Columnists > Soul Food

The federal husband

Bringing to life a misunderstood word

Issue: "Clinton: Under seige," Feb. 6, 1998

Among the many words our century has trashed, words like awesome or gay, the word federal most certainly heads the list. The word makes us think of big, centralized things, things that make a collectivist's heart feel warm and cozy. We slap the word on institutions so that little old ladies will deposit their money there. Nobody names his bank Bob's Sunshine Bank; the name must be something that exudes solidity and bigness, something like First Federal Security.

But the word federal actually comes from the Latin word foedus, which means covenant. Because our federal government is about as uncovenantal as can be imagined, it is not surprising that we have forgotten the original import of the word. We think that federal means centralized and does not refer in any kind of way to any kind of covenant.

But classical Protestant theology reflects the biblical meaning of federal and covenants. The Bible describes the relationship between Adam and the human race as a federal one. That is, God made a covenant with the entire human race, with Adam serving as the representative or covenant head of that race. In the same way, our salvation was accomplished federally. Christ, the second Adam, was sent by God to be the federal head of a new race. His obedience was representative and was imputed to all his people, identified as such through their faith. This is why Christ is said to be head of his church. This headship is covenantal; it is a federal headship.

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So what does federal have to do with husbands? The answer is that husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loved the church. In other words, husbands are to model or exhibit a federal relationship to their wives. Only when a man understands how Christ loved the church covenantally will he be able to love his wife in the same way.

In the modern church, the central intellectual sin regarding marriage is one of definition. We assume that marriage is a permanent "roommate" arrangement between two individuals, with certain sexual privileges included. But the Bible describes marriage as a covenant. The adulteress is one who forsakes the companion of her youth, the covenant of her God (Proverbs 2:17). The men of Israel are rebuked because they abandoned their covenantal wives (Malachi 2:14). But we have thought that we could have biblical marriages without even knowing what a covenant marriage is.

At the heart of this covenantal relationship is the issue of responsibility. When there is genuine federal headship, the head or representative assumes responsibility for the condition of the members of the covenant body. This is why we can say that when Adam disobeyed in the garden, we were there sinning in and with him. And this is why we can say that when Christ obeyed in the garden, submitting to the will of the Father, we were there obeying in and with him.

Of course, husbands do not duplicate this responsibility exactly in their relationship with their wives, but they are commanded to imitate it. And, because marriage is constituted as a covenantal institution, and because the relation to be imitated is also covenantal, such imitation will of necessity be federal or representative.

One of the most difficult things for modern men to understand is in what way they are responsible for their wives. Men come into a marriage-counseling session with the assumption that "she has her problems" and "I have mine" and the counselor is just there to help us split the difference. And in a sense that is true. Both are individuals accountable to God for their individual sins. But in a covenantal sense the husband is responsible for all the problems-because he is the husband and thus the covenant head of his family.

He may be entirely unsure about what it means to be the head of his family. And given the divine pattern assigned to us for imitation, it is certain that no husband has a complete understanding of what he is called to do.

But the place to start is for husbands to ask: How did Christ love the church? Was it only in his willingness to lay down his life for her? Or was it also as a covenant representative? And if that is the case, then husbands need to tackle the question: How can I go and do likewise with my wife and my family?


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