Marriage as Covenant

April 2017 Pulse

One of the most interesting features of modern divorce laws is ‘no-fault divorce’. As the descriptor makes clear, this is a species of divorce where the spouse filing for divorce does not have to demonstrate any fault on the part of the other spouse.

According to an article in FindLaw, ‘All a spouse has to do is give any reason that the state honours for the divorce’. And the reasons usually offered are amorphous and cryptic, such as ‘irreconcilable differences’ or the marriage is undergoing an ‘irreparable breakdown’.

In America, no-fault divorce was first introduced in the state of California in the 1970s. Several states followed suit in the 1980s, including New York, which introduced the law only quite recently, on August 5, 2010.

Singapore, too, has no-fault divorce laws, although the conditions are somewhat more stringent than in other countries.

No-fault divorce is a symptom of the current erosion of the institution of marriage due perhaps to the libertine attitude engendered by the sexual revolution in the 1960s. But it is also the consequence of seeing marriage in terms of a social contract, and no longer as a covenant.

The contractual model of marriage is not only prevalent in secular society. Some Christians have also found this model attractive.

Among the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers, all of whom had a very high regard for marriage as a divine institution, it was John Calvin who emphasised the importance of understanding this union as a covenant.

In many of his writings on this subject, most notably in his sermons, Calvin stressed that marriage is not a human convention subjected to the whims and fancies of society, but a divine institution best understood as a covenant.

In his sermon on Deuteronomy (Deut 5:18), for instance, Calvin stressed that ‘Marriage is called a covenant with God … meaning that God presides over marriages’. He repeated and elaborated on this point in his great sermons on Ephesians: ‘Marriage is not a thing ordained by men. We know that God is the author of it, and that it is solemnized in his name. The Scripture says that it is a holy covenant, and therefore calls it divine’.

How does emphasising the covenant nature of marriage clarify our understanding of the kind of union that it is against modern alternatives?

In the first place, the covenant metaphor stresses that marriage is a union between one man and one woman – in other words, it emphasises marriage’s monogamous nature.

Related to this, the covenant metaphor also stresses the commitment of the two parties in the way in which the contractual model does not. This covenant commitment is clearly expressed in the words of the traditional marriage vow (which can be traced to the 16th century): ‘To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part’.

Secondly, understanding marriage as a covenant stresses that God is involved in each marriage – he participates in it. The narrative in the early pages of Genesis, which describes God’s intimate involvement in bringing Adam and Eve together, brings this out rather beautifully.

This means that God did not just institute marriage; he also witnesses and solemnises each marriage. In addition, John Witte points out that ‘God is also the guarantor of the marriage, on whom the couple can call to ensure that the terms of the marital agreement are fulfilled’.

And thirdly, to understand marriage as covenant is to see the union between husband and wife as part of the much larger and profound covenantal relationship between God and his people (indeed, between God and humanity). This means that in the marital union, both the husband and the wife must learn what it means to be faithful to each other from the faithfulness of God to Israel.

As Witte once again pointedly writes: ‘For a husband to wander after another woman – whether a lover, prostitute or concubine – is now not just an act of adultery, but also an act of blasphemy, an insult to the divine example of the covenant marriage that God, the metaphorical husband, offers to each human husband living under God’s covenant’.

To see marriage as a covenant is to acknowledge the graveness of divorce and to share God’s own fundamental disapproval of it (Malachi 2:16). It is to expose ‘no-fault divorce’ for what it truly is: the crass deprecation and even mockery of the institution that God himself had put in place for human happiness and for society’s flourishing.



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