21 Questions for those advocating Presbyterian withdrawal from civil marriage

The Presbyterian Church has been getting itself in the news lately.

Darren Middleton is the convener of a committee I’m on called Church & Nation, which has been tasked by the denomination to respond to potential changes to the Australian Marriage Act 1961 which would recognise same sex marriage. He appeared in The Australian recently, championing our committee’s position.

The committee has now issued its proposed ‘solution’ to a potential change for public scrutiny within the church; it’s a recommendation that the General Assembly of Australia declare that no Presbyterian marriage celebrant should solemnise a marriage under the amended Act. Here’s some detail:

“Once the Committee formed an opinion we should no longer conduct marriages under a redefined Marriage Act (1961) our mind then turned on how best that is achieved. Two options were considered.

The first option was to withdraw as a ‘recognised religious denomination’. If the GAA made a decision not to solemnise marriages as a celebrant of the state, it would need to give a written request (to no longer be a recognised denomination for the purpose of marriage) with an appropriate minute to either the Attorney General or his department. As a consequence, the Attorney General would prepare the papers for the Governor General’s consideration at the next Federal Executive Council.

The second option is for the GAA to make a declaration that no minister should solemnise marriage under a redefined Marriage Act (1961). Such a decision is provided for under the existing provisions of Section 47(a) of the Marriage Act (1961) which states nothing in the Marriage Act “…imposes an obligation on an authorised celebrant, being a minister of religion, to solemnise any marriage…”

This Committee considered the latter approach as the preferred option as it is simple, clear and avoids any unintended consequences of giving up our status as a ‘recognised religious denomination’. ” — Church and Nation, Marriage Redefinition Proposal

As a flow on from that, the committee is proposing that we establish our own ‘ecclesiastical’ version of Presbyterian Marriage, where we would issue marriage (and divorce) certificates because if our logic is that civil marriage has departed from God’s design we need to provide for those whose conscience would not allow them to enter a civil relationship. The proposal is then, that we would recognise only two types of marriage: those conducted by the Presbyterian Church, and those conducted by a civil celebrant under the Act.

Perhaps the strangest part of this proposal is the form the deliverances put forward by the committee take (to read more on the proposed form of ‘church marriage services’ read the report in full):

Proposed Deliverance:
(6) Declare, if the Marriage Act (1961) is redefined to allow for homosexual unions to be recognised as marriages under the Marriage Act (1961) that no PCA Minister should solemnise marriage under a redefined Marriage Act (1961).
(7) Declare, that only two forms of marriage are recognised as valid Christian marriage — marriage under the Marriage Act (or the equivalent in another country) and marriage under the forms of the Presbyterian Church of Australia apart from the Marriage Act (or marriage by some other church with a similar arrangement approved by the GAA).
(8) Adopt the following as the regulations which Ministers and Sessions shall follow in conducting a church marriage service.

It won’t be a surprise given the post I wrote when this proposal surfaced that I still think it is a bad idea. There were 8 reasons I thought it was a bad idea then.  But here are the questions that need to be answered by those moving these deliverances at the General Assembly of Australia.
1. Does the GAA actually have jurisdiction in this area if this is, as the proponents say, a “wisdom issue” not a “doctrine issue”?

The GAA has already resolved that the Presbyterian position on marriage, doctrinally driven, is that it is the “lifelong union of one man with one woman, voluntarily entered into, excluding all others…” This doctrinal position provides the boundaries for ministers, elders, churches, presbyteries and state assemblies to exercise freedom and liberty of conscience within the Presbyterian Church of Australia. To my knowledge no minister disagreeing with the C&N proposal is suggesting we change this doctrinal position.

So this isn’t a doctrine issue so much as a ‘deciding how we might respond to the world outside the church’ issue. The proponents of this cause are offering no official Scriptural support for the position (with the exception of Campbell Markham, a member of the Church & Nation committee but in papers published outside the Church & Nation report). It is being presented as a ‘wise’ move; with an added sense from the committee that our response to this issue must be to put forward a united voice to our community.

In the Basis of Union the GAA has jurisdiction (‘powers legislative, administrative, and judicial, which powers shall be supreme with respect to’) these three areas which might be relevant for this decision:

(a) doctrine of the Church;
(b) worship of the Church;
(c) discipline of the Church;

The proponents are adamant this is not a doctrine issue; and if it is not a doctrine issue, I would argue the GAA has no authority to make a decision like this on a wisdom issue. When the initial proposal was to withdraw as a recognised denomination under the Marriage Act 1961, there was a legal rationale for the GAA to make the decision because the Federal Act recognised the Federal church, but the new proposal is different and reaches well beyond that scope, especially in the attempt to establish eccles

2. Does this proposal, which to date has been officially rejected by one whole state, and been strongly debated in other states, not represent a restriction on the liberty of Assemblies, Presbyteries, Sessions, and Office bearers — liberty protected by the Declaratory Statement that forms part of the Scheme of Union?

Given the opposition already expressed from several Assemblies, Presbyteries, Sessions, and ordained ministers and elders of the Presbyterian Church, and given that this is a ‘wisdom issue’ not a doctrine issue, does it not fail to meet the spirit of the following parts of the Declaratory Statement?

That liberty of opinion is allowed on matters in the subordinate standard not essential to the doctrine therein taught, the Church guarding against the abuse of this liberty to the injury of its unity and peace.

Isn’t it possible that this proposal, given a whole state has almost unanimously indicated at its assembly that it will not be taking this step, or wishes not to, will actually injure the unity and peace of the denomination created by allowing liberty of opinion on non-doctrine matters. From what I gather, a minister who refused to act according to this edict on the basis that they believe it to be outside the scope of the Declaratory Statement would face church discipline.

3. Further to this point, the Declaratory Statement also provides office bearers with a particular understanding of the ‘civil magistrate’ which means we already ‘disclaim… intolerant or persecuting principles’ and frees us from being considered as committed to principles we disagree with as made by the civil magistrate because God is Lord of the conscience. Why does this not render the ‘association with evil’ or the ‘agents of the state’ arguments invalid?

This paragraph seems to me to undo any sense that we should be worried about ‘association with evil’ if we ever act in partnership with the magistrate while they also do things we disagree with (which is the Markham position).

That with regard to the doctrine of the civil magistrate and his authority and duty in the sphere of religion, as taught in the subordinate standard the church holds that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only King and Head of the Church, “and Head over all things to the Church, which is His body.” It disclaims, accordingly, intolerant or persecuting principles and does not consider its office-bearers, in subscribing the Confession, as committed to any principles inconsistent with the liberty of conscience and the right of private judgement, declaring in the words of the Confession that “God alone is Lord of the conscience”.

4. Is this seriously the best way forward, given the strong disagreement expressed, and these principles?

Is there not a way we can handle this better by simply providing ways for ministers to exercise freedoms (wisdom freedoms, not doctrine freedoms), and act according to their conscience (in not celebrating marriages, or celebrating marriages), rather than making freedom-restricting declarations as a church?

5. When pressed on the GAA’s jurisdiction on this matter, the Convener of Church & Nation, Darren Middleton, suggested this matter falls in the ‘worship’ category of the GAA’s authority. Does this not represent a significant change to ‘worship’ as we understand it in the Presbyterian Church?

If this is a significant redefinition of the scope of our worship, particularly via the introduction of ‘Ecclesiastical Marriage’ and a set order of service for such a marriage, then does this not change the formula that Ministers have sworn to uphold upon ordination, especially:

“I further own the purity of worship practised in this Church, and the Presbyterian government thereof to be founded on the Word of God”

Personally, and because this is not a doctrinal decision, but a wisdom decision, I’m not sure I understand this expansion of the ‘worship’ of the church as the same expression of the ‘purity of worship’ I signed up for, nor do I believe this shift, in particular, is founded on the word of God.

6. Are we recognising the authority of the state when we act as celebrants recognised by the Marriage Act (and acting as agents of the state), or is the state recognising that we act as agents of the church, and recognising our forms of marriage as containing all the legal elements their definition of marriage requires?

The C&N proposal rests strongly on the assumption that being a minister within a recognised denomination involves us acting as agents of the state. We are, under the current Act (which at this point seems unlikely to change beyond the expansion of the relationships the government will recognise), free to marry people according to our rites, and to add whatever requirements we deem fit in our capacity as religious celebrants. We’re also free to refuse any marriage we deem fit, for whatever reason we deem appropriate. That we are ‘agents’ of the state is a contested interpretation of the Act that goes well beyond a relationship built on ‘recognition’ and the church’s historic involvement in marriage.

7. The Church & Nation report specifically downplays the value of contact with the community as a rationale for maintaining a connection with the state. How many marriages per year are being conducted by the people putting forward this proposal — from within the church community or from outside? What sort of geographic or demographic contexts do these views come from? Is this the universal testimony and experience of ministers within our denomination?

“If the church were to withdraw from the Act, no doubt there would be fewer non-Christian couples who sought a church wedding. It should be remembered that the number of couples seeking church weddings is declining quickly. Between 1990 and 2010 the marriage rate dropped by about 20% but the number of couples having a religious wedding dropped by almost 60%.”

This, frankly, is a sloppy argument and disconnected enough from the experience of many ministers, some of whom are arguing most strenuously against the proposal. I’d be interested to know how different proponents of this proposal see the role of the church in evangelism, and how they prioritise any engagement with people in the community.

8. Why are we completely unworried about the perception that our communities are not places that gay couples might come to investigate Jesus? Do we really not care how this stance is perceived by the gay community? Do they not need the Gospel too?

Do we expect any gay-married couples to repent before they come into our gatherings? We’re asking totally the wrong questions in the light of massive social changes. Perception matters. What we should be asking is what we ask a gay-married couple with children who have been living as a family unit to do if one or both of the parents start to follow Jesus.

9. If we believe marriage is a creation ordinance created by promises before witnesses, and that we can create our own version of marriage, why will we only recognise Presbyterian (or other ‘like minded’ Christian marriage), and civil marriage, but not other forms of marriage entered into voluntarily between one man and one woman?

Why limit it? Why one rule for us and the state, and another for others?

What do we do if the local mosque decides to create their own version of marriage, and a couple married in the mosque enter our church community. Do we treat them as married? If not, what does this say about marriage as a ‘creation ordinance’?

10. How does no longer conducting socially recognised marriages for our people, or for people in our community, help us better advocate for God’s good design of marriage, and male and female, in the public square — especially given it is likely to be interpreted as us walking away from a shared social institution (a creation ordinance) no matter how we might like to argue that it is the government walking away from true marriage?

What do we gain in terms of our witness to the world by losing an opportunity to speak into the political process as parties to the process? How are we standing in line with the examples of Esther, Daniel and friends, or Erastus (Romans 16) who were people who worked with truly ‘evil’ regimes in order to bring good outcomes for God’s people, and for others?

11. If we stay recognised under the act, but then ‘declare that no minister, elder, or home missionary in the Presbyterian Church may conduct a marriage under the Act’ are we not still recognised under the Act?

Does this actually achieve any purpose beyond limiting the freedom of our ministers, elders or home missionaries? Does this option actually achieve the stated goal of the Assemblies who asked Church & Nation to make recommendations? Aren’t we, in this option, still operating under the Marriage Act that we’ve decided is so deficient we must not be associated with it? Does this actually go far enough for those who don’t want to be associated with evil?

12, Have we really understood the implications and complications of establishing a ‘form of marriage under the Presbyterian Church of Australia apart from the Marriage Act’?

A friend who is a Presbyterian Minister and a former family law lawyer has suggested this move is not as clear cut, pastorally, as those advocating it suggests. Having a second definition of marriage in operation outside the law, creates confusion that people will abuse. I can think of multiple scenarios where this confusion might be abused. Let’s not be naive. Jesus says the reason God allows divorce is that people are hard hearted.

Our society is addicted to pornography, there’s a plague of domestic violence going on behind closed doors, do we really want to introduce shades of grey for hard hearts to abuse? Do we really want the uncertainty created by a new construct operating outside the social, common good, creation ordinance of marriage. The proponents may argue that we’re not creating our own version of marriage, but I’m not sure this stacks up. To be clear, I’m not suggesting the law won’t provide the same protection from domestic violence if we do that, but we will, I think, create some uncertainty for those not aware of the law (or whose husbands make them believe they’re under God’s law). Since I’ve posted these questions, another family lawyer who practices in this area has asked me to make it clear that I’m not talking about legal uncertainty in the area of Domestic Violence. I’m worried more about how unhelpful headship theology and wrong views of submission might come together in an institution that is not the social/legal institution shared by those outside the church.

Do we not want people to feel their promises bring immediate obligation both under God and within the parameters of the Family Law Act. Perception and certainty matter. Unregistered de facto relationships are not recognised by law until certain milestones are reached — 2 years of relationship, a child, or a wronged partner having made a ‘substantial contribution’ that requires recognition by the courts. Do we not think people might find opportunities for abuse within that two year period?

13. Do we really, really, want to turn our sessions into marriage and divorce courts and have them tell ministers who they can and can’t marry? 

From the deliverances proposed by C&N:

“The determination that a couple may be married is to be made by the Session of the congregation. Where a minister has a non-congregational ministry, he shall submit the matter to the Session, which has jurisdiction over him, or to a Session related to the couple or his field of ministry. No minister shall proceed with a church marriage which has not been approved by a Session.”

And:

“A person who has been married in a church marriage by a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia may approach any Session for a certificate of divorce. The person must provide a copy of the marriage certificate and the Session shall verify the certificate with the Session under whose jurisdiction the marriage was conducted or with the Clerk of Assembly. The Session shall, in the first place, determine if there is any possibility of a reconciliation. In doing so, it must seek to contact the other party to the marriage. If it is satisfied that the marriage has dissolved and that there is no possibility of a reconciliation, or that there are grounds to end the marriage, it shall provide a Certificate of Divorce.”

14. How does any of this even come close to working for our military chaplains?

15. Do we really want to restrict the ‘form’ a wedding takes to following a script from the Public Worship  and Aids to Devotion committee?

From the deliverance again:

“A church marriage service shall be conducted by a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia according to the service provided by the Public Worship and Aids to Devotion Committee.”

Is this an expression of trust in ministers to uphold the Formula they’ve signed up to? Or is it changing the nature of the ‘worship’ we’ve signed on to uphold?

16. Given the media reports about this proposal, from the time of the NSW Assembly decision, have framed this as either us running from sinners (not us personally fleeing sexual immorality in the church), or have misunderstood us in the case of the story in the Aus, do we really want to be taking steps that communicate very different things to what we intend, rather than clearly using every wedding to very clearly communicate our own understanding of marriage to those getting married and those witnessing the marriage?

The C&N report says:

“It is important to stress that we are not proposing to withdraw from an amended Marriage Act as a political protest nor for self-protection. If we decide to withdraw, we will do so with sorrow since we will be losing a connection with the wider community which we have valued. We should not imagine the making such a decision will have any impact on the view of Federal Parliament or Australian society…The primary reason for the church to withdraw is that what the Act would call marriage would no longer be identifiable with the institution established by God in creation and described in the Bible.”

The SBS report on the proposal at the NSW assembly says:
“Church seeks to stop performing legal ceremonies to avoid ‘evil’ gay marriage”

The Aus report, featuring Darren Middleton, is not only unclear in that it appears to suggest the decision has already been taken, but seems to make legal persecution an issue, so infers that this is ultimately an act of self-protection:

“Mr Middleton ­believes it is only a matter of time before anti-discrimination laws are wielded as a blunt club against ­religious freedom. “Those who seek to redefine marriage will seek to redefine freedom of speech and freedom of religion, as surely as night follows day,” he said.”

If our very nuanced position is so nuanced that nobody seems to understand it, are we really sure it’s the clearest way to say things that are distinctive and true about marriage?

17. What are we modelling to those in our church communities about how to engage with the world, particularly in response to a changed Marriage Act, but more broadly in response to social change?

If leadership is something we exercise by example is this the example we wish to demonstrate? Are we following the example of Jesus, or did he engage with the laws of Rome to such an extent that he was put to death after going on trial before Pilate and not bending the knee to Caesar?

18. Gold, like marriage, exists before the Fall, and Genesis 2 seems to establish that it has some beauty and value. All nations use it, or money. Our banks use it but are built on greed, which is idolatry. When will we be starting a Presbyterian Bank so that we are not complicit with our banks and their harmful narratives about this created good, which was made, like marriage, to reveal things about the divine nature and character of God (Romans 1:20)? 

19. Why are we not pursuing the European option?

If we must withdraw, why not ask couples to get a civil marriage and then conduct a religious blessing service? Why open up the idea that not having a civil marriage is wise or somehow more pure? Creating our own version of Presbyterian Marriage, and inviting other churches to do something similar so that we might also recognise their forms of marriage, is confusing and stupid. Should the Baptists adopt a similar model, do we ask transferring members to bring their marriage certificate with them in order to prove their marital status?

20. Does the status quo not already allow all Presbyterian ministers, elders, and home missionaries to act according to the doctrinal position outlined in the Westminster Confession of Faith 24.1, which was reaffirmed at the 2013 GAA, and to act according to the principles of freedom of conscience articulated in the Declaratory Statement

Those making this case have argued that unity is important, but seem to fail to realise that what they are advocating for is a limiting of the freedom that makes unity possible (within our doctrinal framework). This is a wisdom issue; we do not create unity by forcing ministers to do things they believe are unwise, or doctrinally problematic, or that come at the cost of Gospel ministry. We do it by encouraging ministers whose consciences do not allow them to act in a particular way to not act that way. Ministers are already, under the Marriage Act, free to not conduct marriages. State Assemblies already have the responsibility for registering ministers as members of the recognised denomination, it is possible, already, for individual ministers to withdraw from the Act.

21. If the status quo does already allow for freedom, and does already prevent the binding of an individual’s conscience, and this is not a doctrine issue, then why pursue unneccessary change that will be misinterpreted by those we are trying to reach with the Gospel and will restrict the freedom of our ministers, thus undermining the Basis of Union?

Ok. So this may be the same as question 4. But apart from the question of whether the GAA actually has jurisdiction in this area, this one is the big one for me. It seems unprecedented to bind the denomination to act in lock step on a wisdom issue.

3 Comments 21 Questions for those advocating Presbyterian withdrawal from civil marriage

  1. Alistair

    I shudder at the prospect of Presbyteries then State and Federal Assemblies being turned into courts of appeal for those aggrieved by Sessions decisions about all of this.

    The Family Court works hard to protect the privacy of litigants, and especially their children. Assemblies are no places to have these matters dealt with. Can we imagine women appearing before dozens of men and arguing their case? I can’t.

    Would we allow lawyers? I hope so.

    Also, from speaking with only a handful of ministers and elders, it seems there are a number of different theological positions on what constitutes valid grounds for divorce – some of them are idiosyncratic to say the least.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Why our Queensland committee doesn’t think withdrawing from the Marriage Act is a good idea | St. Eutychus

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