‘We are poorly dressed’—Part 2

Thanks to everyone who contributed comments in answer to the question that I raised in my previous post about Paul and his fellow apostles in 1 Corinthians 4 and the woman described in Proverbs 31. The particular, concrete detail that I zeroed in on was the contrast between how they dress (“poorly dressed” versus “fine linen and purple”), but I also had in mind the broader contrast between how they live and how they are seen by others (“held in disrepute” versus “praised in the gates”).

I promised in the earlier post that I had “a few thoughts coming together”, which I would share, so here they are. I’m very conscious as I do this that many of you have far, far more experience than I do in reading the Bible and thinking through how to apply it in the details of life. Please don’t think for a moment that I’m offering up these few quick thoughts as the last word in the conversation!

  1. As I said in my first post, I don’t have the option of ignoring either passage in the way I live my life. Both are Scripture, both are breathed out by God, both are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”. Not only that, both are, in their own way, descriptions that are held out as exemplary in some way. One is a kind of identikit picture of “the woman who fears the Lord”; she lives a life that is to be admired and praised and (presumably, as far as one is able) imitated. The other is a real life, unique, flesh-and-blood individual—an apostle, no less, but still one who holds himself out explicitly as an example to be imitated.
  2. As a number of people have said, there are some important differences between the times and the places in which the Proverbs 31 woman and the Apostle Paul lived:
    • The city that gives the Proverbs 31 woman and her husband all that respect at the gate is (I think!) the city of the people of God, and possibly an idealized people of God at that, behaving as they ought to behave. (Notice the shift from the description in verse 23 (“her husband is known in the gates …”) to the command in verse 31 (“Let her works praise her in the gates”). The city that holds the Corinthians in honour and despises people like Paul is the pagan city of Corinth.
    • The time in which the Proverbs 31 woman lives is one in which the people of God are still a nation, called to live out before a watching world the blessedness and the wisdom of fearing the Lord. The time that Paul lived in is one in which the gospel of Jesus was going out with urgency and costly sacrifice into a world hostile to God: as several people pointed out, the time Paul describes is a ‘wartime’ setting. (I wonder whether it is significant, by way of contrast, that the whole exercise of wisdom-collection in the Old Testament is associated with the time of Solomon, when Israel enjoyed “rest from all their enemies” and the king could spend his days entertaining the Queen of Sheba and swapping proverbs.)

    In both of these respects, of course, it is Paul and the Corinthians that I have more in common with than the Proverbs 31 woman: my time is the last days and my city is Corinth (well, Sydney, but there’s not a lot of difference!).

  3. But the differences are not so absolute that I should ignore Proverbs 31 altogether. I may live in a different time and a different city, but I still live in the same creation, and I fear the same God. So I should still be wise enough to see that forethought and prudence and family and faithfulness and productiveness are deeply respect-worthy, compared with the selfish, individualistic, short-term, wasteful fads and fashions of the world. It’s not a bad thing to aspire to all the virtues of the wonder-woman of Proverbs 31, even if my own frailty and folly and the unfairness of a sinful world mean I probably won’t always get the sort of success and respect that she gets. (Compare the way that Proverbs-style wisdom works—kinda!—for Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon, and the way that the wisdom of Proverbs and the lifestyle of the last days are put together in 1 Peter 3-4.)
  4. Nor am I to imitate every single detail of 1 Corinthians 4. When Paul tells the Corinthians to imitate him, the details do matter, otherwise he wouldn’t have bothered putting them in. He doesn’t just give them an abstract principle, he gives them a real, tangible example of a lifestyle, and how it is seen and responded to by the world. But the details of how that lifestyle worked out in Paul’s life may well be different, in some respects, from the details of how it works out for the people in Corinth. When he holds out himself as an example to them, he still tells them to take into account the various life situations that they were in when God called them to follow Christ (cf. 1 Cor 7:17). So, for example, while the description of Paul in 1 Corinthians 4 is of a ‘homeless’, itinerant missionary, he knows that imitating him won’t mean suddenly abandoning home and family, and becoming similarly homeless. (In fact, when he writes to Timothy, even his advice to young widows is not a blanket command to head off and become cross-cultural missionaries, but a very Proverbs 31-ish word about “marrying, bearing children and managing a household”[1 Tim 5:14].)
  5. The core of what I am to imitate in Paul’s example is his devotion to humble service rather than the competitive pursuit of worldly status (1 Cor 3-4), his other-person-centred love that seeks the good of others and their salvation (1 Cor 10:33—11:1), and, underneath all that, his fear of God rather than the opinions of people (cf. Proverbs 31:30!), and his desire for God’s glory rather than his own (1 Cor 10:31).

Will that make a difference to how I live the details of my life—including how I dress—in this wartime context—in this pagan, greedy, fashion-obsessed city? Surely it has to—not in an artificial, attention-seeking, ‘Gibeonite’ kind of way, as if Paul ‘muddied his suit’ to cultivate an appearance of being poorly dressed—not in a self-righteous, superior, legalistic kind of way, inwardly glorying in how much daggier I am than my more materialistic Christian brothers and sisters—not in a foolish, short-term, wasteful kind of way, buying stuff that falls apart after a few weeks, just because it was cheaper at the checkout—but in a real, practical, sacrificial, deliberate way that often (but not always) makes a visible difference in how I and my family look—in a thousand decisions to keep and mend rather than throw away and replace; to choose Op Shops over fashion shops; to cultivate “strength and dignity” and the “fear of the Lord over deceptive, fleeting outward appearance; to save more money and give more away, instead of hoarding it and spending it; to take more risks for the gospel in my school-gate conversations, rather than staying trapped in my self-protective anxieties about how I am perceived.

It seems to me that I have some changes to work on!

11 thoughts on “‘We are poorly dressed’—Part 2

  1. <i>(I wonder whether it is significant, by way of contrast, that the whole exercise of wisdom-collection in the OT is associated with the time of Solomon, when Israel enjoyed “rest from all their enemies” and the king could spend his days entertaining the Queen of Sheba and swapping proverbs.)</i>

    Yes, this seems to be at the centre of what you’re saying. We are on war footing and can’t be too fussed about the armour we are wearing into battle. Enough for attack, enough for defense.

  2. Hi Nicole, thanks for the posts.

    I fear that this comment should have come after the first one, but here it is anyway.

    Rather than the Prov 31 women being understood as a real person, isn’t ‘she’ the personifcation of wisdom? Folly in the book of proverbs is also portrayed as a women, but the not-so-nice kind, the one who seduces men into back streets.

    But just to keep everyone happy, wisdom is also represented as the father who instructs his son in the fear of the Lord. We also see folly as the sluggard who is too lazy to bring the food from his plate to his mouth!

    The point is that there is just as much for men in Prov 31 as there is for women. (I know someone who spoke at a mens breakfast on this passage and called it, ‘The women you want to be!’)So I’m not sure if restricting the metaphor to a real person is getting the complete picture of the end of Proverbs?

    Having said that, I enjoyed your posts nevertheless!

  3. Hi Scott,

    What evidence is there of this very strange interpretation of Proverbs 31?  In proverbs 8 the woman ‘wisdom’ is called ‘wisdom’; the woman ‘folly’ is called ‘folly’.  These are very obvious markers of metaphor.  Chapter 31 presents a real, earthy female character. 

    Furthermore, is Lemuel’s mother (31:1) figurative because she is a woman? 

    And when she says:
    do not spend your strength on women, your vigor on those who ruin kings. (3:3)  Are these women metaphors?

    When the wife of noble character is introduced.  Is this a way that a personification begins?

    A wife of noble character who can find?
    She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. (31:10-11)

    Perhaps the woman like wisdom is to be admired and valued.  But that doesn’t take away her flesh and blood.

    I think this is a wonderfully practical chapter for women to meditate on and men to delight in over their wives (or mothers!).  I think my wife is a proverbs 31 woman.  As a man, I will not try and be a woman of noble character (ohhh! yuck!) – but delight in my wife of noble character.

  4. Thanks Scott for the comment!

    I agree that the woman in Proverbs 31 is not a ‘real’ woman.  I’m not sure she’s exactly a ‘personification of wisdom’ either – at least not in the same way that the woman of Prov 8 is.  I think (as I said in the second post) she is a kind of ‘identikit picture’ of a woman who fears the LORD – ie. a literary construct who functions as an example of a person putting wisdom into practice.  So while wisdom in chapter 8 says ‘listen to me’, the woman in Prov 31 offers an example of a person who has listened to wisdom.

  5. Nicole,

    Thanks for putting my thoughts better than I could and for not reading your post more carefully!

    All wisdom is concentrated into this one woman and as such she is the prime example of what it would look like if someone could hold all wisdom at once. As you say, the ideal identkit example. Good call.


    While Nicole’s comment balanced this women so that she is not purely a personification, surely you can’t hold to the other extreme?

    With all due respect to your wife – and mine! – does she weave and sew (v11) shop for the family (v14) get up before sunrise to cook (v15) speculate on real estate (v16) make her own bedding (v23) etc?

    If Prov 31 is reduced solely to flesh and blood, then it does make a bit of nonsense out of the whole thing.

  6. Sorry, one more thought.

    Andrew, you comment that it is ‘a wonderfully practical chapter for women to meditate on and men to delight in over their wives’.

    On the level of Nicole’s identikit example, sure. But on another level, surely not?

    Which person (women or man) could ever fulfill all these characteristics? Because it is an idealized portrait, then it may drive more people to a sense of failure than satisfaction if we use it as a check list.

    Furthermore, how do we use some of these things practically? “She makes linen garments and sells them” (v24). How do you do that practically? Does it mean all wise women have to be dressmakers? Or do you take it figuratively . . . in which case; shouldn’t this be the lenses for the portrait as a whole?

  7. Hey Scott.  You’ve changed your tune.  I’m disagreeing with:

    1. you calling the woman of chapter 31 ‘wisdom personified’. 


    2. thinking that we should ‘neuter’ the chapter and apply it men.

    I stand by my claim that my wife is a proverbs 31 wife because she works hard for our family and fears the Lord.  I can trust her 100% and she is the best thing going for me.

    Furthermore, I think there is an odd way that women (and some men) read Prov 31 which see it as a burden rather than just a description of beautiful womanhood.

  8. I think (as women)we sometimes use the fact that the Prov 31 woman is a literary construct to absolve ourselves of the responsibility to use her as a model. Even as a literary construct, she is still an example to be emulated.

    I think the greatest danger for most women who might read this blog is not that we would feel compelled to run off and become dress makers. Our problem is more that we want to so theorise the Prov 31 woman that we don’t have to copy her example at all.

    I also don’t think that feeling like a failure when we look at her is all that much of a bad thing. Scripture constantly exposes my failure, drives me to the cross where that failure is dealt with and points me to the wonderful reality that God’s Spirit is at work transforming me.

    I have found your thoughts provocative and helpful Nicole, thankyou!!

  9. I have never disagreed with the good point that Cathy / Nicole makes (that Prov 31 is to be an example and guide), all I am saying is let’s not be reductionist about this women, but read her responsibility in light of the wisdom genre.

    When I said, ‘she is not purely a personification’ I wasn’t changing my tune to allow for more application.

    I was just asking if a simple 1 to 1 direct comparison was the best way to lay claim to the wisdom that the end of Proverbs offers. To say a literary figure is a personification (rather than flesh and blood) is not to make the character irrelevant or academic. She is most certainly there for teaching rebuking correcting and training!

    Rather than ‘neutering’ her, this actually makes her more accessible for every Christian to learn wisdom from, rather than her just being avalible for the ladies. As such, I can make sense of her skill as a dressmaker – but if you insist that she is a real person and all women today must be like her by direct comparison, you have to do some fancy foot work somewhere.

    But ‘nuff said – there are more important things from this post worthy of discussion!

  10. A few quick clarifications…

    – I think she’s not a ‘real’ person
    – I think she’s meant to be an example
    – I think she’s a she
    – I want to imitate her example, but my different situation (eg. the ‘wartime’ context of life in the last days) means that I won’t be the same as her in every detail
    – I’m glad my husband is like her in some ways (he fears the LORD, he gets up early…) but I REALLY don’t want him to be her!
    – I think our gender-confused culture (and our own sin) will make us want to read her in an overly generic way and make us uncomfortable about the aspects of her life that are specifically a model for wives and mothers.  We should resist this pressure.
    – I think our shallow, selfish, now-focussed culture (and our own sin) will make us want to have her prosperity and success and popularity – to be goddesses (or princesses!) presiding over our own little domestic paradise,  without taking seriously the difference that it makes to be living as disciples of Jesus in the last days.  We should resist this pressure too.

  11. I have nothing particularly to add; I just wanted to say how much I enjoy some debate happening in the comments. And thanks to all involved in putting this blog together. Nicole, as always, I appreciate your thoughts.

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