Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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 “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.[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]

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

Fear Respect Christian Marriage Ephesians 5:33 Paul Wives


Footnotes

[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.]


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.
Ephesians 5:33, hina plus subjunctive

Hinaphobētai 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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Related 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)
Mutual Submission in Ephesians 5:21 and in 1 Peter 5:5
Wifely Submission  and Holy Kisses
The Grammar of Ephesians 5:21-22

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

19 thoughts on “Fear or Respect in Christian Marriage (Ephesians 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.

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

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. Hi Danny, I’ve highlighted the word “fear” in the following verses. (There are numerous other verses I could have chosen.) Love and fear are incompatible in Christian marriage and in the New Covenant.

      “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

      “All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father’” Romans 8:14-15 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.

      “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father’” Romans 8:14-15 KJV.

  4. To all who have never been in, or are not in, fearful, abusive relationships (be it verbal or physical abuse), you will never know the feelings of such relationships. It’s not enough to look at their bruises or listen to there confused language.

    I feel it is important to be able, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to explain exactly what the Bible really is trying to say as in the case of the duties of husbands and wives, as it will cause more confusion and misunderstanding to the word of God, and to the married couples, who read this if it is not explained properly.

    It was truly nice to read here that St Peter says “honour” rather than “fear” in Peter 3:7 in the case of married couples.

    God Bless

    1. Hi Adriana,

      Yes, fear has no place in Christian marriage. And a man who is disrespectful to his wife–which includes causing her to be afraid and being unkind to her–will have difficulty being heard by God. Peter told husbands, “. . . show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7 NASB) This is a strong warning to husbands.

      There are few things worse than being married to an abusive spouse. 🙁

      Importantly, the basic teachings in the New Testament about love and humility and selflessness and patience and “do unto others”, etc, do not override or contradict verses which are specifically about husbands and wives. When we look at verses about husbands and wives, we mustn’t lose sight of, or distort, the basics. We also mustn’t lose sight of Ephesians 5:21 which is about mutual submission and prefaces the Ephesians 5 verses about wifely submission. More on this here: https://margmowczko.com/ephesians-522-33-in-a-nutshell/

  5. Marg,

    “Is the wife’s respect dependent on, or a result of, her husband’s Christ-like, sacrificial, and loving behavior?”

    I think so because “hina” is used in the beginning of verse 26 as the purpose for and what follows as a result of verse 25. Husbands are first told to agapate their wives and then to paredōken themselves for their wives so that “hina” for what follows in verse 26-28. So the respect in verse 33 is probably dependent on the husband’s behavior. The thought flows that way earlier in the passage.

    What follows in verse 26-28 has to do with restoration and redemption. The language for being without blame, fault, spot, or wrinkle has strong ties to the Jewish understanding of what happened to Eve and all women after the fall. There is background information behind these verses in Ephesians that tie into Genesis 1-3 and Jewish thought. 2 Clement makes a link as well between Ephesians 5:25-33 and Genesis 1-3 when mentioning the Church, Christ, Eden, and equality between men and women.

    Some Jewish scholars hold to Genesis 3:16 being a result of Adam holding blame and bitterness against Eve for failing as an Ezer Kenegdo. They believe that when he named his wife Eve, he actually named her “serpent” as a way to cast blame on her every time he addressed her by name, and at the same time lowering her to the status of an animal and a servant instead of an equal. Eve means “serpent” not just the mother of all living. They also hold that earlier in Genesis Adam’s calling her “isha” was a way of identifying himself with her, not an act of naming authority, but after the fall his naming her was an act of authority and reduced her function to a child-bearer when God first identified her function as an Ezer Kenegdo. From there male rule and hierarchy started and instead of a man leaving his father and mother to cleave to his wife, it is the woman who did the “turning”.

    So this language of husbands delivering themselves over for their wives so that they may be blameless and faultless and presented (side standing) in glory was redemptive language for husbands to humble themselves in mutual submission so that the wife may be restored again as an Ezer Kenegdo. Also, husbands being told to leave their parents to cleave to their wife is a reversal of the woman’s “turning” in Genesis 3:16 and a move to restoration away from patriarchy.

  6. Marg,
    Sorry to double post here, but I just found something interesting. Eph 5:29 uses the word thalpei for cherish. The root word means to warm followed by nourish, foster, comfort. It is a rare word and is used in papyrus for nursery language. It is only used one other time in the NT and the context of its use is astonishing!

    1 Thessalonians 2:6-7
    Nor seeking glory from men, nor from you, nor from others, though having authority with weight to be, as apostles of Christ. Instead, we were gentle in the midst of you, as if a nursing mother would cherish (thalpei) her own children.

    So even though they had authority with weight, instead of exercising authority over them and seeking glory and status, they were gentle and cherished instead. This word “cherish” is linked to gentleness and is in stark contrast with exercising authority over another. I found the context it is used in very interesting.

    1. Yes, Cynthia Westfall writes that much of language used about husbands in Ephesians 5 is, in other contexts, used about what women usually did in first-century society, laundry and child care, etc.

      I’ve written about Paul, and Moses, maternal leadership here: https://margmowczko.com/masculine-and-feminine-leadership/

  7. I’m glad I’ve never heard anyone say that wives should be afraid of their husbands. It’s hard to imagine being afraid of someone who loves you. However, since the reason fear and respect are intertwined is because rulers thought they needed to be feared, does the use of the word phobētai imply a situation where a person is a ruler/leader of another person, even if that person isn’t afraid of that leader? Or can it be used without the connotations of leadership?

    1. Phobētai (phobeō) is used in all kinds of contexts and with various nuances and degrees of strength. Sometimes it means to be terrified or fearful. At other times it can mean to reverence. “To respect” is a still milder sense. Sometimes it has the senses of to be worried or concerned.

      The verb is often used in contexts where there is no mention of a leader (e.g., Matt. 1:20). And there is no connotation of leadership whatsoever within the word itself. You can see all the instances where the word occurs in the NT here: https://biblehub.com/greek/strongs_5399.htm

      1. Thank you for link, those examples were helpful. I thought Mark 6:20 about Herod “fearing” or respecting John was interesting, especially considering the amount of power Herod had. Interestingly, I saw that Thayer’s lexicon on Bible hub used Mark 6:20 and Ephesians 5:33 as examples of “fear” meaning reverence, deference, and veneration. But I also noticed it included reverential obedience as part of it. I can’t see that Herod ever obeyed John, but I was curious how often obedience is a part of fear? And is there any way to tell besides context?

        1. ~ Yeah, I saw the “reverential obedience” bit too. Thayer has gone too far. Reverential obedience was certainly an expectation of wives in New Testament times, and even until relatively recently, but “obedience” is not a nuance of the word phobētai (phobeō).

          ~ Herod did revere John the Baptist. I think he was also a bit scared of him. But he certainly didn’t obey him.

          ~ Phobētai (phobeō) has a range of meanings but they are all related to terror, fear, reverence, and respect. Obedience is not part of the meaning of the word, but it may be part of the context.

          1. Thank you. That bit confused me, but I think I understand better now. I’ve recently been reading some of your’s and other’s articles about marriage. To be honest, I used to be scared of getting married. I was worried I would always have to do what my husband said without talking it over with him, or God would be displeased with me. I’ve started to gain a better understanding of marriage from your articles, and I’m very grateful for that.
            There is one thing, though, that I wonder if you had some insights on. I was reading Grudem’s 1985 paper on head and Cervin’s response on CBE. I enjoyed Cervin’s response, but some of the examples of Grudem’s weren’t discussed or still confused me. I’ve been thinking it over, but I would deeply appreciate some thoughts from someone who knows Greek better than I do.
            There are 2 examples in Philo’s “On Rewards and Punishments.” One is in XIX 114, where Philo speaks of a nation lording over other nations as the head is to the body occupying the preeminence of situation. I wasn’t sure if he is connecting the head and preeminence to authority, or if he is saying that the head is preeminent to the body and the nations will also be preeminent. Another is in XX 124-126. He speaks of a virtuous man as becoming head. But he also says the head vivifies the body. I can’t tell if he’s speaking of authority, or of the head as a place of life.
            There are also 2 military examples that I’m confused about. In Pelopidas 2.1, Plutarch uses head of military generals. I know this isn’t an independent metaphor, but does it show that head is used of persons with authority? Another example of this that seems closer to the Ephesians passage is Galba 4.3. Plutarch connects imperial power to a vigorous body needing a head. I was wondering if this also shows that the head was thought of as the authority of the body, and could be used metaphorically in that way.
            I’m sorry my question is so long. I want to understand how the head metaphor was used and understood, and something about Grudem’s use seems wrong, but I can’t quite place my finger on it. I would deeply appreciate any thoughts you have.

          2. Hi Taylor,

            I’ve found several errors in the way Grudem handles Greek texts and words. He does not have the proficiency of a seasoned Greek expert.

            ~ He openly admitted in a book he co-wrote with Vern Poythress that he did not know that adelphoi can mean “brothers and sisters.” And this was after his investigations into kephalē, the Greek word for “head.” See footnote 1 here.

            ~ In his essay “Grounds for Divorce, his method for working out the parameters of what en tois toioutois (“in such cases”) means is flawed. See here.

            ~ A minor issue: In his essay entitled “The Myth of Mutual Submission,” he repeatedly gives an irrelevant accusative form of the pronoun allēlois (lexical form: allēlōn), a word that means “one another,” See footnote 4 here.

            _______________________

            Philo makes it easy for us; he explains what he means by kephalē in section 14 of On Rewards and Punishment: “… as the head is to the body occupying the pre-eminence of situation …” It means “preeminence” which is a common sense of kephalē.

            Philo also explains what he means by kephalē in section 20: “For as in an animal the head is the first and best part, and the tail the last and worst part, or rather no part at all … the virtuous man shall be the head of the human race whether he be a single man or a whole people. And that all others, being as it were parts of the body, are only vivified by the powers existing in the head and superior portions of the body.” The head-tail metaphor also occurs in the Hebrew Bible: Deuteronomy 28:12-13 in the context of prosperity for Israel; Deuteronomy 22:43-44 in the context of Israel not being prosperous; Isaiah 9:14-15 in the context of disaster for the Jews because they did not obey God; Isaiah 19:15 in the context of no one, great or small being able to help Egypt. In the head-tail metaphor, “head” is a metaphor for capable people who are in an honoured, prosperous, superior position while “tail” is a metaphor for people in a despised, poor, lowly position. (The head-tail metaphor does not occur in the New Testament.) The prominent people in elevated positions may be leaders and may have authority, but the word kephalē, in and of itself, does not convey the meaning of a leader with authority.

            In The Life of Pelopidas by Plutarch, kephalē is used in a kind of head-body metaphor. The purpose of the metaphor is to show that General Pelopidas is not “one man” by himself. Rather, his hands, his feet, and chest, that is, his light-armed troops, his cavalry, and his men at arms, are all part of the “one man” and all will perish as one man, if and when the general makes a bad move. The general is in a prominent, superior position, and he is a leader with authority, but kephalē refers to oneness here. Not authority.

            There are a few differences between Ephesians 5:23 and The Life of Galba 4.3. In Ephesians 5:23 Paul tells wives that their husbands are their heads: one head for one body member. In the Life of Galba the “body” is the provinces of Gaul, perhaps several hundreds of thousands of people. Also, Galba is invited to aspire to the Imperial throne, and in fact he does succeed Nero, albeit briefly. Husbands had power over their wives in the first century, but Paul encourages them to follow Christ’s example and love and serve their wives. He does not mention power or leadership or authority when speaking to husbands. In fact, he uses the word “love” 6 times when speaking to husbands in Ephesians 5.

            Because prominence is a meaning or nuance of kephalē it is used in some passages when speaking about people who are leaders. That is because leaders are usually prominent. But kephalē does not mean leader.”

            More about kephalē here: https://margmowczko.com/head-kephale-does-not-mean-leader-1-corinthians-11_3/

  8. Hi Marg, your last response to Taylor regarding head-tail metaphors brought a thought to mind. The New Testament may not use this metaphor, however it certainly refutes its implications of power. So many passages speak of unity, mutual submission, sacrificial love, giving greater honor to the lesser parts, how to treat all people of any station as equal or better than yourself, being a servant to all as Christ (and Paul) exemplified. I’m sure there is more that could be said here, but 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 and Ephesians 5:23 sure seem to allude to this apparently well known metaphor and eliminate the idea of “tail”. And, isn’t it interesting that the wife, and not family, friends, coworkers, etc., is the husband’s body- he is to be in closest unity, mutual support and sustenance with his wife.

    1. I love these thoughts, Jenn.

      Yes, unlike the head-tail metaphor, or the head-feet metaphor which is used in the NT, the head-body metaphor is not about extremities or polar opposites but about unity and oneness even if the head is more prominent than the body.

      1 Corinthians 12 is one of my favourite passages and, as you say, Paul wanted the Corinthians to give greater honour to the parts, the people, that lacked it. Paul even says that the parts, the people, that are already respectable and honourable do not need special treatment; they do not need more honour (1 Cor. 12:24). I’ve written about this more here: https://margmowczko.com/honour-for-underdogs-1-cor-12_12-31/

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