Contractual vs. Covenantal Marriage

This week, I had the privilege to start marriage counseling with an engaged couple in our church. Our first session covered the idea that Christian marriage is covenantal, which makes it a special kind of relationship. “Covenant” is a rare word today: I think the last non-church context I heard it in was a homeowners’ association. It sounds like an archaic synonym for “contract;”and in some historic uses, that’s all it was.

But covenant as we see it through the stories of the Old and New Testaments is much richer, and that richness makes our understanding of marriage that much deeper. We took some time to look at marriage from a contractual versus a covenantal lens, and I thought these insights were worth sharing:

(note: I don’t consciously remember where these all came from, but they’re probably some combination of Tim Keller, John Piper, and Joel Brooks – my former pastor in Birmingham)

1. Contracts are transactional; covenants are relational

A contract is essentially a business deal in which I give you a certain amount of goods/money/services and you give me a certain amount in return. The transfer of goods is the core of our “relationship.”

A covenant does have stipulations; but those stipulations ratify and define a personal relationship, not a transfer of goods. The point of a covenant isn’t to identify who gets what; it’s to affirm that I “get” you and you “get” me.

When we take a transactional approach to marriage, we’ll always be keeping score of what we “give” and what we “get” with our spouses. We’ll make lists of perceived imbalances or slights and pull them out to get leverage over the other person. And if they don’t hold up their end of the deal – whatever that might be – we’ll start thinking about walking out the door.

(In case this sounds like a prenup, it’s supposed to – a prenup represents exactly what a marriage isn’t supposed to be)

2. Contracts are based on mistrust; covenants on trust

In essence, we enter into contracts to avoid being taken advantage of. They’re a tool so that we can take legal action if we perceive the other party is trying to short us or squeeze money out of us. When my wife and I rented the duplex we used to live in, we signed a contract with our landlord so that we’d both know who could demand what from whom  and when.

A covenant, though it has stipulations, is founded on trust in the other person. It’s the affirmation of an existing relationship; its vows are designed to deepen intimacy between the parties, rather than fence them off from one another. Its stipulations are meant to push us toward unity.

3. Contracts sacrifice the relationship for the sake of the self; covenants sacrifice the self for the sake of the relationship

Finally, contracts are made to protect me from you; if our relationship becomes “toxic” to me in any way, I’m out. If our transactions aren’t going the way I want them to, the contract is designed to let me walk away with the least amount of damage and the greatest amount of stuff from you.

In covenants, by contrast, two parties enter into a relationship that is greater than the sum of either of them: a new reality that transcends us both. It doesn’t assume that we won’t have conflict – any two human beings will eventually butt heads – but it requires me to be willing to sacrifice to resolve that conflict and make our relationship stronger. It means I submit my preferences, my desires, my plans to the higher good of us.

I’ll close with this passage from the book of Jeremiah, which showcases God’s covenantal faithfulness to Israel even long beyond they’ve ignored, broken, and trampled on the first covenant they made. God responded to this by promising a new covenant that was even better for them (us) than the old; and on top of that, to make this new covenant happen, the Father was willing to sacrifice his own Son. Thank God that God isn’t into contracts:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:31-33)

Image: Konstantin Makovsky, “Boyar Wedding Feast”


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