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 11:3 most likely means a sense of (a) source (as in headwater) and (b) first representative of (non-hierarchical) (as in head of a line of kids at school).
It probably doesn’t mean a sense of (c) authority over (as in head of a company) or (d) a physical head (as in the head on your body).
#1) You can see in the rest of 1 Cor 11:1-17—- the context — that Paul is talking about(a) source and (b) representation (the glory of, dishonor, etc.) the whole time, not authority.
Here’s the text with an (a) or (b) after each time talking about source/rep below; some are both:
“5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head (b) — … 7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God (b); but woman is the glory of man (b). 8 For man did not come from woman (a), but woman from man (a); 9 neither was man created (a) for woman, but woman for man (a). 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. [v. 10 is a mystery and translated 30 different ways. Notice that Paul uses the actual word for authority here, indicating that if he meant authority in v. 3, he could have used the word for authority, not head.] 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. (b) 12 For as woman came from man (a), so also man is born of woman (a). But everything comes from God. (a) …”
So the text is emphasizing source and representation.
#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. Verses 10-12 are 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.
#3) God is not “the authority over” Christ. Christ is God (see John 1). So, “authority over” can’t be the meaning.
God is “the source of” / “representative of” Christ, as God is one God existing in three persons, the Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and Christ came to us, to Earth, from God. “Source of” / “representative of” also fits the rest of the 11:3 (man is the source of woman (Eve coming from Adam’s side here; Adam created in “our” likeness here) and the rest of chapter 11.
#4) Interpreting v. 3 to mean man must have authority over women 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) The order of pairings in verse 3 also suggests it is not authority / hierarchical.
Updated: Added the cite to Ephesians regarding submission; note re 1 Cor 11:3.
Added: Argument that kephale does not mean source in Ephesians 5:23 (not sure it the premises here are true): (1) Only Liddell and Scott, a dictionary of classical usage, lists this as a possibility. Many of L&S’s references are far outside the NT period (centuries before Paul) and meanings of words change over time. (2) Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker (2000; page 541-42) do not cite source as a possible meaning; standard dictionaries for NT study. (3) Grudem has published it is a very rare possible meaning. See Recovering Biblical Manhood and Woman, 425-68. (4) Some commentaries reject it as a possible meaning. See Best, Ephesians, ICC 535, and Lincoln, WBC, 42: 368-69. This isn’t a particularly impressive argument, given history.