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What Is Agape Phileo Storge and Eros Love

What Is Agape, Phileo, Storge, and Eros Love? (John 21:15-17)

We have one word for love, but Greek has multiple: agape, phileo, storge, and eros. What is the difference between agape and phileo love? What about eros and storge? Read or listen to this material from Your Marriage God’s Way to find out.

Your Marriage God's Way book and workbook by Scott LaPierre

What are a few things I love? I love my kids, eating popcorn, and teaching the Bible. Another man might say, “I love my wife, football, and working on my car.” For this man’s wife’s sake, let’s hope he loves his wife differently than he loves football and automobiles. For my kids’ sake, let’s hope I love them differently than I love eating popcorn.

Have you ever noticed that the English word love can be used in a wide variety of ways that fail to distinguish between different shades of meaning? Our love for things we enjoy differs from the love we experience in relationships. Even within our relationships, the kinds of love we experience will vary significantly. We love our parents differently than we love our spouse, and we love our children differently than we love our pastor, fellow church members, or coworkers.

Defining the Different Kinds of Love

Within a marriage relationship, what kind of love should a husband have for his wife? Or a wife for her husband? What does such love look like? If we are to obey God’s command to love our spouse, we must be able to answer these questions. The New Testament was originally written almost entirely in Greek, containing four different words for love: eros, phileo, storge, and agape. Let’s define and examine a biblical picture of each. With a clearer understanding of three words for love—eros, storge, and phileo—we will be better prepared to understand the superior form of love: agape.

Why is it so important for us to understand agape? This word appears twice in Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love [agape] your wives, just as Christ also loved [agape] the church and gave Himself for her.” Agape is the love husbands are commanded to have for their wives, and it is the love Christ has for His bride, the church. It is also the love God has for each of us: “God so loved [agape] the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). We must understand agape so husbands will know how to love their wives, so wives will know how they should be loved by their husbands, and so we can all realize the greatness of God’s love for us.

Eros—Physical Attraction

Eros is the only Greek term for love not used directly in Scripture. The word eros is the root of the English word erotic and refers specifically to physical attraction or sexual intimacy between a husband and wife. In contrast to agape, eros is more of a feeling than a demonstration of loving action toward someone.

While the word eros does not appear in Scripture, we can see this kind of love on display. Eros is what Samson felt in Judges 14:2 when he told his parents, “I have seen a woman in Timnah of the daughters of the Philistines; now therefore, get her for me as a wife.” Eros is how King David found himself in the worst trouble of his life when he stepped out on his rooftop and spotted “[Bathsheba] bathing, and the woman was very beautiful to behold” (2 Samuel 11:2). Song of Solomon gives a clear depiction of eros as it describes the strong physical attraction the man and woman feel toward each other.

Eros is self-centered in the sense it relates to the way a person feels and what a person wants. Little to no consideration is given to the object of one’s eros. Unlike agape, eros is conditional and will not move a person to be forgiving or sacrificial, which is why it’s important not to base a marriage on eros or physical attraction. Many couples find themselves wanting to get married because of strong feelings of eros toward each other, but when the eros wears off, they will find themselves frustrated and uninterested.

That, of course, is the problem with eros: It can wear off. It can change with time, age, or physical appearance. When eros is the main reason for a relationship, couples often find out their union has no foundation at all. If a relationship is based on eros alone, then when eros is gone, the relationship is also gone. For a true and lasting relationship, the thrill and excitement of eros must be supported by a deeper, unchanging love and commitment. Eros must be based on the other types of love—the sacrificial love of agape and the abiding affection and friendship of phileo.

That doesn’t mean eros is immoral or sinful. It is an important part of a marriage relationship, part of the attraction husbands and wives should feel for each other.

Storge—Natural Affection

Storge refers to natural affection or familial love, such as the love a parent feels toward a child or the love siblings feel toward each other. The word storge is not used in Scripture in its simple form; it appears twice as astorgos, which is storge with an a in front of it, making it mean the opposite—without love or natural affection. The apostle Paul uses this term when he states that people will not “retain God in their knowledge [therefore He] gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness…[including being] unloving [astorgos]” (Romans 1:28, 31). Paul uses the word again when he writes to Timothy: “In the last days perilous times will come: for men will be…unloving” (2 Timothy 3:1, 3).

In both instances, Paul wasn’t simply saying that people are unloving. Rather, he was saying people will lack the storage or natural love or affection that family members should have for each other. A biblical example of astorgos (the absence of storge) is Cain murdering Abel. A present-day example is mothers who consent to murdering their babies in the womb. An abortion is the height of astorgos, or a lack of storage or natural love because even in nature, mothers have a built-in predisposition to protect their offspring fiercely.

Storge is also used once in Scripture in combination with a third form of love, phileo: “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love” (Romans 12:10). The words “kindly affectionate” are a translation of philostorgus, which is a Greek word that combines phileo and storge. Within the context of Romans 12, the term refers to the family affection brothers and sisters in Christ should have for each other.

Phileo—Strong Affection

Phileo can be defined as strong affection. Most commonly, this applies to kindness between friends. When Jesus wept at Lazarus’s gravesite in John 11:36, the eyewitnesses said, “See how He loved [phileo] him!” Phileo forms part of the words philosophy, an affection for wisdom, and philanthropy, an affection for fellow man. The name for the church at Philadelphia, which is mentioned in Revelation 3:7-13, literally means “the church of brotherly love.” When people consider themselves close friends, phileo is the affection they have for each other.

Phileo does not always have a positive connotation. In Matthew 6:5, Jesus says, “[The religious leaders] love [phileo] to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets.” Their strong affection was directed at receiving men’s adoration.

Regarding the marriage relationship, it is natural to think about romantic love or eros. But in doing so, we forget that marriage is the union of two best friends. In many ways, phileo is a great description of what marriage is meant to be: a deep and close friendship. Your spouse should be your best friend. That’s why it’s sad when people are closer to their friends than their spouses. It is tragic when people say, “Oh, my spouse is leaving for a week. I can’t wait—what a wonderful break!” If a husband or wife feels this way toward their spouse, he or she should pray that God increases the phileo in their relationship.

Agape—A Superior Love

The fourth form of love—and the one most mentioned in the New Testament—is agape. A conversation between Jesus and Peter reveals its superior nature. The background to this encounter was Peter’s earlier pledge to lay down his life for Jesus (John 13:36-38). Even when Jesus warned Peter that he would deny Jesus three times, Peter vowed his unswerving love. He boasted, “Even if all the other disciples deny You, I will not!”

But sure enough, when Jesus was arrested, Peter ran to save his skin and denied—three times—ever knowing Jesus. During Peter’s third denial, Scripture tells us Peter made eye contact with Jesus (Luke 22:59-62). We are not told what Peter saw during that brief look from Jesus, but Peter became convicted to the point of stumbling away and weeping bitterly. I doubt there was a lower point in Peter’s life.

By John 21, Peter has learned of Jesus’s resurrection and at least twice had been with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them (John 20:19-31). But the shame and anguish of his betrayal must have remained a heavy burden. We see confirmation of this in John 21. While the disciples were out fishing, Jesus called to them from the shore. Notice Peter’s response: He immediately dove into the water and swam to shore. Then, while the disciples eat with Jesus, we see reconciliation and forgiveness.

So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love [agape] Me more than these?”
[Peter] said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love [phileo] You.”
[Jesus] said to him, “Feed My lambs” (John 21:15).

In asking if Peter loves Him more than these, Jesus could be referencing the fish, which would be akin to saying, “Do you love Me more than fishing?” Or He might have the other disciples in mind, in which case Jesus would be asking, “Do you love Me more than you love these other disciples?” But based on Peter’s earlier prideful declaration that he loved Jesus more than anyone else, Jesus was probably asking Peter if he still believed that to be true: “Do you love Me more than these other disciples love Me?” Regardless of intent, Jesus was inquiring about Peter’s love for Him, and the word He used was agape.

Peter was aware of how he had failed his Master and was humbled by the realization that he had responded to Jesus with the word phileo instead of agape. He knew that his earlier actions prevented him from claiming the superior form of love Jesus asked about.

[Jesus] said to [Peter] again a second time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love [agape] Me?”
[Peter] said to [Jesus], “Yes, Lord; You know that I love [phileo] You.”
[Jesus] said to [Peter], “Tend My sheep” (John 21:16).

As though to make His question easier, this time, Jesus dropped the phrase “more than these.” But He still used the word agape, and again Peter responded with the word phileo.

[Jesus] said to him the third time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love [phileo] Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love [phileo] Me?”
And [Peter] said to [Jesus], “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love [phileo] You.”
Jesus said to [Peter], “Feed My sheep” (John 21:17).

This time, Jesus also used the word phileo. He had stopped asking if Peter had agape for Him. The passage reveals that this grieved Peter. The whole conversation would have been painful to him. First, Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love Me?” The three questions would remind Peter of his three denials. Being asked the same question three times would make Peter think Jesus did not believe his profession of love. Then, in the third question, Jesus shifted to the word phileo as though calling into question even this inferior love Peter professed for Him. The possibility that Peter did not even possess phileo for Jesus broke the disciple’s heart.

What may have added to Peter’s pain is that throughout this conversation, Jesus did not use the new name He had given Peter (Matthew 16:18). Peter means “rock,” signifying strength and a firm foundation. Jesus reverted to calling Peter by his original name, Simon, which implied that Jesus was not seeing Peter at this moment as a rock. Considering Peter’s arrogance when he boasted of his love for Jesus, he undoubtedly needed this reminder of his weakness and humanity to not place so much trust in himself again.

The point to notice in this account is that Peter recognized the higher calling associated with agape. As a result of his earlier denials, he did not feel comfortable telling the Lord he had this superior love for Him.

Jesus’s words to Peter should move us to evaluate our own love for the Lord carefully. I cannot help but picture Jesus asking, “Scott, do you love Me?” When Jesus looks at my life, what kind of love does He see for Him? Is it simply an affectionate phileo, or does He see all-encompassing agape? Would Jesus have to ask me three times whether I love Him and humble me as He did Peter?

A Wife’s Phileo for Her Husband

Phileo is the love wives are instructed to have for their husbands. Titus 2:3-4 commands “older women [to]…admonish the young women to love their husbands.” The Greek word for “love their husbands” is philandros, a combination of phileo and aner (the Greek word translated “husband”). So, while husbands are commanded to have agape for their wives, wives are commanded to have phileo for their husbands.

Why the difference? What is the implication of this in a marriage relationship? Is it that husbands do not want or need agape?

The reason for the difference is that the needs of husbands and wives are different. Most men—myself included—would say it can be very discouraging and trying at times to be a husband, father, provider, spiritual leader, and all the other roles and responsibilities that fall on men’s shoulders. What could be more encouraging for a husband than a wife who is also a best friend, regularly lavishing phileo on him? Conversely, what could be more discouraging for a husband than a wife who acts more like a mother reprimanding him?

A Husband and Wife’s Different Needs

On the other hand, a wife needs the agape of her husband because she lives under his authority. She needs him to treat her with the tender, sacrificial agape Christ showed His bride, the church. We have already spoken of the temptation for husbands to be harsh and domineering. How much more so was this needed in the day when Paul wrote these words, for ancient cultures viewed a woman as being owned by her husband? In those days, a husband could demand his wife serve him and meet his every need, but a wife could not, in turn, demand kindness, concern for her needs, or even necessities. For a husband to show his wife such love as Christ pours out on the church was a choice that had to be made of his own free will. And that is still true today, no matter what culture says. Such love is not easy or natural for a husband to show, which is why we husbands need the command to demonstrate this kind of love toward our wives.

Perhaps there are other reasons God commands a wife’s phileo and a husband’s agape that we will not know this side of heaven. But we can know for certain that a husband needs his wife’s phileo; he needs her to be his best friend. A wife needs her husband’s agape; she needs him to care for her as his most cherished treasure, not as an object or employee who satisfies his needs. She needs him to love her sacrificially, as Christ loved the church.

Let me leave you with some wonderful encouragement. Why are we able to love others? We are told, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). This is reassuring because it means our ability to love others doesn’t rest entirely on us. Whether loving our spouse, parents, children, coworkers, or even our enemies, as Jesus commands in Matthew 5:44, we can do so because of the initiating love of God. Yes, we play a part, but let’s keep in mind that our ability to love is rooted not in ourselves but in the enabling grace of God—the power of the gospel at work in our relationships.

16 Responses

  1. Great post. It really made me think about how the “loves” work together in relationships. I remember as a child, my dad, who was a business owner and a single parent would often lament that it was hard for him to feel motivated without encouragement. This makes me think that the work that a husband does and the life he gives to his family requires fuel in the form of affection and encouragement. I certainly know this to be true of my husband. His Agape is fueled by Phileo.

    That also makes me wonder about how Peter’s Phileo for Christ, and Christ’s Agape for the church also work together. We are Catholic, so we do a lot of devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This brought one in particular to mind. Mother Theresa says that she had a meditation about Christ’s final words “I thirst”. She believed he was telling us “I thirst for your love.” I will have to continue to pray with this devotion and centering my affection (Phileo) toward Christ.

    Additionally, I love that you noted that Jesus was using Peter’s name: Simon. I never noticed that, and it brought me to further wonder at the meaning here. Simon comes from the word Shimon or Shemah, meaning to listen. It is also the name of the Hebrew prayer which Christ identifies as one of the two greatest commandments. The other is to love your neighbor as yourself. I can’t help but think this dialogue is also Christ giving Peter the new Christian version of these greatest commandments… Love (agape) me (Jesus), and serve my people. I’d be interested to further compare the verse with Matthew 22:34-40.

    Wow! The Bible is truly the Living Word. There is just endless meaning under such a short passage.

    1. Hello Kristine,
      Nice to hear from you. Thank you for letting me know. I appreciate your insights into men through what you learned from your relationship with your father. I do think what you wrote is true. I also appreciate your sensitivity to God’s Word and the insights you learned from this post.

      I know this goes outside the scope of your comment and the post I wrote, but I feel led to share this with you. I was raised Catholic, but God delivered me from Catholicism in my early twenties. Would you consider reading this post? Are Catholic beliefs and practices biblical?

  2. Dear Scott,
    I checked out your post on agape love. You wrote: “We choose to agape love our spouse when we choose not to agape love sin.” Does it mean then that agape love in and of itself is not particularly Christian, nor divine? Does it mean that it may be Christian and divine and good, depending on the context? That is to say, does “agape” love is good if its object is good, and it is bad, if its object is bad (sin)?

    1. Hello Pál Borzási,
      Nice to hear from you.

      I would not say that agape love is in and of itself Christian, because agape love can be used immorally, such as man’s (agape) love for sin as I wrote in the post. I would say that it is like many things, amoral, and the way it is used, or as you said the context of it, determines the morality or godliness of it.

      When I wrote that sentence I simply meant that when we sin we are choosing to love sin more than our spouse, but when we resist temptation we are choosing to love our spouse more than sin.

  3. Dear Scott,
    I appreciate very much your writings, but may I just point out that Demas loved the world with agape love (2 Timothy 4:10). Moreover, in the LXX Amnon abused and violated Tamar with agape (2 Samuel 13:1, 15). Finally, in the LXX Solomon loved many foreign wives with agape love (1 Kings 11:2). I love your writings, by the way!

  4. There is no difference between agape and phileo. These words have been used interchangeably throughout the Bible. Check out Samuel Gipp, (Greek scholar), who has studied and written on this subject.

    1. Hello James,
      I deleted your other comment that simply promoted your book.

      I could argue with your comment, but I would just be repeating what I wrote in my post. Can you give me some examples from Scripture of agape and phileo being used interchangeably?

    2. Not true. Agape and phileo most certainly are different types of love. Agape does not necessarily include feelings of affection, which phileo does. Phileo is warmth you would feel towards a close friend. Agape is treating the other well. Showing kindness. Helping them when possible. Looking out for their best interest when possible. Agape is more what you DO, not how you FEEL. Agape is what Jesus commanded us to show towards our enemies, people we don’t feel warmth for.

      1. Aaron,
        Thank you for responding to James. You nailed it and contrasted agape and phileo very well. Your comment defines them accurately: agape is actions while phileo is feelings.

  5. Most of us don’t know these things. The trend of my relationships have been that they start well, I enjoy them, then all of a sudden, I stop enjoying the woman’s presence and I conclude “I don’t love her anymore.” Next thing I do is break off the relationship, move to the next one, and same thing happens. Apparently, the Eros does not last and that is what I have been calling love. I expect that I will be always goofy like this about my partner until I die. When I stop the relationship it means I don’t love her anymore. I have been wrong. My current girlfriend is the same. I stopped enjoying the goofiness and I already assumed I don’t love her anymore. Even though she is superb and the most amazing human being I have ever met. I will do everything to work things out with her. Thank you for this piece.

    1. Hello Ayoola,
      This was a pattern in my life as well before becoming a Christian, and I have had some other friends who would say the same. The issue is, as you said, that a relationship cannot be built on eros. It is fleeting. When eros is gone the feelings are gone. A lasting relationship must be built on something more substantial, such as agape, which is a choice.

      You said twice, “I don’t love her anymore.” To be clear, because agape is a choice, we can still choose to love our wives regardless of our feelings.

  6. A fun idea to be your husband’s friend: I learned to shoot a compound bow with my hubby and took my hunter’s safety course so I could join him in hunting. That was back before kiddos, but he appreciated it and I’d love to go again with him. We still shoot around at hay bales on our property. So fun!

    1. Janell,
      That is a great example of doing something as a wife to strengthen your friendship with your husband. Thank you for sharing. I’m glad it ended up being enjoyable for you as well.

  7. Typically one-sided on the questions. Why aren’t husbands being asked what they do to love their wives? It’s just about the husband receiving respect and love and then asks wives whether they are measuring up to this. Who cares about the wives’ needs and whether husbands are intentionally asking their wives how they are faring, right? Of course no husband could improve… if wives do all the improving and questioning themselves in the marriage, it will all be fair and perfect. Because ultimately, when men are happy (read: self-centred) then marriages work, according to your book. Blindspot, much, Pastor?

    1. Hello Lori,
      Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. This post dealt with eros, storge, and phileo, which don’t directly apply to a husband’s relationship with his wife. The superior form of love, agape, is the Greek word used in Ephesians 5:25 which commands husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church. I would encourage you to look at the two posts I have for husbands as well as the discussion questions for them. You will see there is a very high standard for them. Will you take a look at these posts and then let me know your thoughts? Here they are: What It Looks Like for Husbands to Love Their Wives and Husbands, Make Your Wives Supreme.

Do you have a question or thought? If so, please let me know. I do my best to respond to each comment.

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