Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Fear or Respect in Christian Marriage (Eph. 5:33)?

This article is available in Spanish here.

Some Christians are puzzled over Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 5:33 where he says that the wife should “fear” (phobētai from phobeō) her husband. Did Paul want wives to be afraid of their husbands?

In antiquity, and even up until the more recent times, many rulers, military leaders, masters, and employers, etc, thought that they needed to be feared if they were to be respected and have their wishes met. Moreover these powerful men and women could wield their authority over subordinates in terrifying ways.[1] The Greek verb phobeō, which can mean “fear”, “revere” and “respect”, reflects this dynamic. However, the use of phobeō does not necessarily imply that fear always accompanies reverence or respect.

Sadly, many a husband has also believed that he needed to be feared if he wanted to be respected and have an obedient wife under his control.[2] Yet the meaning and context of Ephesians 5:33 rules out the understanding that a wife should be afraid of her Christian husband. Rather, she should expect to be loved and nurtured, and have a husband who gives himself up for her (Eph. 5:25, 28-29). Accordingly, very few English translations use the word “fear” in Ephesians 5:33.[3]

Fear or Respect in Christian Marriage (Ephesians 5:33)?The situation in 1 Peter is different, however. In his first letter, Peter tells wives that their unsaved husbands may be won over when they observe their wive’s chaste conduct combined with respect (phobos)[4] (1 Pet. 3:2). Some wives with unsaved husbands living in the patriarchal Greco-Roman world would have had genuine reasons for fearing their husbands, and yet, a few verses down, Peter writes that wives should not fear any terror (1 Pet. 3:6). So, like Paul, Peter is not instructing wives to be afraid of their husbands but simply to respect them.

Peter also told husbands to respect their wives but, in 1 Peter 3:7, he uses a different Greek word—timē. This word means “honour”, which is arguably a stronger and better kind of respect than phobos. Peter’s reason for this honour is because both husband and wife are “co-heirs of the grace of life”. I like how the New Living Translation puts this phrase: “she is your equal partner in God’s gift of new life” (1 Pet. 3:7 NLT).

In the new life that Jesus gives us, we all—men and women, and husbands and wives—are equal, and there must be no place or provision for fear or intimidation. Instead there should be mutual honour and respect.

Be devoted to one another in love.
Honor one another above yourselves.
Romans 12:10 NIV


Endnotes

[1] Today we consider some of the behaviours and demands of powerful people of the past as unethical, abusive, and downright cruel; and these actions are now illegal in many nations.

[2] Some ancient Greek philosophers advocated fearfulness in wives (e.g. Xenophon, Oeconomicus 7.25; pseudo-Aristotle, Oeconomicus 3.144.2).

[3] Ephesians 5:21 which prefaces the passage on wives and husbands contains the noun phobos: We are all to mutually submit to one another out of reverence (phobos) for Jesus Christ. “Reverence” and “respect” rather than “fear” seems to be the meaning here. Moreover, submission and respect seem to be related here and in other Bible passages. [See related articles below.]

Notes on the Grammar

In Ephesians 5:21 and 1 Peter 3:2 the noun phobos is used. In both Ephesians 5:33 and 1 Peter 3:6 middle-passive forms of the cognate verb phobeō are used. The middle voice is often used for verbs of emotion.

Fear or Respect in Christian Marriage (Ephesians 5:33)?

This last clause of Ephesians 5:33 (above) is difficult to translate precisely from the Greek, and many English translations add words to help make some sense of it. In particular, what do we do with the word hina? Is is possible that this clause is meant to be understood as “Even (de) so that (hina) the wife (hē gunē) may respect (phobētai) her husband (ton andron)?” Is the wife’s respect dependent on, or a result of, her husband’s Christ-like, sacrificial and loving behaviour?


Relates Articles

Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33
Ephesians 5:22-33, in a Nutshell
Submission and Respect from Wives (1 Peter 3:1-6)
Submission and Respect from Husbands (1 Peter 3:7-8)
Wifely Submission  and Holy Kisses

Posted May 13th, 2015 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, Equality in Marriage, The "Difficult" Passages, , , ,

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10 comments on “Fear or Respect in Christian Marriage (Eph. 5:33)?

  1. The bible I read the word used is respect not fear. In fact, I have always thought the word was respect and never heard it to mean fear except in one article I read. I agree that respect and fear are two different things and don’t believe Paul implied that wives should fear her husband.

    • Marg says:

      Thankfully, fear and respect are two distinct concepts in many cultures today. But it wasn’t (isn’t) always like that.

  2. […] Fear or Respect in Christian Marriage (Ephesians 5:33)? […]

  3. […] Marg Mowczko asks whether Ephesians 5:33 deals with fear or respect in Christian marriage. […]

  4. Knut AK says:

    For me it was enlightening to read Dr Gordon Fee’s article «The Cultural Context of Ephesians 5:18–6:9», I think it can be found at

    http://www.summitpacific.ca/women/pdf/cultural-context-of-ephesians.pdf

    It seems to me that for this passage even more than for many others, we tend to forget that the words are not said directly to us, but to some people who lived long ago.

    We also tend to evaluate the words in a context of faithful marriage. In the households Paul may have been thinking of, both husband and wife may have had extra-marital affairs. So he is telling the husband not just to love his wife, but to love his OWN wife. If we can think the same way about the wife, then the wife’s respect might be understood as respect for their relationship, and have as a consequence that she should terminate her extra-marital affairs.

    • Marg says:

      Thanks for the link.

      I agree with you. Many modern, western Christians evaluate and internalise some of Paul’s teachings – especially Ephesians 5:22-33 and a few other passages I can think of – with no appreciation of the original audience and their situation.

      In another article (on Ephesians 5:22-33), I write briefly about the reality of married life in the first century Roman world, but I hadn’t thought about the idea that Paul’s reference to a wife’s respect may be tied to her fidelity. Food for thought.

  5. […] Fear or Respect in Christian Marriage? […]

  6. […]   Fear or Respect in Christian Marriage (Ephesians 5:33)? […]

  7. Danny says:

    Fear is the proper reading. The Bible is not ever the problem, people are. Fear does not always mean horror, but fear of consequence is what drives kids from behaviors that lead to discipline. Fear of God is proper because He ultimately decides the fate of our soul and that’s to keep us from improperly fearing someone who can kill only our physical body. In the case of marriage, a wife should care what her husband thinks and fear what he might think if she did something at all detrimental in the relationship, because it will deter her from that action. That same healthy fear of God is to keep a husband from acting detrimentally toward the wife. A loving Father is also a disciplinarian, which is why Jesus having the Father came first as a lamb and will return as a lion to judge. None of this is to be taken lightly by mincing words.

    • Marg says:

      “Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God” 1 John 4:7 CEB.

      “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love” 1 John 4:18 CEB

      Or if you prefer:

      “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God” 1 John 4:7 KJV.

      “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love” 1 John 4:18 KJV.

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