How seriously should we take marriage?

Even among Christians, "until death do us part" often means "until the judge do us part." Have Christians begun to perceive marriage as do non-Christians——as simply a social contract to be dissolved at will?

John B. Youngberg, Ed.D., is associate professor of religious education at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. He and his wife, Millie, direct Marriage and Family Commitment seminars and codirect the annual Family Life Work shop, sponsored by Andrews University and the General Conference Home and Family Service.
Luis del Pozo is studying toward his Ed.D. degree in religious education at Andrews University. He is professor of theology at Inca Union College, Lima, Peru.

I wanted a good deal. I got a raw deal. Now I want a new deal!"

That seems to be the way many people today feel about their marriage. Divorce ends one third to one half of the marriages made in the United States. The church fares a little better in this regard than the rest of society, but the advantage is growing steadily less as divorce makes increasing inroads into Christian homes. Why? Our conviction is that there is a direct relationship between how people perceive marriage and the rate of divorce. Is marriage a social contract, or is it a divine-human covenant?

Margaret Mead, the late anthropologist, suggested that because marriage is not working, perhaps we ought to abolish it. If marriage were primarily a human institution, perhaps we ought to search for some new kind of social bond to replace marriage. But if marriage is a divine institution, the picture changes. If societal marriage isn't working, perhaps Christian marriage ought to be tried. "It isn't a case of marriage having been tried and found wanting. In this twentieth-century world, true marriage is deeply wanted, but largely untried."1

The theory of social contracts says that if one party fails to fulfill his or her obligations, he or she has broken the contract, and thus there is no contract any longer. Both parties are now free to enter into other contracts. The emphasis here is on the rights of the persons involved. The relationship is conditional upon each fulfilling the obligations of the contract. If, however, marriage is a covenant made with God Himself, promising faithfulness within our sinful limitations, and if God agrees to supply us with the commitment and ability to maintain the relationship, then we are dealing with an entity very different from a social contract. Such a covenant, though buffeted by life's storms, can outlast them and find anchor in a safe port on the other side.

The covenant theory says that marriage is more than an agreement between two people; God is a party to the marriage covenant. The normative guide for the marriage relationship then becomes Yahweh's covenant with His people. The Hebrew word chesed is used some thirty times in the Old Testament, meaning "covenant love, lovingkindness, commit ted love"; it conveys the idea of stability and solidarity. God does not allow even gross sins to destroy His love for the sinner or annul His covenant promises to the one who seeks forgiveness. So man and wife are to keep their promises to each other through forgiving love. The focus here is on God and what He does for the couple whose love flows from His unconditional love.

Does the Bible teach that marriage is merely a social contract, or does it hold marriage to be part of a covenant made with God Himself?

Covenant—a basic Biblical theme

The covenant, sealed between the Father and the Son before the world was, has always had total harmony and oneness as its goal. "I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jer. 31:33). Covenant is the dominant metaphor for Biblical faith, 2 the means for understanding human personhood and relationships. It sees human personhood and quality relationships with others as being ultimately grounded in a Source of unfailing strength.

Covenant, berith, is a common word in the Old Testament. It refers to a wide variety of agreements,3 including a covenant between two friends (1 Sam. 18:3); two rulers (1 Kings 5:12); a king and his subjects (2 Kings 11:4); or God and Noah (Gen. 6:18), Abraham (2 Kings 13:23), or David (Jer. 33:21). These latter covenants were clearly made between a Superior and inferiors. However, the agreement always implied relationship—whether human to human or Divine to human. Covenant is an affirmation that our lives depend on others, and in a special way, upon One who is our sovereign Lord and who wills more good for us than we do for ourselves.

Three texts illustrate the idea of covenant and marriage. The first speaks of the marriage covenant of God with His people, and the other two refer to human marriage as a divine covenant.

"'I plighted my troth to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine'" (Eze. 16:8, R.S.V.).* Notice that God takes the initiative in His marriage to His people. It is He who plights the troth; we respond in love. Notice too that God's marriage to us is called a covenant. The passage graphically describes the unfaithfulness of God's people to their true Lover (verses 15-34). Yet, in spite of their wayward ways, God declares, "I will remember my covenant with thee in the days of thy youth, and I will establish unto thee an everlasting covenant. . . . And I will establish my covenant with thee; and thou shah know that I am the Lord" (verses 60-62). In this passage God is teaching about salvation from the metaphor of marriage. He also teaches us the key to successful marriage relationships from salvation history.

The second text speaks of the strange woman "who forsakes the companion of her youth and forgets the covenant [berith] of her God" (Prov. 2:17, R.S.V.). Many commentators on this text point out that the expression "covenant of ... God" refers to the general idea of marriage sacredness, because, as one puts it, "the marriage-tie has a divine sanction." 4 The expression also implies a condemnation of adultery and divorce, because they offend the human partner and the divine Witness. Says Matthew Henry, the text suggests that "God is not only a witness but a party, for He having instituted the ordinance, both sides vow to Him to be true to each other." 5 Thus Proverbs 2:17 establishes the principle of the indissolubility of the marriage tie. 6

The prophet Malachi wrote: "The Lord was witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant [berith]" (chap. 2:14, R.S.V.). The entire passage of Malachi 2:10-16 deals with fidelity versus defilement of marriage as a covenant. These verses explicitly present God as the witness between the husband and the wife of his youth. The phrase "your wife by covenant" is equivalent to "the wife to whom you have pledged loyalty and support." 7 Thus ill-treatment or faithlessness toward the wife is by its very nature an offense against God, for He Himself has witnessed the union. Such behavior makes one's worship of God unacceptable to Him. 8

Angelo Tosato says that the perspective of this passage is to reprove not only the mixed marriages of Jewish men with heathen wives (verses 11, 12) but also divorce (verses 13-16), 9 While divorce was permitted under Mosaic law because of the hardness of the people's hearts, under the Elijah message (see chap. 4:5, 6) God asks not for heart hardening, but heart turning.

Malachi anticipates the full Christian marriage ethic given by Christ four centuries later. " Tor I hate divorce, says the Lord the God of Israel. ... So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless'" (chap. 2:16, R.S.V.). Both Malachi (verse 15) and Christ (Mark 10:5-12; Matt. 19:4-9) maintain the indissolubility of the marriage relationship by invoking the Creation argument. (Christ's general teaching is that marriage is indissoluble, although Matthew's account does admit the possibility of an exception "for fornication.") The redeeming gospel of Jesus Christ contemplates a restoration of Edenic relationships.

A threefold covenant

In Biblical marriage there is actually a threefold covenant—two of parity and one of sovereignty.

In the first place, marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman who freely consent to enter into marriage. Monogamy is clearly implied. God didn't create two or three Eves and bring them to Adam; He created only one. Even as God's nation was distinguished among the nations of antiquity for its monotheism, one God who called for undivided devotion of all the heart, soul, and strength (Deut. 6:4, 5), so God's plan for marriage was monogamy, one spouse who was to occupy a place without rival in the heart of his or her beloved. Idolatry was equated with adultery.

The husband and wife promise to "love, honor, and cherish." Both vow to be faithful to each other amid all kinds of circumstances, including sickness and health, poverty and prosperity, and worse or better conditions. Each makes a covenant to remain with this one whom she or he has freely consented to marry until death breaks such union.

Second, marriage is a covenant between the marital couple and society. The vows are spoken in the presence of witnesses whose presence symbolizes that society acknowledges its responsibility in guiding and helping the new couple. The couple, in turn, agree with society to live together according to the ordinances of God and the laws of the State.

At a Family Life Workshop, a pastor from Reno, Nevada, told of a man and woman driving through town from another State who found his name in the telephone book and insisted that he marry them on the spot. After counseling with them for several hours, he refused to perform the ceremony in spite of their entreaties. He didn't know them. If they were church members in good and regular standing as they claimed, it would be far more appropriate for their church community and their acquaintances to enter into this covenant with them. Society, their circle of friends and other significant persons, should set a seal of approval on this marriage relationship. This same pastor was offered a handsome salary to be the presiding minister at a marriage chapel annexed to one of the gambling casinos in Reno. He turned down the offer.

At the highest and deepest level, marriage is a covenant between a couple and God. Vows are uttered in the presence of God. Through the prayer of benediction, God's blessing is invoked upon their marriage.

The marriage covenant is based not on a covenant of works composed of what the couple promise to do for each other, but on better promises (see Heb. 8:6)—what God will do in them for each other and mankind. They will fail, but the forgiving, unconditional covenant love (chesed) they receive from God will restore and strengthen their relationship. The love drama enacted by God to His bride Israel is to be to them a pattern for their marriage covenant.

Hallmarks of the covenant

G. R. Dunstan, D.D., editor of Review Theology, points out five hallmarks of the marriage covenant—initiative, oath, commandments, blessings, and sacrifice. 10

I. Initiative. The first is an initiative of love, inviting a response, and so creating a relationship between the lover and the beloved. God takes the initiative in His love relationship with man. He says, "I have loved thee with an everlasting love" (Jer. 31:3), and then reveals the secret of the new covenant relationship: "I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts" (verse 33).

In the Eden marriage it was God who took the initiative, bringing Eve to Adam. God created marriage and initiated the institution. The Christian contemplating marriage today may also claim God's guidance and providential initiative in finding the right companion.

When things go wrong in marriage, because God's love and power have not been brought into the marital experience, God again takes the initiative to focus His redeeming love on the situation. But He needs one of the spouses to be His intermediary in renewing the covenant relationship. A woman who had come to America to study was shocked when her husband called her the day before he was scheduled to visit. The message was short and to the point: he wanted a divorce. Counseling, mediation, or even discussion was out of the question. Crushed, she did the only thing that love could do. She left her study program and flew home to communicate that she still loved him.

In a case of marital crisis in which one spouse has been unfaithful and is under the conviction of sin, or worse yet, is impenitent, the aggrieved party should take the initiative in renewing and restoring the covenant. God's Old Testament people broke the covenant with Him, although God was a husband unto them (see verses 32 ff.). Instead of abandoning them He comes back with a new initiative of reconciliation and motive power to keep the covenant. He says, " 'I will write it [my law] upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people'" (verse 33, R.S.V.)

2. Oath. The relationship, once initiated, is made permanent by an oath. When God made His covenant with Israel, He first made a promise and then con firmed it by an oath (Heb. 6:15-18). When one tells his or her beloved that he promises to love, he has done a very serious thing. When he confirms it by an oath in wedding vows, by God's help it becomes immutable until death parts them. "If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth" (Num. 30:2).

3. Commandments. The third hallmark of covenant concerns the commandments, or laws, that govern the relationship. Historically, law was a consequence, not a condition, of the covenant. God did not enter into covenant with an unredeemed people. First He redeemed them, saved them out of bondage, then as a consequence of His redeeming love, He asked them to obey Him. This is the great message of Exodus 20:2: "I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." Now because I have redeemed you, you will have no other gods before Me, you will celebrate My weekly love memorial, you will not commit adultery, et cetera.

The law is a guide to citizenship within the redeeming covenant given to us by the Lord our Saviour. A redeeming relation ship with Jesus will transform our life style into total conformity to the law of the covenant. If because of human frailty one should fall, redeeming love should initiate a covenant restoration.

Perhaps no heartfelt drama in the Sacred Word illustrates how to deal with an erring lover better than the story of Hosea. Corner was not just breaking the commandments of marriage, she was breaking a heart. Hosea searched her out and bought her back (redeemed her) from the prostitution market for half the price of a slave. He took her back to him to love her, with a determination that she should not leave him again. Is not this the way our Lord has dealt with us the many times we have broken His commandments and rent His heart?

4. Blessings. The fourth hallmark of covenant is the promise of blessings to those who remain faithful to the covenant. Deuteronomy 28 testifies of many material blessings; the new covenant of Jeremiah 31 pledges spiritual blessings.

The blessings of the marriage covenant are not best measured by material criteria. Happiness cannot be valued in dollars and cents. Trials and tears shared together may be some of the greatest blessings we will ever receive. Joining together in God's ongoing creation so that our love creates someone like ourselves is an inestimable blessing. Joining God in helping to redeem each other, sharing mutual forgiveness, and finding the way together to the Father's house—these are blessings of the marriage covenant.

5. Sacrifice. To ratify the old covenant there was the death of an animal victim. This sacrifice was to be offered continually, day by day, and yearly on the Day of Atonement. The new covenant was ratified on Calvary by sacrifice. There Jesus poured out His life vicariously for all mankind. The entrance into the marriage covenant is also marked with sacrifice. 11 There must be a death to the dependence of childhood on father and mother, a death of bachelor or spinster freedoms and relationships, and to certain rights of self-determination. Marriage requires this sacrifice—these sundry kinds of death—for its continuance; it requires the dedication of heart, mind, and body.

The real problem with divorce is not so much in the act of divorce itself, but in the unwillingness to let God bring restoration by His redeeming covenant love. God's everlasting covenant is designed to restore us to unbroken relationship with our Creator-Redeemer. As erring human beings, subject to many sins and short comings, we are nurtured along, forgiven, put back on the right pathway, and encouraged on the heavenward road. In marriage we have the privilege of entering into covenant, helping along another erring child of God, forgiving each other, working together on our mutual failings, and laughing and sometimes crying as we journey together to our Father's house.

Culture today pretends that marriage rests upon a simple civil contract that can be invalidated by the stroke of a pen. But in reality the marriage covenant is a part of God's everlasting covenant in which He writes His law on our hearts, taking away the stony heart and giving us a heart of flesh that can love as He loved. Such a marriage covenant is the very cornerstone of the Christian family and is to exhibit as nothing else can the unfolding of contemporary salvation history before a watching world.


1 Richard Lessor, Love and Marriage and Trading Stamps (Niles, 111.: Argus Communications, 1971).

2 Walter Brueggemann, "Covenanting as Human Vocation: A Discussion of the Relation of Bible and Pastoral Care," Interpretation, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2 (April, 1979), p. 115.

3 Colin Brown (ed.), New Testament Theology, 3 vols. (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1975), vol. 1, p. 365.

4 Crawfbrd H. Toy, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Proverbs, The International Critical Commentary Series, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1948), vol. 16, p. 47.

5 Job to Song of Solomon, A Commentary on the Whole Bible (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Co.), vol. 3, p. 801.

6 W. J. Deane and S. T. Taylor-Taswell, Proverbs, The Pulpit Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1977), vol. 9, p. 41.

7 John Merling Powis Smith, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Malachi, The International Critical Commentary Series, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1951), vol. 26, p. 53.

8 Robert Althann, "Malachi 2:13, 14 and OT 125, 12, 13," Biblica, vol. 58, No. 3 (1977), pp. 420, 421.

9 "II Ripudio: Delito e Pena (Mal. 2:10-16)," Biblica, vol. 59, No. 4 (1978), p. 552.

10 "The Marriage Covenant," Review Theology, Vol. LXXVII (May, 1975), pp. 244-252. This number is entirely dedicated to the marriage issue, under the general title On the Marriage Bond. (The five points are his; the discussion is largely our own.)

11 Ibid, p. 250.


* Scripture quotations marked R.S.V are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1946, 1952 © 1971, 1973.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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John B. Youngberg, Ed.D., is associate professor of religious education at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. He and his wife, Millie, direct Marriage and Family Commitment seminars and codirect the annual Family Life Work shop, sponsored by Andrews University and the General Conference Home and Family Service.
Luis del Pozo is studying toward his Ed.D. degree in religious education at Andrews University. He is professor of theology at Inca Union College, Lima, Peru.

September 1982

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