Covenant Vs. Contract
“Here beyond men’s judgments all covenants were brittle.”
Here’s Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s take on covenants and contracts:
“In a sale the two partners to the contract think of their own advantage. The whole content of a real marriage might be summed up in the statement that the two who are partners are each expected to care more for the other partner’s happiness than their own! No marriage could survive twenty-four hours if the couple should apply the rule of the law of contracts to their common life. While in business everybody minds his own business, in any dual [relationship] one partner minds the other partner’s business. A wife shall care for her man’s health more than for her own, and her husband shall care more for her comfort than for his own. To judge a marriage on the basis of the law of contract is an aberration from logical thinking.
“There is another side to the question. The duties derived from a contract are fixed in the beginning. The duties in any true [covenant] partnership are in permanent flux; they are the result not of the words spoken at the beginning but of the acts of the partners to the relationship while it lasts. These actions have a polarizing effect upon the two. The more you become my friend, the more I shall become yours. The mutual dependance is graded, and in the normal evolution of dual relations the two individuals are more and more encircled and transformed into the foci of one eclipse. Consequently, the action of each partner is shaping the form of the dual [relationship]. The polarity is established more definitely each time.
“Finally, the two are agents of a corporate body for which they stand, for from it they derive their activities. This becomes very clear in cases of absence or death of one partner. Then not only does one try to represent the other but also the general reaction of the partner who is left behind is that of stressing the point of view, the line of action, and the interest of the partner who has passed away. In a contract, however, I am free when the other party ceases to exist. It is a pluralistic or individualistic arrangement. Under the dual [arrangement] I am spell bound by the law of polarization. I remain the other half the more my second self is in decline or is prevented from taking his place.
“So we can say that a contract by which one party surrenders to the other would be void. Contracts are and must remain temporary arrangements for the individual forms of our existence, fleeting conglomerations for work and against nature outside. But in matrimony a wife surrenders her beauty and health to her husband for better, for worse. And the man surrenders his adventures, his infinite chances. How can such a perilous exposure of the whole being be treated as the result of a willful arrangement between two individuals? In a contract I try to get as much as possible, and to remain as unchanged as possible. In any partnership [covenant] I throw in my lot today without knowing where I shall be tomorrow.”
~The Multiformity of Man (Norwich, VT: Argo Books  1973), pp. 54-55 (emphasis mine).
In my last post, I focused on loyalty mainly in the context of a contract. In a contract one will stay loyal so long as the other party is living up to their end of the deal. In a covenant, however, one will stay loyal so long as the other party is still alive, and perhaps even beyond that as Rosenstock-Huessy suggests above.
There are three main differences between covenants and contracts as Rosenstock-Huesy lists in the quote…
- A contract will have the duties listed for both parties at the beginning of the arrangement. Once those duties are fulfilled, the contract is over. The duties of a covenant are ever changing as the covenant is an unending agreement. What the parties agree to at the start of the covenant is to stay loyal to the covenant.
- Contracts must be temporary. Covenants must be permanent.
- In a contract my motives are purely selfish as I try to get as much as possible out of the deal, and I try to change as little as possible while satisfying my duties in the deal. In a covenant, I give up my selfish ambitions for the sake of the other party. I do change in the present and over time in order to meet the needs of my partner.
To stay loyal in a covenant is entirely up to me. I commit myself to my partner even if he/she cannot fulfill his/her duties.
Not all covenants are created equal. Not all relationships must be covenants. That isn’t even realistic. Sometimes a contract makes more sense. Don’t enter into a contract and then hold the other party to the conditions of a covenant. If you’re expected to fulfill certain duties in exchange for the resources of the other party, don’t get angry when, as you neglect your duties, you don’t receive their resources. Don’t enter into a covenant and treat it as a contract. If your wife breaks her leg and can’t cook for six weeks, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to fulfill your husbandly duties for those weeks.
I’ve noticed that when politics get ugly within an organization sometimes it is because there is not a clear definition of the relationship. One party thinks they’re in a covenant, while the other thinks they’re in a contract. Or, they both agree what kind of relationship they’re in, but the definitions of contract and covenant are not clearly known by one or both parties.
I’ve heard before that the difference between a contract and covenant is that a contract is 50/50, while a covenant is 100/100. But actually, a contract is 100/100 too. The difference is what the 100 refers to and for how long.
Enter a contract when…
- …you want to pursue your own agenda and you need someone else’s resources to do so.
- …you don’t want to be attached to the other party indefinitely.
- …you want to be free from your obligation if the other party does not fulfill theirs.
Enter a covenant when…
- …you want the other party to prosper over and above yourself.
- …you want a life long relationship, for better or for worse.
- …you’re willing to uphold the covenant, and its purpose, even when your partner cannot do the same.
Obviously, contracts and covenants are quite different, and you don’t want to enter into one when you should be entering into the other. Know what you want first and choose wisely.