Are wives called to unconditionally respect their husbands? Is unconditional respect a thing in marriage?

This week’s podcast is a little bit explosive–sort of like last week’s on stumbling blocks and causing men to sin!

We’re going to look at why the logical argument that unconditional respect and unconditional love are analagous fails; how the original Greek in Ephesians 5:33 does not point to unconditional respect; and how the original studies that said that “men need respect and women need love” are actually very flawed.

Are you ready? This podcast’s explosive! And actually kind of logical and common sense at the same time! 

And you can watch on YouTube as well!


Timeline of the Podcast:

0:40 An introduction to our discussion today
6:03 All about what that Ephesians passage ACTUALLY says: An interview with Dr. Cynthia Long Westfall
17:53 Keith unpacks grammar for all us regular people
20:48 Wait, there isn’t a command to women in the Ephesians passage?
24:50 One woman’s experience with the unconditional respect message in her marriage
32:04 What does the research say?: How do these books get their findings?
35:03 Rebecca makes psychometrics cool
38:58 Why the ‘validity’ in survey questions MATTERS
48:01 The HUGE problem in Christian Research

Main Segment: Is Unconditional Respect a Thing?

I started by reading out an update I did on Instagram about this:

Unconditional respect is not a thing.

Can we please stop talking about it?

Lately I have seen so many social media shares, podcasts, and pins about wives giving husbands unconditional respect. 

But respect is EARNED. Now, we can always treat one another respectfully regardless of what they do–and we SHOULD do that. We should speak kindly but firmly. We shouldn’t be highly critical or mean. 

But speaking respectfully is not the same as actually respecting someone–admiring them and looking up to them. You do not respect someone who is a child molester; who plays video games 12 hours a day and refuses to get a job; who gambles away a paycheck. Jesus did not respect the money changers or the Pharisees. He treated them, instead, as their actions warranted.

Love, on the other hand, is NOT earned by correct actions. Love is simply wanting the best for someone else, and thus love is not dependent on how someone else acts. And if someone acts badly? Then we can exercise Tough Love. We don’t lend the drug-addicted sister $500, if we know she will use it to buy drugs. We don’t let our 25-year-old continue to live in the basement if he won’t get a job. 

But there is no equivalent for Tough Respect.

And THAT’S why unconditional respect is not a thing, while unconditional love is. Unconditional respect just ends up being a way to tell women that they cannot speak up if a husband is acting badly. This is not safe. This is not true. This is not biblical (see Abigail & Nabal or Ananias & Sapphira or Moses & Zipporah or Pilate & Pilate’s wife).

How about this? Let’s love each other, and let’s treat each other with respect. Let’s endeavour to be people who can be respected. Let’s spur one another on to love and good deeds. But let’s stop telling women they must unconditionally respect their husbands, even if their husbands act badly.

Sheila Wray Gregoire

On Instagram

Interview: Dr. Cynthia Long Westfall, Professor of Biblical Studies at McMaster Divinity College

Cynthia Westfall is a professor who maintains a special interest in Bible translation and serves as a member of the editorial board for the Common English Bible. She came on to talk about the translation of Ephesians 5:33, which we usually read like this:

However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Ephesians 5:33

In English, it looks like those are two parallel commands: Husbands love, and wives respect.

But in Greek, it’s not that simple. The conjunction “and” is not there. Instead there’s a word we’d pronounce “hina” which is a joining word that usually means something like, “in order to”. And the verb to wives is not a command; it’s a subjunctive.

It’s more like; Husbands love your wives, in order that wives may respect their husbands.

The very verse that is used to support unconditional respect for husbands is actually conditional!

So listen in as we talk about the implications for this, and what other things we might miss from the Ephesians 5 passage when we don’t know the Greek behind it.

Reader Comment; Unconditional Respect Didn’t Fix My Marriage

After I ran that instagram update, a woman wrote in saying,

Tonight I saw your post about unconditional respect because of your words about not respecting someone that plays video games 12 hours a day. That was my marriage. From the very beginning.

Needless to say, our marriage suffered greatly because I neglected and felt completely unloved. I was basically told I needed to respect his way of relaxing. Even though I carried the full financial burden and most of the housework (well all of it until I made him do things). When our marriage crumbled completely, I had a conversation with his mother who listed several things from the Love and Respect books (my ex’s parents were big fans of the book). Saying that I didn’t respect him, didn’t give him enough sex, nagged him, Etc.

This article just made it so clear that the way I felt wasnt wrong and that his actions were. Our relationship would have been so different if he could have put away the games and actually showed our relationship the respect it deserved. I think that’s the key- the relationship should be given respect. He didn’t respect our relationship and he didnt respect or love me so needless to say, he had an emotional affair and walked away. It just feels good to hear someone say that the hurtful stuff said to was wrong and that it wasn’t just me.

Keith and I answered her question, and then Rebecca joined me for:

What Does Research Say: Where Did “Men Need Respect and Women Need Love” Come From?

The idea that we need to give men unconditional respect entered the evangelical lexicon largely because of the book Love & Respect by Emerson Eggerichs, which I have talked about at length (here’s the beginning of my Love & Respect series; here’s the Open Letter about Love & Respect that I wrote to Focus on the Family).

That book was based on two things:

  • Ephesians 5:33 (which we have already shown is far more nuanced than that)
  • And a survey of 400 men, conducted by Shaunti Feldhahn, and reported in her book For Women Only.

That’s really it.

In Love & Respect, Eggerichs leaves a long footnote crediting Shaunti Feldhahn’s survey for his stat that 74% of men prefer respect to love. So in the podcast we looked at what Feldhahn wrote about her survey in her book (and I’ll summarize):

She asked 400 men this question:

Think about what these two negative experiences would be like: to feel alone and unloved in the world OR to feel inadequate and disrespected by everyone. If you were forced to choose one, which would you prefer? Would you rather feel….? [Choose One Answer]

  • Alone and Unloved
  • Inadequate and Disrespected

74% of men chose alone and unloved; 26% chose inadequate and disrespected

What is important to know about this study on unconditional respect?

  • It included only 400 men
  • We can find no evidence that women were ever asked the same question. They used only the men’s answer to draw the conclusion that men need respect while women need love.
  • When other researchers have asked the same question of women, women overwhelmingly choose respect as well (in this study of 1200 women, a cohort three times as large as the initial survey, 65% chose respect)
  • The professional firm hired to help with the survey warned that this question was not measuring what she thought it was measuring
  • The pilot study conducted warned that this was not a good question

Feldhahn herself admits the last two things in her book.

This is actually quite devastating, and we go into why in the podcast. Please listen!

Let that sink in:

The evangelical world has jumped wholeheartedly onto the “men need unconditional respect just as women need unconditional love” bandwagon, based on one ambiguous question in a small survey asked only of men; and based on a plain reading of the English translation of a Bible verse, and not on the original Greek.

Church, we need to do better.

What would happen if, instead of creating doctrines about marriage based on sand, we simply taught what Jesus did:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

A new command I give you: love one another, as I have loved you.

Spur one another on to love and good deeds!

Philippians 2:3-7; John 13:34; Hebrews 10:24

Things Mentioned in This Podcast:

Unconditional Respect Isn't a Thing in Marriage: A look at the Greek and the studies

What do you think? What can we do to change the conversation in the evangelical church about this? Let’s talk in the comments!

This is an important podcast that more people need to hear. Please share it by clicking the share buttons below, or by emailing it to three friends that you think would appreciate it!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find BIBLICAL, HEALTHY, EVIDENCE-BASED help for their marriage. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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