In preparation for a class I teach on “Counseling and Law,” I was brushing up on the debate over “covenant marriages.” I don’t know whether this is a hot debate or simply some folks trying their darndest to strengthen marriages in the United States. Not very many couples are standing in line for it. Only three states have legislated it. Research into its effectiveness is very limited. Speculation and convictions are anything but limited. Rather than diving into the middle of the fray with my list of pros and cons, I thought I’d back up and try to clarify the difference between and covenant and a contract.
Dr. Samuele Bacchiochhi quotes Paul E. Palmer, a Catholic theologian, as saying:
“Contracts engage the services of people; covenants engage persons. Contracts are made for a stipulated period of time; covenants are forever. Contracts can be broken with material loss to the contracting parties; covenants cannot be broken, but if violated, they result in personal loss and broken hearts. Contracts are witnessed by people with the state as guarantor; covenants are witnessed by God with God as guarantor.”
Clearly, there is a theological tone to “covenant” that renders the notion more binding, more permanent, more sacred. It is in this context that Roger Sider says, “This contractual way of relating to others works quite well in business. Yet it is disastrous in personal relationships.” It seems to me that a contract outlines legitimate ways to part company, while a covenant specifies the ingredients that will preserve an enduring relationship. Whatever you call it, our marriage agreements need to be more binding in our hearts.