Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Loving and Respecting

“Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”

Phil and Katie are a Christian couple in their fourth decade of married life. They have three grown children. Both are close to normal retirement age. As a director of a small company, Katie makes slightly more than Phil does in his role as middle manager for a larger one. She is also brimming with confidence that comes from long-term day-to-day success on the job.

Phil is not. He’s always looking over his shoulder expecting to be told his services are no longer required. However, since he needs to make sure he can keep up his share of the mortgage payments, his workdays are spent deferring to an obnoxious regional manager who dislikes him for reasons Phil doesn’t comprehend. He would love to retire, but feels he can’t quit before Katie does, and being terminated would be the ultimate disgrace. He wouldn’t be able to hold up his head.

A Simple Question

None of Phil’s concerns about his own inadequacies are justified by the facts. He is a diligent worker and a dedicated father and husband. But one day out of the blue he receives a job-related email from an attractive single co-worker from an office in another state. She is warm and funny, and a budding online-only friendship ensues that builds over several years as personal stories are told, pet names are coined and intimacies shared. Phil’s co-worker seems to understand, appreciate and support him in ways nobody else in his life ever does.

Naturally, Phil never mentions this new relationship to Katie. He is careful not to leave his cell phone unlocked or his office laptop unattended. Katie wouldn’t understand. She would probably be deeply hurt at the thought that he is sharing their private business with another woman. And of course in Phil’s mind an online relationship isn’t going anywhere, so he is justified in preemptively “managing” Katie’s potential overreaction to it. After all, Phil is determined to live as a good Christian husband. He promised Katie “ ’Til death do us part”, and he meant it. He would never contemplate divorce. When his prayer life deteriorates into mere routine, Phil puts it down to the pressure of his job rather than the real cause.

Several years in, Phil and his online friend find themselves talking about getting together “on business” in a mutually convenient location. Phil realizes he has fallen in love.

Simple question: Does Phil love his wife as himself?

A Simple Answer

Of course not, you say. How could he possibly? He’s carrying on an emotional affair behind her back. He made a vow to Katie in the words “forsaking all others” that even Phil would agree meant more than just not having sex with other women. He can’t possibly love his wife as himself: he’s putting the fulfillment of his own emotional needs ahead of his spousal duties to Katie and her rights before God. He’s keeping a secret that can’t help but infect every area of his life and her’s, including Katie’s enjoyment of her marriage. Moreover, if Phil had found similar emails or texts to a co-worker on Katie’s computer or phone, he would have been devastated, and at some level he knows it.

Good answer. I totally agree with you. Even if Phil’s feelings of affection for Katie and his commitment to stay with her until he dies have not changed, and even if their sex life is apparently unaffected by his online activities, he is not showing her truly Christian agapaō love. He is not putting his wife first. He’s playing with fire and taking a risk that is bound to eventually destroy the trust, affection, spiritual connection and even the life he and Katie have built together.

Fair enough. Let’s consider another scenario.

A Slightly More Complicated Question

Katie thinks very highly of Phil. She is touched by his love for his grandchildren and the thoughtful little things he does for her and everyone else in his family. She appreciates his organizational skills. When they travel, he always takes care of every detail. He plans every family event and never forgets a birthday. She recognizes his managerial acumen and thinks his company is lucky to have him, even if they don’t promote him and he always seems worried about job security.

At the same time, Katie knows Phil would like them to retire. He has said so many times. He has several compelling arguments: the mortgage on the family home is almost paid off, and their combined locked-in retirement savings from their pension plans are more than adequate to discharge the remainder if one or both of them should choose to call it quits. If she were home more, she’d have more time to spend with her daughters and three grandchildren, who, as Phil puts it, will only be young once. She could also be more involved at church, which is an area even Katie agrees she has been neglecting. As Phil always says, “What more is there for you to do in that job? There’s nothing you haven’t accomplished.”

What Phil doesn’t understand is the rush Katie still gets from doing her job well. The company’s quarterly numbers are up year-over-year, and most of the credit is rightly coming her way. She enjoys her colleagues and the social life at the office. She loves the challenge of taking an initiative that doesn’t work and reshaping it to succeed. She can’t imagine retirement now, or even at sixty-five, notwithstanding the potential positives.

Simple question: Does Katie respect her husband?


That one’s not so easy, is it. Perhaps we’d better define the word “respect”.

The Greek verb phobeō occurs 93 times in the New Testament. Your translation will not be precisely the same as mine, but in both the KJV and the ESV, 92 of these 93 occurrences are translated with words like “fear” or expressions like “be afraid”. The sole exception is Ephesians 5:33, quoted above, where the translators have opted for either “respect” or “reverence”.

Hmm. Why do you think that might be? I suspect no translator worth his salt wants to be the guy known for promoting spousal abuse. And if we redefine “fear” to mere “respect”, then Katie has no obvious problem, does she? As long as she continues to think and speak highly of her husband, we would not find her unreasonable if she declines to go along with his wishes for their family. After all, it’s not like he’s giving her a direct order, right? We couldn’t call her unsubmissive.

Except, like the word agapaō, phobeō won’t bear a meaning that can only be expressed in terms of an emotional state or intellectual apprehension. Like agapaō, phobeō has far more to do with actions than feelings.

Respect in Action

Consider the following examples: (1) The parents of the man born blind who Jesus had healed on the Sabbath “feared the Jews” [phobeō], so they threw their own son under the bus rather than risk being kicked out of the synagogue. Their “respect” for the Jewish authorities trumped their parental affections. (2) Cornelius was a God-fearing Gentile [phobeō]. How do we know? He gave alms generously and prayed continually. His “respect” for God resulted in actions. (3) The Lord tells Paul in a vision, “Do not be afraid [phobeō], but go on speaking.” The opposite of speaking is being silent. Giving in to fear would have changed the way Paul behaved, as it always does. Sometimes that’s a bad thing; other times, not so much. Godly fear produces the right sort of actions. (4) Paul tells the Colossian believers that fear of the Lord [phobeō] produces sincere obedience. Where there is no obedience, it is reasonable to conclude respect for God is lacking. (5) The Jewish leadership wanted to give Jesus an answer to his question, but they were afraid [phobeō] of the people. Accordingly, they lied and said, “We do not know”, when they knew perfectly well how they should respond.

I could go on, but it doesn’t take 92 examples to make a point. Everywhere we find the quality my ESV requires of wives and calls “respect”, we find with it a corresponding action that proves the emotion genuine. In scripture, “respect” and “fear” are not mere sentiments, but feelings that produce appropriate responses.

Once we observe this tight scriptural association between fear and the behavior it produces, it helps us make sense of the command for a wife to “fear” her husband in a relationship that should always be characterized by love and intimacy. Paul is not telling the Ephesian wives that they should be terrified of their husbands. In a Christian marriage operating rightly, the wife should never be even remotely concerned about her her husband’s emotional volatility or, God forbid, her own physical safety. What Paul is instructing here is not that Christian wives live in a state of fear, but that they respond as if they did, voluntarily reacting to their husbands’ spiritual leadership with the urgency and commitment fear normally produces, as if it were the direction of God himself. Their sense of security (and their husbands’ happiness) depend on it.


In short, a respect that only goes as deep as how a Christian wife talks about her husband to others but fails to respond to his perfectly reasonable expressed wishes is not genuine, biblical respect, any more than a love that maintains sexual fidelity in a technical sense while violating the spirit of the marriage vows is genuine, biblical love.

Within marriage, love expresses itself in singleminded, self-sacrificing devotion, and respect expresses itself in obedience.

Even when they cost you something you want very much.

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