Men are from Mars, counselor John Gray says, while women are from Venus — a potentially comforting idea for those who suspect they married an extraterrestrial. The point, of course, is that men and women don’t always value the same things in life or relationships. The idea has helped many couples to be more gracious regarding their differences.
A widely-read Christian book by Emerson Eggerichs, entitled Love and Respect, locates a similar kind of gender difference in Scripture. Since Paul tells husbands, “each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband” (Eph 5:33, NIV), Eggerichs teaches that women crave love and men respect. When either is missing, the marriage founders.
Similar ideas are found elsewhere. Shaunti Feldhahn, for example, tells of retreat participants who were asked to make a hypothetical choice: would they rather be unloved or disrespected? The women gasped when nearly every man in the room said he preferred being unloved to being disrespected; the men were equally surprised when the women said just the opposite.
Whatever the truth behind that gender distinction, though, I don’t think that’s what Paul is saying in Ephesians. When he tells women to respect their husbands, it’s not because they need it, and it doesn’t mean they don’t have to love them. No Christian is exempt from the commandment to love.
Conversely, when Paul tells men to love their wives, it doesn’t mean they don’t have to respect them. Peter, for example, like Paul, tells wives to submit to their husbands, but then tells husbands to “be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (1 Pet 3:7, NIV).
“Weaker” here doesn’t mean “inferior”—it means physically weaker, and therefore, in the ancient world, more vulnerable. Recognizing this, the husband is to be especially thoughtful. Indeed, Peter’s phrase about respect is more literally “show them honor”—which could include the deference shown to a superior. Peter even suggests that if husbands don’t honor their wives, their own spiritual lives may suffer.
To push the point further: although the NIV uses “respect” in both places, Paul’s word is different from Peter’s—literally, Paul says that wives are to fear their husbands. Obviously, Paul isn’t asking wives to live in terror of husbands who dishonor or disrespect them. But what, then?
Significantly, Paul also speaks of fear in verse 21: believers are to submit to one another out of the “fear of” — “reverence for” in the NIV — Christ. But what kind of fear should we have toward the one whom Paul says “loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:2, NIV)? What kind of fear does Paul mean in 5:21, when in 5:20, Paul says we should sing to the Lord with grateful hearts?
Imagine standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, thinking, Wow—this is so much bigger than it looks in postcards. Imagine being Paul, thinking he knew God’s will for his people, persecuting the followers of Jesus for being obvious heretics—then being struck blind by that same Jesus, and having his eyes opened to a whole new reality that was so much bigger than he had ever realized.
Paul means that kind of fear. Absolute awe. Amazement at the mystery of God’s will.
The fear of God, we are told in the Old Testament, is the beginning of wisdom (Job 28:28; Ps 111:10; Prov 1:7, 9:10, 15:3; Isa 11:2). As believers, we stand constantly on the brink of holy mystery, and should never cease to be amazed by grace. In awe and in wisdom, with love and respect, we humbly submit to one another because of what God has done and is now doing. That’s the proper attitude with which to come to the moral instruction of Scripture.
Including Ephesians 5. Perhaps especially so.