The difference between covenants and vows is largely a linguistic matter in the modern world, with both meaning almost the same thing. Due to this, the word "covenant" has largely slipped out of usage, but there is a subtle difference between the two. If you use the Bible as a reference point for these two words, the difference between them very quickly becomes more important.
A covenant is an agreement between two parties to do or not do something. A modern example would be a wedding, where both parties agree to honor and obey each other. Often these words are referred to as "wedding vows," but this is not technically correct. Another famous example is the covenant between God and the ancient Israelites, as mentioned in the Bible. Under this agreement God promised to protect them as long as they followed his law and worshipped no other.
A vow is a promise made by an individual that he or she will do something or not do something. This differs from a covenant in that a vow could be made to oneself or to another, without being reciprocated or shared.
In a Christian marriage, some Christians believe the couple form a covenant thanks partly to Matthew 5:33-37. In this passage, Jesus says never to make vows but only to respect the terms of a covenant. This is because to swear by God is to belittle God's throne and to swear by anything on Earth is to belittle his footstool. Yet swearing oaths occurs regularly throughout the Bible, and others would argue that what this passage actually prohibits is swearing an oath that you do not intend to keep. As with much Bible study, their are diverse opinions on meaning, but yet again this is subtly different from a covenant or vow.
While the covenant may sound like a contract, there is again a subtle difference. A covenant is a joyous thing because it is two parties coming together in an agreement that they will behave a certain way, because they want to. A contract by its very nature suggests distrust, and is intended to punish one party should he break the contract.
- Comstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images