Marriage: a Covenant or a Contract?

wedding-in-cana.jpgIn 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.”

covenant.jpgSo I get the notion from Palmer that a covenant is a matter of faith that involves a deeper, more personal commitment than a contract. Additionally, it seems to be an agreement to abide by a higher set of relational values that already exits. God instituted marriage and He wants us to give to one another in a way that exemplifies this level of intimacy. A covenant does seem to be based on trust, while a contract is built on mistrust. Also, a contract seems to spell out limits of responsibility, while a covenant implies unlimited responsibility.However, there are other ways of looking at contracts and covenants in such a way that makes them look like synonyms. In the Old Testament, there is only one work, berith, to describe them both. David Instone-Brewer (p. 15) states, “It involved an agreement between two parties, sealed with a document or a ceremony, and involving an exchange of gods or rights.” He thinks there is no reason to believe that this one word represented two different types of agreements. He emphasizes that both covenants and contracts were based on both trust and penalties. The body of the document spelled out both the penalties and the benefits of keeping the stipulations of the marriage. For example, a wife might have her dowry returned to her if divorced by her husband without cause, but may have to forfeit her dowry if she was guilty of some indecency.

marriage_covenant.gifClearly, 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.

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