I grew up believing, like most females bred on 20th-century evangelical Christianity, that women naturally love their husbands. It's preached from pulpits, written in bestselling books, and seems to be a convenient explanation for Ephesians 5:21-33, that mini-manifesto on marriage: "Women are commanded to respect, not love, because God made women to love, and loving comes naturally to them."
Well, with a whopping nine years of marriage under my belt, I've unearthed two rather inconvenient truths.
The first is that, despite my womanhood, I am not a naturally loving person. I act with impatience, stonewalled silence, and selfishness just as quickly as a man. I wish I naturally unconditionally loved my husband, Dale, but I do not. Perhaps I could fool myself into thinking that moments of nurture, sensitivity, and compassion, the sweet notes, anniversary surprises, and home-cooked meals prove otherwise, but really now! Love is more vigorous and hearty than romance and sweetness. Love takes the harder road, a more personalized approach than the one-size-fits-all technique that assumes sexy lingerie, warm dinners, and a commitment to stay at home with the kids are what every husband needs. Despite the free advice at bridal showers—"Men want a Martha in the kitchen, a Mary in the living room, and a Delilah in the bedroom"—love requires much more attention to who my husband is.
I have to get to know him, not what I think he should want, but what he really wants. From day one Dale surprised me. He wanted my body and soul, not just a flimsy bit of chiffon in bed. He'd rather me not cook, preferring to eat out so as to have my undivided attention as a conversationalist. He wanted my interests to guide my career path. And when he saw I could teach, he made space in his life for me as a partner to travel and speak and write alongside him. His wants came as a surprise to me; he wanted my love. Loving my husband, not my idea of a husband, didn't come naturally to me, the good church girl prepared to maintain an arsenal of slinky unmentionables, Martha Stewart meals, and a brood of children.
The second surprising truth upset me even more profoundly.
I discovered I could respect my husband beautifully but fail to love him completely. According to Dr. Emerson Eggerichs's popular book, Love and Respect: The Love She Most Desires, The Respect He Desperately Needs, disrespect means to "hold in contempt." I had followed Eggerichs's formula to perfection. I avoided contempt of Dale, I honored him, I treated him as my hero. But until I studied him and his needs, I was deficient in love.
Respect devoid of love is not the biblical goal. The mother in My Big Fat Greek Wedding had one without the other: "The husband is the head, but the wife is the neck. And the neck can turn the head any way she wants." It's easy to do exactly what my husband wishes, revere his decisions, go out to eat with him, but fail to engage with him as a person, as an equal, as a wife who wills his good. I can keep my love safe and locked away, my wishes unrevealed, my vulnerabilities protected, and yet shine as a stellar respecter of my husband. (Respect without love may be acceptable in the military, but it is not acceptable in a marriage where two are working to become one).
Loving him means I unlock my opinions to him. I discover what I uniquely bring to our relationship. Love of the 1 Corinthians 13 variety requires I bring my whole self to engage with Dale's whole self. Love is open-faced and open-hearted, it rejoices only in the truth, refusing to passive-aggressively steer men behind the scenes.
It's too easy to magnify the gender-specific commands in Ephesians 5:33 to "love" and "respect," forgetting the first verse of this passage, "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21). Despite the English translators' sub-titles, verse 21 is the starting point, not verse 22. The apostle Paul gave us a strong hint to start with mutual submission when he placed the key verb "submit" in verse 21 but not in verse 22 (it's there in the English translations, but not in the original Greek). The two verses belong together. Paul is showing us that submission has various ways of showing up, including the submission of love and the submission of respect.
Submission is not an event following a disagreement when my husband uses his 51 percent vote to break the stalemate. Submission, according to Paul, is a lifelong orientation toward all people I love, my husband topping the list. It's a command for all women and all men, a major theme of the good life in Christ threaded throughout Scripture.
Respect is a way of submission. It is one way I alter my own life for the sake of another. Respect involves a sort of bowing, honoring, revering another as worthy. Respect, as a way of submission, is God's will for both men and women. We are to have this sort of respect for those who don't know Christ (1 Peter 3:15). We are told to give respect to all to whom respect is due (Romans 13:7). We are told to honor all people (Romans 12:10). If we read the whole of Scripture, wives, no less than husbands, are worthy of and want respect. Respect will always be significant in any enterprise where we want to preserve the spirit of unity and the bonds of peace.
Love is also a way of submission. Love requires that I bow my will to know and value another. Ultimate love is sacrifice, giving up my life, bending, re-ordering my wishes under those of another. Love means I lay down my life for yours in the mundane moments of toothpaste, parenting, and money management squabbles. Love is one way husbands submit to their wives, but Paul is not excusing wives from loving in the same way. Laying down our lives for another is a command for all Christians (1 John 3:16). Paul writes that love is one of the fruit of the Spirit, evidence in all believers, male or female, husband or wife, of the life of God coursing through our souls.
In re-distributing the commands of love and respect equally among men and women, I don't mean to advocate an androgyny of the sexes. I've spent years speaking and writing on the uniqueness of women. My job and passion as a female apologist is to defend the ways God made women different and vital in reflecting his image on earth. Although there are plenty of differences between men and women, the commands to love and respect are not among them. If we limit love to husbands and respect to wives, we're not being consistent with the whole biblical picture. Both sexes need love. Both sexes need respect. And we all have much work to do.
Now here's my caveat to women: I've come across an interesting trend in my study of women's uniqueness. Women, especially Christian women, have a proclivity toward list-making. We love to know the requirements, to write them down and fulfill them to the letter. So if we come to believe that respect is our husband's main need and our number one priority in marriage, we risk forgetting that we must work on unconditional (agape) love as well. For loving another does not come naturally to any of us.
Perhaps in light of the Love and Respect fad, men's love and women's respect is a first step in marriage, but it cannot be the last. Love and respect are the mortar and the stone in the path of all relationships. They are the way modeled by Christ and the road for all women and men to walk.
I was re-watching BBC's version of Pride and Prejudice recently when a line from Elizabeth Bennet sounded like a clarion call: "A marriage where either partner cannot love and respect the other … cannot be agreeable to either party." I cannot help but believe that the apostle Paul would have heartily agreed.
Jonalyn Grace Fincher, an apologist and speaker, is co-author (with her husband, Dale) of Coffee Shop Conversations: Making the Most of Spiritual Small Talk (Zondervan). www.soulation.org
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