What is the difference between covenant and contract relationships?

In the early years of our marriage, we were in a covenant, but I was acting like we were in a contract which caused my wife to feel pressured to perform up to my unspoken expectations. A covenant and a contract are like a right and left hand – you need to know when to use one or the other. Covenants are for personal relationships, like marriage. Contracts are for professional relationships, like business. Here’s a summary of the difference between contract relationships and covenant relationships.

Contract                                vs                               Covenant

Between 2 people                                                  Between 3 people

I seek my will                                                                       We seek God’s will

You serve me                                                          We serve each other

Performance is recorded                                       No record of wrongs is kept

Failure is punished                                                 Failure was punished at the cross

Win-lose                                                                   Win-win

A professional relationship                                    A personal relationship


This distinction between covenants and contract explains three kinds of people:

  • People who only understand contracts win at work with their professional relationships and lose at home with their personal relationships. One example is someone we knew who was very successful in the business world, but wearied their family with constant demands, expectations, and criticisms that made family dinner feel like a nightly performance review with a boss who was impossible to please.
  • People who only understand covenants win at home with their personal relationships but lose at work with their professional relationships. One example was a kind, gracious, trusting Christian man who started renovating a home for someone else without a contract and merely a handshake agreement since they both said they were Christians. Once he finished the remodel, rather than paying, the homeowner bankrupted the trusting man because they did not have a contract to protect him.
  • People who understand both covenants and contracts win at home with their personal relationships and win at work with their professional relationships.

The governance of a covenant is singular headship and plural leadership. To be the head does not mean that the person is a bossy bully or domineering danger. To be the head means to bear additional responsibility which means that even if something is not the head’s fault, out of love they make it their responsibility and get involved. This is exactly what our new covenant Head, Jesus Christ, did by coming to earth to take responsibility for human sin that was not His fault.

For the Christian, your relationship with God is covenantal and the Father is your singular head, exercising plural leadership with the Son and Spirit. For the Christian church, our relationship with God is also covenantal as Jesus is our covenant “head” (1). who leads with human and divine leaders (e.g. angels and other divine beings like the sons of God) in the church (2). For the Christian family, their relationships are supposed to be covenantal as well with the father as the head (3) and father and mother to be honored and obeyed as plural leaders. (4)

Great problems arise when we fail to appropriately operate in contractual and covenantal relationships. Often, this includes forgetting that marriage and family are supposed to be covenant relationships. God reminds us of this in Malachi 2:10,13-14: “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?…And this second thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. But you say, ‘Why does he not?’ Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.”

From the beginning, families have suffered when heads like Adam do not engage in relationship with their family, love enough to speak into troubles, and take the initiative to do what is glorifying to God and good for their family. Many, if not most, of the social problems we face are because of the failure of people, starting with men, to understand the difference between contractual and covenantal relationships.

Perhaps a closing illustration will help. Before we had our five children, and our family had just a few young kids, I took our oldest daughter swimming in a pool one summer day. We were having fun throwing her into the air to splash down loudly over and over. We were alone in the pool, until three teenagers arrived – one girl wearing a small bikini with a boy on each arm. They jumped in the pool and each boy swam to opposite corners. The girl started in the middle of the pool flirting with each boy until she swam up to one boy and began aggressively making out with him. Some time later, she swam to the other boy and did the exact same thing. Startled, our daughter swam up to process what had happened with me. Whispering, she asked, “Daddy, did you see what that girl was doing with those boys?” I said, “Yes sweetheart, I’m sorry you had to see that. What are you thinking?” She said, “I just think it’s really sad…that she doesn’t have a better dad.” That is loving covenantal thinking.



(1) Ephesians 1:22, 4:15, 5:23; Colossians 1:18, 2:10, 2:19

(2) As one example, in Revelation 2-3 Jesus speaks to both the human leaders in the church as well as the divine leader or “angel” in each of the seven churches.
(3) 1 Corinthians 11:3, 11:7; Ephesians 5:23
(4) Genesis 28:7 Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16; Proverbs 30:17; Matthew 15:4-6, 19:19, Mark 7:10, 10:19, Luke 18:20, Ephesians 6:2.

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