The Voice: Spring 2002

The Voice

"Covenant" makes a come back

By Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

The word “covenant” seems to be making a come back—at least here in Iowa. In fact a debate over the meaning of the word “covenant” recently spilled over into the front pages of our statewide newspaper, the Des Moines Register.

Some of our Iowa legislators have determined to do something to help strengthen family structures within our state and have proposed what they call a “Covenant Marriage Act.”

As I understand it, this proposal will give people an alternative to entering a standard contractual marriage that can be legally dissolved at any time with no legal obstacles. Instead, prospective husbands and wives could choose to enter a “covenant” marriage, agreeing to a number of restrictions (such as counseling) that would have to be fulfilled before the marriage relationship could be dissolved.

Whatever the merits of these particular legislative proposals, what astounds me is that the word “covenant” is being vigorously debated on the pages of our secular media. I have often been told that the word “covenant” is meaningless in our contemporary world, and that Christians ought to abandon it. But now this word that many Christians wanted to toss out as unintelligible is being used with abandon on television and radio talk shows across our state. Apparently “covenant” still communicates—at least in the secular media, if not among Christians.

What I appreciate about this return of the word “covenant” is that the word has played such a key role in the history of Dordt College. Throughout the first half century of its existence Dordt College has emphasized what has been called a “covenant-kingdom perspective.” At its simplest, this meant that we believed true education best takes place within the relationships of a believing community (covenant) as we prepare for service in every part of his world over which Christ reigns (kingdom).

Indeed, the covenant side of this principle shows up in a host of ways within our college. For instance, it is demonstrated in the residential campus that we have developed so that ninety percent of our students can literally live right on campus as part of a Christian learning community. The covenant perspective also takes concrete form as our trustees seek out and appoint only faculty who share this biblical perspective in order to guide and mentor students within that part of the covenant community that takes shape on the Dordt campus.

Similarly, rather than a code of conduct that outlines a host of rules for our student life, we give each student a guide called “Living in Christian Community.” And while we do specify particular areas that need special attention in a community of 1400 young people, in general there is only one rule: Don’t do anything that breaks down Christian community. In other words, anyone who is disciplined at Dordt College basically is disciplined for violating the covenant that God’s people have as they live in relationship with each other and their Lord.

A few years ago I enjoyed a memorable dinner conversation in which the president of a Mennonite college and I discovered that we both had to use the term “covenant” to explain what we meant by Christian higher education to a colleague from a prestigious secular university. Although Anabaptist and Reformed perspectives on covenant generally have diverged quite sharply, if we hadn’t had the word “covenant” available, I can't imagine that the three of us could have had a very productive discussion at all. There just don’t seem to be many good substitutes available in its place.

That’s why I am glad to see that the word has made a come back—at least in popular media. In fact, the word has been used so frequently in the political discussion that a controversy has arisen over whether the term “covenant” is simply too religious and probably should be kept out of the legislation altogether.

But this whole development over the public use of the term “covenant” also has left me somewhat unsettled. It seems ironic that as the secular media starts using the word freely, even claiming that it carries religious connotations, many Christians have abandoned the word “covenant” altogether—apparently out of self-stimulated embarrassment or a self-induced fear of being misunderstood.

Overall, however, given how crucial the word “covenant” has been to describing the nature of a Christian learning community that is at the heart of the Dordt College identity, I’m glad that the word is back, and I truly hope that we’ll use it much more in the future.