“Covenant! We don’t know anything about covenant. All we have is contract…”
I was talking to a local believer who was about a year into his faith. He was beaming as he spoke, grinning from ear to ear.
He continued, “In Christianity, marriage is a covenant. In Islam, it’s just a contract. Everything is like this. Even our religion is like a contract. It can all be canceled. It can all be broken.”
“Really?” I asked. “Do you use the word for covenant for anything? Is there no meaning for that word in your language?”
“The only thing we use the word covenant for is Jihad. That’s it.”
I shook my head, feeling simultaneously the joy of deeper insight into the local culture and not a little corresponding trepidation. We are trying to church plant in a culture whose only understanding for covenant looks like Al Qaeda.
“But I love our church covenant,” said this local brother, holding up and waving around the paper it was printed on. “I’m so glad we read it together at our regular meetings. We need to learn how to live like this!”
The brother speaking with me is a member at an English-speaking international church here in Central Asia. He has been growing by leaps and bounds and leading family members to Christ. Ironically, many missionaries would be quick to dismiss the use of a Western church covenant in this context as a failure to contextualize. Paternalists, they might claim. Yet once again, part of grandpa’s traditional Christianity proved to be surprisingly effective contextualization. My local friend was delighting in how the concept of covenant had hit a blind-spot in his worldview – and had changed everything.
Yes, there were conditional covenants in human history that were similar in some ways to contracts. But covenants are deeper than contracts. They are sacred. They involve blessings and curses. They warrant abundant life when fulfilled and are worthy of lament and judgement when broken. When we dig into the meaning of the New Covenant in the Scriptures, we find that it is eternal – once for all – accomplished by the loving sacrifice of Christ (Heb 9:26). It is this truth of covenant love that transforms our relationship with God, our membership in spiritual assemblies, and everyday Christian marriage. It is the foundation of our gospel hope. That God will unfailingly keep his covenant with us, come fire, death, or even the end of the world. The local translation renders God’s covenant-keeping love as “love-unchanging.”
Imagine living in a society where your bond with God, with others, with your wife… is just a contract. Easily broken given the terms and conditions. Not secure. Fragile. Temporary.
Our local women go into marriage with tens of thousands of dollars of gold and contractual terms. In the event of divorce, they take all the gold with them, like an insurance payment. It’s almost as if they are planning from the beginning on the marriage being broken. And why not? All it takes in a religious family is for a man who is angry at burnt rice to cry out three times, “I divorce you!” And it’s over. His wife is now a divorcee. She takes her gold. And her shame.
If I had grown up in this kind system – and then found Jesus – I would be beaming and waving my church covenant around just like my friend was. Oh the joy of knowing in your soul that there is something stronger than a contract – and that the God of the universe offers it to you freely.