Your Marriage: Covenant, or Contract?

Do you approach your marriage as though it is a covenant, or a contract? The differences are significant, and whether you are treating your spouse as a contract partner or a covenant partner can make all the difference in the world for having a fulfilling marriage. While we may have never considered whether our marriage is a contract or a covenant, one of these approaches likely describes the framework for our marriage, and this framework shapes both minor daily interactions that we have with our spouse, and the long-term health and viability of that relationship. So, which is it--contract, or covenant?

A Contract Marriage

A contract marriage is an “I will, if you…” exchange. You and your spouse have an unspoken arrangement, in which each of you is committed to meeting each other’s needs, as long as they meet yours. You will do your part around the house as long as they do theirs; you will be encouraging to your wife, as long as she is sensitive to your physical needs; you will go out of your way to do favors for the other--as long as they do the same. Unfortunately, our world promotes this view of marriage. Marriage is often portrayed as an arrangement primarily geared to our happiness and fulfillment. As long as our needs are met, marriage is valued. But when our spouse is no longer meets our needs, we are led to believe that it’s okay to withdraw or to walk away.

Contractual Challenges

On the surface, this marriage appears to function well: as long as both of you are sensitive to the needs of the other, and working to meet those needs, your relationship will be relatively stable and peaceful. Of course, it rarely works like this in real life. No one fulfills the needs of a spouse perfectly, and neither are our needs perfectly met by our husband or our wife. For that reason, an “I-will-if-you…” marriage is ultimately a recipe for tension and discord. You will find yourself keeping a mental tally sheet; as soon as your spouse lets you down, you feel justified in withholding something from them. And, you will use the ways that you’ve met the needs of your spouse as bargaining chips, to ask for what you want for them, obligating them to return the favor. As well, conflict becomes incredibly frightening because you begin to fear that when you fail or let your spouse down, they will withdraw from you – after all, you haven’t kept your end of the deal, so you reason that they no longer have to keep theirs.

Ultimately, though, this isn’t love; it’s deal-making. It’s giving only to get something in return. Your relationship becomes a score card, tracking who is ahead, and who is behind. Of course, both of you probably feel like you are the one who is leading, and the other is lagging behind! Besides, God calls love to look quite different from this.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs (1 Cor 13:4-5).

A Covenant Marriage

When you approach marriage as a covenant, you are entering into a partnership that is an “I will, because…” framework. In a marriage covenant, you are committing yourself to loving, serving, and meeting the needs of your spouse simply because you love them, and not as a repayment for what they have done (or a down payment on what you want them to do). This means, for example, that you will do your best to provide emotional support, without demanding sex in return; it means that you find ways of easing your spouse’s workload, even if they’ve been grumpy and unkind; it means that you commit to forgiving the wrongs of your spouse rather than using them for leverage. Conflict is no longer viewed as an emotional threat when you trust that you are both loving each other “because”. In short, a covenant view of marriage is rooted in the selfless commitment to love and serve your spouse regardless of what you get in return.

Covenantal Challenges

A covenant marriage leaves us the most vulnerable because it requires that we trust that our spouse is in fact equally committed to loving us--yet we cannot stop loving them if they are not. We obligate ourselves to sacrificially meeting their needs even if and when we get nothing in return. A covenant marriage is a firmly committed promise to love, even when our spouse is less than lovable, and even when they are less than loving towards us.

Our Covenant Example

Yet, Christians have great motivation to love with an “I will, because” commitment. When the Apostle Paul talks about marriage in Ephesians 5, he reminds us that Christian marriage is patterned after Christ’s love for the church. We are to love our spouse in the same manner that Jesus loves his church--and Jesus’ pattern for loving his church is indeed built on an “I will, because” mindset. God’s relationship with his people is defined by covenant--not contract. He is faithful to us not only in proportion to our commitment, but he loves us far beyond what we deserve. God doesn’t care for us or meet our needs as a response to what we do for Him; He cares for us and loves us because He is God, and he has committed himself to us. And indeed, this made God incredibly vulnerable--all the way to death! He kept his commitment to us even though that meant that he would have to be nailed to a cross and die. That’s the extent of his love for us. When we grasp how God’s covenant love for us, how can we not but love in the same pattern?

A Chord of Three Strands

A Christian marriage is a covenant that is not held together by only the two persons who are married. A Christian marriage is a covenant made between two persons, with God at the center; this means that God pledges to help us hold the covenant together, even when we may feel like giving up. We don’t rely on our own strength, grit, determination, or willpower to keep our covenants together--we instead may look to the one who gave everything in order to keep his covenant with us. Ecclesiastes 4:12 assures us that, "though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him-- a threefold cord is not quickly broken."

So, is your marriage a contract, or a covenant? Loving your spouse as a covenant partner requires great sacrifice and trust, but it is a true picture of Christ’s love for his bride.

About the author — Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

Rob Toornstra has pastored a church in Salem Oregon for the past ten years. He has been married to Amy for fifteen years, and together, they are enjoying the adventure of raising two girls and one boy. For fun, Rob enjoys cooking, reading, aviation, and geocaching.  He is the author of "Naked and Unashamed: How the Good News of Jesus Transforms Intimacy" (Doulos, 2014).

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