After the book was recently recommended by one of my Facebook friends, I decided to buy Doug Wilson’s 1999 book Federal Husband1 for my Amazon Kindle. Despite having been married for a number of months, I confess that this was the first book I read on the subject of being a good Christian husband. I had no desire to waste my time on all the evanjellyfish rubbish out there, which only encourages the womanization of Christian men anyway. The danger of such literature is indeed evident in the role it has played in destroying healthy Christian masculinity among the contemporary Christian youth. I’m thankful to say that Wilson’s book doesn’t fall into that category, and I would recommend it to any man seeking to further his wisdom on how to be a godly husband. Allow me to give an overview of the book to explain why.
The correct presuppositions are cardinal to any belief system, and Wilson’s presuppositions when addressing the matter of biblical husbandry are, thankfully, very solid. He starts off by saying in the prologue: “Federal thinking really is alien to the modern mind. . . . it is not enough for husbands to love their wives. They must do it as Christ did for the church. If Christ loved the Church as her Federal Lord, then we have a responsibility to discover what that means” (p. 7). The fact that he here, through Christ’s example, identifies the enemy he wishes to fight – namely, modernist egalitarianism – is a most encouraging premise.
In the first section, he explains what he means under the term “federal”: the “word comes from the Latin foedus, which means covenant.” This word has been distorted by an incorrect modern usage, and is now often associated with “big, centralized things,” in particular, with the treasonous (and therefore uncovenantal) federal government of the United States. Wilson further points to the destructive implications on our religion in light of this centuries-long theological shift: “This brings to mind the distinction between classical Protestant theology and modern evangelical thinking: Modern evangelicalism doesn’t think and doesn’t have a backbone. Because contemporary evangelical theology doesn’t have a backbone, modern Christian men who are taught in terms of it find themselves without a backbone also” (pp. 9-11). This is a correct analysis of much of modern “Christianity,” which is really not much more than feminism under the false banner of Christianity.
God’s relationship towards mankind is covenantal (federal), and Wilson notes that the relationship between Adam and humanity is federal as well. Salvation is likewise accomplished federally by Christ as the head of His Church; the covenant of grace, made with mankind after the fall, is Christocentric par excellence. From these theological truths, Wilson proceeds to make an ever-important statement which all godly men must heed: “[O]ur theology of Christ’s love will be determinative of how a Christian wife is loved.” He explains that, contrary to egalitarian opinions, marriage is not “a permanent ‘roommate’ arrangement between two individuals with certain sexual privileges included,” but rather a covenant in which the man holds a particular responsibility as federal head (pp. 12-18).
Wilson begins the following section: “If this book has a central refrain, it is that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church.” In this section, Wilson explained something to me personally that I had not realized before. Throughout my life, I had encountered many pastors and theologians who emphasized this passage in order to justify rebellious, feminist behavior from women, since “Jesus loves us no matter what.” Because Jesus quietly and humbly died even for the “chief of sinners,” too many conclude that men should never do anything to rebuke or oppose misbehavior in women, and they focus only on men’s shortcomings compared to Christ’s perfect love. This misemphasis naturally encourages female rebellion. However, Paul is not primarily trying to explain to men that they never can love their wives enough and that they should always try to love them more – even though this is certainly true, men being sinners. Wilson explains: “what this really means is that husbands should love their wives federally, the same way that Christ loved the Church.” Wilson explains why covenantal thinking is so important to understanding this: “Apart from a federal or covenantal union of Christ with his people, none of this makes any kind of moral sense. If one man is guilty of a heinous crime, how does it comport with justice to kill someone else for that crime? . . . If Christ were merely a perfect individual and we a collection of imperfect individuals, then what is declared to us to be the gospel would actually be a moral monstrosity.” A man is told to behave in his covenantal union with his wife as Christ did with regard to the Church. Husbands, by virtue of their role, are responsible for their wives.
However, Wilson seems to draw a false inference here. He argues that, due to this federal relation, the man cannot ultimately blame his wife for any misery in their marriage; no matter the problem, he is always held responsible as the leader. I have seen many other conservative Christians argue this same principle: since Jesus “took the blame” for His bride, the Church, men also should always be willing to take the blame for whatever problems their marriages encounter. But this confuses the nature of the federal relation and the imputation of our sins unto Christ. When theologians say that our sins were imputed to Christ, they mean that the penalty was transferred to Him, not that He could genuinely be blamed for any moral wrong – not that He could be treated as the problem underneath the Church’s disobedience.2 If someone accused Jesus of committing some sin which His bride committed, Jesus could legitimately rebuke him and his unjust accusation, while still offering to suffer the penalty in her stead. It would be analogous to a father whose son crashes his car. By virtue of imputation (which is actually a term insurance companies employ), the father would be held liable for the son’s accident, even though the father could justly rebuke any charge that he himself caused the damage. It is a similar truth with husband and wife. Because husbands are the federal heads of their wives, there might be certain senses in which husbands can take a penalty in their wives’ stead. (I’m not sure how this works out practically, however.) But this is very different from saying that, if any problems at all exist in a marriage, then husbands are ultimately to blame. Certain behavioral problems in women can be traced to their husbands’ influence, but not absolutely and necessarily. This kind of inference would condemn Jesus as a sinner just because His bride, the Church, is sinful too. There is thus a difference between being actually blameworthy for someone else’s sin, and simply suffering the penalty in her stead. The reason this seemingly technical error is important is because of its real-life manifestations. Due to the forces of feminism and no-fault divorce today, many men have suffered from frivolous divorce and adultery by their fickle wives, despite the men being faithful (even if not sinless) husbands. In the face of this pain, which also involves crushing financial suffering in the form of alimony and child support – since women almost invariably receive the children – these men will often be treated as if they were really to blame, as if it were impossible for women to be blamed for even the worst of wifely infidelity. This is one of the ways in which men are told to “man up” and embrace feminist ideology!
That being said, let us return to the man’s marital duties. A husband must love a wife in a way which transforms her. The love of a man is not measured by feelings (which are transient) but is constant and always ongoing, measured by action and accomplishments. The last aspect of Christ’s love is that it is instructional: husbands should likewise wash their wives with the Word (Eph. 5:26). Wilson teaches in this regard that Christian husbands are necessarily to have sufficient knowledge of the Word to instruct their wives therein. This reminded me once again of how far the church had fallen. Growing up attending our local Reformed congregation in South Africa, I became accustomed to grown men (including most of the elders) lacking even a basic knowledge of the fundamental doctrines of our religion. Once I was old enough to realize this, it was indeed a shock to me, but through the years I seemed to have grown accustomed to it. Wilson does a good job of reminding us that this is indeed not the way the church ought to function (pp. 19-28).
Wilson then emphasizes introspect as a cardinal element of husbandry, which would allow husbands to better understand their responsibilities in light of Scripture. In terms of providing for one’s wife, Wilson takes a decisively traditional and biblical approach: “But if a man is not capable of providing his wife with food and clothing, then he is Scripturally disqualified to be a husband” (pp. 29-32). Refusing to take responsibility is as much a characteristic of modern man as is the refusal to be masculine. Wilson cites I Cor. 16:13 as an example where the apostle exhorts man to act masculine (p. 32).
In light of the threat the egalitarian heresy poses to the Church, this statement regarding gender differences cannot be stressed enough: “As difficult as the concept is for males to understand, feminine weakness is not a weakness. No woman should ever be evaluated apart from her creation design or divinely-appointed purpose. Neither should any man.” Pointing to the wisdom and authority of God’s purposeful design is an infinitely valuable argument against the cultural Marxists who want to destroy everything we hold so dear. Wilson would rightly continue to point out that it is not only males who struggle with this concept, but that “more than a few foolish women have been sucked into this mindset” of gender confusion. “And ironically, we call this attempt by some women to be more like men ‘feminism’, which is more than a little bit like calling an attempt by cats to be like dogs felinism.” In the next paragraph Wilson makes a statement that is bound to warm the heart of any kinist: “Without confidence in God’s design, we have no reason to respect anything, much less diversity” (p. 33).
The relationship between feminism and abortion as part of the sexual revolution is beautifully teased out by Wilson: “Our generation has a pathological hatred of the womb, as evidenced by our abortion culture’s imbecility with regard to children. . . . Her husband must honor her fruitfulness” (p. 35).
Wilson argues that masculinist reactions actually fall for the subtle tricks of feminism. “On the left side of the evangelical mainstream, this happens when men are taught how to relate to other women the same way women relate to one another.” Later he notes: “On the reactionary right, in the traditionalist reaction to modernity, we can see the same pattern. The woman’s perspective on the home and family is accepted as normative and binding on all members of the family. Because she is home centered, everyone else must be too.” He goes on to explain how a healthy, biblical view of the family and gender relations is the only viable solution (pp. 36-40).
Wilson defends manliness and its outward trappings in clothing, hair, and jewelry, citing numerous examples in Scripture from which it can be clearly derived that masculine appearance and clothing are more significant than modern culture would like them to be. Scripture’s portrayal of beards in a positive light and its exhortation of a man to have shorter hair than his wife are two examples which Wilson treats in this regard (pp. 40-50).
Next, Wilson discusses the “working man,” where he emphasizes Christ’s lordship over business and money as part of the Christian life. He notes that being able to provide for your wife and family is a prerequisite to getting married. He then refutes the dualistic notions that are so prevalent in our day: “A husband must never seek to detach his service of God and his provision for his household.” This stands in relation to the commands to tithe, to trust God to provide, and to be a responsible steward. Laziness is a cardinal sin of all ages on which Wilson also focuses in this section, identifying some of the many negative effects which accompany it. Finally, he concludes this section with the eternal wisdom that one should stay out of debt as much as possible (pp. 50-60).
The third main section of the book, “The Federal Husband and Society,” is Wilson’s response to the feminist distortion. Wilson states, “Husbands are told [in Scripture] to honor their wives and to live considerately with them, treating them as weaker vessels.” The other side of the distortion, however, is what Wilson calls “masculinist egalitarianism,” which “holds that men are in one category and women in another, and any given member of one category bears the same relationship to any given member of the other.” He refutes it by pointing out that “human society as created by God is hierarchical. . . . A biblical view of culture consequently requires a nobility of some sort. The masculinist egalitarian tends to assume that the broader relationship between men and women is foremost, with other social factors being nonexistent or negligible.” Wilson would continue to point out a very beautiful aspect (or consequence) of female submission to her husband, which is obviously far above the framework of modern egalitarians: “Esther, a submissive wife, had more influence than all the elders of Israel. Given the nature of this influence, no scriptural fault can be found with it.” After also showing the value of a tertiary education for a woman, Wilson does rightly point out that a married woman’s “fundamental orientation is to be domestic. As we have seen, multiple passages show this (e.g. Tit. 2:1-5; Prov. 31:10-31; I Tim. 2:15; 5:3-14). . . . When a Christian woman is asked what she is doing, her answer may be exactly what some pagan feminist might answer. ‘I’m studying for a physics test. Why?’ But when a Christian woman is asked why she is doing what she is doing, her answer must radically diverge from any answer which an unbeliever could give.” Wilson points to a need for a perfect balance between the necessary domestic activities of a married woman and the value attached to her own education and extra-domestic callings (pp. 61-69).
Wilson refers to Joshua’s famous confession (Joshua 24:14-15) to specify the great covenantal responsibility which a husband and father has as the head of his family. He mentions this in terms of the man’s cleansing of his household from all idols which might hinder the pure worship of God, and he is thankfully also honest and bold enough to state that poor leadership of our families by their covenantal heads is partially to blame for the West’s current spiritual crisis. Covenants, as the means by which mankind deals with one another, are inescapable. “The covenants in this category are those of marriage (Mal. 3:14-15); the institution of the church (Luke 22:20) and the Civil Order (Rom. 13:1-7). By ignoring God’s instructions on these covenants, we may become covenantally confused and disobedient. We do not become uncovenantal. We are either keeping our covenants or breaking them” (pp. 69-76). Later on in this section, he explains what this covenantal headship means in practice: “Repentance must begin in each household with husbands and fathers turning from their effeminacy” (p. 76).
The following section of the book treats argues that women’s entrance into combat is a result of a nation’s inability to protect their mothers, daughters, and wives, after which the book concludes with the fourth and final section, entitled “The Federal Father.” Wilson states that “learning to be a federal father begins with learning to be a federal husband for a pregnant wife.” He attacks modern society’s lack of respect towards pregnant woman as completely contrary to Scripture – a passage that comes to mind in this regard is I Tim. 2:15. Children are the covenant fruit of the covenantal union of marriage and to be embraced as blessings from God. Malachi 2:14 explains that children are the purpose of the covenantal union of marriage (pp. 77-88).
Federal husbandry, as Wilson explains, is a matter of cultivating the roots, since “those who do not know the condition of their own souls are in no position to shepherd the souls of others.” In this section Wilson also points to the important role the church has to play in aiding the husband and the family he has to lead. Furthermore, wisdom from God in recognizing those root problems is of the utmost importance for a father and husband to execute his task (pp. 88-93).
It would indeed seem strange to spend time explaining this in a normal society, but Wilson explains that the difference between boys and girls are a part of God’s design that needs to be embraced and nurtured correctly by parents, not shunned as modern egalitarians do (pp. 93-96).
Biblically disciplining children is so often neglected nowadays, and Wilson very wisely enumerates the necessary biblical principles in this regard: that discipline must be confident, affectionate, judicial, swift, painful, effective, and reflective of biblical standards. On the other hand, the nature of filial obedience to parents, under the fifth commandment, needs also to be rightly understood by federal fathers. First, children must be students of their parents and respect the relational or romantic responsibilities of their parents with regard to them – that is, the father is responsible for his children’s sexual purity. Furthermore, children should bless, repay, and obey their parents and, finally, never strike or show contempt for them (pp. 96-103).
Children raised in the ways of the Lord have a tendency to get married, as marriage is an honorable state for a Christian. Wilson treats the criteria for a good wife. He notes that interreligious marriages should not even be considered. Neither should a man consider marrying a woman divorced without biblical grounds, just as he should not consider marriage when he himself is divorced without biblical grounds (pp. 102-103).
Under the “realm of wisdom,” the first criterion Wilson mentions is that Christians should be wary of women whose parents disapprove of the marriage, women who are unpleasant, women who reject domesticity, and women who are sexually unattractive. In explaining why women should be sexually attractive to their men, he beautifully notes: “He [the man] should banish from his thinking all false gnosticism, which says that the ‘spiritual plane’ is so much more important.” Physical beauty is an intrinsically good creation of God, who designed men to be motivated by it as well; beauty therefore has a significant role in the suitability of a wife. Wilson shows that his theological thinking is indeed orthodox when he moves directly from a refutation of this gnosticism to treat the difficulties accompanying intercultural marriages. He espouses the weak kinist view, previously refuted here by Nil Desperandum, when he says that it is impossible to condemn intercultural and interracial marriages as unbiblical, although he cedes they might be unwise. While I wholeheartedly agree with Wilson that such marriages would be unwise, I disagree with his assertion that just because these aspects (also) fall under the realm of wisdom, they aren’t necessarily unbiblical. An unwise decision is always an unbiblical one, and furthermore, special revelation is a primary reason why we know all of the aforementioned marriages to be not only unwise, but contrary to God’s will. The final criterion in a wife which Wilson mentions is that a man should know that the woman he intends to marry will respect his spiritual headship (pp. 103-105). Wilson concludes the book by pointing out several considerations for reforming our wedding ceremonies towards a more biblical ritual (pp. 105-110).
- 1999. Canon Press: Moscow, ID ↩
- R.L. Dabney explains this as the distinction between “actual guilt” and “potential guilt” in chapter 2 of his book Christ Our Penal Substitute. ↩