In our book God, Marriage & Family we state that marriage is a covenant, in fact, even more than a covenant. We also note that marriage is a divine institution with covenantal features.
Some who hold to a “no divorce, no remarriage” view have objected to this categorization since it falls short of affirming the indissolubility of marriage under all circumstances as their view requires. They characterize marriage as a “covenant in which God participates” and presuppose that Old Testament covenants such as the Abrahamic covenant are paradigmatic for the husband-wife relationship.
But is God a party to the marriage covenant in exactly the same way as he is a party to the Abrahamic or other Old Testament covenants?
Old Testament Covenants
The Abrahamic covenant was between God and Abraham (representing God’s people); marriage is between a man and a woman before God and on the basis of God’s institution of marriage at creation. God is a party in the Abrahamic covenant (entering into covenant commitments, making certain promises, ensuring fulfillment, etc.); God is a witness to the marriage covenant between the man and the woman, as well as the Creator. He is not a party in a particular marriage in the same sense that he is a party in the covenants he directly initiated and entered such as the Abrahamic covenant.
In my view, Albert Mohler’s wording is exactly right when he says that “marriage is presented [in the Bible] as a sacred institution, a covenant made between the man and the woman before their Creator.”
For this reason, if a given marriage fails, it is not as if God had failed—nor does his being Creator and witness guarantee the indissolubility of any particular marriage (as the Roman Catholic Church teaches, calling marriage a “sacrament” and disallowing divorce). Marriages can be broken—most notably through adultery, which in the Old Testament was punishable by death through stoning. Marriages in that case were severed by death of the adulterous spouse. They were not indissoluble!
The New Covenant
If the Old Testament covenants were indissoluble, why was there a need for a “new covenant” (see the Book of Hebrews, citing Jeremiah 31)? And why did so many individual Israelites not enter into God’s rest (i.e. salvation) as the Book of Hebrews reminds us?
The reason, I submit, is because it is only in Christ and in the new covenant he instituted with the Church that true believers are inextricably connected with God in an unbreakable covenant relationship. It is God’s plan and will that marriages be monogamous and lifelong, but as Jesus and Paul arguably allow, marriages can be severed in certain, clearly delineated circumstances.
For this reason we should take care not to equate too facilely all covenants in Scripture and allow Scripture itself to inform our understanding of the nature of marriage.
One final thought: Is it just a coincidence that “covenant” terminology (such as the Greek word for covenant, diathēkē) is not used for marriage in the New Testament? Instead, Paul, in his major discussion of the subject, Ephesians 5:21–33, uses the analogy of Christ’s relationship with the Church. This involves the principles of headship and submission, self-sacrifice, love, and respect. In Christ, the marriage relationship is restored as the “one flesh” union it was intended to be in the first place, just as Christ and the Church sustain intimate union with Christ as the head and the Church as the body of Christ.
Marriage is a covenant, defined as “a divine institution entered into by a man and a woman before God,” but it is even more. It is a one-flesh union, redeemed and restored in Christ, so that a Christian couple may bring glory to God by witnessing to his lordship, self-sacrifice, and love in all submission and respect.
For Further Study
See Andreas J. Kostenberger with David W. Jones, God, Marriage, and Family (2nd ed.; Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), chap. 4.