For various reasons, the word federal is grossly misunderstood today. But our word comes from the Latin word foedus, which means covenant. Thus a federal union, or confederated association, should be understood as one bound by covenant oaths and loyalties. As Christians who understand the importance of covenants in the Bible, we should set ourselves to understand the meaning of federal marriage. This is just another way of saying covenant marriage.
“But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3).
“For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body” (Eph. 5:23).
The Face of Marriage Covenants
Some might want to assume that as Reformed Christians we simply have covenants on the brain, finding them everywhere in Scripture. You know, covenant peanut butter and covenant jelly. But this message is not an example of a systematic covenant theology running amok. The Bible speaks to us on this issue plainly.
The adulteress is described in Proverbs as one who forsook the companion of her youth, the covenant of her God (Prov. 2:17). The men in Malachi who complained to God about His lack of responsiveness to their prayers were told that it was because of how they treated their wives. Their wives were described as being their wives by covenant (Mai. 2:14). Marriage is described in the Bible as a covenantal institution. But much more is involved in this than just the word covenant.
The Meaning of Federal Headship
Closely related to the concept of the covenant is the idea of headship. The Bible gives us two important examples of what we might call federal headship. A covenant head is not the same thing as “a boss.”
First, consider what the Bible says about Adam. The relation that exists between us and our father Adam is a covenantal one. Because we are organically connected to him by covenant, when he sinned in the garden, we all sinned as represented in him. He sinned covenantally. “But like men [literally. like Adam] they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt treacherously with Me” (Hos. 6:7 ). And in his sin, we sinned.
We see the same thing with the second Adam. God in His mercy brought us out of sin the same way we were plunged into it. Because the sin of the first Adam condemned us, the obedience of the second Adam rescued us.
“Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many” (Rom. 5:14-15).
“And so it is written, The first man Adam became a living being/The last Adam became a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45).
“For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22 ). When we put all this together, what do we see? Both Adam and Christ are described as the representative or covenantal heads of their people. This is how our sins can be imputed to Christ, and how His righteousness can be imputed to us.
Application to Marriage
Returning to our texts, we see that the husband has a comparable relation to his wife as the one which exists between Christ and His people. This relation Paul describes as one of headship. Because marriage is a covenant union, and because the husband is the head of the wife, this means that his headship is a federal headship. He is a covenant head. We must first grasp what this does not mean. Before authority in marriage can be understood, we must get free of all our individualism. In marriage, we do not have two separated individuals, with one of them in charge. Rather, we have an organic union which is instructed not to be schizophrenic. All “macho man” foolishness is inconsistent with what is described here.
This eliminates the blame game. It means that a husband can no more blame his wife for the state of their marriage than a thief can blame his hands. As Christ assumed responsibility for things He didn’t do, so husbands should be willing to do the same for their wives. How? The place to start is in your prayers.
This sheds light on the central duty of husbands, which is to love as Christ loved the Church. For many Christians this simply means that Christ loved the Church “a lot” and that husbands should strive to do the same. But what it means is that husbands should love their wives federally, the way Christ loved the Church. We may begin to point out what this means, but there will always be far more than this.
A husband’s love should seek to be efficacious love—Christ loved the Church in a way which transformed her. He should embody an incarnational love—Christ’s love for His
Church was literally embodied in His sacrificial life. He seeks to display a responsible love—Christ took on all the sins of His people, And last, it is an instructional love— Christ washes His Church with the Word, as should husbands.