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 chapter from Your Marriage God’s Way to find out.
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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? Obviously, the love we have for things we enjoy is different than 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.
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, a language that contains four different words for love: eros, phileo (click for the Greek), storge, and agape (click for the Greek). Let’s define and examine a biblical picture of each. With a clearer understanding of three of those 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.
Defining the Different Kinds of Love
Eros is the only Greek term for love that is not used directly in Scripture. The word refers specifically to physical attraction or romantic love. We will examine it fully in chapter 19 when we discuss a biblical view of sex.
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 without 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 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 natural love, because even in nature, mothers have a built-in predisposition to fiercely protect their offspring.
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 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 makes this accusation: “[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 the adoration of men.
When it comes to the marriage relationship, it is natural to think in terms of 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 they are to their spouse. 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 feel 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. In fact, 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 own 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 are eating with Jesus, we see reconciliation and forgiveness take place.
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 this realization that he had responded to Jesus with the word phileo instead of agape. He knew that his earlier actions prevented him from being able to claim 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. In fact, 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 professions 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 own weakness and humanity so as not to 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 carefully evaluate our own love for the Lord. 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 (which we will discuss in detail later), 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 being 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 literally 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 basic 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 phileo of a wife and agape of a husband 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, and not as an object or employee who satisfies his needs. She needs him to love her sacrificially, as Christ loved the church.
What does agape look like? We’ll spend the next few chapters answering this question! For now, let me leave you with some wonderful encouragement. Why are we able to love others? We are clearly told, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19 ESV). This is so 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.