David W. Hegg
Today marriage is on the ropes. Fewer and fewer marriages thrive, and consequently more and more people are opting for co-habitation apart from marriage. But is marriage really a thing of the past? And what must we who are Christ-followers understand about marriage from God’s point of view? This paper is designed to introduce the idea of Covenant Marriage. This describes marriage as God sees it, as an actual covenant relationship sanctioned and solemnly witnessed by Almighty God.
What is a Covenant?
In Malachi 2:13,14 the prophet declares marriage to be a covenant between a man and his wife:
And this second thing you do. You cover the LORD’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.
What does this mean? We rarely use covenant today preferring to call agreements between two parties contracts. But since covenant is the word the Bible uses to describe the marital relationship it is very important for us to understand it’s meaning, and the bearing it has on our marriages.
Gordon P. Hugenberger, in Marriage as a Covenant, defines a covenant as “an elected, as opposed to natural, relationship of obligation established under divine sanction.” That’s quite a statement so let’s break it down a bit.
Elected as opposed to natural: A covenant is an intentional relationship we freely and willingly enter rather than one into which we have been born.
Relationship: It is here the idea of covenant differs from our understanding of a contract. Contracts are an agreement between two parties that govern a business transaction. It may involve some element of relationship but often the two parties have little to do with one another other than to fulfill the contract.
A covenant is much different. The primary purpose of a covenant is relational. It is designed to recognize that two parties – in this case a man and a woman – have freely entered into an intimate relationship involving mutual obligations, responsibilities, and stipulations. Simply put, a covenant creates a relationship with obligations. It joins two people. In the case of marriage, this union creates a new entity as the two become one.
Obligation: Marriage puts those who enter into it under specific obligations. This is an integral part of covenant. The new entity brings about a new ethic. The history of marriage vows testifies to this. From ancient times a man and woman have faced one another, with witnesses watching, and promised to fulfill the obligations intrinsic to marriage. I will have much more to say about these obligations, and their effect on marriage when unmet, later in this paper.
Established under divine sanction: This simply means God is the witness when two lives are joined as one in the covenant. After all, God created marriage in Genesis 2. It is his idea, his creation, and consequently, he gets to set the rules that govern it. Regardless of the way culture may view marriage, it remains a covenant relationship entered into before the very face of God.
What is Covenant Marriage?
Technically, all marriage is covenant marriage. That’s the only kind of marriage God created. God has always intended marriage to be to his glory, and for our benefit. Simply put, marriage is supposed to work, and work well. Marriage is supposed to complete us, provide joyful companionship, and create a holy environment in which to raise godly offspring.
But, sadly, too many marriages do not promote God’s glory or provide lasting joy. There are many reasons but primarily it is because spouses fail to take care of their marriage covenant.
Let’s try an illustration. Think of the marriage covenant as strong wooden ties that hold the two rails of the railroad track together. As long as they are strong, the rails remain aligned, and the train runs smoothly.
But what if, over time, the ties begin to decay. The rain and snow beat on them and cracks begin to show. Soon a few ties start to rot. The spikes holding the rails begin to loosen, and over time the weight of the train erodes the integrity of the wood to the place where the rails separate. Now the track that once was strong becomes dangerous. Something must be done before a tragic train wreck occurs.
Every marriage has two people who, like the rails, must be joined together strongly, in alignment with one another. Their marriage covenant, like the railroad ties, keeps the marriage on track. When the covenant is tended carefully, it remains vital, keeping the marriage healthy. When the covenant is ignored, little by little the marriage will decay under the stress of life’s circumstances and the sin of our selfish hearts. As the covenant takes hits, and weakens, the marriage becomes less and less satisfying. Unless something drastic is done, it will end up a train wreck.
Tending Your Marriage Covenant
From ancient times, Jewish rabbis used Exodus 21:10 as a paradigm for the obligations of the marriage covenant. It commanded a man who no longer wanted a young slave woman as his wife to continue granting her food, clothing, and conjugal rights. From these three categories, the rabbis extrapolated three major areas in which spouses owe one another marital care and provision. They considered them to be physical, emotional, and conjugal.
While understanding Exodus 21:10 as setting God’s standard for marriage may be fraught with problems, it is true that these three areas give us a place to start when it comes to tending and strengthening the marriage covenant today.
The simple fact is we all have physical, emotional, and conjugal needs as married folks. Further, those marriages where spouses care for one another, intentionally providing what the other needs in all these areas, are the marriages that remain strong. Conversely, when a spouse fails to receive what he or she needs, the marriage ties are weakened. Let’s take a closer look:
Physical needs: We all need food, clothes, and shelter. We all need rest, exercise, and intellectual stimulation. We all have physical needs, and when they are met, we enjoy physical health and wellbeing.
It may sound simple, but in good marriages, spouses take good care of one another. They look for ways to make one another comfortable, healthy, and happy. In a word, they are intentional about providing for their spouse.
This simple principle extends to many areas of married life. For example, a husband might make it his responsibility to keep the house and cars maintained while the wife considers it a privilege to keep the home clean and nicely decorated. And who isn’t thankful to find their sock and underwear drawer filled with fresh, clean clothes? And what about relaxation, exercise, and rest? Couples who care for one another in these areas, who make it their goal to provide what their spouse enjoys will find their marriage bond is consistently strengthened.
There are many other examples that could be mentioned but the core point is clear: the marriage covenant is maintained and kept strong when spouses take great joy in providing for the physical needs of one another.
Sadly, the converse is true as well. Those who neglect opportunities to provide for their spouse in these areas are really chipping away at their marriage covenant. Clearly, physical abuse is never called for, but it is also true that the incremental harm done to the covenant through selfish disregard for a spouse’s physical comfort and wellbeing can seriously erode the marriage.
Emotional needs: The rabbis understood the provision of clothing in Exodus 21:10 as speaking to provision of those things we all need to be emotionally healthy. In the ancient world the provision of clothing showed the world the woman belonged to, and was cared for, by her husband. It represented a loving bond of companionship. It signified a commitment on the husband’s part to make sure his wife had all she needed to be a confident, emotionally healthy woman.
If you find a strong marriage you will also find two people committed to providing companionship to one another. They are committed not only to providing for physical comfort but also those things that make for strong friendship. They spend time together. They talk and listen and laugh. They share adventures together, seek out new experiences together, and work hard to understand, complement, and support one another. Strong marriages are built on deep, authentic, and growing friendships.
As with the physical area, the converse is also true. While the marriage covenant is strengthened through an intentional commitment to deepening emotional connection, it can also be eroded by a whole host of actions ranging from neglect and isolation to great frustration, anger, and violence.
Marriage begins to decay when spouses don’t talk, don’t listen, don’t care for one another. When time apart becomes more satisfying than time together, watch out. When conversation turns to argument, companionship to competition, and you begin confiding in others about your marriage, realize you have seriously chipped away at your marriage covenant. Something needs to be done, and quickly.
Conjugal needs: God intends the marriage relationship to be joyfully sexual. Marital intimacy, while intended as a means of procreation, is also designed to be mutually satisfying and downright fun. The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7, makes it clear that sexual activity is to be a regular part of marriage.
In strong marriages, sexual intimacy is a celebration of deep emotional bonds rather than an end in itself. God always intended sex to be the joyful result of two lives joined together in love. That love is to be expressed in every area of life, and not just in the bedroom.
The marriage covenant is strengthened in this area as spouses romance one another, complement one another, and appreciate one another as man and woman in ways other than sexual. As they live intentionally, caring for one another, providing for one another, and deepening their friendship, they are also strengthening their conjugal connection, and improving their covenantal relationship. This is what God always intended.
In our day we too often see the other side. Perhaps nothing destroys marriages like sexual activity outside of marriage. This includes everything from flirting and fantasy, to the use of pornography and infidelity. Regardless of what we may think, sexual thoughts or actions centered on someone other than your spouse cut away at your marriage covenant.
We have looked briefly at the three areas that make up the marriage covenant: physical, emotional, and conjugal. In these areas spouses promise to live up to their obligations. But there is one more area that covers them all. In every area God calls spouses to faithfulness.
Faithfulness: Simply put, God asks spouses to be faithful in providing for their marriage partner. This means consistency combined with vibrancy in their desire to obey God and care for their spouse in the best way. But it also means exclusivity. We are never to offer someone else what we offer our spouse; neither are we ever to gain from another what God expects us to receive from our spouse alone.
This doesn’t mean we can’t clean someone’s home, or have friends outside of marriage. But it does mean we must never look elsewhere to find what we are meant by God to find in our husband or wife. The level of care we give our spouse in the physical, emotional, and conjugal areas must always be reserved for the one God has given us in marriage. This is what it means to be faithful in marriage.
The last component of faithfulness relates to God, and our obedience to him. In all three areas – physical, emotional, and conjugal – God sets the standards. Faithfulness to him in marriage will only grow as we pursue a deep and abiding trust in his word, consistent partnership with his church, investment in his mission, and a passion for his glory in all things. Good marriages are made of good people, and good people are so because they follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Repairing the Marriage Covenant
Today many marriages are coming apart at the seams. Their marriage covenant has been weakened, bruised, slashed, and almost severed through neglect and sinful behavior. How did this happen, and what is to be done?
We find instruction in the Bible, especially in the example of God and Israel. Throughout the Old Testament God’s relationship with his chosen people was likened to that of a marriage. Time and again we read how Israel was unfaithful to God. Yet, time and again God renewed the covenant with his people, rescuing them from the consequences of their sin, forgiving them, and once again giving himself to them as their God. In the book of Judges alone we see this cycle seven times!
Certainly God’s best for us is that we invest in our marriage covenant, daily overcoming our own selfishness to care for our spouse’s physical, emotional, and conjugal needs. Those who do this not only find the blessing God grants to obedience, but also enjoy a marital relationship that grows more and more fulfilling each year.
But too often we allow our selfishness to overcome our desires for God. Little by little we allow circumstances and sin to erode the strength of our marital covenant. We give into anger, and resentment sets in. Little grievances are stored up to use as ammunition in the next battle, and over time our hearts become hardened against the very one we promised to love and care for, with God as our witness.
The situation may get to the place where it seems hopeless, but with God there is always both hope and strength. Even in cases where there exists a biblical allowance for ending the marriage, this must never be the first option. Marriages, even in their worst shape, can be turned around, renewed, reformed, and transformed into a trophy of God’s truth and love.
What is needed is a return to basics. When the marriage covenant is eroded, and severely weakened the only things that can save it are sincere repentance, forgiveness of wrongs suffered, and a renewed commitment to proactively repair it through obedience to God.
A decaying marriage can be righted but only if spouses dedicate themselves to living for the glory of God, and begin again to provide faithfully in the three broad areas that make up the marriage covenant. Apart from this, the marriage covenant will not be renewed, and it is in danger of becoming so broken that the damage is irreversible.
The Marriage Covenant and Divorce
It is commonly thought divorce breaks the marriage covenant. Too many people believe they are obeying God as long as they don’t file for divorce. But the fact is, sin is what breaks the marriage covenant. Divorce is merely the action that dissolves the legal obligations of the marriage covenant. By the time divorce becomes an option, the marriage covenant has already been shredded by sinful neglect or worse.
Once again we find instruction in the Bible. In Jeremiah 3:1-10 the prophet speaks God’s words as he summarizes Israel’s unfaithfulness as a wife to God. Sin has broken the covenant, time and again. God has remained faithful, renewing the covenant numerous times. Yet, it is clear the marriage covenant has been broken so many times that it has become irreparable. God, the godly husband, sends Israel his wife away with a certificate of divorce. The legal obligations of the covenant sin destroyed are now dissolved through the legal means of divorce.
In Malachi 2:16 we find more information on the relationship between the marriage covenant and divorce. Without going into the minute details of the Hebrew language, it is clear the English Standard Version has correctly translated the verse. For too long it was thought the Hebrew form was 1st person (“I hate divorce” says the Lord), when it is now recognized as 3rd person (“The man who does not love … but divorces”). Malachi is not saying God hates divorce here simply because divorce is not the problem. Sin is! God hates the sin that breaks the marriage covenant.
The verse reads this way, correctly, in the ESV: “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”
Further, the phrase “does not love” literally is “hates.” Malachi is stating the matter plainly. “The man who hates his wife (sin) but divorces her … covers his garment with violence …”
What we see here is this: the hatred (sin) is what breaks the covenant, and divorce then is used to dissolve the legal obligations of the covenant.
Yet, the final exhortation must be understood. The husbands who hated their wives (read: neglected the obligations of the covenant) and were considering dissolving the ramifications of the now broken covenant, had better guard themselves, and become faithful rather than faithless. The call is to faithfulness, and to an intentional love that strengthens the covenant rather than to selfish activity that destroys it. Those who persist in sinful activity, severing their marital bond, are covering themselves (read: dressing themselves) with violence.
God created marriage to be held together by a covenant entered into by both husband and wife before the face of God himself. This covenant will either be maintained and strengthened, or neglected and eroded over time through the actions of each spouse. Those who serve their spouse faithfully in the areas of physical, emotional, and conjugal needs will find their marriages grow stronger, more fulfilling and satisfying, and more glorifying to God. Those who neglect the covenant through selfishness and sin will erode and weaken the covenant, leaving them in a marriage that is neither satisfying nor glorifying.
The marriage covenant can become so eroded that it breaks. In every case there is still hope to be found in turning from sin in repentance, rooting out bitterness with forgiveness, and committing to faithfulness in providing for one another as God commands. In this way the covenant can be renewed, and grow into a strong, satisfying marriage.
In some cases (e.g. adultery or desertion) sin may so irreparably destroy the covenant that divorce is necessary to dissolve its legal requirements. But this must never be the first option. God is glorified when we trust him in impossible situations. He is even more glorified when we obey, taking care to glorify him by selflessly serving our spouse as the one God has brought to complete us.
“What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”