Scriptural Roles of Women: Proverbs 31
Proverbs 31:10-31 is the popular passage of the “excellent” (ESV) or “noble” (NIV) wife. Complementarians have cited this passage as an example of what “biblical womanhood” looks like. There is even a ministry named after the chapter of the passage. From these observations, it is safe to say that this section of Scripture plays note-worthy part in the identity and role formation of women in complementarian circles. So what’s all the fuss about? In this post, we will look at complementarian and egalitarian interpretations of this influential text.
Dorothy Patterson claims that “Proverbs 31 contains a full-length portrait of a godly heroine finished in minute detail.” She also states that “keeping the home is God’s assignment to the wife” and “these characteristics describe God’s ideal woman—committed homemaker, chaste helpmeet, upright and God-fearing woman of strength.” Patterson also goes on to note:
“The Hebrew word hayil, translated “virtuous” but more literally ‘strength,’ is found also in Proverbs 12:4; 31:29, and Ruth 3:11. It is further translated as activity, ability, valor, wealth, efficiency, endurance, capability, energy. This ‘woman of strength’ enjoys dignity and importance in the administrative affairs of her home. She is a valuable helpmeet for her husband. She is a complement to her husband and a necessary completing part of his being.” 
In Patterson’s interpretation, the wife’s autonomous actions (see v.15-22) are interpreted in light of the framework of family — and, contextually, rightly so, since it is a passage about a wife.
For traditional complementarian application, we see women embracing their roles as “stay-at-home” moms and wives, sometimes even discouraging young moms and wives to obtain jobs since “God did give the husband the responsibility of providing for the family.” One of the “coveted tasks”, as Patterson puts it, for womanhood is raising the next generation until they are fit to leave the houshold. In some ministries, this passage is used as a “guide” for women to reflect these interpretive conclusions. It is not uncommon to see this passage cross-referenced with Ephesians 5:21-32, either in selected verses or as a whole, in discussions of the role of men and women.
We see this structure, at least in thought, of “men = breadwinner/wife = homemaker” dominate much of human, and obviously church, history. However, in America, this structure is dwindling: In 2002, only 7 percent of all U.S. households consisted of married couples with children in which only the husband worked.
There are parallels to be drawn between Lady Wisdom and The Wife. Jane Webster notes:
“…the language used to describe Sophia mirrors the description of a good wife (31.10-31).’ Like Sophia, this good wife is sought and found (3.13; 8.17; 31.10, especially 8.35 and 18.22). Once found, she is more precious than jewels (2.1-4; 3.14-15; 31.10) for she brings life (3.13; 8.17, 35, 36; 18.22; 31.10). Like Sophia she works with her hands (8.27; 31.13). She too speaks wisdom (1.23, 30; 31.26) and is concerned with the ways of her household (2.12; 31.27), nor does she eat the ’bread of idleness’ (31.27). Like Wisdom she is praised (31.28). Finally, the ’woman who fears the Lord is to be praised’ (31.30) and ’the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord’ (9.10). Thus, similar expressions and descriptions align the good wife and Sophia in parallel construction.” 
One could say that, in a sense, The Wife is the personification of Wisdom.
In the complementarian interpretation, the interpretation of The Wife in the structure of a “housekeeper” seems to downplay her autonomous work by dominating the interpretation within the context of family. However, John J Collins notes that the Wife is “”no mere homebody but an efficient businesswoman”. She buys fields, gardens as a hobby, makes a profit trading, takes care of the poor, makes linen garments and sells them, and is praised by her husband, who happens to be a leader in the city, making the praise somewhat more meaningful in terms of social structure. These actions do not confine her to her house as a “homebody”, but rather as someone who is praised “at the city gate” - a woman known around town.
A critical interpretation from the probable male authors of this passage also adds dimension to the text:
“The women of the text are seen through the male lens, with only hints of counter-voices and female authorship to suggest that this cultural ‘wisdom’ might be mistaken, or at least incomplete. Women are understood by means of the roles, good or bad, which they play in men’s lives.” 
Drawing from this line of thought, we see the author creating a passage that fits within his culture and what he is familiar with. Scripture speaks to the culture it was directly written to, God speaking through to the culture in terms they understand. Moving from this observation, egalitarians can see why women were assigned these roles in the texts - tradition, culture, lack of education, religious reasons - and move on interpretively to their modern situation - change in tradition, culture, education, religious reasons. These texts, recontextualized, can embody a new meaning for a new time. As Fontaine notes:
“…even a proverb with negative content about women can be strategically deployed to teach the opposite. Where proverbs are used to restrict and bind, their citation can be undermined in a variety of ways in the arena of performance, opening the group to new directions in action and thought.” 
While some may question the interpretive process, one does not have to look far to see that all applied texts read away from their originally intended audience are re-contextualized. How far one decides to take the meaning and application is hotly debatable. This is one of the underlying issues with the complementarian and egalitarian perspectives.
What are your thoughts on Proverbs 31?
 Georgia Purdom. “Genesis and Biblical Womanhood”. (http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v5/n2/biblical-womanhood). Purdom: “In Proverbs 31 we see a picture of a woman who works hard to supply her family with food, clothes, and income and whose lamp does not go out at night. […] we are told as women to make our “home work” the top priority.” || “Biblical Womanhood: How the Bible Defines Femininity”. (http://www.relevantbibleteaching.com/site/cpage.asp?cpage_id=140011648&sec_id=140001239) “The Biblical ideal is for men to provide for their families and for women to stay at home to raise the children. Unfortunately, this will not always work out perfectly, and both men and women need to be willing to adapt and be flexible and understanding. If it is possible for a mother to be with her children and raise them, then there is no Biblical reason to excuse her from not doing so.”
 Proverbs 31 Ministries: “About Us”. (http://www.proverbs31.org/about-us/). “Proverbs 31 Ministries is a non-denominational, non-profit Christian ministry that seeks to lead women into a personal relationship with Christ. With Proverbs 31:10-31 as a guide, Proverbs 31 Ministries reaches women right in the middle of their busy day through free daily devotions, radio program, speaking events, conferences, monthly magazine, resources, online communities, and Gather and Grow groups.”
 Dorothy Patterson. “The High Calling of Wife and Mother in Biblical Perspective”. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Editors: John Piper and Wayne Grudem. Pg. 373.
 Ibid. Pg. 374.
 Ibid. Pg. 380. Patterson spends about 5 paragraphs on this page discussing the issues of young moms/wives obtaining jobs. However, she concludes “This is not to say that there are never times when a woman should seek employment outside her home. Nevertheless, are we coming to a day when a woman’s employment outside the home is the rule rather than the exception, leaving no one to give primary attention to the home and to producing the next generation.[?][sic]” (Pgs. 380-381)
 Patterson cross references Ephesians 5:22 herself. Ibid. Pg. 378.
 Population Reference Bureau, “Traditional Families Account for Only 7 Percent of U.S. Households”. (http://www.prb.org/Articles/2003/TraditionalFamiliesAccountforOnly7PercentofUSHouseholds.aspx)
 Jane S. Webster. “Sophia: Engendering Wisdom in Proverbs, Ben Sira and the Wisdom of Solomon”. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 78 (1998). Pg. 66
 Michael R. Hermanson, “The Personification of Wisdom in Proverbs 31:10-31” Th.M. Thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 40.
 John J. Collins. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. Pgs. 69-70.
 Carole R. Fontaine. “The Proof of the Pudding: Proverbs and Gender in the Performance Arena”. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 29.2 (2004). Pg. 194.
 Ibid. Pg. 196