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Words I Hope I Never Hear Again – Part 6

This month takes on another handful of phrases we’re better off without. Three are monikers for wives, and three pertain to the Lord Jesus: helpmate, helpmeet, sister-wife, elder brother, absent Lord, and broken body.
By DAVID LEVIN
Read Time: 8 minutes

About Wives and Jesus

This month’s entry episode takes on another handful of phrases we’re better off without. Three are monikers for wives, and three pertain to the Lord Jesus: helpmate, helpmeet, sister-wife, elder brother, absent Lord, and broken body.

Helpmeet and Its Even Worse Companion, Helpmate.

What’s wrong with it? To quote the Oxford English Dictionary, “helpmeet is a compound absurdly formed by taking the two words help meet in Gen 2:18… as one word.” There’s also the nuance of “assistant” or “sidekick” when applied to one’s wife.

helpmeet is a compound absurdly formed

What’s at stake? Social propriety, Hebrew and English semantics, and in some measure, marital relationships.

How can it be fixed? Wife is a perfectly fine word. 

Discussion: An “help meet” for Adam might have had some cache at the turn of the 17th century, but now it suffers from being both archaic and fused. The phrase “help meet” first came into English (as “helpe meete”) with the Geneva Bible of 1560. Coverdale’s 1535 translation had “an helpe to beare him company.” While “help” and “beare” do not readily combine, “help” and “meet” became one flesh.

Two words, “help” (a noun1) and “meet” (an adjective), both require some unpacking. Biblically, a “helper” is not an “assistant.” The word usually denotes one who comes to the aid of another or a rescuer. It frequently refers to God (e.g., Psa 46:1). In this context, the helper is Eve, someone like Adam but unlike the other animals. She is there to be with him in his garden duties, in worshipping their Creator and dealing with the inherent temptation implicit in the command to not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. 

The second word, “meet,” has to be first understood in English, then in Hebrew. As an adjective, it’s archaic. Today we would say “suitable,” “corresponding,” “like,” or perhaps “pertaining.”

The Hebrew phrase implies a spatial relationship also. Eve came out of his side, and now she is in front of him, like a mirror image. The male and female humans stand face-to-face and appreciate their complementary status. 

Helpmeet started life as a hyphenated formation, “help-meet,” and has been used as a compound noun only since the last half of the 19th century.2 Today, using either one is inexcusable and a degrading term for one’s wife. These terms were “absurdly formed” and now they are absurdly used. Your wife is not your secretary or your Jeeves. She’s your co-heir in Christ, one flesh with you.

Sister-wife

What’s wrong with it: technically, nothing. Its usage is what makes it intolerable. Sister-wife is pointless and as is usually used, somewhat demeaning. 

What’s at stake: Social inculcation of a phrase that should have never seen the light of day.

How to fix it: Say “and his wife, Sister Bethulah.” But see the “not-so-side note” below.

Discussion: Last Sunday (as I am writing this), my son, Ezra, presided, and I exhorted. He did not introduce me as his “brother-father.” Because sister-wife is the only combination of this sort that you or I have ever heard or will hear. It carries some baggage. It’s the same sort of baggage as “helpmeet,” a somewhat belittling title.

Occasions do arise to use analogous versions because, many times, biological relatives will preside and exhort, father and son and many others. Do you think in a sisters’ class, my wife, Cora, would recommend that the group “read this article that my brother-husband wrote”? 

Thus, the absurdity of sister-wife. Its repetition is just the social inculcation of platform speech.

Here’s the not-so-side note. There is only one New Testament instance (in hundreds of references to individuals by name) where a personal name is preceded by “sister” or “brother.” That one instance is clearly a contextual emphasis.3 There is no other place ever where a disciple is listed as, for instance, “Brother Epaphras” or “Sister Eunice.” Paul never appends “brother” or “sister” to clarify who’s a member of the body or not (e.g., 2 Tim 4:9-14).

The title “brother” is used in a pronominal sense, such as “the brother famous for this preaching,” and to refer to groups, e.g., “the brothers in Thessalonica.” Our standard use of “brother” and “sister” as titles before a personal name is a nicety and a term of spiritual endearment and collective belonging, but it has no Biblical basis. 

Elder Brother

This title is often used, especially in prayer, for Jesus. 

What’s wrong with it? It is never used in Scripture, and it implies a relationship to Jesus that can be somewhat substantiated but is not one the Bible endorses.

What’s at stake? Due reverence and respect for our significant relationship to Jesus.

How can it be fixed? Use one of the several titles Scripture uses for Jesus: Our Lord, the Lord Jesus, Savior, Son of God, Head of our Body, and many more.

Discussion: This entry was suggested to me by Dave Jennings (my brother-editor) when I first proposed this series to him for publication in the Tidings. It’s one I’ve heard often, but it hadn’t registered with me as a phrase to include until he mentioned it to me. Dave noted that not even Jesus’s own younger (half-) siblings ever called him their “elder brother.”

The title “elder brother” occurs nowhere in the New Testament, despite numerous places where it could have been written or spoken. It is true in the sense that Jesus is the “first born from the dead,” which implies that others also will follow and hence be his brothers and sisters. Moreover, Jesus himself said (quoting Psalm 82) that we are “all sons of God.” Again, that makes us all siblings. There are also references to Jesus considering us his spiritual siblings, Luke 8:21 and Hebrews 2:11-12. 

However, Jesus is the “firstborn from the dead.” (Col 1:18, Rev 1:5). No one else has achieved that status. We’re not there yet. In a provisional sense, we are his siblings now, but he is our spiritual head, not our elder brother. 

More importantly, though, Scripture never encourages or instructs us to frame our relationship to Jesus as one of younger brother or sister to older brother. Jesus is properly our King, Lord, Savior, and Redeemer, and our access to the Father. He is the Son of God, the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Overcomer of Death, the single Inheritor of God’s Promises, Lamb of God, Head of the Body, and many more titles. Missing from the list is “elder brother.”

Absent Lord4

What’s wrong with it? Similar to the above entry, “absent Lord” is not a Biblical phrase or title for Jesus. Also, our Lord is not absent.

What’s at stake? Recognizing the daily presence of our Lord Jesus in our lives.

How can it be fixed? Either avoiding it altogether or using it to refer specifically to Jesus’s physical presence and kingship. 

Discussion: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:20 ESV). Jesus is present with us in the relevant sense that is appropriate for our current dispensation. He is our coming King in a political and physical sense. (Rev 22:20).

Jesus told several parables with a common theme of people going about their business when their master was absent (Matt 25:14-30). In every instance, the faithful acted as if their master never went away. They carried out their duties regardless of the master’s physical presence. Their fidelity, integrity, and responsibility were rewarded upon the master’s physical return, but to the faithful, their master was always present. 

We all understand the intent of the phrase “absent Lord.” But the introduction of the word “absent” connotes a separation from Jesus that is both unscriptural and spiritually unhealthy.

Broken Body

This phrase is often heard at the breaking of bread, either in the presider’s remarks or in the prayer of thanks for the bread.

What’s wrong with it? At the Last Supper, Jesus took bread, blessed it, and shared it among the disciples. He said it was his body, not his broken body.

What’s at stake? The symbolic meaning of the bread we share in memory of our Lord each Sunday morning. 

How can it be fixed? Emphasize what the Bible emphasizes. The bread represents the true manna that came down from heaven, that is, the life, teachings, and sacrifice of our Lord Jesus. 

Discussion: Jesus said the bread was his body, and his body was horribly abused, broken if you will, on our behalf. The alliteration of the three key words—bread, body, broken—plus their contextual relatedness adds up to an easy entry of “broken body” into our vocabulary. 

More directly, Paul quotes Jesus (I Cor 11:24 KJV) as saying, “My body, which is broken for you.”

However, the appearance of “broken” is almost certainly due to a scribal addition. Current versions such as NIV, RSV, ESV, and NASB (working from a different set of manuscripts than the KJV) all omit the phrase, though they have marginal notes indicating that the phrase is in some ancient manuscripts. The ESV reads, “and when he had given thanks, broke it, and said, ‘this is my body which is for you.’” Mounce notes both manuscript and Greek grammar reasons for excluding “broken for you.” His translation omits the phrase.5

Most telling, though, regardless of any textual variants of 1 Corinthians 11:24, is the uniform testimony of three synoptic Gospels, which all record “my body [given] for you.” (Matt 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19). The Lord himself designated the bread as symbolizing his body, not his broken body. For the reasons listed at the beginning of this section, it’s easy to see how those words crept in, but they have to be regarded as spurious.6

What then did Jesus intend the bread to bring to mind? The most proximate answer is in John 6, where Jesus, speaking in the direct context of the memorial symbols of “eating his flesh,” tells us that he is the true manna that came down from heaven. He is the bread of life upon which our spiritual lives are nourished. To me, that includes both his explicit verbal teachings and the implicit lessons we learn from how he lived his life in loving service and submission to the will of his heavenly Father. 

David Levin,
Denver Ecclesia, CO

 

  1. Today, “help” is used only as a verb; referring to someone as “the help” would be pejorative. The current noun form is “helper.”

  2. It seems odd, but probably isn’t as far as language change goes, but per the OED, the compound noun “helpmate” predates “helpmeet” by a century or so. The corruption of “meet” to “mate” makes a neater fit for a noun to describe a person who is a close companion and aide. Originally, “helpmate” referred to anyone who assisted you, not necessarily your wife.

  3. Hint: it’s in Acts. One instance, but it’s repeated. 

  4. Thanks to Ron Hicks, a dear friend who has now returned to his native Australia, for this suggestion.

  5. Cited from https://www.billmounce.com/monday-with-mounce/was-jesus%E2%80%99-body-%E2%80%9C%E2%80%9D-you-or-%E2%80%9Cbroken%E2%80%9D-you-1-cor-11-24-0 accessed 24 November 2023.

  6. Another area of controversy is the Greek word translated as “broken,” the issue being whether or not that could describe his abused flesh. Also, there’s the applicability of the prophecy “not a bone was broken” and its fulfillment. To me, this all seems unrelated to the main point, which is Jesus’ own words recorded in the gospels. 

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Jonathan Smith
24 days ago

As the body of Christ we do not “break bread “ but rather “share bread”, that is what communion means (1 cor. 10:16-17)

David Styles
1 month ago

Another excellent installment! I use the following ” the broken bread represents the power of sin broken in the body of our Lord Jesus”

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