The Story: A social science study titled “Godly husbands and housework” finds that husbands who attend religious services regularly tend to do more housework than other men do.
The Background: Housework, including child care, is a type of labor that often falls primarily on women. While men have increased their share of housework significantly over the past 50 years, women still provide most of the domestic labor. For example, women in the United States spend two hours more each day cleaning, cooking, taking care of children, and doing other unpaid work than men do, according to a report by Oxfam and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
But a study by researchers Bethany Gull and Claudia Geist finds two types of couples that share the workload more equitably. The first is secular couples who share a progressive view of gender equality. The second is couples who are religious (particularly Protestant) and frequently attend worship services.
The researchers found that men who attend religious services sporadically do occasionally report a more traditional division of labor for grocery shopping, meal preparation, and cleaning, and limited evidence that they may do less housework overall (among those who attend services once per month). However, men with high levels of participation in religious services are associated with both equal sharing of the labor and also spending more time on housework.
“What can we surmise from these findings?” the researchers ask. “One possibility is that highly religious men are heeding the call from their leaders to become more involved in family life, including participation in household chores. Despite giving lip service to traditional gender ideology, many conservative couples exhibit a pragmatic egalitarianism that may lead to more equal sharing of household task.”
The researchers also note that the effect could be related to complementarianism:
Conservative Protestant denominations, from their pulpits as well as in their written works, promote traditional gender ideology, known as ‘complementarianism,’ and create religious cultures in which breadwinner/homemaker roles are imbued with divine significance. . . . Yet complementarian gender ideology and reduced male participation in household labor may not be directly linked. A number of conservative Christian organizations, as exemplified by the Promise Keepers, promote versions of masculinity which encourage men to spend more time in the home and develop qualities such as nurturance, cooperation, and expressiveness. These organizations pointedly critique men who ignore their responsibilities at home, although these responsibilities center more around relationships than around participation in housework.
What It Means: Discussions about complementarianism often focus on the role of women, especially in the church. What is often overlooked—or at least underexamined—is how complementarianism affects men in the home, especially in sharing housework.
As family researchers Laurie DeRose and Anna Barren point out, most religions are pronatalist and family-oriented and promote traditional gender ideologies that view the man’s role as leader, protector, and provider. “Given that understanding,” they note, “it seems safe to assume that many highly religious men have a vested interest in carrying out their role as the family head with involved love and devotion, especially, since faith adds a certain divine calling to each of the roles.”
“It would be surprising if a man called to value his wife above his work would be content to spend his evenings being served by her,” they add.
What is true for traditional religions is especially true for Christians who embrace what can be called “mere complementarianism.” As Denny Burk explains, “Mere complementarianism suggests ‘both equality and beneficial differences between men and women without the differences cancelling the equality. . . This biblical doctrine of the imago dei is why mere complementarianism eschews any notion of male superiority or female inferiority.”
In Ephesians 5:25-30, Paul lays the foundation for how such complementarianism is exhibited by husbands:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body.
In this passage we find three qualities of love a husband must exemplify toward his wife. The husband’s love is to be sacrificial, purifying, and caring.
First, a husband’s love must be sacrificial. Just as Christ gave his life to the church, a husband should be willing to give his life for his wife. And if he is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, then he must be willing to make lesser sacrifices too. A husband shouldn’t say he’d take a bullet for his wife if he won’t take out the trash for her. If he truly will give his life for her, then he will be willing to give her his time, attention, effort, money, and whatever else is required for her good.
A husband shouldn’t say he’d take a bullet for his wife if he won’t take out the trash for her.
Second, a husband’s love must be purifying. Just as Christ wants to purify his church from all sin, a husband should seek to protect his wife’s holiness, purity, and virtue. He will not induce her to sin, and he’ll make every effort to protect her from sin.
Third, a husband’s love must be caring. Just as Christ nourishes and cherishes his church, a husband should seek to nourish and cherish his wife. To nourish her is to give her what she needs to flourish in all areas of life. To cherish her is to lovingly protect and care for her with warmth and affection. To be caring requires husbands to display kindness and patience and to be tender in the way they treat their wife.
At least two of these qualities of a husband—being sacrificial and caring—will naturally affect the husband’s role in housework.
Why, then, is helping around the home a relatively new phenomenon for Christian men? Perhaps it’s not. The study by Gull and Geist is one of the first to even explore the subject, so complementarian men may have been doing the dishes all along. But a more likely explanation is that the demands of complementarianism may change depending on the cultural context.
For the last 70 years, the demands on women—whether they work outside the home or not—have substantially changed. It would not be surprising then to find complementarian men have also changed their behavior to be more sacrificial and caring in the changed context. For our great-grandfathers, it might have been enough to show love to one’s wife by providing for the family financially. But for today’s complementarian husbands, it might also mean helping with the laundry.