Wesleyan Theology: Marriage and Ordination as Means of Grace

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal


Our sisters and brothers in the Roman Catholic Church believe that our Lord’s presence at the marriage in Cana constitutes the establishment of marriage as a sacrament, but Protestants usually don’t agree with this assessment. Likewise, they affirm that the references to marriage in the Epistle to the Ephesians establish it as a sacrament:

Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.( Ephesians 5:25-32, NRSV)

This statement, attributed to Paul but actually being of somewhat questionable authenticity, affirms a relationship of special character between husband and wife – one that reflects the relationship between Christ and the church. Unfortunately, this is an often-misused passage. It is frequently cited to justify the subjection of women to the absolute, sometimes abusive, often arbitrary authority of men without regard for the reciprocal nature of the relationship. Usually ignored is the phrase, "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…"

Jesus doesn’t get drunk and beat up on the church or otherwise mistreat or cheat on the church. Jesus doesn’t yell at the church, emotionally abuse the church, ignore the church, neglect the needs of the church, abandon the church, or otherwise fail to care for the church. Hence, when husbands do such things to their wives, their wives aren’t bound to accept it. Their husbands have violated the covenant, for such abuse is not in keeping with the witness of Christ, or with the character of his self-giving love. Jesus died for the church; he doesn’t abuse the church. Hence, when a husband mistreats or otherwise violates the boundaries of the marriage covenant, the wife need not be "submissive." In essence, the marriage covenant is a holy relationship; it isn’t license for one member of the relationship to abuse the other.

While Jesus attended the wedding in Cana of Galilee, he did not establish marriage as a Sacrament. Nevertheless, Marriage has many sacramental qualities and is, indeed, a means of Grace. Through the rite of Christian Marriage a couple are joined together in a covenantal relationship with each other and with God, committing themselves: "to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish ..." until they are parted by death. In marriage their union is blessed by God and empowered, by the presence of the Holy Spirit, in a prayer which is worthy of full quotation here:

O God, you have so consecrated the covenant of Christian marriage that in it is represented the covenant between Christ and his Church. Send therefore your blessing upon Name and Name that they may surely keep their marriage covenant and so grow in love and godliness together that their home may be a haven of blessing and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

As a means of grace, marriage is a wonderful gift of God’s love to the Body of Christ. As a means of grace containing sacramental characteristics, marriage is a wonderful gift to all Christians. It does not establish a slave relationship between a man and a woman, a relationship in which the woman is made to obey the will of her husband regardless of the circumstances; rather, it establishes a relationship of love between them. This relationship of love is empowered by the Holy Spirit and, ideally, it should exemplify the love of God, in Jesus Christ, for the church.


All Christians are called and ordained, in their Baptisms, to ministry in the Church. All Christians are part of the "Priesthood of all Believers." However, some Christians are "set apart" for the representative pastoral ministries of "Service, Word, Sacrament, and Order." While United Methodists don't recognize ordination as a sacrament, we nevertheless view it as having sacramental qualities. Ordination is a Means of Grace through which those who are called to ordained ministry are granted the Divine assistance — the Real Presence of Jesus — which they need to serve and lead God's people, proclaim the Gospel, and celebrate the sacraments.

It is a high, holy moment, that brings with it life-changing implications. It's not just a licensing, nor is it just a recognition of something that God has already done. It is an actualizing of a gift of God's Grace, a "putting into effect" of a mission and ministry that comes from God and is recognized by the Church. Those who are ordained carry with them the internal knowledge that something has happened to and within them. When I was ordained, Bishop Blake laid his hands on my head and prayed:

"Lord, pour upon Gregory Scott Neal the Holy Spirit, for the office and work of an elder, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

Wow! Looking back upon this event, the emotions of fear and excitement rush back to me. God was there, kneeling with me, laying His hands upon me. It was certainly a Means of Grace, through which I was given the immediate Grace I need, every day, to carry forward the Ministry of Jesus Christ. Truly, it is a wonderful gift!

© 1999 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.