What does Paul mean when he tells husbands to love their wives? The word, ‘love,’ is used in many different ways today and much of this usage betrays an underlying confusion. When Paul talks about love, particularly in reference to a husband’s love for his wife, we need to remember that he speaks about love in a special sense. In the Greek language of the first century there were a number of words that were sometimes used to describe what we commonly call ‘love’. If we are to understand Paul’s instructions to husbands, then we need to understand this and know the different meanings.
Essentially, there are four words in Greek that are used to express the different shades of meaning in the word ‘love’. The first of these, the word eros, from which we get the English word, erotic, refers essentially to love between the sexes. It relates to sexual passion and attraction. The term itself is not actually found in the New Testament, and this has led some Christians to conclude that this kind of love is unworthy of a believer. But is this so? After all, human beings have a physical and emotional nature, so it seems reasonable to think that sexual love is natural, even if at times people express it in perverted ways.
I know that some Christians think that romantic love is irrelevant in marriage. They have the idea that a Christian man can marry any Christian woman. A man once said to me that he felt that he could marry any of the women in his local church. Well, perhaps, but I’m sure there would have been a lot of women heading to the exits when they saw him coming. I don’t think that we can discount the idea of sexual attraction. It seems to be a factor in drawing certain men and women together and some of the resentment that women have for arranged marriages suggests that this is so. If you’ve seen the comedy, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you’ll know exactly what I mean. It’s good and natural that there is a physical attraction between a husband and a wife, but that’s not what Paul is saying here.
Now there are other words in Greek for expressing love as well. One of them is the word phileo, from which we derive the English word ‘philanthropic’. It refers to fondness or affection for someone. Another word is storge, which has to do with family affection such as a child’s love for its mother or father.
However, when Paul speaks of a husband’s love for his wife, he uses the Greek word, agapao. This word is always used in the Bible to describe God’s love for us. It’s not that the other forms of love don’t come into a Christian marriage – they do. A quick reading of the Song of Solomon should dispel any doubts that romantic love has a central place in marriage. The Bible definitely affirms the physical side of life (1 Timothy 4:4).
Nevertheless, what Paul is saying is this: faith in Christ makes a real difference to a marriage. Above and beyond the natural attraction that two people may have for each other, and over and above their common interests and companionship, there is an even higher love to which they can rise. A Christian marriage needs to be crowned and glorified by the presence of the divine love that is expressed by the husband to his wife.