Categories: Principle

Contracts vs. Covenants – Why the Difference Matters

One of the big problems today in our culture today is that we think only in terms of contracts and never covenants. In Covenant People I explained the difference between them.

The Difference

To recap from that post:

With a contract, if one agreeing party does something in violation of the contract then it is considered broken. The whole contract becomes null and void. Basically the signers of a contract agree to hold up their ends as long as the other signatories hold up theirs too.

With a covenant, both parties agree to hold up their ends regardless of whether the other party keeps their part of the agreement. A violation of a covenant by one party doesn’t matter as far as the other party’s responsibility to continue to do what they agreed to do.

The document that set the course of our nation’s history

Even though the idea of a covenant seems pretty radical today, there was a time when covenants were much more widely understood. Covenants weren’t always just some obscure spiritual or religious concept.

Famous Secular Covenant

Perhaps one of the most famous secular covenants, at least in the United States anyway, is the Declaration of Independence that helped launch our nation.

The Declaration of Independence was signed by 56 men who all understood they were committing high treason against the British government when they signed the document. Benjamin Franklin famously highlighted that reality at the time, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.

The concluding sentance of the Declaration states,

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

To the signers it didn’t matter if any one of their confederates broke or switched sides. They were still committed to their course of action regardless, even if it cost them their lives.

And most of the signers were made to pay dearly for their stand by the British.

Lost Understanding

Today in our culture, however, we have lost the understanding of covenants. We only think in terms of contracts. In our minds all of our agreements are contingent on both parties holding up their ends.

Perhaps that is why we have so many lawyers. Since everything is now based on contracts in our minds we need gobs of lawyers to tell us what we can and cannot do.

Or maybe it’s the other way around and because we have so many lawyers we have fixated on contracts and lost sight of covenants.

Either way, our lost understanding of covenants has significant repercussions in our society.

Misunderstanding God

Perhaps the biggest challenge that comes out of “contract thinking” is that we misunderstand our relationship with God.

We naturally filter everything we understand about God in terms of a contract. We assume that if we don’t hold up our end then, contractually, God won’t hold up his. As a result we find it impossible to approach a Holy God because we know we can never hold up our end of the bargain. The standard is perfection and we know we’re not perfect.

Of course organized religion would have us believe that it is a contract. Religious leaders use fear of punishment to try and keep us in line. They talk about how we must “get right with God” and keep us focused on everything we do wrong. They paint a picture of a God with a big stick just waiting to whack us when we get out of line.

Who in their right mind would want to relate to a God like that?

Religion would have us believe that sin is our big problem, when the truth is sin is not the issue any longer.

In truth we relate to God in the framework of a covenant. God has already committed to treat us in light of Jesus’ perfection even when, especially when, we don’t measure up as long as we choose to believe it.

Losing sight of God’s covenant with us and framing our relationship with God in terms of a contract completely warps our understanding of who God is and how he thinks of us. And it completely ties us down so that we never come close to meeting our full potential.

Marriage Covenant

Another big area where replacing a covenant with a contract is wreaking havoc in our society is in the area of marriage.

Jesus said this about marriage:

“Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’” And he said, “‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.”Matthew 19:4-6

Marriage is rightly seen as a covenant between a man and a women which God has joined together. As a covenant marriage is “until death do us part.”

But as a contract marriage becomes, “until you do something that I don’t like.”

A contractual understanding of marriage leads to things like no-fault divorce and prenuptial agreements. People enter into marriages with the assumption that it is going to end. That attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in most cases.

There’s more than that though. Once marriage is moved from a covenant to a contract and it becomes “just a legal thing” then there is no real reason why it shouldn’t be a contract between any two people who have a legal right to enter into a contract. No longer is marriage seen as a lifetime commitment before God.

Marriage Contract Defined by the State

As a contract marriage is simply a legal arrangement administered by the state. That means the state has the authority to define marriage however it wants.

This is exactly where we find ourselves today. With marriage reduced to a contract instead of the covenant relationship God originally intended it becomes much more difficult to come up with good reasons why the state can’t acknowledge arrangements beyond a man and woman as marriages.

Right now the issue is whether homosexuals should be allowed by the government to marry. But if marriage is only a legal contract, why would it logically stop there and not expand to anyone who is permitted to enter into a legal contract?

At that point, why choose to say marriage is between 2 people? Why not allow 3 people to marry? Or 4? Or 5? Or 25?

I mean it’s just a contract, right? So why the arbitrary number 2?

Of course when we get there we will have completely kicked the nuclear family, which is the fundamental building block of society, aside.

It sounds crazy, right?

But then if, back when no-fault divorce was just beginning, anyone had suggested that the logical extension of changing the understanding of marriage from a covenant to a contract would be homosexual marriage they would have probably been called nuts too.

Chris Cree

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Chris Cree

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