Wives Shouldn't Work Outside the Home, Says SBC Official

Actress Barbara Billingsley became a cultural icon portraying June Cleaver in the TV sitcom "Leave it to Beaver," which originally aired 1957-1963.
Wives will not work outside the home, if Christian marriages follow biblical principles, said a Southern Baptist Convention official on the eve of the denomination's annual meeting.

"The wife should not be burdened with the necessity of working outside the home," wrote Tom Elliff, chairman of the convention's Council on Family Life, in the June 2003 issue of Facts and Trends, a publication of the SBC's LifeWay Christian Resources.  

In the most public and explicit way to date, an SBC official has finally said what he and other leaders avoided saying when they were criticized for a family amendment to the Baptist Faith & Message in 1998.

That statement drew nationwide media attention for telling wives to "submit graciously" to their husband. The statement also said that the wife has "the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his 'helper' in managing her household." 

When asked by a reporter to interpret the family statement, I said that Southern Baptist fundamentalists "hope to make June Cleaver the biblical model for motherhood, despite numerous biblical references to women who worked outside the home."

Southern Baptists leaders vigorously denied my interpretation, claiming they were really obeying the Bible.  

When Katie Couric, co-anchor of NBC's Today Show, cited my quote to Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he said, "Our model is not June Cleaver" but rather "the picture of family found in the Scriptures."

In an exchange on CNN's Talk-Back Live, Elliff, then the outgoing SBC president, acted as if the faith statement had nothing to do with women working outside the home.  

But now Elliff, whose committee is scheduled to issue yet another statement on families at this year's SBC annual meeting, writes that couples "must commit to the practice of biblical principles of stewardship, both in the earning and the distribution of their resources."

"Particular attention should be given to the specific roles established in the Scripture for the husband and the wife in the areas of provision and management. The husband should be vocationally focused and able to provide for his family. The wife should not be burdened with the necessity of working outside the home in order for the marriage to proceed," wrote Elliff, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Del City, Okla. 

Elliff's worldview, and that of his soul mates, reflects a perspective rooted more in 19th century than in the Bible. Making the husband the sole breadwinner and the wife his help mate and a homemaker is the fading cultural vision of fundamentalists, for whom one of the last strongholds is the SBC.

The Bible contains numerous references to women who worked outside the home: Hagar survived as a single mother (Gen 21:15-21); Jochebed worked for Pharaoh's daughter (Ex 2:8-9); Ruth gleaned the fields of Boaz (Ruth 2); the good wife bought property (Prov 31:16); and Lydia had an import-export business in dyeing purple cloth (Acts 16:14-15).  

At the heart of the matter for Elliff and others, of course, is the lordship of the husband, as opposed to partnership of the couple.

But what might this candid interpretation of the Baptist Faith & Message statement mean in practical terms? Will SBC agencies terminate their married female employees, especially those with children? Will Southern Baptist pastors instruct the women in their congregations who work outside the home to resign their positions?  

Whatever those outcomes, Southern Baptist leaders are sending a message to the Christian community that women are less-than-equal partners in marriage and American culture.

Robert Parham is BCE executive director.

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