Marriage as Covenant

Marriage is like an A-frame house. The two grow closer together to form one life on the basis of a solemn covenant made with one another, a covenant that sustains the two during stress and that forms the mutually-agreed-upon foundation that shapes the whole of that life.  The metaphor comes from Tim and Kathy Keller, in their new book, The Meaning of Marriage.

Does the “covenant” or “promise” or “paper” matter? Does any of these get in the way? What do you think of their theory of “loving actions” (near the end of this post)?

The battle within marriage in our world, as the Kellers routinely have observed, is the theory of love at work in romantic love theory, that is, that marriage is about love, and love is about affections and feelings and emotions and passion. In other words, it’s foundation (instead of a covenant promise) is satisfaction. Those who don’t want to commit, or don’t want to make a solemn promise/covenant, or those who think they don’t need the paper, the Kellers argue, are those who are saying “My love for you has not reached the marriage level” (78).

Put differently, those who want to rid marital love of all duty, or who don’t think the word duty belongs with the word love, are the ones who devalue covenant. Keller — and I remind you that this means both Tim and Kathy — sees this form of love as consumerist. If traditional societies anchor marriage in the family as a social function, modern Westerners anchor marriage in the individual. The solution is not to return to the traditional society but instead to see it anchored in God and that God’s covenantal arrangement for marriage combines passion and promise.

Hence, the covenant view of the essence of marriage sees the covenant as one before God and with one another, and not just with one another.

One of the best ideas of this chapter is that a covenant is a “stunning blend of law and love” (84). It is a relationship more intimate because it is legal. The covenant commitment supercharges the relationship, but not toward the flightiness of passion but toward the covenant nature of love. Love for the Kellers is about self-giving for the good of the other. And that means that a covenant view of love/marriage is about a promise for the future, for the promise of fidelity.

True marriage knows that love forms over time; the earliest years of marriage are not yet full love but the beginning stages. Often they are marked by loving the idea of the person but as time moves forward the person’s reality becomes more evident (this takes years folks) and only as each person commits to loving the reality of the person can true love form. To be loved in light of who you really are is what love is all about.

Love emerges from the actions of love and not always from the emotions of love and affection and passion. If you do loving things you learn to love the other person; if you do loving things you will love that person eventually.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://2hold.wordpress.com/ Charis

    Thank you for posting about marriage.

    At least in the “A-Frame” metaphor, the sides are equal. If they aren’t, the house will be unstable. Equality is important. If only one person is sacrificing and keeping the vows, no matter how many “loving things” s/he does, the “marriage” is in grave danger.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Love does emerge from the actions of love and not always from the emotions of love. Love is an act. One of the things I tell somone in a marriage who tells me that they don’t “feel” love (usually meaning they have not been showning love to the other person) is if they start doing some loving actions, the feelings will return. For those who take me up on the offer, they typically come back surprised how the feelings of love are back in their marriage.

  • Mary Fisher

    Actually the A framed house was used by Walter Trobisch and his wife way back in the late 60′s, early 70′s in books they wrote.

  • Georges Boujakly

    In fiddler on the Roof, Tevye asks Golde “do you love me” at a time when life was stressful for him. She replies with: ” for 25 years I…” and lists several actions by she intends to assure him of her love. He does likewise. Closing lines: “the first time I met you, was on our wedding day. We were nervous. But my father and my mother said we’d learn to love each other…”

    This is it the heart of the covenant: you enter into the covenant or commitment determined to learn to love. Absent this, it’s an unbearable struggle all the way.

  • http://johnmarkharris.net John Mark Harris

    The whole idea of “Romantic love” as the basis for marriage (though perhaps a part of it) doesn’t even exist until the 11th century.

  • Anna

    Well, through most of history, marriage has been considered a contract, a business arrangement, in which women were little more than property and in which the passage of property through generations was secured. Nothing romantic about it. Notions of romantic love assume greater proportions as women become more and more seen as persons rather than property. The ancient Greeks thought the highest bonds of devotion could only be experienced between men.

    However, certainly romantic love between men and women existed before the 11th century; see “Song of Solomon.”

    But marriage, through most of history, appears to have been strictly business.

  • Sherman Nobles

    Sadly, the tradtitional doctrine of marriage is, well, messed up. It affirms that marriage is a sacrament, under ecclesial authority, and indissoluble. All three of these are wrong, imo. Actually marriage is a covenant, under civil authority, and dissoluble (by death or divorce). Recognizing that marriage is a covenant is very important. The covenant is what distinquishes a couple’s relationship as being married and not just cohabitation. And covenants are under civil authority, not ecclesial authority. In the theocracy of Israel, Moses established both civil and religious authorities and structures. And issues concerning marriage, divorce, and remarriage were, though predominantly a domestice affair, under limited civil authority. There was a religious ceremony related to problems with jealousy meant to support marriage, but the priests had no authority to declare who was married and who was not, such was established under civil law.

    Understanding that marriage is a covenant, under civil authority, and dissoluble is very important for establishing healthy and lasting marriages.

  • J @ North Park Sem

    I think this is a great post, thanks for sharing it. The view of marriage and relationships has been totally turned upside-down by society. Getting into a long-term relationship and getting married is called “settling down” now; the connotation is that the single, unattached life is more exciting, fun, free, a greater adrenaline rush… whereas once you get married, you become much more constricted. You settle down, it’s time to grow up now and take responsibility and have less fun.

    That’s a terrible view of marriage! I think the biblical view presents a far more liberating picture, a never-ending journey of new discoveries and challenges. There is greater value and satisfaction in sharing oneself rather than in gratifying oneself. I’m engaged now, and I’ve really had to think through these things to prepare give of myself to another person.

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    Love emerges from the actions of love and not always from the emotions of love and affection and passion. Our human broken understanding really messes this up, doesn’t it? We would so much rather not do the good God calls us to do, until it’s convenient &/or we feel like it! At its best, our example in marriage reflects God’s steadfast & ongoing love in action for us to our children, community and world.

  • Tom F.

    To be loved in light of who you really are is what love is all about.

    I guess in light of all of these questions about feelings, I would like to point out that they are much maligned but wholly necessary. What if someone knew exactly who you were, and did loving actions to you, but refused to express feelings of love to you. Would that be enough?

    Or imagine being married to someone for years, and now imagine that this person has no emotions. They acknowledge you, they are responsible in the relationship, they even go out of their way to care for your needs. But when you ask them, what do you feel about me, they say, “My emotions do not matter, I have made a commitment to you, and I will live up to my commitment.”

    Is that what God has in mind for marriage? It seems not, and yet, if the foundation of marriage is about promise, not passion, what is missing here? We need to find a place for emotions in the foundation, not just at the margins.

    I do think that you can do “loving actions” and you will develop a love for a person…if the relationship is otherwise safe and trustworthy. But encouraging “loving actions” in the context of an unsafe relationship can be oppressive.

    Feelings are God-made and important. They can be co-opted by individualism, but they are not in themselves bad.

  • Anna

    Tom F., thank you for this.


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