Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”
–Genesis 2:18 (ESV)
Some insist that when God said God will make a “helper” for Adam (referring to Eve), God indicated females will forever give “submissive assistance” to males, with “the female functioning in a submissive role under the leadership and authority of the male,” i.e., submissive and subordinate.
Such a view is known as the “complementarian” view.
The Complementarian View
Other words typically come along with the expression of the complementarian view, such as “male and female were created by God as equal in dignity, value, essence and human nature,” but there is always a “but” or other caveat eventually when the view is expressed and, at bottom, the complementarian view is one of subordination and submissiveness for females and leadership and authority for males.
It is advocated by a variety of organizations, most vocally by various Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated groups (not all of them) and The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. It is opposed by others, including CBE International.
That’s a Narrow View of “Helper”
Of course, a “helper” is not necessarily one who is subordinate and submissive.
Walk up to a police officer on the street—there to be a helper to you—and describe to the officer how he or she is your subordinate and must be submissive to you. Add in how you are the authority over the officer. Good luck!
Ezer: The “Strong Partner” Kind of Helper
The Hebrew word in Genesis 2:18 translated as “helper” is ezer.
Dr. Linda L. Belleville, a highly respected professor of religion, theologian, and scholar, explains that all nineteen occurrences of ezer in the Old Testament are about “assistance that one of strength offers to one in need (i.e., help from God, the king, an ally, or an army). There is no exception.”
In other words, a ezer in the Old Testament is a helper but not one who is helping someone with authority over the helper.
She goes on, “fifteen of the nineteen references speak of the help that God alone can provide.” (citing, for example, Psalm 121:1-2: “Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”).
God, of course, is not subordinate and submissive to those God is helping.
Thus, the “helper” Genesis 2:18 describes is one created to relieve man’s aloneness “through strong partnership,” in the words of Dr. Belleville.
But What About Other Places in the Bible?
In Genesis 3:16b, God says to Eve, after she disobeyed God, that “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Dr. Belleville notes this verse probably expresses what is going to happen, not a prescriptive command from God, and it “is not cited even once” in the entire Bible as such a command.
1 Corinthians 11:3 expresses that “the head of the woman is man,” but Dr. Belleville points out that us 21st century readers too quickly think of “head” as in-charge and says that “head” in verse 3 is more in the sense of “source” (as in headwaters), pointing to verse 8 which refers to woman coming from man, rather than man coming from woman.
Complementarians also frequently quote 1 Corinthians 11:9-10, sometimes chopping off the last part of verse 10 and often using select translations, such as this from the NASB:
“man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head”
But here are examples of other translations of 1 Corinthians 11:9-10:
So there is disagreement over the appropriate translation. Should we use this verse to declare women subordinate to men?
What about verses in Biblical books with highly disputed authorship (like Ephesians and 1 and 2 Timothy)? Should they be used to insist that women be subordinate to men?
What about submission? Ephesians, in the passage directed to husbands and wives to which complementarians point, begins with “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (5:21) Again, an indication of a helper in the nature of a “strong partner,” not a subordinate.
And 1 Corinthians 11:11-12, the very next verses in 1 Corinthians after the ones to which complementarians like to point, says:
Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman.
But everything comes from God.
Sources & Notes
complementarian view: “‘submissive assistance … with ‘the female functioning in a submissive role …’”: https://cbmw.org/uncategorized/summaries-of-the-egalitarian-and-complementarian-positions/
Ezer section and after: Linda L. Belleville, “Women in Ministry: An Egalitarian Perspective,” in Two Views on Women in Ministry (Revised Edition), ed. by Stanley N. Gundry (series editor) Grand Rapids: Zondervan (2005), page 27; 33-35 (rule over)
“Head” (kephalē in Greek) in 1 Cor 11:5 could mean (a) source (as in headwater), (b) first representative of (non-hierarchical) (as in head of a line of kids at school), (c) authority over (as in head of a company), (d) a physical head (as in the head on your body), or have another meaning.
If you read 1 Cor 11:1-17, you can see that Paul is trying for some analogy, metaphor, and word-play using heads (he’s talking about being the head of and shaving heads and dishonoring your head and …. And image of and glory of …. “).
In other words, it is immediately clear that Paul is going for a word play.
Most likely, head in 11:5 does not mean “authority over” but means (a) source and/or (b) first representative of (non-hierarchical).
#1) In fact, you can see in the rest of 1 Cor 11:1-17—- the context — that is talking about representation (the glory of, dishonor, etc.) and source:
“5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head— … 7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. …”
#2) Paul uses the normal word for hierarchical authority in 1 Cor 11:10, just 7 verses later (exousian). If he meant such authority in verse 3, he could have easily used that word. Instead, he used kephale, indicating he meant something different.
#3) Verse 10 is unclear but may very well mean that a woman is to have hierarchical authority over her own self; it’s just that she’s not independent of man like man isn’t independent of woman. (“10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own[c] head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman.”)
#4) The interpretation that some assert (authority over) is inconsistent with Ephesians 5:21 (“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”)
However, the interpretation of (a) and/or (b) above is consistent with the instruction to “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
#5) Defining “head” there as hierarchial authority over, too, raises Trinitarian questions (is God the “head” of Christ in a authority over/hierarhical sense that people claim for man-woman here? Christ is God. Wouldn’t that suggest a source/representative of sense, though a still hard for us humans to understand one?)
#6) The order of pairings in verse 3 also suggets it is not authority/hierierchical.
Updated: Added the cite to Ephesians regarding submission; note re 1 Cor 11:3.