Respect in Marriage: God Wasn’t Just Talking to Wives

After a short respite in “practical application” land we are back on track with our posts about the basic components of a biblical marriage. Here is where we are:

  • Holiness More Than Happiness (part 1) (part 2)
  • Holiness in Love
  • Holiness in Honor/Respect
  • Holiness in Service
  • The Big Picture: Complementarianism
  • Headship 101
  • Submission 101
  • Putting It All Together

We began by looking at how marriage was designed to make us holy more than happy. Next we showed how the process of learning to love is really the process of progressive sanctification—becoming holy like God is holy. Continuing on this theme of sanctification, let’s talk about learning to honor and respect your spouse.

Within most conversations about marriage, the duty to “honor” seems to be almost solely relegated to the wife. During your marriage counseling I’d guess that you were taught something along the lines of “Men are called to love their wives and women are called to respect their husbands.” They were described rather like equal and opposite role-based responses. While it may be true that men stereotypically gravitate towards the need for respect and women stereotypically need to feel loved, this doesn’t negate the truth that scripture isn’t gender-exclusive in its commissions to show love and respect. Both spouses are called to build a relationship where mutual love and mutual respect are shown on a daily basis.

I know that when I pull out the word “mutual” I may be sending up red flags for all the complementarians out there. But hear me out and examine scripture with me.

Let’s start by showing that the word “honor” in scripture overlaps a great deal with the word translated “respect.” To “respect” (Eph 5:33) is the Greek word “phobeo” which can either mean “be afraid of” or “to have a profound measure of respect for”(BDAG) depending on context. When discussing husbands and wives, the context seems to indicate that the latter definition is the correct one. Perhaps the contrast is best seen in 1 Pet 3:6, where the wife is to follow Sarah who called her husband “Lord” (a sign of profound respect in that time, albeit heresy in our own:-), but is then immediately told to “do good and do not fear frightening things” (phobeo). The word “honor” (Greek word “timé”) has a similar meaning, “to show high regard for” (BDAG). Thus, for our purposes, honor and respect are practically indistinguishable.

Now, as I observed earlier, most people are aware that a wife is supposed to show “respect” for her husband, but why would I say it’s an overarching command that even husbands have to follow? I say this because in the same way the Bible says that wives and husbands are to show mutual sacrificial love, it calls each party to fulfill their roles as people who honor and respect each other, generally and specifically. So, for instance, all Christians are told to honor everyone (1 Pet 2:17), and, narrowing it to the body of Christ, we are also told to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom 12:10). Imagine that, husbands and wives outdoing one another in showing honor and respect. As if this weren’t enough, God gets even more specific. Husbands are told to “honor” their wives (1 Pet 3:7) and wives are told to “respect” their husbands (Eph 5:33). Thus on multiple levels it is inescapable that this command is for both husbands and wives.

(As a brief aside, I think that much of the confusion regarding “honor” being mostly a woman’s duty comes from the common mistake of understanding “submit to” and “respect” to mean the same thing within scripture. I would say that these two actions are not interchangeable. I’ll probably get into this somewhat when I write about submission. Just wanted to give you some food for thought.)

So now that we’ve cleared that up, what seems to be the problem? Let’s get to it. Go out there and respect and honor each other, case closed. Ah, but here’s the rub, after learning that we are called to respect and honor our spouses they then go and do something completely “unrespectable.” They fail. They sin. Make mistakes. What do we do when the person we are told to honor doesn’t really deserve it? If we were being honest, we usually don’t even stop to ask ourselves this question. Instead we reflexively toss respect out the window and decide to respond to failures with contempt (the opposite of honor/respect.) It’s that familiar feeling of superiority. That, due to their failure, we are free to respond to our spouses with indifference, disdain, or ridicule (with at least a mild dash of sarcasm). And so, we as husbands and wives sometimes mock each other, we roll the eyes, perhaps we give each other the silent treatment (after all, they don’t deserve a response!), or maybe we correct each other in public (that’s right, make them look as vapid/uninformed/idiotic as they really are!), or we throw out barbs of incessant criticism, and etc.

So what’s the answer to this predicament? How can you (husband or wife) begin to treat your spouse with honor/respect (part 2)? And what does that look like in “real life” (part 3)?


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