As I am doing the final edits today on Straight Talk on Cohabitation, Part 3, I have re-posted this blog on the nature of marriage, contract or covenant. This is hugely important background for what I’ll say in part 3, so I would encourage you to check this one out.
Right now on my coffee table is a book called “God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundations” by Andres Kostenberger. This book is not a quick read. It is a scholarly work that aims to take a pretty comprehensive look at God, Marriage and Family and address difficult issues from a biblical and scholarly perspective. Don’t expect to read it cover to cover on one flight, but it you are interested in going deeper on what the Bible says on issues such as homosexuality, contraception, the nature of family, divorce, etc, then it’s a great resource. Some of what I say here is from Kostenberger’s chapter on the nature of marriage.
Marriage as Contract
As you know, a contract is an agreement between two parties that has various requirements for each side. It is often an actual document (although can be imlicit) that states what each party will do to uphold their end of the bargain. They are commonly time-bound and limited by each partner’s ability to follow through on the terms. And one could argue that they are most often entered into for self-protection. Some examples would be business mergers, landlord-tenant agreements, employer-employee contracts . . . any time a contract is signed, both parties know their role and responsibilities, and both have an “out” if the other doesn’t make good on their end of the deal.
Does this sound like marriage?
A contract view of marriage is based in civil law. Although it is the predominant view in our culture today, believe it or not, marriage has not always been viewed this way! People first started to see marriage as a contractual arrangement in the 17th century during the era of the Enlightenment.
Marriage as Covenant
What does it mean to view marriage as a covenant? The definition of a covenant as found in the Holman Bible Dictionary is “An oath-bound promise whereby one party solemnly pledges to bless or serve another party in some specified way.” The covenant perspective views marriage as a sacred bond between and man and a woman, sealed before God and designed to be permanent, not based on either party’s performance.
Where does this idea come from? There are several covenants in the Bible, but the New Covenant, as described in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36-37, is unique. God’s people (Israel) kept breaking their covenants with Him because they were full of sin like you and me. He loved His people so much that He made a new way to have relationship with His people. The New Covenant (through Jesus’ death on the cross) is God’s promise to forgive our sin instead of cast us away from Him. It is his promise to never turn His back on His people but to look on them with grace. He put our punishment on Christ and He adopted us into His family forever. Our sin doesn’t separate us from Him anymore if we partake in this New Covenant (Jer 31:33-34). Ephesians 5:21-33 says this is the way a man should love His wife. Sacrificially like Jesus did, giving of himself. This parallel sounds much more like a covenant than a contract.
What does the Bible have to say specifically about marriage? In the Old Testament there are two main Scriptures that present marriage as a covenant; Proverbs 2:16-17 and Malachi 2:14. Also the Genesis 2:24 passage alludes to a covenant view of the relationship between husband and wife. Although the Bible does not explicitly call marriage a covenant in the New Testament, the concept is still present in passages such as in Matt 19:6 and its parallel Mark 10:9, and Eph 5 as I mentioned above.
So which is it and why does it matter?
If you want a proper scholarly answer, see Kostenberger’s book (click on the image above for the amazon link). I’ll just name a few points to consider here.
The Bible says that we are designed by God and He is a personal, loving father who wants the best for us. An analogy used in Scripture is that He is the potter and we are the clay. So we should look to Him to find out how to do life the way He designed it to be. It seems clear that God’s intends marriage to be a covenant relationship. And it works much better that way. Here is one major reason why . . .
Couples who think of their marriage as a contract are more likely to “leave the back door open” meaning if this person doesn’t keep their end of the deal, then I’m out of here and I’ll find someone who will. Whereas couples who enter into a covenant with one another before God lock the door behind them and throw away the key. It is based on trust and commitment, not performance. So when I married my husband, in his vows to me he said “I will never divorce you” and I said the same to him. We are in this thing truly til death do us part. Is it risky? Sure. You can never take the risk out of marriage completely. He has his own free will and could choose to cheat on me. But I trust that He won’t. I could do the same to him, but I won’t. There is no contingency plan. There is no out. I am not “keeping my options open.” We choose together to trust one another through everything, no matter what.
This issue of marriage as covenant instead of a contract is a paradigm shift for many people as products of western “contract-based” culture. So does this mean if you are married under civil law then you aren’t really married? No, of course not. Does it mean churches or couples should just ignore civil law? No, because the Bible does teach that we should abide by the laws of our governing authorities insofar as they do not require us to sin. It is just a shift in perspective. For example, my husband David and I were legally married and have a marriage certificate. But more importantly we made a covenant with one another before God that we take very seriously.
So what about you? What would it mean for you to see your marriage (or future marriage) as a covenant? I will share with you my adaptation of Kostenbergers 5 implications.
- Marriage is designed to be permanent. It is a serious commitment that is not to be taken lightly or as a “trial” run. You can do it, just be sure to date wisely and get to know the person’s character extremely well before you are engaged to them. The reward is lifelong, fulfilling, intimate relationship with one person. What a blessing!
- Marriage is sacred. It is not just a paper you sign. It is an agreement before God and instituted by Him.
- Marriage is intimate. A husband and wife become “one flesh.” They leave their families and cleave to one another only.
- Marriage is mutual. Husband and wife come to the marriage out of free will and commit themselves to one another. Marriage partners are to be first concerned with the well being of the other person and have an attitude to serve and give one oneself. Marriage requires sacrifice and selflessness.
- Marriage is exclusive. No other human relationship should interfere with the bond between husband and wife.
God created each one of us. He desires our relationships to succeed. He created marriage and family, and knows the best way for it to work. He wants it to produce the most joy, the most fulfillment, and the least pain in our lives. We are broken and sinful, and there are lots of failures and suffering in our stories of family. Many of us have been wounded in some way by our parents who for whatever reason weren’t able to hang in there and stay faithful to one another. Or maybe by a spouse who wasn’t faithful to us. We are all broken people who often don’t get it right on our own.
But we can turn to Jesus for the restoration and strength we need, and by His grace we can do marriage better.