him build that completeness.
The woman’s role is not lesser or inferior, but it is different from the man’s. And God does not leave her without additional instruction in Scripture on her proper role.
Submit to your husband meaning
For many today the word submit is a highly offensive term. Some go so far as wanting to take it entirely out of their wedding vows, in spite of God’s instructions. Through the apostle Paul, God tells wives to “submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). What does that mean?
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines submit as “to yield to governance or authority … to yield oneself to the authority or will of another … to defer to or consent to abide by the opinion or authority of another.” Submission is yielding, consenting to the authority of another, in this case to her husband. Submission as God intended is something that must be given, not something that should be demanded or enforced. Within marriage, it is an act of love and respect!
God clearly gave the man the role of leader in the family (Ephesians 5:23; 1 Corinthians 11:3). It is important to note that husbands are charged with submitting to the authority of Christ. (God gives the husband further instructions for his role in the family, which we will discuss in an article on the man’s role.)
A wife is not to submit to her husband’s abusive or ungodly behavior, and a husband must not demand submission from his wife to yield to any of his abusive or ungodly behavior. But when both roles of submission are being righteously lived, it is far more likely that there will be peace and harmony in the marriage.
Study more about the biblical principles for happy marriages and families in our study guide 5 Keys to Improving Your Marriage and our articles “Building Strong Families” and “7 Characteristics of Healthy Families.”
Characteristics of a Proverbs 31 woman
The Proverbs 31 woman has often been held up as the premier example of a woman, wife and mother.
These 22 verses were written as an acrostic, each starting with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. “The phrase a virtuous wife speaks to excellence, moral worth, ability, and nobility, not just marital fidelity . . . Such a woman is the ideal of wisdom in action” (NKJV Study Bible, note on Proverbs 31:10).
What can we learn from this section of Scripture about the woman’s role?
In verses 11 and 12 we read that she has her husband’s complete trust, because he knows she will not do anything that would damage their family. This kind of trust and understanding would not happen without an open line of communication between them. In her submission to her husband she works together with him to fulfill their family goals.
So we see she is trustworthy.
The phrase “her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land” in verse 23 means her husband is a respected member of the community. This is instructive because it would be less likely if she were to bring shame on him by her words or actions.
She is honorable.
The praise from her husband (verse 28) reveals the strength of their relationship and his appreciation for her work. She is genuine and has a heart of service. She is a keeper or protector of their household—their family (verse 27).
Her love and care for her children is also evident. She looks out for their needs (verses 15 and 21) and makes sure they have good food and appropriate clothing. The fact that her children praise her (verse 28) shows they have been taught respect for and appreciation of the efforts of others.
She is a loving mother.
This strong woman has an impact well beyond just her own family. She is fair to those who work for her (verse 15), helps those less fortunate (verse 20) and is always wise with her words, never falling into gossip or foolishness (verse 26).
She is a godly woman.
What we find is a picture of a strong, confident and godly woman. She recognizes her talents and uses them well.This woman also has a good head for business. We read that she buys a field, makes a profit and then invests in a vineyard (verse 16). She even has her own business (verse 24) and is competent with all the aspects of manufacturing and marketing. She is diligent and industrious, and we can see why her husband trusts her so much!
She is wise and resourceful.
What we find is a picture of a strong, confident and godly woman. She recognizes her talents and uses them well. While she is involved in many activities both inside and outside the home, the center of it all—the hub around which everything revolves—is her family.
New Testament application: Titus 2 woman
We see some of these same characteristics in Paul’s instructions to women in Titus 2. He encourages the older women to “admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands” (verses 4-5).
What about the concept of being a “homemaker”? Does the instruction for a woman to be a “homemaker” mean that she is never to work outside the home or participate in other activities outside the home? Is the Proverbs 31 woman in conflict with Paul’s instructions to Titus?
The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Commentary says that the Greek in Titus is more clearly understood as “guardians of the house.” To be a guardian is an important job. It means to be entrusted with the safety and protection of something or someone else.
That “something” is her family! Whatever activities a woman participates in—working outside the home or volunteering or pursuing hobbies—the primary focus of it all should be the protection, strengthening and building up of her family.
Women and church
Are there things a woman should not do because of her gender? God does give some instructions.
In 1 Corinthians 14:34 women are instructed to “keep silent” in the churches. What is Paul saying here? Is a woman to close her lips the moment she walks in the door of the church building and not say another word until she leaves? Or was this, as many today want to claim, merely an instruction to satisfy cultural norms of that time?
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary states, “Paul now turns to the role of women in public worship, the implication being that men were to lead in worship.” The reference is to the formal preaching done during church services.
Expositor’s continues, “The command seems absolute: Women are not to do any public speaking in the Church. This restriction is not to be construed as demoting women.” The only New Testament examples of public preaching were by the ordained ministry of the Church—always men (1 Timothy 3:1). It simply is not a role God has given to women.
Consider also 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Paul cannot be forbidding women to ever teach, because there are numerous scriptural examples of women teaching (2 Timothy 1:5; Titus 2:3-4, to name a few). So this must be speaking of a specific circumstance.
The Greek word for “authority” is authenteo, which means to domineer over or have mastery over. Paul is saying he did not put women in Church roles that should be fulfilled by a man. One of those roles defined in Scripture is that of pastor, minister or public teacher of the Word of God. This role is one God has reserved for men.
However, this does not prevent women from performing many other roles.
Role of women in the Bible
For example, here are some of the roles women performed in the Bible:
- Miriam (Moses’ sister) composed and sang a song of praise (Exodus 15:20-21) and was referred to as a prophetess.
- Deborah served as a judge in Israel (Judges 4 and 5). We find in Judges 4:4-5 that the “children of Israel” (not just the women) came to her for judgment.
- Priscilla worked together with her husband, Aquilla, in several contexts, including teaching the Scriptures to an individual (Acts 18:26).
- Paul praised many other women for their service to him and others in the Church. This includes Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2-3), Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis (Romans 16:6, 12). He describes Phoebe as a diakonos, an example of the role of “deaconess” (Romans 16:1, Revised Standard Version; see 1 Timothy 3:11).
- Women were to be converted as well as men. It was always God’s intent that both men and women would equally receive the gift of the Holy Spirit ( Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17-18). Galatians 3:28 also shows that gender does not matter in our becoming the children of God.
These, along with many other scriptural examples, show strong, competent and godly women fulfilling important roles.
Roles of single women and widows
But what if a woman is single or a widow? How do these principles apply to a woman who does not have a husband?
Look again at Ephesians 5:22, where we are told that a woman is to submit to her “own” husband. Paul does not say that a woman is to submit to every man.
If a woman does not have a husband, she is by default the head of her household. (An obvious exception is if she is still living at home. In that case she should submit to her parents as the head of the home—as a young man should if he is living at home.)
Yet she must always submit to the authority of Christ as the ultimate head over her family unit.
The fact that a woman does not have a husband does not change the instructions given to her regarding her role in church services. The “spiritual household” structure of the congregation does not change because a woman is unmarried or single. If she has a question that she cannot find an answer to, she should go to one of those who are set up as leaders in the congregation. This would follow the principle of a married woman going to her husband as the leader in her family.
The role of a godly woman
History shows that the proper role of women has been largely misunderstood. Yet God’s purpose was clear from the very beginning, with the creation of Eve. God designed her to have a very important role in the physical family and in God's spiritual family, now and for eternity.
Her creation, like Adam’s, was unique. She was presented to her husband as someone to complete him. She is not lesser or inferior, but has a special role to fill as guardian of the family.
Strong, resourceful, resilient, wise, loving, tender and nurturing are all words to describe the woman, whom God designed to be the perfect counterpart to the man. And her spiritual potential, as with a man, is to be a child of God (Galatians 3:28) in His Kingdom for all eternity!