Covenants and Contracts

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Jeffrey Thayne

I recently read an article by Ed Gantt and Stan Knapp entitled “Marriage: Of Contracts, Commitments, and Covenants.” As a missionary, I frequently taught investigators the meaning of the word covenant. Because the word is so infrequently used in modern society, I would use an unfortunate metaphor they were already familiar with: an economic contract. Although in many ways this metaphor can approximate the nature of a covenant, it seems clear to me now that covenants and contracts are based upon very different assumptions. Gantt and Knapp explain:

Today, outside theological circles, the term covenant is most often invoked as a synonym for contract and taken to refer to a two-way promise between mutually interested, and more or less equally powerful, parties. … The modern tendency to equate covenant and contract obscures the fact that covenant has historically been used to refer to a relationship with God that cannot be understood as a mere contract.1

Focus on the Self or on the Other

Contractual agreements, Gantt and Knapp explain, are based upon instrumental egoism. The dictionary defines egoism as “an ethical theory that treats self-interest as the foundation of morality.”2 The adjective instrumental is defined as “relating to something’s function as a means to an end.”3 A contract is formed when two parties, each with particular needs or wants, make an agreement to supply the other’s wants in exchange for their own. Each party supplies the other’s wants, but they do so because the arrangement is the means by which their own needs are met. The other person is a means to an end; the primary motivation is self-interest.

The “asymmetrical and obligatory nature of a covenant relationship”1 does not operate under the same set of assumptions. A covenant is, indeed, an oath and an agreement, but its purpose is not the satisfaction of “needs” or the self-interested exchange of goods. It is a commitment to complete dedication and service to the other. Gantt and Knapp note that the only two people with whom we make a covenant is God and our spouse. We are clearly indebted to God, as King Benjamin said, for all that we have and are, and we are therefore invited to enter into a covenant with Him to serve Him and dedicate our lives to Him. When we enter into the marriage covenant with our spouse, we dedicate and commit ourselves to our spouse in a very similar way. Gantt and Knapp explain, “Marriage, thus, is a relationship that by its very nature summons us and calls upon us to keep our responsibilities for our spouse and to receive the invitation to live for the life of another.”1 This obligation transcends the mere transactional relationship of a contract. Gantt and Knapp continue:

In covenant, the other to whom I have promised my whole soul and to whom I have dedicated my will, is not an object whose instrumentality is defined by the degree of frustration or gratification they can provide me in the course of our relationship. Further, neither I nor my spouse are independent contractors cunningly negotiating particular goods and services in a market of hard bargains, estimated risks, and skillful communication whose ultimate goal is always to achieve the best (i.e., most personally gratifying) deal possible. Rather, on the covenant model of marriage, the one with whom I have entered into covenant is fully other in his or her own right, worthy as such of my deepest respect and reverence, a divine other to whom I am obligated and for whom I am responsible—before and beyond myself. Indeed, it is this divine other before whom and in whom I find the very foundations of my own humanity as I take upon myself to share his or her burdens, struggles, joys, pains, fears, failures, and triumphs.1

Applying the Distinction

This covenantal understanding of marriage directly contradicts contemporary egoistic conceptions of marriage, in which marriage is understood “as a sort of contractual arrangement between two independent, and presumably equal, parties seeking to maximize individual benefit through a mutually rewarding but ultimately economic or instrumental relationship.”1 In contemporary culture, “the goodness of marriage is determined by its evaluation by the self and how well it as a relational source of gratification meets the particular needs of the self.”1 Gantt and Knapp invite therapists to re-examine the egoistic assumptions that guide many of their theories and marital strategies:

As the language of therapy shifts away from the conceptually problematic and alienating vocabulary of individual needs and wants, with its attendant strategies of communication and negotiation, and instead moves toward a liberating vocabulary of compassionate service and forgiveness, the problems and struggles of making a marriage start to radically change as new and often unimagined possibilities begin to open up.1

Continued in “Love Stories and Business Deals.”


1. Ed Gantt and Stan Knapp, “Marriage: Of Contracts, Commitments, and Covenants,” Brigham Young University.
2., “egoism.”
3., “instrumental.”


  1. After giving it considerable careful thought, I’m going to have say that this Gantt character is without a doubt one of the 175,000 smartest people alive at the moment. 🙂

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