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.Understanding Contracts
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, nonlegal 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.Contract
Characteristics 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.
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.
Adapted from Covenant Marriage.
Copyright © 2003 Broadman and Holman Publishers. Used with permission. All Rights Reserved.