Marriage and the One Church Plan

By Thomas Lambrecht –

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.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. He also served as a member of the Commission on a Way Forward. 




  1. Once we stray from one man one woman there is no telling where it will go. The OCP proposed change could lead to incestuous marriage.

  2. Gary Bebop says

    Pushing back aggressively against the One Church Plan promotional tour by making the theological case for marriage will crucially impact February 2019. Good New should expand this pushback and accelerate the conversation in the runup. This is a time for plain talk and forceful presentations from Methodism’s most salient voices.

  3. It is so simple. God’s created order for marriage SOLVES all the problems of the UMC with relation to sexual ethics, sexual immorality including the practice of homosexuality, and the definition of Christian marriage. It’s just a matter of getting back on track. Sexual relations for Christians are for those only in Christian marriage of a MAN and a WOMAN. All sexual relations outside of that are prohibited by God. End of story. No matter how unpopular that is in this sex crazed culture, it is absolutely clear to communicate and impossible to manipulate. In order words, the UMC must resurrect all its teachings on sexual immorality and the definition of marriage from this one foundation —- Christian marriage. The world is hungry for clear direction on these issues that are destroying lives. It’s past time for the UMC to step up to the plate and boldly proclaim God’s Word with relation to this as the new counter culture of the 21st century.

    Sound too optimistic? Anything is possible with God.

    • Praise GOD ! William you sure hit the nail on the head. Please everyone send you send you leaders in your Dist. letters telling them you want GOD word to back our church laws as it has in the past

  4. Tre Everson says

    Ive read the articles about all the plans. What is the true feeling at this time of how the vote will go in St. Louis?

  5. A Former United Methodist Elder says

    So now, how long before the very same leaders in the UMC who have championed for same sex “marriage” in society and now through the One Church plan for the UMC, go on to advocate for polygamy? I can hear it now: this is how God has created them and besides those folks in the Old Testament did it! Oh wait, now it’s ok to to quote the Old Testament about human sexuality? Think it can’t happen? Did you ever think you’d live to see the Supreme Court of the U.S.A. legalize same-sex “marriage?” Did you ever think you’d live to see the Whitehouse bathed in rainbow colored lights? Did you ever think you’d live to see an active, practicing, in-your-face, lesbian bishop leading an annual conference of the UMC? When the Church cuts itself loose from the moorings of holy, inspired Scripture, then it will go in the direction of whatever way the cultural, sexual mores are blowing.

    I have heard it argued in the past on the floor of an annual conference that same sex couples just want loving, monogamous relationships and this is another reason the UMC should abdicate it’s longstanding, biblical position. Oh, really? Check out the article entitled, “The Dirty Little Secret: Most Gay Couples Aren’t Monogamous,” by Hanna Rosin at And while you’re at it Google an article by the late, Dr. Wolfhart Pannenburg entitled, “Revelation and Homosexual Experience: What Wolfhart Pannenburt says about this debate in the church. The article ends with these prophetic words for the UMC, “Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A CHURCH THAT TOOK THIS STEP WOULD CEASE TO BE THE ONE, HOLY, CATHOLIC, AND APOSTOLIC CHURCH.” Selah.

  6. Gifford Tompkins says

    At least the Traditionalists prevailed as related to Constitutional amendments. Progressive attempts to liberalize the UMC Constitution were defeated! Lets hope the same biblical imperatives prevail at the Feb.2019 General Conference. As the Elder above stated, that is the only hope for our future as a Christian church.

  7. Robert A Combes says

    can the end be closer than we think? As members we must stand firm on sound doctrine no matter what, “But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21 28 NASB

  8. As I read this article I can’t help but feel we have already feel victim to the enemies plan. We seem to be so distracted by which of the three suggested plans goes along or against God’s word, that we have lost focus on the main issue here…why is there not a plan or an option to vote that states “Change Nothing and continue and fully enforce the current book of discipline”. Should we not be fighting to just enforce what is already written instead of pressing for them to vote for the Traditional Plan? Maybe it is just me, but anyone agreeing to rewrite or change the current wording of the Book of Discipline is in a sense agreeing that it needs to change. Where is the vote to just enforce the current rules? Regardless of what is voted, we as a church not demanding that the current discipline be enforced and allowing ourselves to believe we have to accept that a change is needed at all is falling right into the plan of the enemy.

    • The current rules have proven to be unenforceable. The lesbian bishop proves that. The Traditionalist Plan adds enforcement mechanisms.

  9. Gary Bebop says

    The reality is the Progressive bishops, conferences, and jurisdictions have hardened in their obstinacy and guile on the issue of Disciplinary enforcement. Don’t fool yourself to think the magic wand can be waved by General Conference and order will be restored. We are way past the point where simply “demanding” Disciplinary enforcement will fix the problem. It’s too late for that. A terrific spiritual and political and theological battle must be waged now for the soul of the church.

    • Gary,
      And I say — the traditionalists MUST go straight to the BIBLE and use it exclusively to press the Traditional Plan. Don’t get drawn into secular dialogue there. Secular diologud is the playground of Satan and will work against the traditionalists. QUOTE SCRIPTURE all day long. Answer any and all question with Scripture. Make all presentations with specific Scriptures as the foundation. Present the Traditional Plan with direct Scriptural references. . Quote Jesus at every opportunity on marriage by continually referencing Matthew 19:4-6 and Mark 10:6-9. FORCE the progressives to do the same in the presence of the delegates. DEMAND that progressives present direct, relevant Scripture to back up their proposals for changing the definition of Christian marriage and for removing from the Bible as a sexual immoral sin the practice of homosexuality.

      This General Conference must be about the BIBLE with all votes cast based on each delegate’s full awareness that his/her vote is a BIBLE vote and not a secular driven, political vote!

      • Tre' Everson says

        I totally agree. I was reading and praying about the issue last weekend and kept coming back to Matthew 19. It’s about the Bible, not men and women

      • Gary Bebop says

        William, with all due respect for your passion, no one will be able to “force” or “demand” (which you put in all caps) anything of Progressives at the 2019 Conference. What’s happening is a painful restoration of church order and orthodoxy. An short, a type of repentance. Traditionalists must be harmless as doves but wise as serpents. The battle must be waged strategically through legislative tactics and scholastically through theological challenge. The gauntlet has been thrown down.

        • Force & Demand — hyperbole. Progressives have been given a pass over these past 40+ years by harmless as doves traditionalists — and it backfired, thus we’re now here at this schism. So far, progressives have shown little or no interest in keeping church order, returning to orthodoxy, or repenting. In fact, they have managed to cleverly place much blame for this crisis back on the traditionalists.

          Unless the Bible and relevant Scripture become the central feature at this General Conference before any votes are taken, then too many delegates could fall victim to the secular tactics of these wolves in sheep’s clothing continuing to play their usual game of Biblical subterfuge, confusion, doubt, misapplied Scripture, and Scriptural interpretation manipulation. Speaking truth in love must expose the fact that progressives have no specific, relevant Scripture on which to base their demands for changing the definition of Christian marriage and removing as a sexual immoral sin the practice of homosexuality from the Bible.

          It would obviously be wonderful if this conference became a revival of sort where repentance took place and the delegates voted to restore orthodoxy and order to the UMC, thus heading off some drawn out and painful process that likely would involve separation.

          • Gary Bebop says

            Advocating for a restoration of order and orthodoxy in UMC practice is exactly what these columns are about. Good News faces two challenges: (1) making the case for a Traditionalist Plan to the Judicial Council, and (2) making the case to 2019 delegates. One Church Plan proponents are among the most cunning and determined minds in the church today. Traditionalists must prepare for a supreme battle of wills and crafty maneuvers.

  10. I grew up with non denominational parents, old fashioned singing, shouting Baptist grandparents on daddy’s side, and singing, shouting Church of God grandparents on momma’s side. I’ve seen everything there is to see in a church shy of handling rattlesnakes. It was the general opinion in my family that the two only two faiths further from God than Methodists were Jehovas Witnesses and devil worshipers.
    Nevertheless, I married a wonderful little Methodist woman and ended up joining a wonderful little Methodist Church, with deep reservation because of my raising.
    I was at a Lay Leaders conference in North Alabama, where we live, and saw our DS stand behind a podium, hold up his Bible and declare that if Methodist doctrine ever got cross ways with the Scripture the doctrine would lose every time. This gave me great confidence in the Methodist organization. That confidence is fading fast. Maybe my ancestors were right???

  11. I am a child of the “baby boomers” generation; as such, I have matured in a church, full of liberal, socially conscience clergy, who would rather follow the winds of the times than God’s word. And yes, this is a broad brush stroke that neglects to highlight those men and women, who are grounded in God’s word. However, in trying to objectively look at the present circumstances in the UMC, we have to speak truthfully and clearly. Even some of our more evangelically minded clergy have been convinced by “others” that unity is more important than truth or light or scriptural integrity. Their stand has been compromised by threats of unfunded pension plans, seizure of church properties and guilt of our poor UMC witness in the world. Perhaps more than any other time in church history, we need men and women, who are prepared to follow Christ and His word into the breach of the future. Will we preserve our pensions? Will courts seize our properties? Will we be labeled as homophobes or Luddites? Will we be mocked for being “out of step” with society> I must confess that I lack the answers to these questions…but I know the one, who does have the answers. And He and His Word will prevail regardless of the UMC schism or same=sex marriage or liberal theology or any concoction of man. His Word stands, until the day that His return testifies to its Truth and Power. Praise God! Despite any UMC schism, God’s Word stands…and turning our collective backs upon it, will spell our eternal doom.

  12. Scripture records that when Christ was tempted, He quoted Scripture. Can we have a better example of how to respond to the issues our church faces today?

  13. Gary Bebop says

    Put your money where your mouth is. With the Help of Good News you can send your personal message to every U.S. delegate prior to the 2019 Conference. Many will respond gratefully, and there will be a few scornful, mocking, and dismissive replies.

  14. A recently former UMC elder says

    I found this quote several years ago and felt it was prophetic for the UMC and now it is all the more relevant:

    “Then Abram removed his tent, and came and dwelt in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and built there an altar unto the LORD’ (Genesis 13:18).

    ‘It is often argued that we should stay in the midst of churches and bodies whose sins and follies we deplore, in the hope of saving them for God and mankind. Such reasoning has a good deal of force in the first stages of decline. A strong protest may arrest error and stop the gangrene.’

    ‘But as time advances, and the whole body becomes diseased; when the protests have been disregarded, and the arguments trampled underfoot; when the majorityhave clearly taken up their position against the truth–we have no alternative but to come out and be separate.’

    ‘The place from which we can exert the strongest influence for good is not from within, but from without.’

    ‘Lot lost all influence of his life in Sodom; but Abraham, from the heights of Mamre, was able to exert a mighty influence on its history.’”
    F.B. Meyer (1847-1929)

    The UMC is systemically dysfunctional. There must be a fresh break and a new start. Ponder anew what Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “Do not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Be’lial? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will live in them and move among them, and I will be there God, and they shall be my people. Therefore come out from them, and be ye separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.'” (II Corinthians 6:14-18, R.S.V.) Selah.

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