Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part VI): Is There a Divine Design to Marriage?

Friday, December 8th, 2017

One of the areas where I find myself in agreement with the progressives is their exasperation that we, as a church, might be known as “those people who are opposed to homosexuality.” This is a valid point. We must be known for what we are for not what we are against. The progressive solution is to essentially agree with much of the culture on their views of sexuality and the human body. We have dedicated five articles in this series to demonstrating why this is neither wise nor prudent if one of our shared goals is to remain firmly within the bounds of historic Christian faith. The solution which would reinvigorate our church would be to re-cast the positive Christian vision of human sexuality and the theology of the body.

Our problem as a denomination goes back many decades because our vision for the very nature of Christian marriage itself has been lost. The whole notion that there might be a divine design to marriage is never addressed. In fact, many Christians, quite tragically, embrace the larger societal view of marriage. This is the popular narrative in broad form: Marriage is a way to find personal fulfillment and make you happy. Marriage is defined, so the narrative goes, as a legal arrangement which allows two people to fulfill each other’s emotional and sexual needs and desires, and find economic stability.

Accepting this narrative is the source of many of our woes.  Individual freedom, personal autonomy and fulfillment are very high values in the West and marriage has been domesticated to fit within that larger utilitarian framework. The culture has a utilitarian view which sees marriage as a commodity.  We should have a biblical vision which sees marriage as covenant. The utilitarian vision sees the body of a man or woman as an object which can be assessed like a car—is it bright, new, shiny and full of power, or not. Is your body thin or fat; does it conform to the shapes we admire or not; is your hair the right texture and color, or not; are your teeth shiny and straight, or not? In the covenantal vision, the mystery and glory is that we have bodies and those bodies are beautiful to God because they are living sacraments in the world, an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, since all of the means of grace come through the physicality of the body.

Since the church has unwittingly accepted the wider culture’s view of marriage, we have very little room to maneuver. Once a functionalistic, commodity-driven, utilitarian view of marriage is accepted, then we really have no solid ground to stand on in opposing a whole range of new kinds of relationships which might be called marriage. As the mantra goes, “Why should we care who someone loves as long as they are happy?”

We must remember what Jesus did when he was asked the burning question of his day: “Can a man divorce his wife for any reason at all?” (Matt. 19:3). Rather than answer directly, Jesus directs them to return to story of creation and remember God’s original design for marriage. Jesus does not answer their question, he re-frames the question. We must learn to ask the right question.  Unfortunately, the first right question is not, “should the church support same sex marriage?” or “should we permit the ordination of homosexuals?” Jesus’ reply teaches us that to answer that question without first understanding God’s original design tacitly ends up accepting all the broken presuppositions which gave rise to the question in the first place.  The first right question is this: “What is God’s design for marriage?” 

Jesus calls us back to the creational, covenantal and Eucharistic mystery of marriage. First, by creating us male and female God designed two different, complementary glories who come together as one. It is the primordial sacrament of creation which would someday become the grand metaphor for Christ and the church celebrated in the marriage supper of the lamb. In Ephesians 5 when Paul commands husbands to love their wives, he tells us that he is speaking ultimately about the mystery of Christ and his church. In the Scriptures, the body is primarily a theological category, not a biological one.

Second, marriage was designed to invite us into the mystery of creation by becoming co-creators with him. Through the miracle of childbirth, we actually participate with God in creation by becoming co-creators with him. Indeed, while honoring the special calling of celibacy, the church understands that the building of families is at the heart of God’s design. This is one of the many reasons why the church has never declared moral equivalency of marriage between a man and a woman and a homosexual marriage.

Third, the family unit has been designed by God to reflect the mystery of the Trinity itself. Husband and wife become, through the gift of family, father and mother, and they stand before God with their children as a sign and seal of the Triune God. The family is meant to be a reflection of the Trinity with mutual gifts, submission, joyful exercise of kingly and queenly authority, love, discipline, self-donation, and becoming co-creators with God.

The Bible begins and ends with a marriage.  It is one of the great threads which connects the great themes of creation, redemption, and even the Triune nature of God himself. We must reject the notion that marriage is merely a human institution which can be shaped or defined by a majority vote as we see fit.  I plead with our church leaders, there are many things we can vote on in the church, but the definition of marriage is not one of them.


  • JAy. says:

    Thank you, Dr. Tennent, for a beautiful statement of the truth of marriage in a Christian world-view!

  • Keith says:

    Dr Tennent, thanks for allowing God to use you in the study and teaching of Christianity informed by the whole Scripture. I just became aware of your work this week and I plan to devote time to read your works alongside my Scripture time and my Oswald Chambers and R.A. Torrey reading. I was excited to learn that you are President at Asbury. Count me among those who will pray for you. I ask you to join me in praying for a revival in our United Methodist Church, and soon. Blessings and Thanksgivings.

  • John Harnish says:

    In regard to Dr. Tennent’s basic assumption–that “our problem as a denomination goes back many decades because our vision for the very nature of Christian marriage has been lost”–I would point to statement on marriage in the Book of Resolutions including the statement on “Baptism and Marriage” as the foundation for the church’s serious reflection on our theology of marriage. Quite the contrary, I would suggest this has been a serious topic of major study and debate. He is not the first or only person to speak to this topic and much of what he says has been the message of the church all along.

  • Gary Bebop says:

    If the UMC had not fallen into a ditch regarding marriage, sexuality, and gender, there would be no bewildering confabulations being proposed to accommodate the michmash. The ruination of the church is manifest in this present sorry mess. “They proclaim their sin like Sodom, they do not hide it.”

  • Ernie says:

    I want to humbly ask a serious question:
    Yes, it is clear that God’s prefect will for us is best expressed in Holy Matrimony between a man and a woman who are co-creators with God. What an honor!

    But, as you mentioned above:
    “while honoring the special calling of celibacy,…” and I presume “singleness” as well.

    So, can it be ever that God could bless two same-sex people to live a faithful Christian life united in an equally committed relationship even if it is not the ideal plan? Must we all live out the ideal plan concerning every thought or action in order to be saved or deemed real Christians?
    I indeed wish to reserve the word “Marriage” for male/female relationships. But we can invent new words for other Christian sexual relationships can’t we?
    I am only asking a question, not advocating a position.

    Thank You!

  • Jan Davis says:

    This is one of the very best descriptions of God’s design for marriage I have found. Thank you for this beautiful reminder of God’s blessing of marriage.