Chapter 9: The Historical Family Covenant

Ray Sutton

Narrated By: Devan Lindsey
Book: That You May Prosper


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Chapter Text

In our society, there are three basic spheres of life: Family, Church, and State. All three are covenants: legal institutions formed by self-maledictory oaths. Their importance is obvious. In this chapter I want to apply what we learned about the Biblical covenant to history.[1]

Modern man tends to forget that marriage is a covenant. It used to be that two people did not get marriage licenses. Rather, they drew up marriage contracts, and filed them at the city courthouse. Why don’t people do this today? The answer is simple. Contracts make it too hard to secure a divorce. A contract (covenant) is much more binding than a license. In the following, I have reproduced an old marriage contract from 1664/1665.[2]

Marriage Contract
January 20, 1664/65
Plymouth, Massachusetts

This writing witnesses, between Thomas Clarke, late of Plymouth, yeoman, and Alice Nicholls of Boston, widow, that, whereas there is an intent of marriage between the said parties, the Lord succeeding their intentions in convenient time; the agreement, therefore, is that the housing and land now in the possession of the said Alice Nicholls shall be reserved as a stock for her son, John Nicholls, for him to enjoy and possess at the age of twenty and one years, in the meantime to be improved by the parents towards his education. Also, that what estate of hers the said Alice shall be found and committed to the said Mr. Clarke, if it should so please the Lord to take the said Alice out of this life before the said Thomas Clarke, he shall then have the power to dispose of all the said estate sometimes hers so as it seems good to him. Moreover, if it shall please the Lord to take away the said Thomas Clarke by death before the said Alice, she surviving, then the said Alice shall have and enjoy her own estate she brought with her, or the value thereof, and two hundred pounds added thereto of the estate left by the said Thomas Clarke. All which the said Thomas Clarke does hereby promise and bind himself to allow of and perform as a covenant upon their marriage. In witness of all which, the said Thomas Clarke has signed and sealed this present writing to Peter Oliver and William Bartholmew of Boston, for the use and behoof of the said Alice Nicholls. Dated this twentieth day of January 1664.

per me,                                   Thomas Clarke[3]

This historical document is quite revealing. It contains or implies all the features of the Biblical covenant. In the following, let us use the Biblical grid of the last chapter, to evaluate this application.

True Transcendence

The contract has a transcendent character to it. It makes reference to “the Lord” three times. The parties agreed that “the Lord” establishes marriage and the covenant between them. Obviously they presupposed that God had created the institution of marriage, and He had brought them together in “holy” (set apart) matrimony. We know from the history of New England that they were a people who believed this theocentric (God-centered) worldview. They went out of their way to mention the “Lord.” When was the last time you saw any contractual statement that spoke this way?

Marriage is a Divine institution. It is created by lawful representatives of God as a Divinely sanctioned institution. Transcendence is not in the marriage itself. If transcendence shifts to the marriage, then the family becomes a “god”; it is idolized and put on a pedestal. This only further destroys it. Marriage and family cannot take that kind of pressure.

A “well-intentioned” Christian couple sets out to have the “perfect” marriage. In the process, they elevate marriage to an idolatrous position, make it transcendent, and expect too much out of the marriage. Then they have those “normal” problems adjusting. But because they have an almost “deified” view of marriage, they become disillusioned. Sometimes they end up getting a divorce.

How ironic! Modern society, in desperation, creates all kinds of ways – TV shows, books, “marriage encounters,” etc. – to revive the family institution. Even though these techniques might not be bad in and of themselves, in the process, the family is placed in the position of God. The family itself is worshipped. Maybe the spouse or even the children end up at the center of some well-intentioned person’s worldview. In either case, Biblical transcendence is lost. The family itself becomes “god.” The contract above rejects such a notion. It projects a high view of marriage and the family, but not so high that it shatters the Creator/creature distinction.


That what estate of hers the said Alice shall be found and committed to the said Mr. Clarke, if it should so please the Lord to take the said Alice out of this life before the said Thomas Clarke, he shall then have the power to dispose of all the said estate sometimes hers so as it seems good to him….

A Biblical covenant has representatives. The 1665 marriage does something that might tend to go unnoticed, but is quite revealing about the representative character of the relationship between these two parties. The covenant is in the name of the man. Why? He represents both parties. According to the original language of the New Testament (Greek), the very word for “family” is derived from the word for “father.” Paul says, “For this reason I bow my knees to the Father [Pater]’ from whom every family [Patria] in heaven and on earth derives its name” (Eph. 3:14-15). Both Greek words come from the same root. This representation of God by the father originated with the first marriage between Adam and Eve. Adam “named” Eve and declared her to be his wife. Moses says for this reason a “man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife” (Gen. 2:24). To “name” something is to set up authority over it. Since the man was given this responsibility, he represented God in a special way. So the emphasis of the Bible is that the man is God’s representative in the household.

In the event that the man dies, leaves, or divorces his wife, she can become the representative. In the Old Testament, as we shall see toward the end of this chapter, the woman became the husband’s “sister” through a process of adoption. She was both wife and sister so that she could be a “co-heir” with the husband. This way, when left without a husband, the woman can lawfully be the family’s representative. An example of a woman who is head of her household is Lydia of the New Testament (Acts 16:11-15).

Whether the man or the woman is head of the household, however, the family has representatives. They represent the Lord.

This brings us to the government of the household. Since the covenant is in the man’s name, he is head of the household. We can assume that the woman takes his name because she is under his authority. The idea of changing names grows out of the Biblical passage where Adam gave Eve her name (Gen. 2:23). More than anything else it meant that Eve was under the authority of Adam. The Bible is very clear that the governmental structure of the household is that man is the head. He is the provider and has the final say in the decision making process. Actually, he is a manager. He can delegate responsibilities, but the “buck stops with him.”

The role of the wife in this hierarchy is that she is the husband’s top advisor. The contract mentions certain provisions for the wife’s child from a previous marriage. Probably she advised the new father regarding these stipulations. Is this Biblical? Definitely. In the ancient city of Hur – the city from which Abraham was called – archaeologists have discovered copies of “Hurrian marriage contracts.” These contracts stipulate that the wife also becomes the sister of the husband. In addition, it was customary to make the sons brothers to the father.

In Hurrian society the bonds of marriage were strongest and most solemn when the wife had simultaneously the juridical status of a sister, regardless of actual blood ties. This is why a man would sometimes marry a girl and adopt her at the same time as his sister, in two separate steps recorded in independent legal documents. Violations of such sistership arrangements were punished more severely that breaches of marriage contracts. The practice was apparently a reflection of the underlying fratriarchal system, and it gave the adoptive brother greater authority than was granted the husband. By the same token, the adopted sister enjoyed correspondingly greater protection and higher social status.[4]

More than likely, the same type of contract was practiced in the Bible (Gen. 24:1-67; Song of Solomon). This sheds much light on the passages in Genesis where Abraham told Abimelech, the King of Egypt, that Sarah (his wife) was his sister (Gen. 20:1ff.). Abraham was not lying to Abimelech. He had legally adopted Sarah as his sister. Why? The bride was the top advisor of the husband. She shared in the inheritance, and could rule in the father’s absence.

The role of advisor is powerful. The advisor usually wields more influence than the person in authority. Consider, for example, who has more power: The President of the United States or his advisory cabinet? It is the latter. The President almost never goes against his advisors. They are the primary source of the information that flows to him, on which he will base his decisions, in counsel with them. They are the people to whom the bureaucratic hierarchies report. The Bible presents the woman as having this kind of influence over the husband. The positive Biblical example is Esther, the Jewish Queen of the Persian Emperor, Ahasuerus (Xerxes). When Haman, a vicious member of the king’s court, plotted against her people and relative, Mordecai, she used her advisory power to get him hanged (Esth. 4:1ff.; 7:10). This is ultimately a picture of how God’s Bride, the Church, advises the kings of the world to get the wicked hanged from their own gallows. But at a very basic level, it is a Biblical view of the power of the role of the wife. It is the role which God has ordained for her.

The contract above also mentions that the woman was bringing with her a sizeable estate. This may have been what was left from the previous marriage. Maybe it was her inheritance or gift from her father. In either case, we see the ability of the woman to deal in business matters. The Puritan woman was often left to run the household and even bring in extra income while the husband was away. This too is a Biblical idea. The woman of Proverbs 31 was a shrewd business woman, quite familiar with the ways of the market place. There is nothing wrong with a woman’s working, as long as it does not jeopardize her domestic responsibilities.

The hierarchy of the Puritan covenant is clear. God is the transcendent authority, and the father represents Him to the family. The wife stands with the father as his top advisor. She has delegated authority and the children must submit to her because she represents the father.


All which the said Thomas Clarke does hereby promise and bind himself to all of and perform as a covenant upon their marriage.

The marriage covenant between Clarke and Nicholls is ethical. Both parties are responsible to provide certain tangible items. But again it should be underscored that the Lord was the final authority of this covenant. They were living according to some sort of transcendent law. Recalling what we said about the ethical character of the covenant in the last chapter, ethical stands in contrast to magical. We can work our way into the significance of this distinction with our “totem pole” analogy.

Mormonism is a classic example of a modern religion that has a magical view of authority, since it believes that man evolves and becomes a “god” on other planets.[5] Lorenzo Snow, former president of the Mormon Church, said, “As man is, God once was: as God is, man may become.”[6] This is a totem-pole religion. It has a “chain of being” view of life and the world. This means the family plays an important role, and specifically the father. The following diagram is somewhat like the totem-pole analogy used earlier. This time we will not draw a totem pole, just a column representing the static, vertical, continuum of life.







In the diagram, the reader should notice that the father is the “link” between god and the rest of the family. Remember that since god is in time and part of creation, the father is a physical extension. He contains within him the “stuff” out of which god is made. When he impregnates his wife, he is passing the spark of the “divine” into her womb. The pantheon of the gods is being extended. As one Mormon leader said, “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy.”[7] Brigham Young even said,

How much unbelief exists in the minds of the Latter-day Saints in regard to one particular doctrine which I revealed to them, and which God revealed unto me – namely that Adam is our father and our God…

“Well,” says one, “Why was Adam called Adam?” He was the first man on the earth, and its framer and maker. He with the help of his brethren, brought it into existence. Then he said, “I want my children who are in the spirit world to come and live here. I once dwelt upon an earth something like this, in a mortal state. I was faithful, I received my crown and exaltation.”[8]

This is a magical, perverse view of the family. Adam is “God,” as well as man. Each male is infused with Adamic deity. His children are “spirit babies,” brought into existence by procreation, and so sex deifies humanity.

There are many ramifications, but the governmental and ethical ones are of particular interest. If the father is deity in the home, then the way to god is through the father. Ultimately, the way to god is through sexual union with the male. The hope of the female is to find a man who can impregnate her with the very “being” of god. This is one of the reasons that Mormons have so many children. They are literally putting, according to their theology, little Mormon “gods” on the earth.

Also, since the father is the divine connection between heaven and earth, his authority is absolute. It cannot be contradicted. For example, Mormon books on the role of father and mother, like Man of Steel and Velvet and Fascinating Womanhood, give the father absolute authority.

Biblical authority is not this way. The authority of the home is God, not the father. Whatever the father has is delegated to him. He is a representative of God, not an extension of Him. There are checks and balances. He might sin, and ask his family to do the wrong thing. So, there is a time to disobey the father. The Biblical example is the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1ff.). Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit, and asked his wife to follow him in his disobedience. Because she obeyed her husband, she was executed by God.

The Biblical picture of authority is perhaps best illustrated with a triangle. God is at the top of the pyramid. Father, mother, and children have access to and are directly responsible to God. The father is the legal representative as opposed to magical leader. The father has certain limits and checks and balances on him.

God, Man, Woman - That You May Prosper

The clearest check and balance is that the family can appeal the decisions of the father. Where? In the Church court (I Cor. 6:1ff.), and if civil matters are involved, in the State. Take the Biblical example of Ananias and Sapphira. Because Sapphira had an opportunity to contradict her husband in front of the officers of the Church, this means the Church is a higher court, an appeals court for the family. Significantly, this legal structure broke up the old clan system of Europe. When Christianity began its trek across this barbaric part of the world, there was a constant “Hatfield vs. McCoy” type of feuding. The family had absolute power to convict and even execute its own members. The Church broke down the clans through its court system. It argued that the father does not have absolute authority. The check and balance on his power is the court of the Church.

Such a system developed because the marriage covenant is ethical. The historical marriage covenant, by the fact that there is a set contract, limits the powers of the father, and the mother for that matter. They could not do anything they wanted with each other, or with their children. There were ethical boundaries that defined the limits of their power.

Unfortunately, there are Christians in places of great influence today who continue to teach a clan view of the family, a kind of “almost Mormonism.” They do not acknowledge the Protestant principle of multiple authorities. They teach that the father’s word is law, that a pagan father can, for example, keep a Christian son from marrying a Christian woman, no matter what the girl’s parents say, or the son’s and girl’s church courts say. This simply transfers to the father the kind of authority which the Roman Catholic Church officially invests in the Pope. A father becomes a final court of earthly appeal, one who can veto a marriage. This is radically anti-Biblical. There are always multiple human courts that are established by God to speak in God’s name, and no single earthly governmental authority has a monopoly on speaking God’s covenantal word, and therefore absolute authority to create or dissolve a marriage.


In witness of all which, the said Thomas Clarke has signed and sealed this present writing to Peter Oliver and William Bartholmew of Boston, for the use and behoof of the said Alice Nicholls. Dated this twentieth day of January 1664.

“Signing and sealing” is a process of sanctioning. Both parties of this early American marriage covenant are taking a solemn oath. The example being used is similar to other documents of that era. There was some sort of ceremony; there was the actual “cutting” of the covenant, just as we have already seen in Deuteronomy. It is still today called a wedding ceremony. In our society, all three institutions participate in it. The minister officiates at the ceremony because the Church is the “guardian” of marriage. The families draw up the contract. The State is a witness because marriage is an institution of society as well. In the event there is a divorce, or the settlement of the family’s estate, the State may be drawn into the legal process. So marriage does not belong exclusively to any of these institutions.

The covenant has terms of unconditionality. To say that marriage has no terms means there is no possibility of divorce. When this view prevails, the innocent are victimized. As in God’s covenant, people sometimes apostatize. The Biblical view of marriage is able to cope with such a possibility, even though some modern evangelical views are not. Marriage often ends up being absolutized. It is taught that there are no justifications for divorce. O f course, I have never seen a “no reason for divorce” position that did not have to create some kind of doctrine of annulment, an escape-valve. It points out the reality that on “this side of heaven,” there are no perfect people and therefore no perfect covenants. If God has a legal right to break sinners, then victims of sinners have a legal right to break covenants.

Marriage is a covenant. The Apostle Paul argues that “death” is the basis of the dissolution of a marriage bond (Rom. 7:1-4). But from the context immediately before and after this passage, “death” is referred to in “covenantal” terms. For example, just before the “death” passage of chapter seven, the last verse of chapter six reads, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is life eternal” (Rom. 6:23).

Clearly the “death” here is more than just physical. Death is understood in terms of the Biblical covenant. To be separated from God, to break the covenant, is to be dead. This means that when the spouse does things to violate the marriage covenant, the marriage dies, and the innocent partner is free to divorce and remarry. What are the things that kill the marriage? One will have to read the entire Bible. They are capital offense crimes like murder, homosexuality, apostasy, idolatry, witchcraft, bestiality, and adultery.[9]

The pastor who refuses to counsel divorce to someone whose spouse is involved in bestiality is thereby sanctioning evil. (By the way, it should be pointed out that bestiality is nowhere mentioned in the New Testament, which creates a difficult exegetical problem for pastors who operate under the presupposition that all Old Testament laws are abolished unless specifically re-sanctioned in the New Testament.) There can be no neutrality. But the pastor who cannot find a Bible-based reason to sanction the divorce is in a weak position as a marital counselor.

If the Church is not able to deal with these kinds of sins, and the reality that “Christian” marriages are today plagued by such sins, then the Church will lose its ministry. Divorce rates among church members continue to rise. The sad fact is that the innocent are being victimized. If the Church’s view of divorce accommodates victimization of the innocent, it will never be able to speak believably to the world. There is an effective way to deal with the issue of divorce. The answer lies in the covenant and its terms of unconditionality.


The agreement, therefore, is that the housing and land now in the possession of the said Alice Nicholls shall be reserved as a stock for her son, John Nicholls….

Finally, the marriage covenant between Clarke and Nicholls is legitimate. It formed a real bond between them. This fact made their children legitimate heirs of the inheritance. The contract details some of this, and even specifies who should execute the will in the event one or the other dies. The covenant transfers specific blessings.

It is no secret that income taxes and inheritance taxes were designed by envy-ridden legislators who represented envy-driven voters. Such taxes have been designed to inhibit the economic growth of highly successful families. Interestingly, these laws were instituted around the time great industrial development of natural resources were making families wealthy and powerful. The result has been that government has tried to use “family” wealth to intervene in the market and create monopolies. The rich families all escaped this by setting up huge charitable foundations – Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon, etc. – that have kept this wealth intact. Thus, the real inheritors have been the foundation bureaucrats who operate the great foundations. But officially, the State itself has virtually become the new “family” (Big Brother) of our world.[10]

The question is, “Who is the legitimate heir?” The Bible says the children and those specified in the covenant are the legitimate heirs. No one else has the right to take the inheritance away. In the event there are no heirs, the Church should receive the inheritance, but never the State.


This concludes our application of the covenant to the family. An old marriage covenant has been used. I freely admit that not all marriage contracts follow the Biblical outline. That is not my point. This one did, and I think we can see in history that such a view of marriage produced the seed-bed out of which our entire culture has sprung. At no other time in American history has the family been so strong.

But what about the Church? Is it structured according to the covenant? And are there any historical examples? In the next chapter we examine the Biblical Church Covenant.

[1] Edward McGlynn Gaffney, “The Interaction of Biblical Religion and American Constitutional Law,” The Bible in American Law, Politics, and Political Rhetoric, ed. James Turner Johnson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), pp. 81-106. Gaffney’s thesis is that the suzerain form of the covenant was influential on Constitutional law in this country.

[2] The reason why there are two years listed is that prior to the late 1700s, the new year came in mid-March. This is still reflected in the names for several months: SEPTember, OCTober, NOVember, and DECember – seven, eight, nine, and ten – when today they are the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months. The second year listed is the year we reckon it in retrospect, according to our calendar.

[3] Foundations of Colonial America: A Documentary History, Ed. W. Keith Kavenagh, Vol. I, Part 2 (New York: Confucian Press, 1980), p. 667. Emphasis added.

[4] 4. E. A. Spiser, Genesis (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1964), p. 92. See also by the same author, “Wife-Sister Motif in the Patriarchal Narratives,” Biblical and Other Studies (Harvard University Press, 1963), pp. 15-28.

[5] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1958), pp. 346-47.

[6] Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany Fellowship, 1965), p. 178.

[7] Journal of Discourses, vol. 11, p. 269.

[8] Deseret News, June 18, 1873, p. 308. Cited in Kingdom of the Cults, p. 179. Emphasis added.

[9] Ray R. Sutton, Death Did Us Part: A Defense of the Innocent Partner. Scheduled for 1987. [Published as “Second Chance: Biblical Principals of Divorce and Remarriage”]

[10] Gary North, The Sinai Strategy: Economics and the Ten Commandments (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1986), pp. 103-14.