Reclaiming “Helper”: Thoughts on Women and Submission

“Womens are just helpers.” Her words came out of the blue at the dinner table that evening. I don’t even remember what we were discussing, but with her small yet sure voice, her grave eyes, her tiny, narrow shoulders set, these words – Womens are just helpers ­­– were Grace’s contribution to the conversation.

I blinked. “… Where did you hear that?”

True to two year old style, she said nothing, smiled, and giggled her way out of the subject.

The statement rankled me, for several reasons. One, I had no idea where she picked it up. Was it something we had read in a book? Was it from Sunday school? Or was it… something she has just… noticed?

Which leads me to the second, more bothersome thing about it. To what extent is this true? Those simple words –“just” and “helper” – are loaded terms. So how could I untangle them in my mind, retaining what’s good and true while correcting the rest?

To understand this “just helper” phenomenon, you’d have to go back, of course, to Genesis 2:18. After having creating Adam, God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (that’s the New International Version); “I will make him an helpmeet for him” (King James Version), or, from the At-Least-They-Were-Trying people, “I will make him a helper as his partner” (New Revised Standard Version).

Even in this brief catalog of scriptural interpretation, there’s a little bit of massaging of this term helper. Clearly the English word helper itself is not enough to encompass the shades of meaning this Hebrew writer intended.

Today, “helper” is almost patronizing. We get a good laugh when a preschooler announces that he “baked cookies, and Mommy helped.” The way we hear it, the helper is the one who stands to the side, awaiting orders from the one Really Doing the baking: the helper passes the measuring cups, dumps the flour, goes around the bowl a couple times with a whisk and then is maybe allowed to lick the spoon. But we all know who really made the cookies. A helper is just that… just. A. Helper.

But. Thankfully there has been quite a bit said on this term helper in contemporary Christian circles. In fact, Genesis 2 was the passage Andy and I chose for our wedding (eight lovely years ago). Our pastor, the legendary Dave Swaim, delivered a fantastic homily which defined helper as much more than “just.” He reminded us that in the Bible, this term helper – ezer, in Hebrew – is used most often to refer to God himself as the helper of his people. A helper is one who comes in strength. An ezer is a strong helper.

As I’ve looked at it recently I’ve been intrigued that ezer is so often referred to as military aid. In the Bible, kings and cities act as ezers to each other; and most importantly, God is an ezer to his people Israel time and time again. In just one instance, the prophet Samuel cried out to God to be their ezer against the approaching Philistines:

As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel; but the Lord thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion; and they were routed before Israel.  And the men of Israel went out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, and smote them.

(1 Samuel 7:10-11)

Say what you will about smiting and whatnot, but the Bible is clear: an Ezer is no joke.

An ezer stands equal, wielding her own mighty power, bringing her own valuable resources. An ezer does not cower, does not capitulate, does not hesitate to bring herself – all of herself – to the one she’s pledged herself to. I’ve heard it said once from a woman who I love dearly and admire deeply that that’s what submission in marriage is: to bring all of oneself. To not hold back in fear or reserve (1 Peter 3:6). But, basically, to bring it. Bring all of it, bring it with respect, bring it in love, and bring it confidently. A submission of writing is an offer: a “here you go,” take me or leave me. Submission is an offering.

It’s another dirty word, submission. But to submit to your husband like a ruler of a mighty city submits to another – by boldly giving her hundreds of chariots and precious fighting men, at great cost to herself — how empowered then is the state of submission. How incredibly beautiful and… necessary.

Because here’s the thing. When you look at the thousands of battles being waged around us – economic injustice, sexism, racism, abuse, rape, the list goes on – there is no mistaking it: we are at war. But it’s a war being waged on the most elemental aspect of humanity, and that is our hearts, our minds, our very souls. In Ephesians 6 the apostle Paul tells us:

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

This passage is worth quoting in full if only to point out that Paul is not talking about literal helmets and shields here. The way of Christ is not the way of the sword (Matthew 26:52). He’s talking about arming ourselves with the “mighty power” that God offers, our source of hope as we make our way in this banged up, bloodthirsty world.

And here is what really gets me. This passage here, this whole bit about the armor of God, which ends with “Finally…”: this comes after a bunch of often-controversial stuff about family roles, marriage, submission, et cetera (Ephesians 5). But here, Paul is summing up the point of all the aforementioned relationships: to help us to be strong in the Lord and to fight this battle of bringing restoration to a broken world. He is setting us up in the most effective formation: it is about preparedness for the battle; it about what helps us to “stand firm” to the end.

Which we cannot do alone. Like the kings of Israel we need our ezeta to have our backs, to get on the front lines. In a world where – let’s be real – the forces of evil are alive and well around us, even battling within us, it is all hands on deck. And it doesn’t surprise me that often it’s poverty-stricken areas, it’s morasses of injustice, it’s ravaged parts of the globe that are more likely to authorize women into ministry leadership. These places are well-acquainted with “the powers of this dark world”; these are people that bear the battle scars sometimes even literally, and not only the men. Here, it really is all hands on deck. Here, the women come in authority and with the strength of the Holy Spirit. Here, there is not the luxury – or the lie – of opting out.

But the battles are not limited to these places; here, it is simply more visible. The lies of the Enemy are insidious no matter where you go. And the place where we must identify and exercise our God-given gifts is exactly where we are.

So women: I say, bring it. Bring who you are: the tangled knots of insecurity, the mighty words of truth you bear, the flood of compassion you hold. Bring it to him who made you and will equip you. Do it if only because, if you’re married, your man needs you to, for God knows he is fighting his own battles. Do it because the world needs you to. Do it for you, because you want to step into who God created you to be. Do it so your daughters watch and learn.  Put on that armor of God and stand in his strength. Because, Woman, you are not a “just.” You are a warrior, and wherever you are, you are needed on the front lines.


One thought on “Reclaiming “Helper”: Thoughts on Women and Submission

  1. If only you had included a shout out to zephyr 5:21 “submit to one another out of reverence to Christ” in your brilliant and brave words–Mutual submission husband to wife and visa versa–then I would be in complete agreement.


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