Marriage: Covenant or Contract?

Vow to love your spouse in the power of Christ's love.

Despite the concept of covenant seen throughout the Bible, we don't often use the word covenant in 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.

Ours is a contract-oriented society. With a contract, you can be more certain that a person or company will live up to their claims. Many Christian couples take this contract mentality into their marriages. Unfortunately, this kind of marriage stimulates resentment, hurt, and anger and eventually leads some couples to divorce.

Basically, a contract is an agreement between two or more persons signifying that all signing parties will do something. 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 doesn't live up to the contracts, then legal actions force him or her to do so or to end the marriage with an equitable settlement. A society couldn't exist without laws regulating marriage relationships. So in this sense, marriage is a contract. However, for a Christian, marriage is more than this. It's also a covenant.

The problem arises when you view your marriage only as a contract or as a series of contracts. When this happens, you will have become secular in your 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 your covenant.

There are four general characteristics of contracts:

1. Contracts are often made for a limited period of time.

Although most marriage ceremonies involve the phrase, "till death do us part," many couples interpret that as, "We're committed to each other if this relationship is mutually beneficial."

2. Contracts often deal with specific actions.

Most informal contracts made within the marriage also deal with specific actions. Such informal agreements can be a positive way of living out a covenant marriage.

3. Contracts are based on an "If..., then...," mentality.

Couples with this mentality in which one spouse relies on the other spouse for happiness may struggle deeply in the first several years of their marriage.

4. Contracts are motivated by the desire to get something.

People sign a lease contract because they want to have a car. The salesman signs the contract because he wants the commission. Many conversations in marriage are motivated to get something.

Covenant Characteristics

A covenant, like a contract, is an agreement between two or more persons, but the nature of the agreement is different. The biblical pattern reveals five characteristics of covenants.

1. Covenants are initiated for the benefit of the other person.

Many of us can honestly say that we entered marriage motivated by the deep desire to benefit the person we were about to marry. Our intention was to make them happy. However, when needs aren't met, spouses can revert to a contract mentality.

2. In covenant relationships people make unconditional promises.

Covenant marriages are characterized by unconditional promises, such as those spoken in traditional wedding vows.

3. Covenant relationships are based on steadfast love.

In a marriage, steadfast love refuses to focus on the negative aspects of one's spouse. Steadfast love is a choice.

4. Covenant relationships view commitments as permanent.

Unquestionably the biblical ideal is one man and one woman married to each other for life. As Christians, we must not lower the ideal. This standard can only be attained if we practice the fifth characteristic of covenants.

5. Covenant relationships require confrontation and forgiveness.

These two responses are essential in a covenant marriage. Confrontation means holding the other person responsible for his or her actions. Forgiving means a willingness to lift the penalty and continue a loving, growing relationship. Ignoring the failures of your spouse isn't the road to marital growth.

Covenant marriage is God's plan. There may be contracts within the framework of covenant marriage, but for the Christian, marriage is a covenant. God's best in marriage will never be accomplished without His power.

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This article is courtesy of HomeLife Magazine.

Gary Chapman, Ph.D. is an author and marriage conference leader and serves on the staff of Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C. He and his wife, Karolyn, have two grown children.