I was reading an evangelical blog yesterday that assumed that Ephesians 5 tells women to respect their husbands, but that husbands should also respect their wives. The comment section was filled with people giving their definitions of respect. However, the idea that this passage tells women to respect their husband is completely erroneous.
The word is not "respect," but "fear." Now, in the modern mythology of evangelicalism, the term fear supposedly has connotations of respect, but this is, in fact, false. The word "fear" may have some nuances to it given the context, but our modern concept of "respect" is not one of them.
In order to understand this, it becomes important to understand the difference between respect and the biblical concept of fear that it promotes.
I've often give the analogy of a lion in a cage at the zoo. One who gives respect to the lion when he sees him in his cage may admire him. He may also choose to throw peanuts at him, but it is a respect that is given, a chosen authority or sense of awe that is given by the individual. Now, if he suddenly finds himself inside the cage with the lion, that is fear. That is the recognition that the lion has authority over his life whether he grants it or not. The authority is inherent in the lion and his position in the cage. It is not derived from the individual at all. Maybe the individual doesn't admire lions at all and has no respect for them, but at that moment, he recognizes the amount of control the lion has, and he fears because of it.
The simple difference is this: Respect is an admiration of qualities that I choose to give to someone. That admiration gives them authority, a voice in my life, etc. But I am the source of their authority in my life. I am the one granting that they can speak to my life. The authority or influence they have in my life is derived from me.
Fear, the good kind, in Scripture, is brought on by a recognition of an inherent authority. I am not the one who is giving it. I am merely recognizing it and called upon to recognize it.
What the biblical authors are calling one to do when they say that one should "fear" an authority placed over them is to recognize the authority that God has granted that individual over one's life. They are not calling upon people to admire the authority or give an authority to the person that he or she does not already have.
Hence, when Peter argues that Christian slaves are to "fear" their masters, he is not arguing that people should admire masters whether they are admirable or not (2:13) and give them some sway in their lives that they don't already have. He is arguing that they have an authority in his position that is derived, not from the servant, but from God, and as such, needs to be feared as God is feared. His position, not his person, is to be revered as coming from God.
Hence, Peter writes:
This is why Paul begins his argument in Ephesians 5 with the statement that each Christian needs to submit to his or her respective authorities (allelous "one another" is not reciprocal here in the context so it refers to wives to husbands, children to parents, slaves to masters) in "the fear of God/Christ" (v. 21), and that this is why the wife is to "fear her husband" (v. 33). She is to recognize the authority and influence that God, not she herself, has given to her husband over her life. She does not give him this authority. He has it in his position over her that God has granted to him.
He is to use this authority over her for her good. Washing her in the Word and seeking to present her as Christ wishes to present His church to the Father in sanctification. He serves her in his authority by loving her as Christ loves the church, sacrificing for her, etc.
So whereas his authority is granted by God and is not given by his wife to him, as a Christian, he is to use it to conform her to the image of Christ in his love/sacrificing for her.
The fear (pun intended) that if we translate this term the way it is supposed to be translated that it will lead to abuse is an argument one can make of anything that is abused. The key is placing both the authority of the husband in the context of God's will for him to use it for the good of the woman and not as a tyrant that uses it for his own benefit at the cost of his wife's good. The answer is never to mistranslate or distort Scripture so that we make what is potent benign.
What is important to understand is that there may be lots of husbands who are not respectable. Peter mentions some of these in Chapter 3 of his first epistle, but the response to a disobedient authority is obedient submission to God, not rebellion, which would condemn both the husband and the wife at that point. Instead of looking at the possible abuses, however, the Christian couple should have God's will in mind, as these commands are not for the husband to submit his wife, nor for the wife to make her husband use his authority in love, but for both to obey God directly by using their respective roles as the vehicle through which they worship God in the home.