Headline, Soundings

Marriage: Contract or Covenant?

Marriage Contract or Covenant

Since the sexual revolution, which burst onto the scene in Western societies during the 1960s, the traditional understanding of marriage has fallen out of favour and many alternatives have been proffered.

One of these alternatives is cohabitation where the couple decides to abandon the legal formalities of marriage altogether and simply lives together. Another alternative is domestic partnership which is a legally recognised union in some jurisdictions in the United States, but does not enjoy all the protections and privileges of marriage.

A subtle but no less significant shift away from the traditional understanding of marriage is to regard it merely as a contract. In America and some European countries, the contractual model of marriage became prominent for a variety of reasons, such as new cultural norms of sexual liberty and privacy.

The contractual model has significantly simplified the formation rules of marriage in many jurisdictions in the United States. For example, it only requires the acquisition of a license from the state registry and solemnisation before a licensed official.

Similarly, marriage dissolution rules have also been significantly simplified. The husband or wife can file a simple suit for divorce. There is no requirement for either party to attribute fault for the marital union to be dissolved. That would largely explain why the contractual model of marriage has given rise to the phenomenon of no-fault divorces.

America’s experiment with the contractual model of marriage has evidently failed—to the detriment of women and children. The eminent legal scholar, John Witte Jr., gives us a sense of its devastating consequences:

From 1975–2010, a quarter of all children were raised in single-parent households. One quarter of all pregnancies were aborted. One third of all children were born to single mothers. One half of all marriages ended in divorce. Two-thirds of all African-American children were raised without a father. Mother-only homes had less than a third of the median income of homes with a regular male present, and four times the rates of foreclosure and eviction. Teenagers who grew up in broken homes proved two to three times more likely to have behavioural, learning, and socialisation problems than teenagers from two-parent homes. More than two-thirds of juveniles and young adults convicted of major felonies after 1970 came from single- or no-parent homes.1

In the Bible, marriage is never understood as a contract but always as a covenant.

Repeatedly, the Old Testament Prophets—Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Malachi—present God’s covenantal relationship with Israel as an analogy of the marital relationship between a husband and wife (See Hosea 2:2-23; Isaiah 1:21-22; 54:5-8; 57:3-10; 61:10-11; 62:4-5; Jeremiah 2:2-3; 3:1-25; 13:27; 23:10; 31:32; Ezekiel 16:1-63; 23:1-49; Malachi 1-2).

In contradistinction to some law textbooks that regard the covenant simply as an older form of contract,2 in the Bible the covenant points to a solemn agreement between both parties before God. The Jewish scholar, Daniel Elazar, describes covenant as such: “The concept of covenant, in its heart of hearts, refers to a situation where a moral force, traditionally God, is a party, usually a direct party to, or guarantor, of a particular relationship.”3

When marriage is understood as a covenant in the biblical sense, it will acquire several important features that mirror God’s covenantal relationship with Israel.

In his article, John Witte Jr. discusses six features. I will highlight the three most crucial ones.

Firstly, the covenantal model requires that marriage be monogamous, a union between one man and one woman. In this way, human marriage reflects God’s special relationship with his people because both cases involve two parties and two parties only.

Secondly, the covenantal model insists that God is not just responsible for creating the institution of marriage. He is the witness to and active participant in each marriage (Malachi 2:13-16). Thus, Witte rightly stresses that “[t]o enter into a marriage, the Prophets teach, is to enter into a new relationship not only with one’s spouse but also with God”.4

Hence, thirdly, the marital covenant between the husband and wife must be understood as part of the larger covenant relationship between God and his people. The husband must emulate God’s example in offering “covenant love” to his wife, while the wife must be faithful to her husband.

The apostle Paul puts across the same idea when he speaks of the relationship between husband and wife, although in a slightly different theological register:

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord … Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”
(Ephesians 5:22, 25).

It would of course be too naïve to suggest that adopting the covenantal model of marriage will instantaneously resolve all marital woes.

However, it will restore marriage to that which the contractual model has carelessly left behind. It will underscore the fact that marriage “is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God”.5

1 John Witte Jr., ‘The Covenant of Marriage: Its Biblical Roots, Historical Influence and Modern Uses’, INTAMS Review on Marriage and Spirituality 18 (2012), 153.

2 See, for example, Black’s Law Dictionary (6th ed. 1990), which states that a covenant ‘[i]n its broadest usage, means any agreement or contract’, 322.

3 Daniel Elazar, The Covenant Idea and Politics 3 (Workshop on Covenant and Politics Series, 1981), 3-4.

4 Ibid., 158.

5 1789 U. S. Book of Common Prayer, http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1789/Marriage_1789.htm.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.