I recently read an article by Ed Gantt and Stan Knapp entitled “Marriage: Of Contracts, Commitments, and Covenants,” and want to share some of the things that I learned. As a missionary, I frequently taught investigators the meaning of the word covenant. Because the word is so infrequently used in modern society, I would use an unfortunate metaphor they were already familiar with: an economic contract. We promise God obedience and service, and He promises us salvation and blessings in return. When we hold up our end of the deal, He holds up His. I am not alone in describing covenants this way. As Gantt And Knapp explain, “Today, outside theological circles, the term covenant is most often invoked as a synonym for contract and taken to refer to a two-way promise between mutually interested, and more or less equally powerful, parties.”
Although in many ways this metaphor can approximate the nature of a covenant, it seems clear to me now, however, that covenants and contracts are based upon very different assumptions. “The modern tendency to equate covenant and contract,” Gantt and Knapp continue, “obscures the fact that covenant has historically been used to refer to a relationship with God that cannot be understood as a mere contract.“1
Focus on the Self or on the Other
Contractual agreements, Gantt and Knapp explain, are based upon instrumental egoism. The dictionary defines egoism as “an ethical theory that treats self-interest as the foundation of morality.”2 The adjective instrumental is defined as “relating to something’s function as a means to an end.”3 A contract is formed when two parties, each with particular needs or wants, make an agreement to supply the other’s wants in exchange for their own. Each party supplies the other’s wants, but they do so because the arrangement is the means by which their own needs are met. The other person is a means to an end, because the primary motivation is self-interest.
We can see here two important characteristics associate with the term contract. First, contracts are motivated by self-interest. They are an attempt to secure certain benefits to the self, by offering something in exchange. Second, contracts attempt to mitigate the inherent risks involved in such an arrangement, by delineating in advance the duties of each participant in the contract. If conditions change significantly so that one member of the contract can no longer hold up their end of the deal, the agreement is dissolved.
In contrast, the “asymmetrical and obligatory nature of a covenant relationship”1 does not operate under the same set of assumptions. A covenant is, indeed, an oath and an agreement, but its purpose is not the satisfaction of “needs” or the self-interested exchange of goods. It is a commitment to completely dedicate ourselves to serve the Other. Gantt and Knapp explain how this applies to the marriage covenant: “Marriage, thus, is a relationship that by its very nature summons us and calls upon us to keep our responsibilities for our spouse and to receive the invitation to live for the life of another.”1 This obligation transcends the mere transactional relationship of a contract. Gantt and Knapp continue:
In covenant, the other to whom I have promised my whole soul and to whom I have dedicated my will, is not an object whose instrumentality is defined by the degree of frustration or gratification they can provide me in the course of our relationship. Further, neither I nor my spouse are independent contractors cunningly negotiating particular goods and services in a market of hard bargains, estimated risks, and skillful communication whose ultimate goal is always to achieve the best (i.e., most personally gratifying) deal possible. Rather, on the covenant model of marriage, the one with whom I have entered into covenant is fully other in his or her own right, worthy as such of my deepest respect and reverence, a divine other to whom I am obligated and for whom I am responsible—before and beyond myself. Indeed, it is this divine other before whom and in whom I find the very foundations of my own humanity as I take upon myself to share his or her burdens, struggles, joys, pains, fears, failures, and triumphs.1
The truth is that marriage isn’t all about our individual happiness. Rather, it is a chance to live outside of ourselves and to lose ourselves for the sake of the Other. Even a marriage with the divine stamp of approval from God doesn’t carry the guarantee of perfect felicity in this life. Nor should we seek a guarantee of this, because seeking a spouse in order to guarantee our own personal happiness in this mortal life isn’t what love is all about. Love is about risk, and a covenant is an opportunity to commit our entire self to the other with no guarantee of anything in return. In contrast, contracts are an attempt to mitigate risk, by clearly delineating the duties of each party and providing them with the means to enforce the agreement. David Lapp explains:
In courting and choosing whom to marry, we would do well to focus on the person and to remind ourselves that marriage is about giving ourselves in love to another person, and not primarily about individual fulfillment. … Marriage isn’t necessarily a ticket to our own version of individual fulfillment. What if your future wife becomes severely paralyzed? What if your child has Down syndrome? I suspect we have not adequately wrapped our minds around the meaning of marriage until we have considered the possibility that at any moment, whether during the honeymoon or in mid-life or in old age, tragic circumstances could call us to give up almost everything—our dream career, our comfort, our “happiness” — for the sake of the beloved.
In other words, even when circumstances change and the other can no longer fulfill our needs, the obligatory nature of the covenant is still binding. Gantt and Knapp note that the only two people with whom we make a covenant is God and our spouse. We are clearly indebted to God, as King Benjamin said, for all that we have and are, and we are therefore invited to enter into a covenant with Him to serve Him and dedicate our lives to Him. When we enter into the marriage covenant with our spouse, we dedicate and commit ourselves to our spouse in a very similar way. Thus, in contrast with contracts, covenants are an invitation to forget the needs of the self, and to dedicate ourselves in service to the Other.
Applying the Distinction
Why is this important? This covenantal understanding of marriage directly contradicts contemporary egoistic conceptions of marriage, in which marriage is understood “as a sort of contractual arrangement between two independent, and presumably equal, parties seeking to maximize individual benefit through a mutually rewarding but ultimately economic or instrumental relationship.”1 In contemporary culture, “the goodness of marriage is determined by its evaluation by the self and how well it as a relational source of gratification meets the particular needs of the self.”1 This can lead us to adopt a consumer-oriented approach to marriage.
People have a consumer mentality in marriage when they perceive marriage as a means to an end. The purpose of marriage, from this perspective, is to bring me fulfillment and happiness. The other (the spouse) is a means to meeting my personal emotional, physical, and social needs. The danger of this assumption is that as soon as the other no longer fulfills my needs (either because my “needs” have changed, or they have changed, or our circumstances have changed), I’ll be justified in ending the relationship. I believe that this consumer mentality has greatly contributed to the sharp increase in divorce. Contemporary social sciences have trained us to believe that marriage is a means to an end, and if the perceived purpose of marriage doesn’t seem to be fulfilled, we naturally lose interest and leave.
The consumer attitude in marriage has been ported into our attitudes towards religion. Social sciences tell us that the reason people join churches is because churches meet many of their social, emotional, and spiritual needs. If, however, an individual perceives that their needs aren’t being met, they will leave. In fact, I recently heard a member of the church argue that the church needs to adopt a marketplace mentality if it wants to keep members in the church. According to him, the church needs to demonstrate that they are worthy of the investment that young single adults will make as they stay in the church. And demonstrating that worthiness involves offering them something in exchange.
In addition, members who view their covenant relationship with God like a contract will often be disappointed when they don’t receive the blessings they feel they have been promised. This is because God doesn’t always immediately bless us with felicity when we obediently do His will (Job will attest to that). The idea that our covenant with God is like a contract can lead us to a vending machine mentality, where we assume that as long as we do what God says, everything will go smoothly in our lives. However, as I read the scriptures, the only unqualified, immediate promises God makes in exchange for our obedience is a clean conscience and the companionship of the Spirit. All other blessings may very well be withheld until after this life or beyond.
Gantt and Knapp invite therapists to re-examine the egoistic assumptions that guide many of their theories and marital strategies:
As the language of therapy shifts away from the conceptually problematic and alienating vocabulary of individual needs and wants, with its attendant strategies of communication and negotiation, and instead moves toward a liberating vocabulary of compassionate service and forgiveness, the problems and struggles of making a marriage start to radically change as new and often unimagined possibilities begin to open up.1
I believe this is true. When we truly understand the nature of a covenant, we will realize that the first solution to difficulties in our covenantal relationships is not renegotiation or even communication (which connotes a two-way contractual agreement). It is to realign our hearts towards service, compassion, commitment, forgiveness, and love. Each of these terms connote a one-way submission of the self to the Other, which is what I believe covenants are all about.