Most Christians probably don’t think of Proverbs 31 as a controversial passage of Scripture, but to a single woman, it can feel like a slap-in-the-face. The description of the “Excellent Wife” is often held up as the Biblical standard for a godly woman. It seems to require a husband and children in order to meet this Christian standard of womanhood. As my sister was preparing to finish her journey through her One Year Bible, she commented that she wasn’t looking forward to her encounter with this passage. I wrestled it out with this passage several years ago, so I am writing this for her and anyone else who struggles with this.
First of all, Christians need to better understand that not everyone’s life is going to look the same. The example given to us in Proverbs 31 is a woman who has a husband and children, which certainly is the most common life path throughout human history. But it is silly to think that marriage or motherhood, itself, makes a woman more excellent or godly. These things change a woman’s roles, but do not magically bestow better character. I believe that Scripture will not contradict itself, and I believe that it is all “profitable for teaching.” (2 Tim. 3:16) These principles allow me to know that a woman can be excellent and godly when she is unmarried.
An excellent wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Proverbs 31:10, 30
Proverbs 31:10 begins the relevant passage in a way which suggests that the main audience for what follows is actually men. Men are the ones who would be looking for a wife. The thesis of the passage is verse 30: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.” While this is instructive to women, again it seems more pointed at men. It is men who are susceptible to a woman’s charm and beauty. The book of Proverbs includes several warnings for a young man to stay away from the “forbidden,” adulterous woman, and to instead cling to his own wife. To then instruct a young man in the kind of wife he should seek, is an appropriate way to end the book. This Proverb instructs him to look for a woman who will be the kind of wife that brings him honor and helps him to prosper. He is, by definition, looking for a single woman who embodies these characteristics.
An example of this from Scripture is Ruth. She may have actually been the basis of Proverbs 31. Ruth was a childless widow when she followed her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Judah. When Boaz, her future husband, first met her, he blessed her because he had heard about everything that she had done for Naomi. Later, he told her, “. . .all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman.” (Ruth 3:11) He knew she was excellent because she had developed a positive reputation in Bethlehem. It was common knowledge that she had left her home and family in Moab, to follow and care for Naomi. In doing so, she had chosen to serve the LORD, the God of her deceased husband and his people. These two decisions were linked. “A woman who fears the LORD” would not leave an elder family member alone to fend for herself. Her actions demonstrated her character to the entire town, so Boaz knew the kind of wife that she would be.
She opens her hand to the poor
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Proverbs 31:20, 25-27
In 1 Corinthians 7, single women have encouragement that we are actually more able to devote ourselves to the Lord. This opposes any belief that the epitome of Christian womanhood is a wife and mother. Perhaps our biggest problem as believers is that we want to think one way or the other is superior. “A woman who fears the LORD” seeks God’s will for her individual life, rather than being conformed to what society suggests is best. One of the most remarkable things about 1 Corinthians 7, is that Paul took the time to speak separately to men and women. Usually, he addressed his Christian brothers and sisters together as a group, and sometimes he addressed husbands or wives. But in a passage of Scripture, that was once my most dreaded passage, Paul addressed unmarried women specifically, to tell them that being single was a gift (v. 7) which allowed them to be “anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit.” (v. 34) As far as serving the Lord is concerned, this suggests that an unmarried woman is perhaps more able to live a Proverbs 31 life. But none of us should be ashamed as long as we are living the life which God has called us to.
I have learned to look at the whole of Scripture to see that I can strive for godly excellence as a single woman. If I “secure. . .undivided devotion to the Lord,” (1 Cor.7:35) surely I will be demonstrating qualities seen in the description of Proverbs 31:10-31. For a single woman, it can feel as though there is dishonor in never being chosen to be someone’s wife. But no matter how the world or the church views us, I believe we, too, can clothe ourselves with strength and dignity.