I'm spending two weeks on Sunday mornings talking about an idea central to our tradition of Christian thinking: covenant. It's an idea about how God related to us, we related to God, how we best related to each other because of God, and how the church thinks about society. It's a big idea. And it's harder and harder to talk about in a culture that seems to see relationships more like contracts than covenants.
If you look at the dictionary, you might see covenant and contract treated like synonyms, with each word naming agreements we make to limit and describe how we're going to relate to each other: "You do this . . . I'll do that. You don't do this . . . I can do that." But in the church, we've seen it differently. We've seen covenant and contract as different ways of relating, each important but also different. They can merge in the middle a little bit, but they're still different.
Try this on for size:
Before ever being an agreement, a covenant starts as a promise.
That promise comes before an agreement, and makes some agreements possible.
The promise that allows a covenant is an expression of our character, our self. It is a giving over of our selves to an idea, or another, or an obligation, or a relationship. It is declared, made, demonstrated. It creates community. While initiated by one side, it evokes a response from the other and so makes all its participants. We are changed by it. A covenant often requires sacrifice on the part of the one making it.
A contract is concluded after a process of negotiation of interests, needs, and desires. It allows people to protect themselves before giving themselves. A contract requires skills and resources on the part of its parties, to fulfill its expectations. In this way, a contract manages exchanges between and among individuals, limits our claims on each other and defines our roles.
A covenant is often very spare, even sparse, in language--speaking in broad terms that will guide how we act through time and change. Think of marriage vows, committing one’s whole life in very few words. Think of a parent's open-ended, "I love you," to a baby. We know how much that means, even when we don't say it all. Covenants are so spare because they're built on trust.
Contracts can be detailed and long, often because they're built on suspicion. They're built on the human condition of imperfection, misunderstanding, and forgetfulness. They can be detailed, ironically, because they're not meant to last. They usually have an end date, or clear ways to break them. If you break a covenant, which we can, we lose a bit of ourselves. If you break a contract, you simply suffer the agreed-on sanctions.
Covenant participates in a larger story that makes sense of it and includes its participants. Therefore, covenants can survive strain. They can remain intact through much intrigue and imperfection, and restored if violated--not always, but often enough.
Contracts seem to be stronger, because they can be so specific and have those sanctions built in, but they are actually far less resilient than covenants. You see, they're largely on or off, fulfilled or broken, more litigious and argumentative, with violations more threatening. Covenants have a higher calling, for they involve one’s whole self.
So a summary:
Covenants create relationships rather than manage exchanges.
Covenants can embrace ambiguity and so are spare in language, while contracts cannot and so are not.
Covenants bind us to each other in larger story, while contracts preserve our separation from each other and our individual stories.
Is your life a balance of covenants and contracts, tilting a little more toward covenants?
How do you relate to God?
How do you relate to others, at the many levels of your life?
How do you think about the church?
How do you think about how bound we are to each other in the community we call the world?