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 not one who is in a subordinate and submissive role to someone with authority over them.
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.”).
Thus, she concludes, the “helper” Genesis 2:18 describes is one created to relieve man’s aloneness “through strong partnership.”
But What About Other Places in the Bible?
Genesis 3:16b expresses God saying 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’s theology.
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)
Updated: Added the cite to Ephesians regarding submission.