Covenant and Culture

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The word covenant is a theological term. But it is also a cultural term. It has to do with God’s primal design for how human beings, fallen though we be, can live together and form a society. Social philosophers and political theorists talk about the “social compact” or the “social contract.” The concept in its different nuances was developed by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, though it goes back to the ancient Greeks. It states that governments and, indeed, cultures entail a tacit but binding agreement between parties: I will obey your laws if you protect my rights. I will surrender some of my freedom for the good of the group, if the group will take care of my needs that I cannot provide by myself.

Now the social contract theory ignores the sense in which authority — including the foundation of human institutions such as the family and the state — derives not from arbitrary human trade-offs but from God (Rom. 13). People do not usually sign a contract when they join a family, a tribe, or a nation. Rather, except in the case of adoption or legal immigration, they are born into that institution. They are under its laws and customs whether or not they consent to them.

Societies are “given,” not drawn up like a rental agreement. But they do — by God’s design and His created order — entail mutual commitments, agreements, and promises. That is, they involve covenants.

The family, anthropologists agree, is the foundation of every culture. And family, as invented by God, has to do with covenants.

Marriage is a covenant, in which a man and a woman promise to live together in faithfulness. Sexual relations are authorized within and by authority of the marriage covenant and nowhere else. (People who have sex with someone they are not married to have no authority to do so. They are presuming to act without a covenant.)

Sexual relations are designed to engender new life. Parenthood is also entering into a covenant. Parents have the responsibility to care for their children and to form them into responsible adults. This is true of both married and unmarried parents, Christians and non-Christians, though Christian parents have the additional covenantal obligation to their children to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).

And children have the covenantal responsibility to honor and obey their parents and to care for them when the time comes (Eph. 6:1–3; 1 Tim. 5:8).

The every-day workings of the economy — working, buying, selling — entail covenants. You agree to go to work, whereupon your boss agrees to pay you. In return for your labor, you receive a piece of paper with writing on it: your paycheck, which you can cash at the bank for more pieces of paper. That paper has no intrinsic value in itself, but it can be exchanged for tangible goods and services because of a covenant.

Adam Smith, the great theoretician of capitalism, wrote much about “the invisible hand” of market forces in a free economy. But all of that unregulated economic activity, he said, depends on a moral foundation. He might have said a covenantal foundation.

A free economy cannot work unless all parties honor their contracts. That is, unless they keep their covenants. Companies have to trust that customers will pay them for their goods, and those customers have to trust that the company will deliver the product and that it is what it was claimed to be. Both parties have to trust their bankers.

I once had a conversation with a citizen of the former Soviet Union who decried the difficulty of establishing a functioning free economy after the fall of communism. He said that the communists had wrecked the society’s moral infrastructure. As a result, ex-Soviets often lacked respect for private property and the promise-keeping habit entailed in honoring contracts. And without them, he said, economic growth is impossible.

Government and law, policies and customs, contracts and hand-shake deals — they all have to do with covenants. Every time you sign your name to a document — a check, a mortgage agreement, a video rental slip — you are making a covenant. When you make a promise, give your word, or say that you will do something and follow through, you are making a covenant.

We also break our covenants. Husbands and wives neglect each other, break their wedding vows, and sometimes just get divorced. Parents fail to spend enough time with their children, letting them grow up un-nurtured and ignored. Children rebel against their parents. Employers misuse their workers, and workers cheat their employers of an honest day’s work. They both sometimes manipulate and cheat their customers. Stealing, lying, and other ways of hurting our neighbors instead of loving them as ourselves are violations of the social covenant that we have with them. Covenant-breaking, whether against God or against our neighbor, is sin.

Good thing that God does not break His covenant. He not only keeps His part of the bargain, in Christ He keeps our part of the bargain too. He is the restorer of broken covenants.

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