For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. (Hebrews 5:12)
The author of Hebrews reproves his listeners whom he thought should have progressed beyond the “milk” of the word. In our day, many debate which aspects of the faith constitute “milk” and “meat.” Some consider the doctrines of election, predestination, or matters of eschatology to be the “meat of the word.” However, I submit that these are actually the “milk” of the word, because they are concepts that, if not grasped, make for a lame and disabled theology. The “meat” has much more to do with skillfully applying the law of God to the complex issues of covenantal life. Without a knowledge and understanding of God’s law, it is impossible to navigate through difficult situations, including those between a husband and a wife.
If there ever was a topic that needs sound clarification and exposition, the submission of a wife to her husband certainly qualifies. Too much of the teaching from pulpits and expositors is not grounded on the law of God, and fails to take certain Biblical accounts at face value. As in every era, many of the attitudes and conclusions are a reaction to something prevalent in the culture rather than a true application of what the Scripture states. And, as Bojidar Marinov points out, many of the prevailing attitudes have more to do with margin notes and/or headings from publishers rather than the actual Biblical passages understood from a covenantal perspective.1
Dealing with the subject of submission is very much like walking on a minefield. It is easy to misstep and end up blown to bits. The solution is not to avoid the topic, but to approach it with fear and trembling (much as we are to work out our salvation), to better comprehend the mind of God and put His law into practice.
Ian Hodge, in a blog piece of April 27, 2013, entitled “Marriage, Submission, and the Helper Who Opposes,” offers another perspective of the meaning of the word “helpmeet,” sometimes also translated as “helper.”
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.2
It would be easy to dismiss Hodge’s observation because it is contrary to the customary understanding that a wife’s duty is to submit to her husband’s wishes without complaint or disagreement. This may be in part because of the negative connotation of the word “opposition” which unfortunately is often reduced to meaning defiance or rebellion. But Webster’s 1828 Dictionary gives ten definitions for this word:
OPPOSITION, n. [L. oppositio.]
1. Situation so as to front something else; a standing over against; as the opposition of two mountains or buildings.
2. The act of opposing; attempt to check, restrain or defeat. He makes opposition to the measure; the bill passed without opposition. Will any opposition be made to the suit, to the claim or demand?
3. Obstacle. The river meets with no opposition in its course to the ocean.
4. Resistance; as the opposition of enemies. Virtue will break through all opposition.
5. Contrariety; repugnance in principle; as the opposition of the heart to the laws of God.
6. Contrariety of interests, measures or designs. The two parties are in opposition to each other.
7. Contrariety or diversity of meaning; as one term used in opposition to another.
8. Contradiction; inconsistency.
9. The collective body of opposers; in England, the party in Parliament which opposed the ministry; in America, the party that opposed the existing administration.
10. In astronomy, the situation of two heavenly bodies, when distant from each other 180 degrees.
Hodge makes the claim that part and parcel of the design of a suitable partner for Adam was someone who could serve in the capacity of nine out of ten of Webster’s definitions, excepting the last one dealing with astronomy. The declaration by God that it was not good for Adam to be without a partner/helper was precisely because Adam was not complete without his counterpart.
It is wrong to reduce the idea of a woman as a counterpart merely to the physical, sexual function that Eve would serve for Adam. Her importance involves much more, as Rushdoony points out.
The woman is called his “help meet,” his mirror; and even as he mirrors God, she mirrors him. He understands his responsibility by looking to God, and he can see how he is fulfilling his responsibilities and proving his obedience in relationship to his wife as she mirrors his nature and responsibility.3
This is hardly a description of the wife serving as a rubber stamp to her husband’s every mandate. Rather, it presupposes that as the husband’s trusted advisor, she not only has the best interests of their family in mind, but of his specifically. Thus she should oppose him when she deems it necessary to honor God and keep His commandments.
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 begins 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.”4
A Handful of Examples
There are three excellent examples in Scripture of wives moving in opposition to their husbands and being vindicated because of their actions. In Genesis 21:12, Abraham had listened to his wife to have a son with her maid servant. Years later Sarah recognized the seeds of conflict between Ishmael and Isaac. She told Abraham to send Hagar and her son away. Abraham was not willing to do so. Yet, God sided with Sarah,
And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called.
In another case, Abigail (1 Samuel 25), recognizing her husband’s stubbornness and wickedness, overruled her husband’s refusal to supply David and his men with provision. She thereby saved her entire household. Based on some of the prevalent writings about female submission, she would be designated as a rebellious wife. Yet after God removed her foolish husband, she became a member of David’s household. Clearly, God (and David) recognized her as godly and righteous.
In each of these cases, one of a God-fearing man and the other of a fool, the role of the wife is crucial to God’s plan and order.
The Virtue of Rebekah’s Opposition
A vivid example of this appears in Genesis 27. Rushdoony points out that this chapter of Scripture is a sad one. But it is also a very misunderstood one, placing a “bad rap” on Rebekah for deceiving her husband as she instructed Jacob to impersonate his brother so that God’s blessing reserved for Jacob would not wrongly be given to her rebellious son.5 Upon hearing that Isaac was about to overrule God by substituting Esau, Rebekah acted.
Determined to prevent her husband from sinning by trying to replace God’s choice with his, she ordered Jacob to bring in two kids. She knew how to prepare them so as to fool Isaac, so that the blessing would go to Jacob (vv. 5-10).
Jacob doubted whether such a deception would succeed. Esau was a hairy man, Jacob smoother of skin (v. 11). The blind Isaac, in placing a hand on Jacob, would know the difference, and he would then curse Jacob as a deceiver (v. 12).
Rebekah’s answer was “Upon me be thy curse, my son: only obey my voice, and go fetch me them” (v. 13).
At this point, it is important to understand what Rebekah meant when she said, “Upon me be thy curse.” Curses and blessings are covenant facts, blessings for covenant faithfulness, and curses for disobedience. An oath is a personal invocation of blessings and curses for obedience or disobedience. We can only understand Rebekah and Jacob in terms of a knowledge of the meaning of blessings and curses.
Rebekah did not expect to be cursed; she sought to prevent Isaac from bringing down a curse on his own head. Loving Isaac, she wanted to prevent him from coming under God’s curse. Loving Jacob, she encouraged him to be bold because he was ordained by God to be blessed. Rebekah feared God and His possible judgment on Isaac, and also on Jacob.6
When this account is normally exposited, it is presented with a bias that teaches that Rebekah was a devious woman who did not submit to her husband, and who did not trust God. If it is viewed from a covenantal perspective she, instead, should be viewed as a faithful wife who stood in opposition to her husband who was about to disobey the living God.
Rebekah’s purposes included, first, preventing Isaac from bringing God’s curse on himself. The fact that Isaac was now concerned about Jacob’s safety is a sure indication of a change in his stance. Second, Rebekah had enabled Jacob to make a stand, not only to get a blessing already ordained by God for him, but against his ruthless brother. Third, Rebekah wanted a Godly wife for Jacob. She was not aware of the religious decline of her family, but its daughters were better than local girls.
What Rebekah did was to stand unequivocally for the covenant and its integrity. She feared God’s judgment on Isaac and Jacob.
To apply present day perspectives to the events of this chapter is commonplace, but for Rebekah God’s covenantal promise was paramount, and she acted accordingly. It will not do to say that her favoritism to Jacob was the reason; her concern was covenantal, and God’s promise concerning Jacob was no doubt basic to her partiality to Jacob.7
Never does the Bible indicate that a wife is at liberty to violate the covenant in order to be considered a submitted spouse. As joint-heirs, husband and wife must act in unison, each bringing their commitment to God’s Word as the starting point to any discussion or decision. In the same chapter of 1 Peter where wives are instructed to submit to their husbands, husbands are told:
Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered. (1 Peter 3:7)
Surely Rebekah would have told her husband of God’s revelation to her about their sons, and the selling of the birthright from Esau to Jacob was most likely a known fact. Moreover, Esau had demonstrated covenant unfaithfulness by taking two wives from the Hittites, and the Scripture calls it a grief to both Isaac and Rebekah. (Gen. 26:34-35) Most definitely their prayers were hindered as Isaac was disregarding his wife’s counsel, thereby treating her with dishonor and failing to allow her to act as his mirror.
Proverbs 18:22 states, “Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the LORD.” When Eliezer (Gen. 24) was chosen to find a wife for Isaac, he prayed that God would send to him the woman God had chosen for Isaac. God’s providential care in bringing Rebekah to Eliezer is evidence that God had selected Rebekah to be the wife of the patriarch-a selection that served Isaac in good stead.
What About Eve?
Some will argue that part of God’s rebuke to Adam after the Fall was because he listened to the counsel of his wife. (Gen. 3:16ff.). Hodge explains:
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 … 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.8
Hodge makes the case that Satan approached Eve first because of the role God assigned to her. Much the same way that lobbyists will approach (to convince or bribe) a staff member of a legislator to pave the way toward procuring a favorable vote for a particular issue, Satan went to Adam’s trusted counselor. He knew that if he could get Eve to accept his propositions, then Adam would have no one to oppose him when he was tempted.9
Striking the Balance
The book of Ephesians instructs both husband and wife to understand their relationship as a picture or reflection of Christ’s relationship to His church. Each has a particular calling in the marriage: “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.”10
Here is where we get to the “meat” of the Word. For exercising opposition rights must reflect, by way of analogy, how the church is to submit to Christ. While it is clear that the church does not have the liberty to disobey God’s commands, we, as God’s creatures, don’t always understand or agree with His stated or secret will and we are encouraged to petition Him with fervor. (Recall the parables dealing with prayer: The unjust judge and the neighbor knocking on his neighbor’s door at night are examples to show the people of God how to relate to the Lord in their petitions.) So, too, a wife should carefully choose her opposition for those matters she considers essential to covenantal faithfulness. Her desire to maintain covenantal faithfulness should be exercised with care without destroying the structure of the family. Likewise, her husband should not ignore the petitions of his wife, since God does not ignore the petitions of His church.
In almost four decades of marriage, I have failed in this endeavor more times than I care to enumerate. While my issues had merit, I often overrated the content of my argument and downplayed the way I conveyed it. St. Peter admonishes women,
Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear. (1 Peter 3:1-2)
By failing to make “chaste conversation coupled with fear” a top priority, I often sabotaged my own efforts to resolve certain important issues because I failed to hold my tongue or use it wisely. Whether or not I considered that my husband was “fighting fairly,” my responsibility was to fear God and keep His commandments. (Ecc. 12:13) Peter’s instruction is to foster conflict resolution, not to have disagreements buried.
Hodge comments on the “battle of the sexes” in marriage:
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.11
Learning how to be the virtuous, powerful woman of Proverbs 31 takes humility, maturity, and commitment. Knowing the law-word of God sufficiently and practically is essential for a woman who is to look well to the ways of her household. In the end, a man and woman in the partnership of marriage are the building blocks of a godly society, and only when they are willing to sharpen and challenge each other to faithfulness will their efforts bring about a bountiful harvest.
1. Bojidar Marinov, sermon, “Restoring Jacob’s Reputation,” delivered at Church of the King, Mc Allen, TX. See churchofthekingmcallen.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/20120205.mp3
2. Ian Hodge, blog, Biblical Landmarks, entry of April 27, 2013 “Marriage, Submission and the Helper Who Opposes.” See http://biblicallandmarks.com/wpl/marriage-submission-and-the-helper-who-opposes/
3. Elizabeth Fellersen, ed., Toward a Christian Marriage, R.J. Rushdoony, “The Doctrine of Marriage” (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1972), 14.
4. Hodge, blog.
5. In the aforementioned sermon by Bojidar Marinov, he extensively exegetes this portion of Scripture with a covenantal perspective vindicating both Jacob and Rebekah from many commentators’ and publishers’ negative assessments.
6. R. J. Rushdoony, Genesis (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2002), 193.
7. Ibid., 194-95.
8. Hodge, blog.