Fear or Respect in Ephesians 5:33?
Nevertheless, each one of you [husbands] should love his own wife as he loves himself, and the wife phobētai her husband (Ephesians 5:33).
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 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.
Tragically, many husbands have also believed that they needed to be feared if they wanted to be respected and have an obedient wife under their 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.
Fear or Respect in 1 Peter 3:2?
… they [non-Christian husbands] will be won over when they see your pure conduct accompanied by phobos (1 Peter 3:1b-2).
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 Christian wives with unsaved husbands living in the patriarchal Greco-Roman world would have had genuine reasons for fearing their husbands. Nevertheless, 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 that both husband and wife are co-heirs of the grace of life. I like how the New Living Translation puts this phrase addressed to men: “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 is no place or provision for fear or intimidation. Instead, there should be mutual honour and respect.
Be devoted to one another in love.
Honour one another above yourselves.
 Today we consider some of the behaviours and demands of powerful people of the past as unethical, abusive, and downright cruel. And their behaviours are now illegal in many nations.
 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 “explore more” articles below.]
© Margaret Mowczko 2015
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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 (ἵνα: “that, so that”) plus the subjunctive verb phobētai (“she may respect”)? Is the wife’s respect dependent on, or a result of, her husband’s Christ-like, sacrificial and loving behaviour?
Here are three possible ways of dealing with hina (ἵνα) in Ephesians 5:33.
1. A wish with an unstated verb.
Thayer explains that a weakened hina (ἵνα) with the subjunctive verb can denote something which one wishes to be done by another person, and that an unstated verb of commanding, exhorting, or wishing must be mentally supplied by the reader before the hina (ἵνα). Thayer cites a few examples of New Testament verses where this may be happening, including Ephesians 5:33. (See ἵνα II 4b here: Bible Hub.)
This idea of an unstated, implied verb is perhaps reflected in the words of exhortation in the ESV, NKJV, and many other translations that add the verb “see” to Ephesians 5:33b: “and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
2. “Respect” functions as an imperative.
Zerwick states that hina (ἵνα) can express either an independent wish or an exhortation, and adds, “That ἵνα can in the NT be used absolutely with the sense of an imperative or the like is shown by examples such as Eph 5:33: «let each one love his wife (ἀγαπάτω), and let the wife fear her husband (ἵνα φοβῆται)»; cf. 2 Cor 8:7. (See Zerwick 415.c (294) on p. 141 here: Google Books.)
BDAG (ἵνα 2g) also cite Ephesians 5:33 as an example where a weakened hina (ἵνα) with a subjunctive verb functions as an imperative. Their translation is, “the wife is to respect her husband.”
Hina (ἵνα) in an independent clause with an imperatival sense starts as early as 250 BCE. For example, there are half a dozen examples in the Zenon archives (261–229 BC) including PCairZen III 59490. (Hina in an independent clause expressing a directive is also common in Modern Greek, which admittedly doesn’t help us with New Testament Greek.) Option 2 makes the most sense to me.
Zerwick briefly argues for a causal hina in the New Testament while acknowledging that most scholars reject this idea. He gives Rom. 5:25, 6:1, 1 Cor. 7:34, 2 Cor. 4:7, 12:9, and 3 John 1:8 as examples. (See footnote 7, p. 141.)
3. The wife’s respect depends on the husband’s love.
Cynthia Long Westfall notes that hina (ἵνα) is a marker that denotes result (or purpose, aim, or goal/ objective). Consequently, she believes the implication in Ephesians 5:33 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.
Julie Walsh and Jeffrey D. Miller also argue for this interpretation in their paper, “Translating Ephesians 5:33,” The Bible Translator 74.1 (April 2023), 93–109. (Online: Sage Journals)
In A Patristic Greek Lexicon, edited by G. W. H. Lampe, gives a possible sense of “indicating consequence” for hina with Romans 5:20 as an example. (See p. 674)
Postscript 2: September 22, 2023
Markus Barth on the Hina Clause in Ephesians 5:33
Markus Barth translated the hina clause in Ephesians 5:33 as “and the wife … may she fear her husband.” And he makes the following comment.
A complete change of tone has taken place. After the rigid instruction given each individual husband in imperative form [in 5:33], Paul speaks of “the wife”—hesitates, and continues with an anacoluthon (a broken sentence): “may she fear her husband” (hina phobētai …). In some cases such a hina-sentence replaces a (blunt) command or imperative, but it does not in the two other instances in which it occurs in Pauline letters: in 1 Cor 7:29 Paul suggests that in the remaining short time (before the last woes and the parousia) “those who have wives live as though they had none (hina … ōsin). In 2 Cor 8:7 he utters his confidence that the Corinthians who abound in faith, proclamation, knowledge, zeal, and love, will also be abundant in contributing to the collection for Jerusalem (hina … perisseuēte). He adds, immediately and explicitly, “I say this not as a command” (2 Cor 8:8). In consequence, that which is known of Pauline diction (or might be imitated by a disciple of Paul) prohibits the interpretation of Eph 5:33b as an imperative statement. Paul’s sentence about the wife is so phrased as if he wanted to say, “I hope and trust she will be enabled to fear her husband; I expect it but I cannot command it.”
Markus Barth, Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 4-6, vol. 34A, (Anchor Yale Bible; New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2008), 648–649.
Barth goes on to discuss the verb “fear” which he sees as meaning fear rather than respect or reverence. I’ve put his discussion on “fear” in the comments section below.
Postscript 3: March 1, 2021
Jerome on “Fear” in Ephesians 5
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)
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 1 Peter 5:5
Wifely Submission and Holy Kisses
The Grammar of Ephesians 5:21–22