On May 17, 2001, after eighteen years of student ministry experience, my wife, L...
Every year we lose acres of farmland due to suburban sprawl. Every year we lose huge swaths of the rainforest due to the proliferation of land-consuming cash crops. Every year various animal species become extinct due to their shrinking habitat. And, to add to the list, every year we lose a societal memory of the idea of covenant due to a society caught up in rampant individualism.
I can’t propose any new solutions to the problems associated with farmlands, the rainforest, or endangered species, but I am so glad to be part of a something that is taking on the erosion of covenant understanding head-on. I am proud to be part of a movement for which “covenant” is literally our middle name (or our first name, depending on how strictly you want to read the acronym).
Covenant vs. contract
At the risk of oversimplifying things, a covenant is an agreement that establishes and maintains a relationship by way of some kind of exchange. A contract, by contrast, is an agreement about some kind of exchange, which may or may not involve a relationship.
In a covenant, the relationship is primary, and the exchange is secondary. In a contract, the exchange is everything. When the exchange is no longer needed or no longer working, the relationship is expected to terminate.
Contract and covenant are very different paradigms for navigating relationships. However, in the concrete reality of everyday life, contractual and covenantal relationships are not entirely static and can move along a continuum.
Take for instance, your relationship with the checker at the local Safeway. This is a classic contractual relationship. You pay $2.58 and he gives you a gallon of milk. But if you shop at the same store for a decade or two and encounter the same checker almost every time, that will begin to change the nature of your relationship. You may learn that his name is Steve and you will care when you find out his daughter has contracted cancer. There may be a day when you don’t have the $3.17 for milk (inflation) because you left your wallet at home and Steve lets you take the milk anyway, trusting you will pay him back next time.
On the other hand, a marriage is a classic covenantal relationship. There is an initial exchange of vows marking the establishment of the relationship. And over time there may be an exchange of agreements concerning paychecks, housework, raising kids, and even sex. But, in a healthy marriage, both parties understand that the relationship is much more fundamental than those exchange agreements and there is not the slightest intimation that the paycheck is being exchanged for sex. However, this covenantal character of the marriage relationship is not always completely stable and can change under certain conditions.
When marriage experiences trauma and seems to be beyond repair, divorce lawyers are brought in. The fundamental job of the divorce lawyer is to convert what was a covenantal relationship into a contractual relationship. Agreements are hammered out concerning the exchange of financial resources as well as rights and obligations with respect to children.
The problem we are experiencing within our culture is that so many covenantal marriages have been reduced to contractual relationships that we are beginning to think about marriage (as well as all other relationships) in contractual terms from the get-go. More and more we are seeing marriage as a kind of mutually beneficial partnership between two people who are hoping to avoid chronic loneliness as they seek to maximize their satisfaction in life.
It is becoming more common to go into a marriage with the understanding that if one of the parties comes to a point where they feel they are putting in more than they are getting out of the marriage, they are not only justified, but even obligated, to terminate the contract.
Fortunately, according to Tim Keller, we still find a fairly strong understanding of covenant relationship with our children. Sadly, there are some who abandon parental responsibilities when they feel as if they are putting more into the parent / child relationship than they are getting out, but there is at least some social stigma associated with doing so.
Committing to covenant relationships
Of course, the folks filling the pews on Sunday mornings are wrestling with this issue as well. Everything in our culture is telling these followers of Jesus that what happens with the gathered community on Sunday morning is not fundamentally different than what happens at the soccer tournament. Whichever of these options promises the best ‘return on investment’ should take priority for the weekend. Our culture is also telling them to be savvy consumers of church. If a church across town provides better benefits than the church they’ve been attending regularly, they should start going to the church across town.
I admit I was being a bit of a smart aleck when including covenantal erosion alongside of something as serious as the destruction of rain forests. But I wasn’t completely misrepresenting my opinion. I do think that a complete loss of any notion of covenantal faithfulness would spell disaster, not only for the community of faith, but also for society at large.
For this reason, I really am glad ECO is striving to recover, sustain, and even build up a strong sense of covenant among the covenant partners of our churches as well as among the various expressions of the church that are tethered together within the connectional bounds of our body.
Save the covenants! Subvert the dominant paradigm. Be the Church.