But this is the covenant that I shall make with the house of Israel after these days, says the Lord; I shall put my law within them, and I shall write it on their hearts; and I shall be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach one another or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I shall forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.
– Jeremiah 31:33–4 (NRSV)
The Biblical witness to a covenant with God is also our witness to the precious presence of the living Spirit in us and among us. God is present in our relationships with one other, animating our interactions with extended families, meeting members, friends, and neighbors. All of these relationships are part of God’s covenant with us, written in our hearts.
To be faithful to the Spirit in our life together is never more difficult or more rewarding than in family relationships—spousal, parental, filial—which depend on God’s help as well as mutual trust and love. When we call our family ties “covenant relationships,” we acknowledge the involvement of God and our meetings in maintaining and upholding these precious commitments.
Marriage is solemnized in God’s presence and nurtured with divine assistance in reverence and love. Couples covenant with God, their meetings, and each other to clarify and strengthen their commitments. When two people make their vows to each other in the presence of God and their friends, they take each other as lifelong partners, promising with divine assistance to be faithful to each other.
Early Friends believed that marriage depended on the prayerful inward life of the couple’s deep, abiding commitment to each other and to God, not on the outward forms of ecclesiastic blessing or legal contract. Our witness today must uphold the same high standards for ourselves in our covenant relationships: standards of love, fidelity, and discipline that bear witness to the presence of the Spirit among us rather than to the self-interest and immediate gratification of desires prized in our culture. Sexual relationships, especially, are too tender and powerful to be left to unspoken understandings.
Love reaches further than words, and we experience the Spirit long before any words. The family is a precious spiritual community, and we rejoice and are nourished in homes full of friendliness, refreshment, and peace, where God becomes real to those who live there and to all who visit. We joyfully acknowledge the sustaining, enriching presence of loving unions among us, and we want the meeting’s strength to undergird these covenants.
God has created no man or woman even nearly perfect. But we grow in both our virtue and our capacity to love by the testing, against the world and each other, of those weaknesses which by the grace of God we can convert into strengths; and by the finding of those strengths and beauties in each other which we hardly dared suspect were there. But these are the rewards of unfolding years; years, not weeks or months. The glory of a great marriage lies in the surprises which loving support, acceptance, and graceful forgiveness can bring forth.
– R.B. Crowell, “Words at a Quaker Wedding,”
Friends Journal, 11/74
Some of us live alone and find love and community among our friends. Some of us are single parents, caring for our children. Some members’ families follow traditional patterns; others do not. Just as there is that of God in every person, there is that of God in every relationship that calls upon God. We seek to treat responsible, loving relationships tenderly and respectfully. We seek to hold each other in the light of our ideal that Spirit-filled covenant relationships are the one sure basis for love and sexuality.
In prayer and worship, each meeting can speak truthfully to the particular needs and difficulties of its members and their relationships. Through committees of clearness, for example, a meeting can respond with great care and concern to the requests for marriage that come before it, following the marriage procedures described in the Practice and Procedure section of this book of discipline. The monthly meeting can also advise and counsel those who are overwhelmed by social pressures and confused by our culture’s conflicting attitudes toward sexual morality.
Marriage is a covenant intended for life, and it is with deep sorrow that we note divorce among members. Separation and divorce are spiritually, psychologically, and sometimes physically devastating for children.
Families need the support of monthly meetings and their marriage-oversight committees long after the wedding vows are spoken. These groups can support the couple, offering to help explore options and seek constructive solutions with waiting and prayer. The partners should be encouraged not to give up their commitments easily. However, some relationships can be unwise or become unhealthy, even psychologically or physically abusive. We urge Friends to treat conflict in relationships, separation, and divorce among members with the same careful concern for clearness as they use before marriage.
Care and concern are especially necessary during difficult times, such as illness or death, when friends and family may need expressions of love, prayer, meals, conversation, and companionship. We also urge Friends to be sensitive to the special needs of children at such times; meetings can nurture children who feel bereft or disturbed.
We pray that our individual covenants with one another mirror the love that Jesus gave to us as part of his blessed community. In our concern for a definition that encompasses our marriage relationships, we also remember how God’s covenant embraces each of us and commits us to each other as part of a universal covenant of trust, discipline, and love.
Put on, then, garments that suit God’s chosen and beloved people: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience. Be tolerant with one another, and forgiving, if any of you has cause for complaint: you must forgive as the Lord forgave you. Finally, to bind everything together and complete the whole, there must be love. Let Christ’s peace be arbiter in your decisions, the peace to which you were called as members of a single body. Always be thankful. Let the gospel of Christ dwell among you in all its richness; teach and instruct one another with all the wisdom it gives you. With psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, sing from the heart in gratitude to God. Let every word and action, everything you do, be in the name of the Lord Jesus, and give thanks through him to God the Father.
– Colossians 3.12–16 (REB)