Understanding Love: Eros, Storge, and Phileo

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Within marriage, the question is what kind of love should a husband have for his wife? Or a wife for her husband? What does that love look like? If spouses are to obey God’s command to love each other, they obviously have to be able to answer these questions. The New Testament is written almost entirely in Greek, a language that contains four different words for love: eros, phileo, storge, and agape:

The English language has a single word for “love.” A man uses the same word to say he loves football, working on his car, and his wife. For his wife’s sake, let’s hope he loves her differently from the way he loves football or automobiles. A wife in turn might say that she loves shopping, her husband, and her children. Obviously, the love we have for things we enjoy is different from the love we experience in relationships. And even within our relationships, we recognize we love our parents differently from the way we love our spouses. We love our children differently from the way we love our pastors or fellow church members, our co-workers, or our clients.

Eros—Physical Attraction

Eros is the only Greek term for love that is not referenced directly in Scripture. The word refers specifically to physical attraction, romantic love, or sexual intimacy between husband and wife.

One of the major principles we discussed earlier is that love is not so much an emotion as an action. Love is patient, love is kind, etc. (1 Corinthians 13); that is, love is what love does. In contrast, eros is exactly the opposite. It is not a demonstration of loving action toward someone as much as it is a feeling. Specifically, it describes the sensation people experience when they are physically attracted to someone. The word eros is the root of the English word erotic.

While the actual word eros does not occur in Scripture, we can most definitely see the principle behind it. Eros is what Samson felt 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.”

Judges 14:2

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 that it relates to the way a person feels and what a person wants. No thought or consideration is given to the object of one’s eros. Eros will not move a person to be forgiving, sacrificial, or kind, which is why it is so important not to base a marriage on eros. Many couples have wanted to get married because of strong feelings of eros for each other, but when the eros eventually wears off, they find themselves frustrated and uninterested.

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

To be clear, eros is not immoral or sinful. In fact, it is an important part of marriages. It is the attraction husbands and wives should feel for each other.

Storge—Natural Affection

They did 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

In the last days perilous times will come: for men will be…unloving (astorgos).

2 Timothy 3:1, 3

Storge refers to natural affection, or familial love, such as the way a parent feels toward a child or the way siblings feel toward each other. The word storge is not used in Scripture in its simple form, but the word astorgos is used in the above two verses.

In both instances Paul was not simply saying that people are unloving. He was saying people will lack the natural love or affection family members should have toward each other. A biblical example of astorgos (the absence of storge) would be Cain’s murdering Abel. A present-day example would be mothers’ murdering their babies in the womb. An abortion is the height of astorgos, or lacking natural love, because even in nature mothers fiercely protect their offspring.

Storge is also used once in Scripture in combination with a third form of love, phileo:

Be kindly affectionate (philostorgus) to one another with brotherly love.

Romans 12:10

The words “kindly affectionate” are a translation in the original Greek that combines phileo and storge. Within the context of Romans 12, it is referencing 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 affection or kindness between friends. When Jesus wept at Lazarus’s death:

The Jews said, “See how He loved (phileo) him!”

John 11:36

Phileo also forms part of the words “philosophy,” an affection for wisdom, or “philanthropy,” an affection for fellow man. The church of Philadelphia, 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.

It is natural to focus on the romance—or eros—of marriage. But in doing so, we forget that marriage should actually be the union of two best friends. In many ways, phileo is a great description of what marriage should be: a deep and close friendship. Your spouse should be your best friend. I am always sad when I see people who are closer friends with others than with 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 ever feels this way toward the other, they should pray that God restores or increases the phileo in their relationship.

But phileo does not always have a positive connotation:

Jesus accuses: “[The religious leaders] love (phileo) to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets.”

Matthew 6:5

Their strong affection was directed at receiving the adoration of men.

A Wife’s Phileo for Her Husband

Admonish the young women to love their husbands.

Titus 2:4

Phileo is the love wives are instructed to have for their husbands. When Titus 2:3–4 commands older women to admonish younger women to love their husbands, the Greek word used is philandros, a combination of the words phileo and aner (the word for 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 is that? What is the implication of that difference in marriage? Is it that husbands do not want or need that kind of love? Is it that women are not as capable of agape as men?

I do not think that is it at all. It is simply 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 everything else that falls 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?

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. We have already spoken of the temptation for husbands to be harsh and domineering. How much more so in the day Paul wrote these words when a woman was literally owned by her husband. 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. To show his wife such love as Christ pours out on the church was a choice husbands had to make of their own free will. It still is. And since such love was not easy or natural to the average husband, then or now, the apostle Paul clearly tells husbands to demonstrate this love toward their 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 in summary:

  • 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 see her as an object or employee to satisfy his needs. She needs him to love her as Christ loved the church.

Agape Versus Phileo

Husbands, love (agape) your wives, just as Christ also loved (agape) the church and gave Himself for her.

Ephesians 5:25

For 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

The fourth form of love—and the most commonly mentioned in the New Testament—is agape. Why is it so important to understand agape? As demonstrated by the above verses, agape is the love:

  • Husbands are commanded to have for their wives
  • Christ has for His bride, the church
  • God has for each of us

Therefore, we have to understand agape so husbands know how to love their wives, so wives know how they should be loved by their husbands, and so we can all understand the love God the Father and God the Son have for us. A conversation between Jesus and Peter reveals its superior nature.

The background to this discussion 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!”

Matthew 26:33

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. We are not told what Peter saw in that brief look from Jesus, but it was enough to send Peter stumbling out, weeping bitterly. I doubt there was a lower point in Peter’s life (Luke 22:59–62).

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. So it is significant in John 21 that when the disciples went out fishing and recognized that the man calling to them from the beach was Jesus, Peter immediately dived into the water and swam to shore. What happened between Jesus and Peter was not recorded, but by the time the rest of the disciples joined them on the beach to eat, there had clearly been 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?”

John 21:15a

In asking if Peter loves Him more than these, Jesus could be referencing the fish, which would be akin to, “Do you love me more than fishing?” Or He might be referencing the other disciples, 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, I think Jesus was asking, “Do you love me more than these other disciples love me?” Peter had declared he loved Jesus more than anyone else, and now Jesus was asking if Peter still believed that to be true. Regardless of intent, Jesus was questioning Peter’s love for Him, and the word He used was agape. Now look at Peter’s response:

[Peter] said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love (phileo) You.”
[Jesus] said to him, “Feed My lambs.”

John 21:15b

At this point, Peter was well aware of how he has failed his Master and was so humbled by this realization that he responded with the word phileo instead of agape. He knew that his previous actions prevented him from being able to claim the superior form of love Jesus was asking 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?”

John 21:17a

This time Jesus also used the word phileo. He had stopped asking if Peter had agape for Him. The passage tells us that this grieved Peter. In fact, the whole conversation would have been painful to Peter for various reasons. First, Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Those 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.

Perhaps most painfully, 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 point as a “rock.” Considering Peter’s previous arrogance, he undoubtedly needed this reminder of his own weakness and humanity so as not to place so much trust in himself again:

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 21:17b

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

Finally, Jesus’s words to Peter should make us reevaluate 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 a sacrificial, all-encompassing agape? Would Jesus have to ask me three times if I love Him to humble me as He did with Peter?

To learn more about the agape love husbands are commanded to have for their wives watch this message I deliver at Marriage God’s Way Conferences

Discussion Questions for Comments Section

  1. What are you currently doing to cultivate eros in your marriage? 
  2. To cultivate greater eros in your marriage:
  3. What do you need to start doing?
  4. What do you need to stop doing?
  5. Considering a husband is to have the same love for his wife that Christ has for the church and God has for the world, what application can you make for marriage?
  6. What stood out to you regarding these forms of love discussed?
  7. How would you respond if Jesus asked, “Do you love Me?” When Jesus looks at your life, what kind of love does He see for Him?
  8. Why would God command agape of a husband, but phileo of a wife? What does it look like for a wife to demonstrate phileo for her husband?

Questions for Husbands:

  1. What ways does your wife demonstrate phileo for you?
  2. What would you like your wife to do that demonstrates phileo for you?

Questions for Wives

  1. What ways do you demonstrate phileo for your husband?
  2. What actions can you take or changes will you make to show him phileo? In other words, what do you need to do to be your husband’s best friend?
Your Marriage God's Way: A Biblical Guide to a Christ-Centered Relationship
Your Marriage God's Way Workbook author Scott LaPierre

The content in this post is found in Your Marriage God’s Way and the accompanying workbook.

2 Responses

  1. 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.

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