(Old Facebook Post)

What does the Bible say about who is responsible to provide for the family? Google that question, and the first website listed will give this answer:

“A father is also to provide for his family. If he does not, he “denies the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). So a man who makes no effort to provide for his family cannot rightly call himself a Christian. This does not mean that the wife cannot assist in supporting the family—Proverbs 31 demonstrates that a godly wife may surely do so—but providing for the family is not primarily her responsibility; it is her husband’s.”

The next website references the same verse from 1 Timothy, with this commentary:

“1 Timothy 5:8 — As the head of the family (see next point), a man should provide, not just for himself, but for his whole household.”
Here, for review, is the full verse in the ESV:
“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.”

At least six of the first ten Google results1 interpret the same verse in the same way. Only one might disagree. If you base your theology on Google, then you have a pretty strong consensus: 1 Timothy 5:8 teaches that husbands and fathers must provide for their families. But is it correct?

I think there are two problems with this interpretation. First, the context of the verse is not about fathers or husbands. It is not about caring for wives or children. It is about carrying for widows. The widows are older women, not children and–obviously–not wives. The only caregivers explicitly mentioned are “children and grandchildren” (or perhaps other descendants; the second word is a general term) and “believing women.” (“Believing women” are probably mentioned because the care of widows was generally seen as the responsibility of woman; it was often considered unfitting for a single man to care for a widow relative, and a married man would usually let his wife do the care-giving.)

No direct mention is made of husbands anywhere in the context except in the qualifications for enrolling widows under the church’s care; such a widow must have “been the wife of one husband”–a one-man woman, probably meaning not adulterous. And the only roles of husbands that are mentioned (indirectly) are their roles in satisfying the passions of their wives and helping them bear children. Even when discussing how younger widows will want to remarry, no mention is made of how they might be seeking a husband to provide for them. So nothing in the context suggests that 1 Timothy 5:8 is about the role of husbands.

This raises a question: If 1 Timothy 5:8 is about the care-giving duties of children, grandchildren, and believing women, then why the masculine terms in our verse? The ESV has three masculine pronouns: his, his, and he. Why the masculine language if men are not in focus?

This question leads me to my second problem with the Google interpretation of 1 Timothy 5:8: In the Greek text, there is no masculine subject in this verse! The updated NIV reflects this accurately: “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” The Greek text, as I understand it, works like this: The first two times the ESV uses “his,” the Greek text simply has nouns with possessive endings–nouns that show that they belong to an individual, with no gender specification. Where the ESV uses “he,” the Greek has a third-person singular verb, again with no gender specification. So there is no grammatical reason to conclude that this verse is talking directly about males, let alone specifically about husbands and fathers.

Neither context nor grammar indicate that 1 Timothy 5:8 teaches that husbands are responsible to provide for their families. Does that mean they are not responsible? Of course not! I still think husbands and fathers bear a primary responsibility to care for their families. But we must base our teaching on other passages. And perhaps a corrected understanding of this verse will also allow us to hear the strength of other passages that speak of women providing for and managing their families. We men need all the help we can get!

Shopping for the perfect Bible translation?

I think we can learn a couple more lessons from this investigation:

  1. Gender-neutral translations are helpful. If you understand just a little about how gender works in the Greek, and if you understand the translation philosophies of the ESV and the NIV, for example (one favoring masculine pronouns and the other generally gender-neutral), then you can often guess what is happening on the Greek level just by comparing the two translations. The ESV tells you the Greek is singular; the NIV tells you the Greek uses language that can be–and sometimes, should be–gender-neutral. Comparing a gender-neutral translation can prevent false assumptions. (Of course, the reverse is also true!)
  2. It is futile to search for the perfect translation. “Translators are traitors,” as the famous Italian proverb goes. (I’ve always wondered what that proverb actually means in Italian!) In this case, we could ask, why does the ESV–and the KJV, and the majority of English translations–get this verse wrong? But the problem lies with the English language, not with the translators. In common English usage, we have no gender-neutral third person pronoun suitable for referring to persons2–no word for “s/he.” So translators must choose to either go with a generic (but misleading) masculine singular pronoun (as with the ESV), or else switch to the plural pronoun “they,” which is nicely gender-neutral but wrongly plural3 (as with the NIV).

There is no way to provide a perfectly “literal” and accurate translation. Even if you do this: “Anyone who does not provide for his or her relatives, and especially for his or her own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever,” then you have the problem of an awkward sentence with more complex syntax than the Greek. So there is no perfect translation. But that’s okay! If we do a little study, compare with other texts, and a possess good theological foundation, our translations are accurate enough to prevent us from adopting serious error.

So, what should we learn from 1 Timothy 5:8? If you have a parent or grandparent who needs your care–especially if he or she lives in your own house, and especially if she is a widow–then it is your Christian duty to do your best to ensure that he or she receives the needed care. Do you hear this, ladies? (And men.)

First two images courtesy of graur razvan ionut and Iamnee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

  1. At the time of this post; results will change.
  2. “It” doesn’t count, because it is used to refer only to non-persons.
  3. The NIV translators would disagree, and history will probably prove them right: “They” and “their,” if I remember correctly, were once commonly used for singular as well as plural purposes before wide-spread attempts to standardize English, and this usage seems to be the wave of the future as well. Currently, however, it still strikes many people as strange or misleading.