What is the definition of marriage? One of the salient issues the upcoming special General Conference in 2019 needs to decide is precisely this. How does The United Methodist Church define marriage?
Up until now, the church has defined marriage as a “covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman” (Book of Discipline, ¶ 161.C). The One Church Plan (OCP) wants to change this description of marriage to a “monogamous marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity, traditionally understood as a union of one man and one woman.” In another paragraph in the Discipline, the OCP goes even farther, stating “sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous marriage between two adults” (proposed ¶ 161.G). This changed definition of course opens the door to same-gender “marriage.”
What does the Bible say about the definition of marriage?
In Matthew 19 (parallel to Mark 10), Jesus is asked about what constitutes legitimate grounds for divorce. The Pharisees came to Jesus and asked whether it was lawful to divorce “for any and every reason.” Jesus did not answer them directly, but turned instead to the foundational understanding of the Bible regarding the nature of marriage, quoting from Genesis 1 and 2.
“Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:4-5). As other commentators have pointed out, Jesus here joins together the two creation accounts (1:27 and 2:24) to emphasize that marriage is part of the created order, (applying to all humanity, not just Jews or Christians) and that marriage was created for one man and one woman. Jesus later explains that divorce arises from hardness of heart and limits the acceptable reasons for divorce only to adultery or marital unfaithfulness.
When the early church was establishing the qualifications for Gentiles to enter into the Church, one of the four things from which believers were commanded to abstain was “sexual immorality” (same Greek word as Matthew 19, “marital unfaithfulness”). When Paul outlined the qualifications for church leaders, one of those qualifications was “the husband of but one wife” (literally, a one-woman man) (Titus 1:6, I Timothy 3:2).
Yes, there are many instances of polygamy in the Bible. Most instances where we have details about the relationship, a polygamous marriage was not a harmonious one (think Sarah and Hagar with Abraham in Genesis 16-21, Rachel and Leah with Jacob in Genesis 29-31, Hannah and Peninnah with Elkanah, parents of Samuel in I Samuel 1). Having many wives, particularly those who worshipped foreign gods, caused the apostasy and downfall of Solomon. The evidence in Scripture at least discourages the practice of polygamy.
But Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19 and the leadership requirements of Paul are decisive in understanding that polygamy is not in line with God’s original intention for marriage. Part of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ is the restoration of God’s original intention for many areas in life (see Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7). So the New Testament teaching on marriage and its definition is a recovery of the original definition from Genesis 1 and 2.
The interesting point is that there is no evidence in Scripture that would indicate support for expanding the definition of marriage to persons of the same gender. There is far more biblical justification for polygamy than for same-gender marriage. And if polygamy is off-limits for Christians, how much more so should same-gender marriage be off-limits.
To the clear biblical teaching on marriage’s definition can be added the theological significance of marriage in picturing the relationship between God and God’s people. In numerous places in the Old Testament, the relationship between God and Israel is pictured as a relationship between husband and wife (for example, Hosea 2). In the New Testament, marriage becomes a picture of Christ’s relationship with the Church (Ephesians 5:25-32, Revelation 21).
The theological picture of marriage demonstrates why marriage is between one man and one woman. Jesus Christ does not have many “wives,” only one Church as his bride. And the inherent difference between God/Christ and humanity mimics the gender difference between male and female in marriage.
The proponents of the One Church Plan should be more forthright that they are fundamentally changing the definition of marriage in a way that is not found in Scripture. This new definition goes against all the evidence in the Bible, both the clear definition of marriage and the theological implications of marriage.
The new definition is a human innovation that is inconsistent with what we call “the rule of faith” — the accumulated wisdom of biblical and theological understanding from our forefathers and foremothers of the faith down through the centuries. (John Wesley limited his understanding of the “rule of faith” to what he called “the primitive church,” or the church of the first three centuries prior to the Emperor Constantine.)
In Wesley’s understanding, we are to interpret Scripture in line with how the early generations of the church interpreted it. To introduce a new interpretation, there would have to be quite a strong case from Scripture that the earlier interpretations were wrong or incomplete. Such a strong case for same-gender marriage from the Bible does not exist. At most, apologists for same-gender marriage reinterpret Scripture in ways that make it silent or not applicable to same-gender marriage. That kind of textual manipulation is not enough to overthrow a 2,000-year-old understanding of the biblical teaching on marriage.
One could argue that this new definition of marriage is a violation of our United Methodist doctrinal standards. Article IV of the Confession of Faith states, “Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.” Nowhere does Scripture reveal or establish that marriage in God’s eyes includes persons of the same gender. Therefore, this new definition of marriage cannot be made an article of faith (something that United Methodists believe and teach officially).
The final point to note is that the new (proposed) definition of marriage is found in the section of the Book of Discipline that applies to the whole global church. Much is made in the One Church Plan about the ability of central conferences outside the United States to continue operating under the current provisions prohibiting same-gender marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. But the definition of marriage is found in the Social Principles and in the theology section of the Discipline, a part that is not subject to the adaptation by central conferences. It is very hard to imagine that the United Methodists in the central conferences, particularly in Africa, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe, would be willing to approve a change in the definition of marriage that would apply in their countries, as well. For some of them, to do so would mean the suicide of their churches, either through mass desertion by members or governmental action against them.
Despite all the rhetoric of the One Church Plan affirming those with a traditional view of marriage, one must not underestimate the sweeping change that the plan proposes simply by changing the church’s official definition of marriage. Such a change would negatively impact the church for generations.