Is There a Theological Way Forward for the United Methodist Church?

For the past 45 years, The United Methodist Church has been discussing human sexuality. Our current Discipline is clear on the sacred worth and human dignity of all persons regardless of their sexual orientation or relationship status. What we are debating now—in the days leading up to a called General Conference that could very well decide the future of our denomination—is whether or not the Church will bless same-sex marriage relationships, and whether or not the Church will license, commission, and ordain persons who are, as the Book of Discipline phrases it “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.”

One thing that has been disappointing to me as I listen to and observe our denominational conversation, is how, for lack of a better way to put it, political this debate has become. I haven’t come close to reading every word written on this issue, but most of what I have read, or heard, or seen is focused on delegate counts, procedural rules, constitutional amendments, and how the standing rules might be deployed at General Conference to give the advantage to one side or the other.

I’m not naive about the inevitability of politics. I fully understand whenever two or more Methodists are gathered together, a committee will form—and this can be a good thing. Humans are political creatures, and the organizational abilities of the United Methodist Church are well-known in ecumenical circles. If you want something organized, ask a Methodist. The problem with being so organizationally focused is we can begin to see every issue as an organizational issue. People don’t agree on marriage and sexuality? Here are three ways to organize ourselves out of the problem. It’s just the way we approach things.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am in no way denigrating the incredibly dedicated work of those tasked with finding a way forward for our denomination. They were given an extraordinarily difficult set of tasks and parameters. I think the work they produced is of the highest quality, and it should be carefully considered by all United Methodists as well as the General Conference. The Commission on a Way Forward’s final report does include a great deal of deep theological work. Primarily the Commission’s work is in the vein of ecclesiology—the nature and mission of the Church.

However, in the midst of this debate, I have not seen much written to engage theologically with the nature of marriage itself. The conversation has, for the most part, assumed some in our Connection are going to bless same-sex relationships, some are not, and we must find the best way to navigate this reality.

And, yes, this is certainly the practical situation facing the United Methodist Church in the coming months, which General Conference 2019 is tasked with figuring out. I still think there is something to be gained from a serious attempt to articulate a particularly United Methodist understanding of marriage, and why or why not it could include provision for some among us officiating same-sex marriages.

I know we all believe marriage is important. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be debating the future of the United Methodist Church primarily around this single issue. I believe something this important deserves theological treatment. United Methodists (and in more general terms, Evangelical Protestants) have shied away from making very many theological claims about marriage. In the process, we have ceded the definition of marriage to the civil authorities, leaving a very important question unanswered: What is the difference between civil marriage and a Christian marriage?

In the next several paragraphs I will offer my attempt at an answer.

In civil marriage the persons who enter into the marriage contract are recognized as a new societal unit for a variety of purposes: taxation; inheritance; health insurance and other medical benefits; the adoption of children; establishing the legitimacy of children born as a result of the union; financial matters and the ownership of property. The list could go on. A Christian understanding of marriage must go beyond simply these legal implications and present a theological case for marriage. United Methodists understand many of these legal issues to be part of the covenantal nature of marriage, however, we view marriage as more than a legally binding agreement. To put it another way, we believe something happens in marriage that makes two people more than just two individuals sharing a house. One way to describe this is to say Christian marriage is sacramental. It is inextricably intertwined with baptism.

Confirmation, ordination, marriage, anointing of the sick, and reconciliation are not considered Sacraments in the United Methodist Church. They are, nevertheless, important aspects of the Christian life. These sacred actions are, in important ways, remembrances of our baptism. Sacramental theology is, by its very nature, a theology that interrelates numerous aspects of the Christian life. This is particularly important to keep in mind when we discuss marriage, because here we are not only intertwining theological concepts, but also legal and societal concepts as well.

In sacramental (Christian) marriage, as in civil marriage, the persons who enter into the marriage covenant are recognized as a new societal unit. We call this new unit a family, and in this family, the husband and wife are co-equal and complementary partners who are considered to be one flesh, utterly inseparable save by death (Mt. 5:32, 19:6, Mk. 10:9). Such a union is a re-membering of the created order in the Garden of Eden (Ge. 2:23-24, quoted by Jesus in Mt. 19:4-6). The marriage relationship also has theological implications for the whole Church. The wedding rite, and the marriage itself, is an image of the relationship Jesus has with his Church (Eph. 5:22-23, Re. 19:7-9).

A Christian sexual ethic has always encompassed the idea of covenant relationship between the partners. The covenant relationship of marriage is a unique way of living out the baptismal covenant between Christians and the triune God. The primary covenant relationship in a Christian’s life is the baptismal covenant that unites the Christian with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. Christian Marriage is the joining together of two baptized persons into a covenant relationship for the mutual edification of the partners and ultimately—especially in our Wesleyan understanding—mutual sanctification. (It is, however, important to acknowledge there are marriages blessed by the Church in which only one of the partners is baptized.)

Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, goes into detail on his views on marriage (you can find the whole discourse in chapter 7). The majority of Paul’s statements on marriage take the form of strongly worded advice for both the married and the unmarried to remain in their present state (7:25-28). Paul also offers advice to married couples not to deny one another sexual companionship except by mutual consent (7:1-7). Paul shifts from advice to command when he discusses the dissolution of a Christian marriage (7:10-11). In short, his command (actually, the Lord’s command, as Paul states quite clearly in verse 10) prohibits divorce.

Paul echoes the commands of Jesus regarding adultery and divorce (Mt. 5:27-32). Paul also describes marriage in terms of mutual sanctification. The marital relationship (in addition to creating covenant families, providing for companionship, and other benefits) provides a sanctified outlet for sexual desire. Paul asks married couples to be kind and generous to one another in their physical relationships in order to avoid various temptations to break the covenant. Jesus disallows lustful looking, and Paul suggests an appropriate sexual relationship in the context of Christian Marriage provides a way of pursuing holiness as Jesus commands.

All four gospel witnesses as well as the New Testament epistles clearly teach a Christian sexual ethic which precludes non-covenantal sexual encounters. In fact, the teachings of Jesus lead us to understand even nurturing impure desires in our heart of hearts is no less than tantamount to adultery. Christian Marriage provides for the mutual sanctification of the partners not least because it provides a covenantal relationship within which it is appropriate to express and act on sexual desire. To sum up, a Christian, sacramental view of marriage is far more expansive than the civil definition. Christian marriage, like everything else in the Christian life, is about us becoming more like Jesus. In a larger sense, Christian Marriage, like everything else in the Christian life, is about the redemption of the cosmos, participating with Christ in reconciling all things (including sex) to God.

The decision we face is whether or not Christian Marriage (sacramental marriage) should be made available in the United Methodist Church to persons who are in same-sex relationships. The decision we reach will ultimately depend on the way we choose to interpret what the Bible says about the meaning of marriage. Even if we don’t realize it, we will as a denomination be making a declaration on the nature of marriage. Whatever our practice becomes will define our theology of marriage.

My hope in writing this article is to offer a pause in the political wrangling about what our practice as a denomination might become. This piece is offered as an invitation to contemplate what marriage means for Christians. Ultimately, I hope contemplating a theology of marriage might inform our practice of marriage, and lead us to a theological solution to the current impasse. If nothing else, such theological contemplation can perhaps lead us to better understand the positions of those who hold opinions different than our own.

There are a number of questions I have purposely left unanswered in this brief offering, such as: Is it possible to define marriage using gender-neutral language? Does our denomination’s general practice of allowing for divorce and remarriage have any bearing on our conversation about same-sex marriage? Can we responsibly baptize and receive into membership persons in same-sex relationships while at the same time denying them marriage and ordination?

These are questions I am personally wrestling with as my own theology of marriage comes into focus in light of the situation in the United Methodist Church. Perhaps these questions will help spark theological engagement on this issue, and give food for thought and conversation among United Methodists. I am praying for the future of the United Methodist Church, that it will remain united, offering a strong Wesleyan expression of the catholic and apostolic faith and the great theological tradition we have inherited with it. I believe doing theology is a form of prayer, and I hope you will join me.