Marriage, Submission, and the Helper Who Opposes

Published April 27, 2013 | By Ian Hodge, Ph.D.

I did not have to be married for very long to realize that married life was going to present its challenges. I had a wife who was not only a source of comfort and encouragement, but one who often opposed some of my most cherished ideas. Such activity did not sit well with my idea of good wifely behavior. Whatever happened to submission?

Submission, as it is generally understood, means a person hands over his/her will to the will of another.  He/She is to align his/her will with the will of another in perfect union. Thus, in the illustration of St. Paul, there is mutual submission of husbands and wives. But as he explains this in detail he describes the husband’s submission as love for his wife as Christ loves his church.  A wife, on the other hand, is to submit to her husband in the same way the church is to submit to Christ. (Eph. 5:21ff)

However, it is possible to read too much into these texts if they are abstracted from everything else Scripture teaches you about man-woman relationships. And the Bible starts in Genesis 2:18 with a recognition that although God created everything “good”, it was not good for man to be alone. So God made him a helper. The word in the older English translations is helpmeet. But neither “helper” nor “helpmeet” capture the not-so-subtle connotation of the Hebrew, `ezer kenegdo (עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ). This literally means “help against,” or “the help that opposes,” and has also been translated “the helpmate opposite him.”

You can immediately see why “helpmeet” and “helper” are really inadequate translations, neither of which capture the “opposition” contained in the word kenegdo which means against, or oppose.

And if the answer is negative, then men have substituted repression for love.

Now you can also see why so many husbands get opposition from their wives. They were designed by God to oppose him. But their opposition is to be when he strays from the Word of God and beings to falter in carrying out the God-mandated activities in his life. “Have dominion”, said God. And here’s your helper to oppose you every time you steer away from this.

Grasping this fact then helps you understand why the serpent came to Eve in the first instance and not Adam. So important is this woman in the life of her man, Adam, that the serpent already knows that if he can get Eve to accept his propositions, then Adam will have no one to oppose him when he is tempted. Even better, if his temptation is to come from the one who is supposed to oppose him when he strays from God, but now is not opposing but encouraging him, then he will more readily acquiesce to anything she proposes.

Was there to be marital bliss and harmony in Eden before the Fall? The answer is yes, but it was not a marital bliss built on the notion that Eve should submit to whatever her husband demanded, irrespective of what he might demand. Rather, it was her role to keep him on the straight and narrow. Dr. Skip Moen explains,

The man lives in order to fulfill the commandments of God. The woman lives in order to bring about the fulfillment of the commandments of God in her man. The man cannot fulfill those commandments without her guidance, nourishment, support and love. And the woman cannot fulfill her godly design without committing herself to see her man as God sees him. Perhaps this is why the rabbis taught that a man without a wife reduces the image of God in the world.[1]

Once this “helper who opposes” is realized, the significance of God’s curse after the fall becomes more prominent. Now — after the Fall, not before it — the man’s desire will be to rule over his wife. Now, after the fall, man desires full submission from his wife in a way that she would not have submitted previously, nor had any need to submit. Before the fall, it was Adam’s role to fulfill the cultural mandate and have his wife contribute to that dominion task. But not only was she to help (`ezer) him, but, when necessary, she was to confront and oppose (kenegdo) him.

After the fall, however, things are different. Now her “desire” is for her husband in a wrong way, just as the desire for the husband to rule over his wife in a wrong way becomes prominent. And right there, you have the battle of the sexes that is so predominant in marriages around the world.

Stepping into this battle ground of the sexes is the Lord Jesus, and St. Paul’s explanation of the significance of Christ as the second Adam. The writings of St. Paul have led Christians throughout the ages to recognize that salvation is a restoration to the pre-Fall state in many ways. Christ came to liberate his people from their sin so that they might carry out the cultural mandate to “have dominion” over the earth. And so the Messiah taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s kingdom of absolute righteousness, where men will be as Adam was before the fall, and woman too will find their rightful place as her man’s `ezer kenegdo — his helper who opposes him. Man’s summum bonum, then, is to align his will with the will of God and in so doing he brings the Kingdom of God on earth.[2]

Within that context, however, Paul encourages wives to submit to their husbands in everything. It is dangerous in theology to read this with a universal connotation, as is often done. But Romans 5:18 requires us to temper our understanding of the word “all” so that it refers to groups or classes of things. Thus, the “everything” in Eph. 5:24 means that she is to submit in all the matters that require her submission. A wife, therefore, is not required to sin at her husband’s request; nor is she supposed to stop being his “helper that opposes” him when it is necessary to oppose.

When Christ loves the church, he loves it in such a way that his church is brought to full maturity. And this is the example Paul gives when he exhorts men to love their wives. And so the men amongst us need to ask, “Am I allowing my wife to be the “helper that opposes?” And if the answer is negative, then men have substituted repression for love. Do men do this because they do not want a “helper that opposes?” Apparently so, if Gen. 3:16ff is to have any significance.

Here’s the irony in the Genesis record. God gave Adam a helper that would oppose him. But after the Fall, God says Adam’s problem is that he actually listened to his `ezer kenegdo. “Because you have listened to your wife . . .” You can imagine Adam’s initial response: “But I thought I was supposed to listen to her?”

The problem was that Eve misunderstood her role. She was to keep her man on target to obey God in all things, not derail him into disobedience against God. Yet this is what she did and the rest, as they say, is history.  Similarly, Adam was supposed to listen to his wife — but not when she was mistaken.  And on the issue of the forbidden fruit, she was very mistaken.

But now in his letter to Ephesians Paul has his own way of explaining the original relationships of Genesis. Adam, before and after the Fall was to love his wife in the pattern in which the Messiah loves the church. Eve, before and after the Fall, was to submit to her husband in a similar fashion to the way the church submits to Christ. But the submission requirement does not mean she gives up her opposition rights. What it means, is that a wife must learn to oppose the right issues in the right manner.

It is at this point the “battle of the sexes” in marriage can be seen. Men do not want to obey God’s commandments fully. Wives do not wish to oppose their husbands on these issues, but are more than happy to oppose them on a host of trivial issues. Men now want to rule over their wives, rather than form a formidable team that is a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the church. With the result that too often men are too busy giving orders to take the time to listen to their `ezer kenegdo.

There is a challenge, then for both husbands and wives. Do men fulfill their duty to obey God’s commandments? Does a wife see her husband as God sees him, help him identify his true calling under God, and support him in it, opposing him when he strays from the path God has ordained for him?  If not, it’s time for some changes.

When you get married, it appears you marry the opposition party.

And of course, you won’t be surprised to find that the “virtuous” woman of Proverbs 31 is literally the “powerful’ woman.  Check out the etymology of ‘virtuous’ sometime.  You might be in for a surprise.

When you get married, you’re marrying the opposition party.

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