The first time I heard the term helpmeet was during a career development conversation with the vice-president of my department at my corporate job. After college, my husband and I had worked hard to establish careers and our family. My performance was stellar, and I was good at my job. I was expressing to my vice-president how I knew I could do more for the company, contribute in a bigger way than my current role asked or expected of me. In a very polite way, I was telling him that I was bored. He looked at me, kind and fatherly, and said, “Lauren, just get your work done. Then go home and take care of your kids. Be a good helpmeet to your husband.” This unsettling comment left me with the feeling that I needed to ask for permission to receive more job responsibility because somehow I was not meant to excel in both my professional career and my job at home.
When my grandmother graduated from grade school, she moved, alone, to a new town, rented a room in a boarding house and took a job as a teacher. One of her suitors wouldn’t take her to a dance she wanted to attend, so she asked another young man to be her escort. My grandfather never let that happen again. Once they were married, my grandmother went on to have three children while working a full-time job and getting a master’s degree from the Florida College for Women. My mother, not a passive woman herself, worked full time during most of my childhood. She took me to church when she could, always alone. There were no limits set to my reading and I had read the Bible twice through before attending any kind of Bible study of substance in high school. This sense of freedom and the encouragement to learn deserves most of the credit for my spiritual formation. I have never related to the term helpmeet or the trope of “submissive biblical womanhood.”
As a woman living in the South and trying to integrate my family into church culture, I wrestled with the notion of feminine submission until I came across theologians such as Carolyn Custis James, Sarah Bessey, and Rachel Held Evans among others. These women, my sisters of faith, have helped me reclaim the full Imago Dei.
Custis James was the first one to reframe the notion of helpmeet and reclaim the Eve archetype. In her book, Lost Women of the Bible, Custis James points out that the term ezer, the descriptor given to Eve, was first translated “helpmeet,” but has been more recently translated as “strong helper,” a term also used to refer to God as Israel’s helper in times of trouble. Custis James goes on to describe a Blessed Alliance, a calling for women and men to stand together in stewardship of the earth.
In her book, Jesus Feminist, Bessey expands on the notion of the ezer saying:
In the Old Testament, the word ezer appears twenty-one times in three different contexts: the creation of woman, when Israel applied for military aid, and in reference to God as Israel’s helper for military purposes (in this context, ezer appears 16 times).
Bessey explains that ezer is a “powerful Hebrew military word” that connotes a warrior strength. As a strong, independent woman raised by strong, independent women, finally, this was something I could relate to.
As biblical scholarship continues to evolve and more women participate in education and in the workplace, shifts in thinking are inevitable. We are in a cultural watershed moment for women. According to the US Department of Education, more women than men are enrolling and graduating from college, and the gap will continue to grow. With more access to education, the call for equal pay, the demand for accountability against sexual predation, women are making major headway into a historical first—true equality. This phenomenon is happening in fits and starts all over the world, but it is happening. We can rail against the demons of technology and information, for that fact, or we can give our thanks to God for the inevitable social evolution that has brought us to this point and take our place as the ezer, the strong helper, to our communities. It is no surprise that women would wonder why they are not also standing next to their brothers as leaders in the church.
I read all the time about women trying to get permission to preach, to teach. Our family has had its own trauma trying to help the elder board at our former church understand the intrinsic value and contribution of women. But here is the thing—pretty soon these same women are, en masse, going to realize they do not need anyone’s permission to do what God has called each woman to do.
Many of the women in the Bible did not wait for permission to go where God called them:
- Deborah led a nation. Then when the leader of the army would not go to war without her, she assured him that the credit for their victory would fall to a woman,
- Esther went unsummoned before a king risking her own death to advocate for her people.
- Lydia heard the message of God and being a wealthy merchant, opened her home and helped start a church.
- Mary defied the mandates of her family and culture and agreed to carry the son of God as an unwed teenage mother.
- Mary Magdalene used a vessel of oil valued at a year’s wages, what some scholars believe was her dowry, to anoint the feet of Jesus.
None of these women waited for permission.
The rise of the second half of the Church is a ground swell that has built slowly over decades. Social media, technology, and simple access to information has made it the modern movement it is. Women are waking up and realizing there are no locks on the gates, no walls keeping us in or out. God has torn down every wall. Or maybe God is opening our eyes, like scales falling on the Damascus road, to show us there have never been any walls. If our sisters in the Bible show us anything, it is that we need not wait for permission.
If you are called to speak to crowds, go speak.
If you are called to teach, go teach.
And if you are called to preach to the nations, by all means, go preach.
If the powers and authorities in some institution try to tell you no, then that is perhaps not your institution. Perhaps God is trying to expand the Kingdom by sending you out of the institution. God has never been good about staying in manmade boxes anyway. But you can rest in this truth—you are sacred. Your message is sacred. Go and tell the people.
image credit: Joshua Eckstein / Upslash.com