Which Comes First, Love or Respect?
Every so often I hear someone make this kind of comment: "While I'm all for the love and respect message, God is a God of order and He commands in Ephesians 5:33 that husbands must love their wives first, and then wives are to respect their husbands. The responsibility lies with the husband to love first." Why would someone make this argument? Though there are multiple reasons, most often they fear a wife will be mistreated. They believe a woman who puts on respect toward an unloving and disobedient husband could end up abused.
Is this notion a biblical idea? Peter teaches the opposite and the apostle Paul would laugh at this kind of “logic” based on the sequence of words in Ephesians 5:33.
1 Peter 3:1–2: The very point some folks make about not respecting an undeserving husband who has not earned a wife’s respect is the very instruction Peter imparts to wives! He pens, "In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior” (1 Peter 3:1–2). Peter reveals to a wife that her respectful behavior wins a disobedient husband, not that it subjects her to abuse.
Such respectful behavior toward a husband does not come after a husband’s love and obedience but regardless of his love and obedience. This respect empowers a wife; it does not weaken and degrade her.
What if she is in harm’s way? Get out of harm’s way. Paul justifies physical separation (1 Corinthians 7:11). However, a wife need not be filled with disrespect, disgust, and disdain as she removes herself from the home. A wife can remain a dignified and respectful woman in obedience to God’s command independent of her husband.
Ephesians 5: If Paul intended in Ephesians 5:33 for a wife to respect her husband only after the husband first loved the wife, then two things immediately must be ignored.
First, in the Greek all scholars are clear: to put on respect is an implied imperative in 5:33. This is why every major translation makes this a command to the wife just as love is a command to the husband. In other words, a wife is to obey God’s command independent of her husband obeying God’s command. Her obedience to God’s command to respect is not contingent on her husband’s obedience to God’s command to love. The two are unrelated. Yes, a loving husband makes it easier for a wife to put on respect, but that’s not the point of the verse.
Second, in the larger context of chapter 5 Paul begins with the wife submitting to her husband (vv. 22–24) and then instructs the husband to love his wife (vv. 25–29). He reverses the order in verse 33, which is the summary of the section on marriage.
So, what do we make of this?
Based on the “logic” that the command to love comes first in Ephesians 5:33, which means to some that the husband must first love his wife before she has to respect him, then applying that same “logic” in the larger context, a husband does not have to love his wife until she first submits to him. After all, Paul first talks of a wife’s submission then of a husband’s love. Do I hear an “Amen!” from the men?
Having said this, I believe Paul reversed the order in Ephesians 5:33 to make sure no husband claimed, “In Ephesians 5:22 a wife must first submit, then we husbands are to love according to 5:25. Submission comes first! I don’t have to love my wife until she starts submitting to me in respectful ways.”
If a wife finds herself repulsed by that kind of reasoning, then she ought to be disturbed by those who do the same with Ephesians 5:33 in saying, “A wife does not have to respect her husband until and unless he first loves her."
A Wife Can Choose to Respect, No Matter What
We need to ask ourselves, "What is the alternative to respectful behavior?” The answer is that there is no middle ground. A wife will either be respectful in her conduct or disrespectful.
Furthermore, is a wife destined to be a disrespectful woman toward her husband until he first loves her in meaningful ways? Is she a helpless and hopeless victim who has no chance to be a dignified and honorable woman because her husband fails to be who she wants him to be? Is she destined to be a critical and complaining woman because her husband disobeys God?
Absolutely not. She is free to trust and obey God regardless of her husband.
Does this mean a wife is responsible to motivate her husband to love her by being respectful? No. At the end of the day a husband is responsible to trust and obey God’s command to love his wife. Though love and respect stimulates another’s respect and love, there is no guarantee of a positive outcome in the soul of a spouse.
For this reason, a wife acts on Ephesians 5:33 and 1 Peter 3:1–2 because she loves and reverences God. She trusts and obeys God’s Word, and her husband cannot stop her from being the woman God calls her to be. She is free!