“Women need love, but men need respect.” How often have you heard this, or similar statements? And so often, they are met with wisely knowing nods and exclamations (“oh, so true!”), and likes and shares on Facebook. These overly simplistic notions are popular when it comes to people trying to sort out the perceived differences between men and women. It’s tempting to latch onto these statements which offer a cut and dried view of an issue, find some aspect that resonates with our experience and declare it to therefore be “true.”
Oddly enough, women who loudly acclaim the truth of these pop psychology and complementarian notions of male and female also often seem to be the ones who post memes with sentiments of this nature:
Some people find this meme funny. Sigh. To me, it sadly degrades men. That’s not something I want to be part of, because I believe both men and women to be basically worthy of respect. I hate statements that put women into neat boxes, because they so often don’t fit me or other women I know. So I have no right to make statements, especially derogatory ones, which do the same to men.
“The Bible says men need respect, women need love” – or does it?
But back to the matter of love and respect. This “men need respect, women need love” idea is frequently touted in Christian circles, and some people will add, “the Bible says.” It is an idea common in complementarian circles. Here is an example:
“Women need to feel loved, and men need to feel respected. This may explain why Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:33 that a husband must love his wife and a wife must respect her husband. Both commands are unconditional. The hard part is that respect comes more easily to men, and love comes easier to women.”
Let’s start by saying there is no verse in the Bible which says this.
Those who believe this to be true generally back it up with Ephesians 5:33, “However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” Did Paul intend this verse to indicate that one sex has needs in regard to love and respect that the other does not?
“Love? What a crackpot notion!”
Why does Paul seem to make this division? Well, let’s backtrack a little and have a look at the cultural backgrounds of the people Paul is writing to. It was infinitely different to our society, where we expect that two people meet, fall in love and possibly eventually get married and live in partnership (not necessarily a truly equal one, but there is some expectation that both get a say and have a share of the responsibility in the relationship). While I don’t believe our society always has a useful understanding of what love really is, it is still an expected foundation of marriage. Not so in the Graeco-Roman world. Fourth century orator and statesman, Demosthenes, wrote, “Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of the body, but wives to bear us legitimate children.” Yes, there were more expectations of wives than simply childbearing – the management of the household staff was one such expectation. But the important point here is that for both men and women, love was not an expectation within marriage at all.
In marriages of this time, women were powerless and vulnerable. Paul, in his wisdom, does not ask them to just get their act together and love their husbands. He settles for respect – a foundation without which love is, at best, severely hindered. We can respect people whom we do not love, but how often (if ever) can genuine love and total disrespect coexist?
Culturally, in this context, men had all the power. Paul appeals to them to do something unbelievably radical when he asks them to love their wives, not just with sexual love (eros) or with loving affection (phileo), but with active, sacrificial agape love. I imagine that the men of Ephesus must have been affronted and perplexed by this seemingly crackpot notion. But Paul was adamant – it was what Christ called them to. If the marriages of these relatively new Christians were to change and become truly Christlike, then they would have to be characterised by love, and that change would have to come firstly not from those who were vulnerable, but from a change in the attitudes and behaviours of those to whom they were most vulnerable. For husbands to sacrificially love their wives would be for them to give up their position of power in order to put the needs of their wives first. They were not to consider how they could lead their wives, but how they could serve them. Only by voluntarily yielding in love to their wives could husbands in that cultural setting hope to create the circumstances in which their wives could respond in genuine love to them.
Love and respect across the New Testament
If we take a broader view of the New Testament, we will see that husbands and wives are both called to love and respect one another:
There you have it: love and respect in marriage – a two way street.
Do men need love?
To just focus on love for a moment, do men need love? Psychology aside, it would be a very poor theological argument which said they didn’t. If ever there was a document which focussed incessantly on love, it would have to be the New Testament (there are 270 references to love/loves/loved/loving in the NT, on the basis of a Bible Gateway search of the NIV). Did God intend the New Testament to speak only to the needs of women? That would be laughable. The command to “love one another” must surely be the most repeated phrase of the New Testament (John 13:34-35, 1 Pet 1:22, 1 Pet 3:8, 1 John 3:11, 1 John 3:23, 1 John 4:7, 1 John 4:11-12, 2 John 1:5). There are various other exhortations which are a slight twist on this command, such as “serve one another in love” (Rom 12:10, Rom 13:8, Gal 5:13, Eph 4:2, Heb 10:4, Heb 13:1, 1 Pet 5:14), and some commendations to those who are demonstrating love (1 Thess 4:9, 2 Thess 1:3). We see love modelled within the Godhead (Matt 3:17). Love, above all things, is what should characterise every thought, word and action of the Christian (1 Cor 13).
Note how intrinsic love is in our response to God: “We love because he first loved us” (John 4:19). Not “we respect because he first loved us”! How half-hearted a response would mere respect be in response to God’s great love? Our response to Jesus is never respect without love or love without respect. Our response to Him models how we should live in human relationships. In Romans 12:10, love and respect (honour) go hand in hand – “Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves.” If it is this way for all believers generally, then how much more so should the Christian marriage model love above all things? To teach that wives need only to respect (and not love) their husbands or that men have do not have a need for love seems to me to be a particularly unchristian belief.
So the true biblical teaching is that husbands and wives should love and respect one another. True love and true respect will flourish best together.
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 Complementarians believe that the Bible teaches that men and women are “equal but different,” with “different” primarily meaning that men have the role of leadership and decision-making in the church and home, and a woman’s role is always a supporting one.
 Emerson Eggerichs, author of Love and Respect, http://www.focusonthefamily.com/marriage/communication-and-conflict/the-love-and-respect-principle/basics-of-love-and-respect. Numerous other complementarian authors have also expressed this view, including Douglas Wilson on John Piper’s Desiring God site (http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/love-and-repect-basics-for-marriage), Shaunti Feldhahn in her book For Women Only: What You Need to Know About the Inner Lives of Men (http://www.imom.com/the-five-respect-needs-of-men/#.Vsk9X_l97IU).
 Gordon D. Fee, “The Cultural Context of Ephesians 5:18-6:9,” Priscilla Papers, vol. 16, no. 1, 2002, http://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/cultural-context-ephesians-518%E2%80%9369-0?page=show