The Voice: Spring 2002
"Covenant" makes a come back
By Dr. Carl E. Zylstra
The word covenant seems to be making a come backat 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
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
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 communicatesat 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
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: Dont 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 Gods people have as they live in relationship with each other and
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 hadnt 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 dont seem to be many
good substitutes available in its place.
Thats why I am glad to see that the word has made a
come backat 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 altogetherapparently 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, Im glad that the word is back, and I truly
hope that well use it much more in the future.