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What is Marriage? Contract or Covenant Part II

April 15, 2021

Contract: an agreement between people (or entities) that creates mutual obligations enforceable by law. The basic elements required for the agreement to be a legally enforceable contract are mutual assent, expressed by a valid offer and acceptance; adequate consideration; capacity; and legality.

Covenant: conventionally understood, covenant is a binding agreement between two people or two entities that acknowledges power dynamics, the scope of time, and makes space for grace in mysterious ways that contract does not.

Marriage is a binding . . . but what kind of binding exactly?

We could spend an eon arguing over these definitions. But for the sake of moving our conversation along, we’ll propose these as a way to consider “What is marriage?” and “Why do we marry?”

And what is marriage, exactly? Is it a covenant? A contract? Both? Neither? I’ll lead with my bias: Marriage is a contract. Maybe it is a little strange that I chose contract. After all, I am a theologian. Shouldn’t I be the one defending the idea of covenant? Well, maybe. But as I explored covenant, two aspects consistently emerged that made me bristle: power and permanence. 

At the core of covenantal conversations is an acknowledgment that covenants between God (however you imagine God or the divine) and humanity involve power dynamics. God is Creator, all powerful. God holds all the cards. Humanity? Humanity is created and finite. Humanity is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to negotiating with Creator. That is the beauty in covenants between God and Humanity; that God bends to God’s creation. God negotiates with us. Wow. God, the omnipotent, enters into relationship with us, the impotent. Breathtakingly beautiful.

Additionally, covenantal language almost always implies irrevocability. These agreements are forever. No takesies-backsies as we say. It makes sense given the eternal nature of God. God does not live, as we do, in the time construct. Rather, God lives around it, weaves through it, exists beyond it and outside of it. So, of course, it would make sense that a covenant created by God would be eternal. In some ways, I wonder if God even understands finite (cue debating theologians here). But again, covenant is a wonder-filled almost miraculous invitation for us to take God for granted – in spite of our own inability to hold to the terms of the covenant*

In fact, it is so wonderful that we like to imagine that sort of love when we consider marriage. But we are humans. Finite. Fickle. Flawed. It is onerous to place the eternal nature of God on a human institution. It’s problematic to weave such a power dynamic or to insist upon permanence as core elements of a right and good (or God forbid “biblical”) marriage. But one might protest – love is eternal! Love is bigger, more grand than anything in its way (thank you, Bono)! I counter: yes, love is eternal, but marriage and love are not one in the same. Marriage is a human construct that may or may not contain love. Or attempt to contain it. Sometimes marriage is lifelong, but sometimes it is not. The phrase ‘until death do us part’ may very well mean the death of the marriage. 

So, I come back to contract. I like contract because it leans more into the human. It allows for beginnings and ends – even within the same marriage. It attempts to equalize the power differentials (patriarchal society, for example). It encourages negotiation, mutual assent, and capacity. I like contract because I myself have negotiated and renegotiated the terms of my marriage many times alongside my spouse. What we agreed to as twenty-somethings is much different than what we negotiate as fifty-somethings. I’ve seen marriages end for good reasons, right reasons. And unfortunately watched as society heaped shame upon these well-intentioned folks for not trying hard enough or not taking their vows seriously. Covenantal expectations on marriage are problematic, in my opinion. We may want them. We may desire such unconditional love. We may even believe in it. But to place such burdens on each other sets us up for failure and even flirts with idolatry.

But even as I lean into contract, I do so lightly. I am not entirely committed to contract either. I shared those reasons in last week’s blog. Contract has its own challenges, and love does change everything. I want to make sense of using covenantal language. So, of course, I’ve continued to dig. And perhaps I found something worth considering. 

Next week, my final installment on contract versus covenant. And a return to the question of “Why marriage?” based on our exploration of “What is marriage?” Spoiler alert: perhaps marriage is neither entirely contract or covenant. There is something else we have to consider. There is another word. And another spoiler . . . you already know this word.

*Some of my favorite imagery involves a piece of Jewish literature depicting a meeting between God and a group of Rabbis. During the meeting, God complains about the Israelites inability to stick with the terms of the covenant. The Rabbis wry reply? “Don’t blame us. You made us this way.” The candidness belies an intimate relationship between Creator and created. I find it both heartwarming and funny. Stick a pin in this footnote-thought because we’ll come back to it.

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