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Must a Respectful Wife Submit to Anything Her Husband Wants?

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The concept of unconditional respect has always been the unique feature of the Love and Respect message, based on Ephesians 5:33. It’s also always been the so-called controversial half. Alternatively, there’s nothing controversial about unconditional love. The world agrees, and countless books have stressed, that husbands must love their wives unconditionally. No one is getting canceled on social media for preaching that message.

But how can a wife have unconditional respect for her husband? Many skeptics ask, “Does unconditional respect mean unconditional obedience? Does it mean unconditional agreement?”

In my book The Language of Love and Respect, I write:

I am often asked if committing to unconditionally love or respect means that you must turn a blind eye to definite wrongdoing on your spouse’s part. This is a point that trips up a lot of people, especially wives who learn that God calls them to speak to their husband with unconditional respect (see Ephesians 5:33). These wives conclude that if she must speak with unconditional respect, she must agree with, and acquiesce to everything her husband is doing or saying. If not, she would be disrespectful. I comment that, according to that kind of reasoning, a wife should be quite willing to tell her husband, “I say this respectfully. I love the fact that you are into pornography on the Internet.” That would be comparable to a husband telling his wife, “I say this lovingly. I think it is wonderful that you are emotionally out of control a great deal of the time and that you are terrorizing the children.”

Such absurd comments serve to make my point. Words that approve viewing pornography or abusing the children are not words of unconditional love or respect; they are simply pathetic endorsements of corrupt behavior. To use words of unconditional love or respect means you lovingly or respectfully confront your spouse’s wrongdoing.

When your spouse is doing or saying something that is obviously wrong, immoral, or dangerous, you must confront that behavior. As you challenge your spouse, however, you are never justified in speaking words that are hostile or contemptuous. Common sense tells us that no one is persuaded by hateful or despising speech. Before the Lord, you are responsible to confront your spouse with words that come across as loving or respectful. The unconditional way of speaking is the only approach that motivates a spouse to deal long-term with the hurtful behavior. There is no guarantee a spouse will respond, but this manner is more likely to work than any other attitude.

If your spouse’s words or behavior are in the gray zone—what your spouse is doing or saying does not suit your personal taste—you are to remain loving or respectful. Always do or say what you do or say knowing your speech or actions reflect who you are, not who your spouse is.

Wives also often tell me, “My husband doesn’t receive my words of respect because he doesn’t respect himself. So what’s the point of being respectful of him?” I reply, “Are you saying that if you are struggling with loving yourself, your husband should stop speaking lovingly to you because you might reject his words?” These wives see the point. You speak lovingly or respectfully no matter how your spouse may speak to you in return. Your spouse is not the reason—good or bad—why you speak unconditional words of love or respect. God is the reason, and as you depend on Him, you will become increasingly able to speak lovingly and respectfully to your spouse. (pages 352-353)

Let me add here, we are not addressing physical abuse here. When there is physical abuse or the potential of such, a wife must exit. Because of abuse from my dad, my mom physically separated from him for five years. I always encourage other wives to take the same necessary precautions. Get yourself and your children out of harm’s way. 

But despite that, the message of unconditional respect, even among goodwilled, nonabusive spouses, remains controversial for many. That’s why it’s important to clarify that respecting is not the same as obeying or agreeing. Ephesians 5 calls a wife to respect the spirit of who her husband is as a man, not merely respect any action he takes or words he says, no matter how horrendous they may be.

In fact, 1 Peter 3:1-2 speaks directly to this idea of unconditional respect: “In the same way, you wives, be subject to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won over without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your pure and respectful behavior.”

Note that the husband is disobedient. He does not deserve respect. He has not earned respect. 

Note also there is nothing here about a wife going along with her husband’s disobedience. She is to remain pure and chaste. Instead, her goal is to influence him—win him—so that he ends his disobedience.

Again, she is not called to respect his disobedience but to respectfully live in such a way that this brings him under conviction to change his unacceptable behavior. 

There’s no guarantee he will change. The truth is, we cannot control the internal choices of others. We can only control our actions and reactions to other people. And this is what Peter and Paul intend for us to grasp. 

Said another way, unconditional means there’s no condition, situation, or circumstance that can get a husband to show hostility or a wife to show contempt. That’s our individual freedom and choice. That’s what unconditional means. “I’m going to be the kind of person God calls me to be regardless of the conditions I find myself in with my spouse.”

One thing is certain, this is not about a wife obeying or agreeing with her wicked husband to prove she is respectable. Who would ever say that? No, she is to respectfully confront that which is not respectable, as a husband is to lovingly confront that which is not lovable.

Emerson Eggerichs, Ph.D.
Author, Speaker, Pastor

Questions to Consider

  1. Why is unconditional respect not embraced by most the same way that unconditional love has been? What has been your view toward the idea of unconditional respect?
  2. How have you approached your spouse in the past concerning his or her wrong, immoral, or dangerous behavior? Has it been effective? Why or why not?
  3. Emerson wrote, “The unconditional way of speaking is the only approach that motivates a spouse to deal long-term with the hurtful behavior. There is no guarantee a spouse will respond, but this manner is more likely to work than any other attitude.” Do you agree or disagree? Explain why.
  4. How has Peter’s word in 1 Peter 3 rung true in your marriage? Has her respectful behavior ever helped win him over to knowing and doing what was right?