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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, 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, pagan 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, the attitudes of submission and respect seem to be related here as they are in other New Testament 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 (shown 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 (with the subjunctive verb)? Is this phrase an indirect command or indirect request? Or is it a purpose clause and meant to be understood as, “Even (de) so that (hina) the wife (hē gunē) may respect (phobētai) her husband (ton andra)?” (I’ve moved the Greek words around to help it make sense and flow in English.) 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