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Some Christians are puzzled over Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 5:33 where he says that the wife should “respect” or “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. 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. 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.
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) (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 treat them with respect.
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 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
 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.
 Some ancient Greek, pagan philosophers advocated fearfulness in wives (e.g., Xenophon, Oeconomicus 7.25; pseudo-Aristotle, Oeconomicus 3.144.2).
 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.]
Postscript 1: Notes on the Grammar
Phobos and phobeō in Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3
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.
Hina + phobētai in Ephesians 5:33
The last clause at the end of Ephesians 5:33 (hē de gunē hina phobētai ton andra) 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 conjunction hina (“so that”) plus the subjunctive verb phobētai (“she may respect”)?
Is this a conditional clause that is 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?
Thayer explains that a weakened hina with the subjunctive verb can denote something which one wishes to be done by another, and that an unstated verb of commanding, exhorting, or wishing must be mentally supplied by the reader before the hina. Thayer cites a few examples of New Testament verses where this may be happening, including Ephesians 5:33. (See ἵνα II 4b here.) This idea of an unstated, implied verb is plausible and is reflected in the words of exhortation in the ESV and NKJV translations which I’ve italicised: “and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
BDAG (ἵνα 2g) cite Ephesians 5:33 as an example where a weakened hina with a subjunctive verb functions as an imperative. Their translation is, “the wife is to respect her husband.”
Cynthia Long Westfall notes that hina is a marker that denotes result (or purpose, aim, or goal/objective). Consequently, in Ephesians 5:33, the implication is that the wife’s respect is contingent or conditional upon the husband’s love. Westfall offers this translation of the entire verse: “In any case, as for you individually, each one of you should love his wife as himself so that the wife can honor/respect her husband.”
Westfall, “‘This is a Great Metaphor’: Reciprocity in the Ephesians Household Codes” in Christian Origins and Greco-roman Culture: Social and Literary Contexts for the New Testament, Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts (eds) (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 561-598, 595.
Postscript 2: March 1 2021
I like this quotation from Jerome’s commentary on Ephesians where he comments on the “fear” (reverence or respect) that wives are to have for their husbands (cf. Eph. 5:21, 33).
We must inquire whether wife, and the fear belonging to a wife, is to be understood in a fleshly manner, since wives are frequently found who are much better than their husbands. They rule over them, manage the household, educate the children, and maintain the discipline of the family while the husbands revel and run around with harlots. I leave it to the decision of the readers whether these women ought to rule their husbands or fear them.”
The Commentaries of Origen and Jerome on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, translated by Ronald E. Heine (Oxford University Press, 2003), 242. (Google Books)
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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)
Mutual Submission in Ephesians 5:21 and in 1 Peter 5:5
Wifely Submission and Holy Kisses
The Grammar of Ephesians 5:21-22