Help-Meet Theology and the Denigration of Women

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Like many who grew up in the conservative Christian homeschooling movement of the 1990s and 2000s, I was familiar with the belief in hyper-distinct masculine and feminine roles from an early age.

Hyper-gendered theology (HG Theology) shows up in most manifestations of religious fundamentalism, from Islam to a broad swath of the Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) movement.1

The IFB has been especially influential on the Christian homeschooling movement. As a child, I attended conferences with my family where speakers included IFB leaders like Doug Phillips of Vision Forum. We listened to him claim that God created men to be hyper-masculine—that is, to take any and every form of initiative—while women were created solely to be protected and pursued. He taught that women should remain with their parents until marriage. College and work outside the home were off-limits for women.

Bill Gothard was another familiar name in our household. His organization, Institute in Basic Life Principles, provided resources that my parents found helpful. He, too, taught a form of HG Theology that defines what it means to be a man or a woman in extremely strict terms.2

HG Theology draws the term help-meet from the KJV translation of Gen. 2:18: “And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.”

HG Theology proponents interpret the words “help meet for him” in much the same way I would:

  • Help (Hebrew: ezer) means just what it sounds like: “one who helps another.”
  • Meet for him (Hebrew: lo neged) means “corresponding to him.”

HG Theology diverges from Scripture, however, by understanding this verse as defining the totality of God’s purpose for creating women.

Hyper-gendered theology diverges from Scripture by understanding Genesis 2:18 as defining the totality of God’s purpose for creating women.

In its extreme forms, the consequences of this interpretation include these beliefs:

  • Positively: Woman was created for the sole purpose of doing what a man wants her to do, particularly the man she marries.3 She only has purpose relative to her husband. She’s the catalyst to his purpose.
  • Negatively: Woman has no intended purpose outside of marriage.

I believe HG Theology is both (1) a misunderstanding of Gen. 2:18 and (2) a gross misunderstanding of God’s purpose for women.

Consequences of Hyper-Gendered Theology

Let’s follow HG Theology to one of its most common practical consequences: if a woman’s sole purpose in life is to support the work or ministry of a man, then she should be reticent to report misconduct that might harm the work or ministry of that man.

To reiterate: this is a logical outcome of Hyper-Gendered theology. If the man’s ministry defines the purpose of the woman, then she is forced to sacrifice both herself and the truth to his success.

It’s no coincidence that both Bill Gothard and Doug Phillips have faced allegations of sexually abusing underage subordinates after years of coverups. Those allegations have been confirmed by reluctant, obfuscating confession (Phillips) and investigations (Gothard).

Those are the most dramatic consequences, but there are others. If a woman has no purpose apart from catalyzing a man’s purpose, then…

  • She should refrain from using the Holy Spirit’s gifts to enrich the life of the church. This logical outcome contradicts the New Testament’s assumption that women will pray and prophesy in local church worship (Acts 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5).
  • She should avoid success for which God has equipped her in the professional world. This outcome contradicts Prov. 31’s description of a virtuous wife: she buys property (31:16) and sells things she has made (31:18-19, 24, 31). Prov. 31 highlights the fact that God sees wives, not just single women, as able to have purpose not directly related to their husbands’ success.

Hyper-Gendered Theology contradicts Scripture, and it has at least the potential, if not the tendency, to enable sexual abusers.

All Humans Have Purpose, Single or Married

God has no problem with either men or women remaining unmarried (1 Cor. 7:7-8). In fact, Paul sees singleness as preferable in at least some circumstances. For both men and women (1 Cor. 7:32-34), Paul says singleness frees up believers to pursue their relationships with God with undivided attention.

Every person has purpose, whether or not they’re married. No one’s purpose is limited to fulfilling the desires of another human.

Jesus Christ lived life as well as it could possibly be lived. His life is the model after which believers pattern our lives (1 Pet. 2:21). His life was whole—without the influence of fallenness—and entirely fulfilling (John 17:4-5; 19:30; Heb. 12:2), yet He did not marry during His time on earth in the early first century AD.

Paul’s teaching and Jesus’ example make clear that God’s purposes for His people must be able to be fulfilled by single believers, whether male or female.

Being a Help Does Not Necessarily Involve Subordination

The word God uses to describe Eve in Gen. 2:18 and 2:20, help (ezer), is the same word that God uses to describe Himself 10 times throughout the Old Testament.4 Here are just two examples:

  • Psalm 70:5 But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help (ezer) and my deliverer; O LORD, do not delay!
  • Hosea 13:9 He destroys you, O Israel, for you are against me, against your helper (ezer).

If God is our helper, being a helper must not necessarily involve subordination.

What Was Eve Helping With?

I think there are at least two right answers here.

1. Adam’s solitude

Whether or not they’re married, it’s not good for humans to be alone (see Prov. 18:1). If you’re single, you still need authentic relationship. I say “authentic” because I think the main point of Gen. 2:25, “naked but not ashamed,” is that Adam and Eve’s relationship was both safe and mutually vulnerable. Sexuality offers one path for a husband and wife to express that kind of authenticity, but there are also non-sexual ways for both married and single believers to practice authentic relationship.

There are also non-sexual ways for both married and single believers to practice authentic relationship.

2. The mission God had given to Adam: cultivating and keeping Creation (Gen. 2:15)

That’s the mission of humankind, and God calls both men and women to help with it (see Gen. 1:28). That mission involves creating additional image-bearers of God (“Be fruitful and multiply”), and that’s a task for which Adam had to have help (ezer).

God does not call all believers to marriage (see above), so child-bearing must not be an essential element of what it means to help. For Adam and Eve, though, it ended up being the route by which they, the very first sinners, had an opportunity to participate in the coming of the Savior (Gen. 3:15-16).

What About 1 Corinthians 11:2-16?

There isn’t space here to fully discuss how to interpret 1 Cor. 11:2-16, but I feel compelled to address the passage at least briefly because Paul appeals to the order in which man and woman were created (i.e., Gen. 2:18 and 20) to make a theological point. For that reason, I’d like to make several observations:

  • Paul appeals to the order of creation as the basis for a headship structure that organizes God, Christ, men and women.
  • This headship structure has implications for how people worship in the local church. Paul says nothing about whether headship relates to marriage in 1 Cor. 11:2-16; he is only addressing local church worship.
  • Paul goes out of his way to argue that the headship structure does not mean that men are inherently superior to women (see vv. 11-12 in particular).

This is a difficult passage to interpret. What is clear is that God is glorified when men and women in a local church have symbols on their heads that recall the order in which God created them.

Conclusion

God’s purpose for humans is that we rule His creation well on His behalf (Gen. 1:28). He intends for us to imitate Him (Eph. 5:1). He intends for His diverse people to grow up together as a single body, working together with Christ as our head (Eph. 4:13-16).

By arguing against these false teachings about God’s design for women and for marriage, I in no way intend to collapse God’s created distinctions between men and women. Distinctions—differences among believers—are essential to our ability to function as a body. Order, too, is essential for a body to function well. I don’t intend to subvert (or even comment on) God’s design for marriage roles. That’s a separate issue that needs biblically-informed discussion of its own.

I hope that this discussion does lead you to reject the false teachings of Hyper-Gendered Theology. Scripture makes it clear: Every person has purpose, whether or not they’re married. No one’s purpose is limited to fulfilling the desires of another human.

 


 

[1] The following factors point to the presence of theology that denigrates women in at least part of the IFB movement:

  • Extensive evidence of sexual abuse committed by IFB leaders.
    • The Fort Worth Star-Telegram published a report (summary; part 1 of 4) in late 2018 documenting both indictments and allegations of sexual abuse by IFB leaders. Their data includes 204 criminal convictions and guilty pleas.
    • There is also extensive documentation of sexual abuse of children by IFB leaders.

A long list of IFB churches and institutions have protected pastors and leaders from both church and criminal investigations regarding sexual abuse. See documentation linked from that list.

It seems likely that the presence of criminal abuse indicates the presence of less-egregious but more-common denigration. The criminal abuses that have been investigated are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Of course, the lack of centralized authority in the IFB means that the movement is variegated. There are undoubtedly many IFB churches where criminal sexual abuse hasn’t occured. But the abuse (and lack of accountability) is so widespread that it looks like it is not uncommon for abusers to find the IFB movement a safe haven. The abuse and lack of accountability are both consistent with HG Theology.

[2] I admire my parents for their astute navigation of this and other difficulties homeschooling parents face. They were among the earliest homeschooling families in our area, and they looked for resources wherever they could. From my perspective, it looks like they did a good job of adopting what was helpful and rejecting what wasn’t, including hyper-gendered theology.

[3] Debi Pearl writes that “A perfect help meet is one who does not require a list of chores, as would a child. Her readiness to please motivates her to look around and see the things she knows her husband would like to see done” (Created to Be His Help Meet, ch. 1, “Your Divine Calling.”)

[4] See this list of the uses of ezer in the Old Testament.

 

Jason Albertson
Jason Albertson is an educational administrative assistant, instructional designer, and teacher. He earned a BA in Ministerial Education and an MA in Biblical Studies from a regionally-accredited institution.