Published in Connections Magazine (May/June 2013)
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After earning my Masters in Theology, I decided to attend a nearby seminary to take courses for my Masters of Divinity Equivalent. In choosing to attend this seminary, I knew the theology of the seminary was not necessarily similar to my own, but I also believed I could maintain my integrity while attending this particular institution. Soon there were many experiences that made it very obvious that the theology of this institution was dramatically different from my own, one of which came in a class on weddings and funerals.
There were around 50 participants in the class. In the first session, we discussed what we believed marriage to be theologically. Of the professors, teaching assistants and students (40-50 people total), only three of us believed marriage to be a covenant. Furthermore, we were the only ones to believe marriage had anything to do with God at all. It did not take me long to decide to drop this course.
This incident is something that has stuck with me for years and has served as a powerful reminder of the significance of covenant. We have lost sight of covenant in the world today, both in our culture and in the church. Instead, we approach things in a transactional, consumeristic, business-minded way. The state of marriage in the United States—both inside and outside the church—is, as many view it, a dying institution.
Herein lies the problem: marriage was never meant to be an institution. Marriage is meant to be a relational covenant that is more about God than the married participants. While marriage makes the individual husband and wife stronger and creates a new, united flesh and spirit, marriage should not be limited to its human impact.
There are varying definitions of covenant. It is often treated as a contract that has the support of God, but this view is limited. We see covenant modeled throughout the Scriptures. Covenant starts with God, and it is not at all a contract. It is not something we earn, nor is it about our performance. Covenant is rooted in the character and nature of God and His presence in our lives. Covenant is about relationship.
Mike Breen in his book Covenant and Kingdom discusses covenant in a particular way, yet his definition and characterization of covenant applies to marriage as well. Breen sees covenant in terms of our relationship with God as well as our relationship with everyone else. For Breen, there are three essential elements of covenant: “the fatherhood of God, identity and obedience.” These three are linked as the fatherhood of God reminds us that our identity flows from our relationship with God, and obedience is simply consistently living out our identity in Christ.
As I think about marriage, it is clear first and foremost that marriage is about the character and nature of God. Marriage as a covenant is rooted in who Christ is and not who the individuals in the married couple are. Honoring the marriage covenant, God, one another and the one flesh we have become is simply an expression of who we are in Christ Jesus.
Marriage is not easy. Very few valuable and transformative things are. Relationships are messy and difficult. While we crave and need community, we struggle to understand what it means to live in community, especially in the midst of difficulty and disagreement. The average age for marrying is increasing, and fewer couples are choosing to get married. Divorce rates are consistently identical inside and outside of the church, and many marriages (inside and outside of the church) are dead—if not toxic. We have lost sight of the meaning, power and importance of covenant.
Covenant requires us to look outside of ourselves to Christ. Covenant requires us to find a way to build a relationship of deepening commitment and love in the midst of the joy, suffering and mundane seasons of life together. While it is much easier to walk away from community than it is to commit to it, we are called to the harder covenant task, especially in marriage.
While there are challenges to marriage, at its core marriage is much more a gift than it is a challenge. Covenant may be difficult, but covenant is ultimately not about us nor is it something we are meant to do alone. The gift of covenant is that it connects us to God and to one another. It forces us to rely on God and to look to Him for our identity. We do not have to make it work; we have to become more like Christ so that it will work, no matter what we experience.
In the covenant of marriage, both husband and wife can grow closer to God and one another. Each can begin to discover aspects of their identity in Christ that they would have not found without this amazing covenant gift of marriage.
We need a renewal of covenant in our lives, our marriages, our homes, our families and our churches. This renewal begins with us. The greatest gift of marriage to future generations is that it can be the powerful model of what healthy, Christ- centered covenant can be to our children.
One of the things I wrestle with frequently as a parent is modeling healthy Christian community to my children. I am not talking about sterile, perfect community, but rather authentic, honest, Christ-centered community. In marriage we experience moments of great joy and moments of deep pain. Marriage is riddled with success, failure, love, hurt, pain, joy, blessing, challenge, growth and community.
The marriage covenant models Christian community to our children as they watch and walk with us as we try to live out this great covenant call. Our children have the opportunity to see us succeed and fail as we try to walk with Christ in the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly and the mundane.
Our families can walk together in all of life’s moments and experiences in a way that is focused on our identity in Christ and our covenant relationship with God and one another. In marriage and family life we can figure out together what it means to live in community, be focused on Christ and committed to one another while focused on love.
It is time to reclaim covenant and to live our lives in our marriages, our families and our churches in a way that models the kind of community Christ died for. In living in covenant
relationship with one another, we can model a different way of living for our children and grandchildren that will change them—as well as change the world.
Marcus J. Carlson
is a pastor and spiritual director who has worked in youth and children’s ministry for over 13 years. He serves as Associate Pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church, Colorado Springs, CO. Marcus and his wife, Jessica, have two children.