In spite of the fact that the concept of covenant is seen throughout the Bible, we do not often use the word covenant in our conversation. Most of us have little understanding of the word. When we think of marriage, we usually do so in terms of a contract rather than a covenant. In reality, the two words are quite different. In this chapter, I want to first focus on contract marriages.
Ours is a contract-oriented society. We understand contracts and often hear people say, "Get it in writing," meaning "Get a legal contract signed." With a contract you can be more certain that the person or company will live up to their claims.
Many Christian couples have brought this contract mentality into their marriages. They busy themselves with making contracts and trying to force each other into living up to them. Unfortunately, this kind of marriage stimulates resentment, hurt, and anger and eventually leads some couples to divorce. Let's explore this contract mentality.
Basically, a contract is an agreement between two or more persons specifying that one will do something if the other will do something. For example, the bank agrees to allow me to drive a car if I will make the monthly payments. If I break my part of the contract, the bank has the legal right to repossess my car. Our society is built upon the concept of contracts. We make rental contracts, sales contracts, and service contracts regularly.
Some of our contracts are legally binding; others are morally binding. If my wife and I agree that I will wash the dishes if she will cook the meal, we have made an informal contract. No court of law will ever hold us to that contract, but as persons of integrity, we each feel a sense of moral responsibility to keep our end of the bargain. Any informal contract is only as good as the character of the persons who make it. Many relationships have been fractured or broken because someone failed to keep an agreement. If it is a legal contract, then one of the parties may sue the other in an effort to gain a fair settlement. In an informal, non-legal contract, the broken contract becomes a source of argument, accusation, and sometimes verbal or physical abuse by which we try to motivate the other person to keep the agreement he/she made.
Legally, marriage is a contract with certain rights and responsibilities. But we must distinguish between legal marriage and covenant marriage. In a legal marriage, if one party does not live up to the contract, then legal actions force them to do so or to end the marriage with an equitable settlement. A society could not exist without laws regulating marriage relationships, so in this sense, marriage is a contract. For a Christian, however, marriage is more than this; it is a covenant.
Contracts are important. Most married couples have made numerous ones with each other through the years: "If you will get the children to bed, I will clean up the kitchen." "If you will wash the windows on the outside, I will wash them on the inside." "If you will vacuum and dust, I will mow the grass and trim the shrubs." There is nothing wrong with making such contracts. In fact, such agreements are a part of any couple's life. These agreements help us get things done, using our different abilities and interests to our mutual benefit.
The problem arises when we come to view our marriage only as a contract or a series of contracts. When this happens, we have become totally secular in our thinking and have abandoned the biblical view of marriage. The Bible views marriage ultimately as a covenant although contracts may be an important part of carrying out our covenant.
There are five general characteristics of contracts.
1. Contracts Are Most Often Made for a Limited Period of Time
When we decide to lease a car, we sign a contract for a set number of years. If we rent an apartment, typically the rental contract is for a minimum of six months or one year. When we purchase a house, we sign a loan contract for fifteen to thirty years. Almost all legal contracts are made for a specified period of time. If it is broken by either party, there is a penalty to be paid. Contracts are usually made with the idea that the arrangement will be mutually beneficial for the parties involved. If, however, the circumstances change, we may decide to break the contract and suffer the penalties.
Although most marriage ceremonies involve the commitment "so long as we both shall live" or "till death do us part," many couples give a contractual interpretation to these covenantal words. What they are really saying is, "We are committed to each other so long as this relationship is mutually beneficial for us. If in two years or twenty this marriage ceases to be mutually beneficial, then we can break the contract and suffer the penalties." This contract mentality predisposes the couple to divorce when the relationship comes upon hard times.
2. Contracts Most Often Deal with Specific Actions
When you buy a new appliance, you will likely be offered an extended service contract. This stipulates that if you will pay the fee, the company will service your appliance for a certain period of time in specified ways. Most service contracts will cover "parts and labor," with certain exceptions. Read the fine print and you will know precisely what the company has agreed to do.
Most informal contracts made within the marriage also deal with specific actions. "If you will keep the children tonight while I go shopping, I will keep them tomorrow while you play softball." In this arrangement the couple is not establishing general roles in the marriage relationship; they are simply contracting for specific events or activities. Such informal agreements can be a positive way of negotiating the details of family life. If made with a spirit of love and concern for each other, they can in fact be a way of implementing a covenant marriage relationship.
3. Contracts Are Based on an "If ..., Then...." Mentality
If you are willing to sign a one-year contract and pay the monthly service charge, then we will give you a free cell phone with no "roaming charges." This is the language of a contract. It is a negotiating tool based on a willingness to give in order to get. Though I would not have admitted it at the time, I must confess that it is the mentality with which I entered marriage more than forty years ago. I was willing to make Karolyn happy if she would make me happy. She didn't and I didn't; therefore, our struggle was deep, fierce, and painful in the first several years of our marriage. In talking to other couples, I have discovered that my wife and I were not alone in our contractual mentality. However deeply spiritual we claimed to be, we were far more secular in our approach to marriage.
4. Contracts Are Motivated by the Desire to Get Something We Want
Almost always the person who initiates the discussion about a contract wants something. This desire is the motivation for trying to make a contract with the other person. The salesman is the contract seeker. He/she initiates a conversation with the desire to "make a sale" and reap the benefits. They may "believe in the value of their product." They may also believe that the product will "serve you well." But if they did not desire the benefits of the sales contract, they would not long be a salesman. In marriage, the same principle is true. If I initiate a conversation with my wife, expressing a willingness to do something for her if she will do something for me, you can be certain my conversation was motivated by something I wanted. When I say to her, "If I mow the grass this afternoon, would you have time to iron my blue shirt for the party tonight?" I am trying to "strike a deal" that will get me a blue shirt for the party.
5. Contracts Are Sometimes Unspoken and Implicit
One husband said, "We have never discussed it, but both of us know our agreement. If I will do her favorite project, she will make life more exciting for me. It is also understood that if I do not do what she wants, then she can make life miserable for me." This husband is illustrating a contract marriage even though the contract has never been verbalized. He and his wife have established an arrangement without conversation.
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While marriage is a legal contract to be honored, and informal contracts within marriage often help us effectively use our differing skills to our mutual benefit, Christian marriage is much more than a contract. This "much more" is to be discovered in the word covenant.
Why the term covenant marriage? Because it most clearly denotes the uniqueness of Christian marriage. Covenant is a biblical term. God is a covenant-making God.
Covenants in Scripture
The first time the word covenant is used in the Bible is in Genesis 6:18. God told Noah that because of man's wickedness, God would destroy all life on earth. Then God said to Noah, "But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark-you and your sons and your wife and your sons' wives with you." God went on to indicate that he would also preserve the animal world through the ark that Noah built.
God took the initiative in making the covenant. The covenant was for Noah's benefit. He accepted God's covenant and built the ark. Noah entered into covenant with God to do what he could do (build the ark) and accept the gift of God's grace-something he could not do for himself (save himself from the flood waters). God's motive was not to get an ark for himself; he did not need one, but Noah did. Noah's willingness to build the ark indicated his acceptance of God's covenant offer of deliverance.
The Old Testament tells us that God went on to make covenants with Abraham (Gen. 17:3-8) and Moses (Exod. 19:3-6). God confirmed his covenant with David (2 Sam. 7:12-29), and the prophets often reminded Israel of their covenant relationship with God (Jer. 31; Ezek. 37; Hos. 2).
The New Testament reveals Jesus as the Messiah who fulfilled the old covenant and instituted the new covenant (Matt. 26:28; Luke 22:20). The New Testament writers in turn developed and used the covenant concept (2 Cor. 3:6; Gal. 3:15; Heb. 7:22; 8:6; 13:20).
In the Bible we not only find God's covenant with his people but also observe people making covenants with other people. For example, in 1 Samuel 18:1-3, Jonathan makes a covenant with David. In Ruth 1:16-17, Ruth makes a covenant with Naomi.
Therefore, we should not be surprised to discover that in the Bible, marriage is also viewed as a covenant between a man and woman. When the writer of Proverbs warns his son against becoming involved with a wayward wife who "abandons the companion of her youth and forgets the covenant of her God," he indicates clearly that marriage is a sacred covenant (Prov. 2:16-17). God often depicted his relationship with Israel as a covenantal marriage relationship. Through the prophet Ezekiel, he described Israel as an adulterous wife for whom he yearns. "I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign LORD, and you became mine" (Ezek. 16:8). Through the prophet Malachi, God expressed his displeasure with divorce and indicates that "the LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant" (Mal. 2:14, 16). Jesus himself clearly viewed marriage as a lifelong covenantal relationship (Matt. 19:4-9).
What then is the meaning of this word covenant, which is woven so integrally into the fabric of Scripture? A covenant, like a contract, is an agreement made between two or more persons, but the nature of the agreement is quite different. Let me begin by sharing five characteristics of a covenant relationship.
1. Covenants Are Initiated for the Benefit of the Other Person
Read the covenant Jonathan made with David: "From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return to his father's house. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt" (1 Sam. 18:2-4). Notice that Jonathan took the initiative in this covenant. His first act was an act of giving: his robe, tunic, sword, bow, and belt. Jonathan's motivation for making a covenant with David grew from his love for David and not from a selfish desire to manipulate David to do something for him.
Read the words of Ruth as she made her covenant with Naomi: "Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried" (Ruth 1:16-17). In verses 11-13, Naomi had already made it clear to Ruth that she had nothing to offer her. Yet Ruth's commitment to Naomi clearly grew from her concern for Naomi's well-being. While David and Naomi's sense of commitment to the covenant was fully as strong as that of Jonathan and Ruth, they did not initiate the covenant. Covenants are born from a desire to minister to the other person, not to manipulate the person or to get something.
This aspect of a covenant relationship is further illustrated by God's covenant with Noah, to which we alluded earlier. God took the initiative to spare Noah and his family from his judgment. "Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God" (Gen. 6:9). But God's covenant with Noah was not made in order to motivate Noah to love him, but rather from God's concern for Noah's well-being.
After the flood, God made another covenant with Noah and his descendants: "I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.... This is the sign of the covenant I am making.... I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth" (Gen. 9:11-13). In this covenant, nothing was expected of Noah. God simply declared his intention for the future and gave a sign of the covenant. When we see the sign of the rainbow, we are reminded of that ancient covenant.
Therefore, in a covenant marriage each spouse is committed to the