While the Bible teaches marriage is a covenant, our culture sees marriage as a contract. While Christians often repeat the claim that marriage is a “covenant, not a contract,” what does this mean? I’d like to suggest eight differences between seeing marriage as a contract as opposed to a covenant.
First, contracts are temporary and typically have a time limit; in contrast, covenants are intended to be permanent, until “death do us part.” When someone sees marriage as a contract, he or she is saying, “I’ll take you as a spouse and see if this relationship works out.” When someone sees marriage as a covenant, he or she is saying, “I give all of myself to you and I’m committed to this marriage for life.” As Tommy Nelson says to men, “When you get married, you get measured for your tux and your coffin at the same time!”
Second, contracts downplay forgiveness; covenants emphasize forgiveness. In a covenant, we enter the agreement realizing we are marrying a sinner, just as God’s covenant of salvation is with us as a sinner. Thus, viewing marriage as a covenant entails the forgiveness of sin when your spouse fails you. While a covenant marriage does not give an irresponsible spouse free reign for unfaithfulness and violent behavior, it does mean that we are prepared to forgive each other of the hurt feelings and offenses that are common to even the best marriages.
Third, viewing marriage as a contract does not emphasize the personal virtue of those involved; in contrast, a covenant view of marriage stresses the personal virtue of those involved. Part of giving the core of oneself in a covenant involves moral virtue and fidelity to standards of ethics. In a covenant, moral obligations are present which are not usually requisite to a contract. For example, a phone contract does not require me to be an honest, kind, and virtuous person. As long as I pay my bill on time, there are no problems. However, a covenant requires two people to maintain lives of virtue in an effort to maintain a relationship, and not just keep the terms of a contract.
Fourth, while contracts can be employed with relational detachment and still continue, marriage covenants cannot. Don’t miss the intimacy implied in Genesis 2:25, “They were naked and not ashamed.” This reflects the deepest openness and intimacy a man and woman can have. The openness and transparency of sexual intimacy is a symbol of the unity which is the goal of a covenant and in which personal autonomy is surrendered.
Fifth, viewing marriage as a contract places my needs first; viewing marriage as a covenant places the needs of the relationship first. In a covenant, the good of the relationship comes before my own “needs.” A contract is self-serving while a covenant comes with an unlimited responsibility towards the good of the relationship. A covenant is fundamentally not a self-centered agreement.
Sixth, a covenant entails holiness while a contract does not. Because marriage is a covenant, marriage is holy. That’s why we refer to marriage as “holy matrimony.” To say your mate is “holy” doesn’t mean that he or she is perfect. Holiness means your husband or your wife is set apart for a higher purpose – he or she is no longer common or everyday but special and unique. When you marry, your spouse becomes holy to you. No other person in the world deserves the same level of commitment, respect, honor, and attention. The relationship you share as husband and wife is like no other.
Seventh, viewing marriage as a contract assumes a level of distrust while viewing marriage as a covenant has an expectation of trust. A contract is a document designed to protect me if the conditions are broken, thus presupposing a level of distrust. But, related to the life-time nature of covenants, a covenant means I am a trustworthy person making a life-time promise.
Finally, contracts are individualistic while covenants assume a witnessing community of faith. This does not mean I am opposed to destination weddings! But it does mean the entire congregation is aware of the couple’s covenant with each other and the congregation works to protect the covenant for the couple.
Marriage is a covenant and not a contract. Marriage is intended to be commitment to which we maintain trust and fidelity until separated by death. In a covenant, we put the needs of the relationship ahead of our own needs, humbly serving each other much as Christ serves the church.