Nick Jensen responds to my response to his proposal to divorce his wife if the Marriage Act is amended

I believe very, very, strongly in my responsibility as a writer to ensure that anyone I write about, or whose work I write about in a critical way, is given the right of reply. I’m a big believer in the value of conversation. And I’m a big believer that every blogger has to have a code they live by, and this is part of mine… So I’m pretty happy to publish this response from Nick Jensen to my recent post that outlined why I won’t be divorcing my wife if the Marriage Act changes. Nick is the guy who published the story in the Canberra newspaper that started the viral kerfuffle.

I won’t reply to his reply in a new post, I may reply in the comments, but I’ll take my time mull over his answers. I don’t agree with much of what he says here, for various reasons (and for the obvious reason that he’s writing to explain his disagreement with me), but I’m glad he felt able to say it, and glad to give him the platform to continue making his case.

This was obviously contentious when it hit the media a few weeks back and people have strong opinions, feel free to enter the discussion with Nick, but I’ll be moderating the comments to keep it civil.

 


Ultimately why I wrote the piece declaring why my wife and I would no longer share the State definition of marriage was to deepen discussion, particularly for Christians. It wasn’t as some suggest a publicity stunt, or a threat, or a protest. It was simply an idea, an idea that has consequences.

Nathan’s piece is certainly one I want to engage with. I am always happy to be able to respond to someone who not only comprehends some of the more difficult questions that are being raised, but engages with faithfulness and a desire for truth.

There are really two core arguments to deal with in Nathan’s piece, with most of the other points revolving around them.

  1. The State doesn’t ‘define’ marriage, it simply ‘recognises’ marriage. Therefore there is no good reason for a Christian to step away from being recognised.
  2. The State shouldn’t legislate Christian ‘morality’ on an unwilling majority.

I will firstly clarify my own argument, and then I will respond to the critique.

Drawing the line

There is always a line that Christian’s can’t step over. A situation where by good conscience, we will stand firm and refuse to recant. From day one of becoming a Christian at 17 I learnt this truth. The early disciples demonstrated this as they stood before the councils and law courts. Bishops throughout Church history accept their ‘usual fate’ for their positions of disobedience to kings and emperors. And Jesus Himself, the truth incarnate, embodies the most profound examples of what it means to challenge the cultural, political and spiritual powers of this world.

The question therefore is not if it is a ‘dumb idea’ for a Christian to refuse to recognise a State law or institution, but whether this is a reasonable point to do it. I recently attended a wedding of a friend who was married under an Islamic country’s law (I will refrain from naming the country for obvious reasons. He was already married to his wife in Australia, but if he wanted to be able to return to that country (being a political refugee) then he had to be married under Sharia law. This was because although he was a Christian convert, he was born a Muslim and due to apostasy being illegal he could only travel with his wife and children if they were both married as Muslims under State Law.

As I sat there watching them go through a very low key ceremony, I heard them both recite the tenant of the Islamic faith – ‘There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet’. This was not something they believed, but if this was the only way to return to this country where their family were and their future ministry was. Although we understand their decision, and supported our brother and sister, it is not something we could do. One of the lines we draw is at a State law where a requirement of being married is to declare loyalty to a different god to the one we worship.

The point is we all have these lines, and there are many instances of State laws around marriage that we simply couldn’t adhere to. It is not simply religious States either. Most Christians would draw the line in communist Russia where all the church marriage ceremonies were banned and State ceremonies declaring ultimate loyalty replaced them. Many would draw the line with William Wallace in Braveheart where he did not get married under State law because he would not share his wife with an English Lord. In Germany, some of our greatest theologians wrote the Declaration of Barmen in response to the National Socialist Party overstepping its authority and ‘special commission’ by moving into the Church’s vocation and becoming a single totalitarian order of all human life.

We fully support other Christian’s positions on where they draw this line. We have said we will draw it at the point where it no longer reflects the fundamental truths of marriage – husband and wife, faithful, for life, for the well-being of children. This brings me to Nathan’s first argument…

Does the State define marriage, or simply ‘recognise’ it?

One of the challenges here is that we shouldn’t draw the line where we have because nothing will really have changed if the State legalises same-sex marriage. The argument goes that the State is simply ‘recognising’ another form of marriage which does not affect the other ‘definitions’. Christian marriage will still be important to the State, it will just have to share (which is a very Christian thing to do really!).

Nathan is right when he says that the State ‘recognises’ definitions, but oversteps the mark by implying that this can be separated from the very act of ‘defining’. In fact it only recognises marriage ceremonies that fit within its own definition. The State currently does not recognise Muslim polygamous marriages, which means it effectively does define marriage by virtue of accepting or rejecting (legally recognising or annulling) unions carried out by religious and other bodies.

Let’s take the example of another institution, that of Universities. Let’s say I recognised certain institutions as Universities if and only if they awarded Tertiary degrees in the arts, laws, and sciences. For years and years I only recognise as universities those sorts of institutions. Then, one day, I decide to recognise a high school as a University. That is, the sorts of institutions I now recognise as a universities has expanded to include institutions that I previously would have excluded. Doesn’t it make sense to say that at this point my own definition of a university has changed, that it has expanded? To say, as Nathan does, ‘No, your definition hasn’t changed at all, in fact you don’t define ‘university’ at all, you simply choose to recognise some institutions as universities and not others, and as it happens you have broadened the purview of your recognition to include more than previously. This is all sophistry. Clearly what has happened is that I had my own definition of what a university is and recognised certain institutions accordingly; but then I changed my definition and accordingly recognised additional, previously excluded institutions.

Again, what I do and do not recognise as a ‘university’ all depends on what I think a university is or ought to be, that is, it depends on my own definition of a university. We recognise things as ‘x’ depending on how we define ‘x’. If the state does not now recognise same-sex relationships as ‘marriage’ it is because what the state considers as ‘marriage’ is not represented in the same sex relationship. If tomorrow the state considers same-sex relationships ‘marriage’, then its definition of marriage has changed. That’s actually how human language works.

Therefore it is not pointless, as Nathan suggests, to stand aside from the Government’s ‘recognition’ of marriage in such a situation if the definition of marriage that controls the State’s range of recognition conflicts unconscionably with a person’s own definition of marriage. This is exactly what is being done on the other side of the argument with Wallaby David Pocock, who is boycotting State marriage because they cannot in good conscience participate in an act of recognition which they think is immoral.

In short therefore, even though it might appear to be a subtle and clever distinction to try and separate ‘recognition’ and ‘definition’, it is ultimately empty. The government only recognises that which fits under its definition. If a government changes its definition of what it means to be human, what a religion is, or what marriage is, then there will always be clashes with individual definitions and consciences.

Should the State legislate Christian morality against an unwilling majority?

The wonderful thing about this marriage debate is not only its complexity over various fields of history, law, theology, philosophy and sociology, but also that it opens up the important debates around Christian engagement. I have taken the liberty of integrating some of Nathan’s other arguments around power and Church/State relations into this more concise proposition of ‘legislating morality’.

It is of course a different question to the one proposed in light of the decision my wife and I made, which is more an individual act of conscience rather than any compulsion or use of power. However if we are continue to fight publically and legally for marriage, and indeed many other issues, then the ‘legislate morality’ question must be addressed.

The answer is relatively straightforward, it is just a matter when it’s appropriate, and how to do it in a way that holds key theological issues around power and eschatology in balance. The example of slavery is all that is needed to show there are indeed times when it is good for the State to legislate Christian morality against unwilling majorities. William Wilberforce and the Clapham sect worked for decades to outlaw in Britain one of the most immoral laws in human history because of their Christian beliefs in the Imago Dei. They legislated at a time when the majority in culture were supportive of slavery. I don’t think many Christian’s say Wilberforce was overstepping his Christian witness by forcing his morality on others who didn’t want it.

There are of course theological nuances here. In Augustine’s City of God, he contrasts differing motivations of the world and the body of Christ. One loves God, the other loves self. The challenge therefore is how to we live, and indeed wield power, in a world which is not our home – that is the ‘City of Man’. He recognises that the laws that are made in the City of Man are only ever going to be a pale reflection of true justice (found in the City of God), however they are necessary and helpful to contain a certain level of evil. They bring a basic peace which we should support, but true peace is only found in Him.

The Church has made many mistakes throughout history though, often wielding power in a way that too closely reflected the love of self. Indeed, it has even often tried to create heaven on earth in its fullest sense, forgetting the ‘not yet’ of the kingdom of God. However, this in no way means a retreat from influence or somehow trying to detach the work of the gospel from its broader implications to society and public policy. It just means using power in a Christ-centred and creative ways as Joseph and Daniel did.

The question therefore simply becomes when and how we ‘legislate morality’ work in this ‘City of Man’. Even in the case of slavery it was a gradual process to get to a point where such legislation would stick where majority were culturally hostile. We cannot make laws too far ahead of a culture, and indeed we see this in Israelite law and the New Testament where slavery was permitted despite the gospel being centred on equality in Christ. Any Christian lawmakers should not shy away from making laws which reflect God’s goodness, truth and beauty – but they need to lead in a way that not only reflects how much change culture can handle, but also realise that the way they use their power must always be with a clear theological understanding of humility and service.

The truth is that every piece of legislation is a moral and ethical decision, and someone’s morality and ethics are always being legislated. It takes real leadership to legislate good policy, and by that I mean policy based on what makes for human flourishing in light of God’s principles, character, and design. A secular democracy does not simply mean leaders should accept a detrimental majority position as law, rather it is a process of accountability around decisions which help us test every idea before it becomes law.

In conclusion, probably where Nathan and I mostly disagree is that he is very cautious of the Church, and individual Christians, using worldly power in ways counter to the gospel. This is a reasonable considering some of the abuses of power in the past by the Church as well as seeing some Christians using power in the same way the City of Man does. However, I think that power can be used well in a different way, one that reflects the true meaning of the gospel. There is justice in trying to make good laws and stop bad ones. Just because Christians have done it poorly does not mean we should stand back from influence. We should instead use it in a way that honours human creature in light of God’s design, that points to the goodness and truth of God behind any legislation, make wise and compassionate decisions in difficult and unpopular situations, and always humbly remembers that although we seek to be effective for the common good, we are yet citizens of another city.

#Christwins

Why I won’t “divorce” my wife if the state recognises gay marriage

Yesterday Nick Jensen became an internet sensation when he promised that he and his wife would divorce if the Australian government redefined marriage.

In sum, I think this is a dumb idea.

In slightly longer sum, I think this is a dumb idea because I think the government recognises marriages according to a definition, rather than ‘defining’ marriage.

Marriages are defined by the people entering into the covenant, according to the organisation that conducts the solemnisation of the agreement.

It’s only after the couple, and the organisation (or celebrant) notify the government of the already existing agreement that the government recognises and registers the relationship. Church ministers are not officiating marriage ceremonies as representatives of the state, but of their church. The proposed changes to the Marriage Act do not involve a change to this status quo, but a broadening of the relationships the state will recognise as marriage.

When I married my wife I made promises before God, in front of witnesses, with the understanding that our marriage was a lifelong commitment built on our promises, and understanding of marriage, that our government chose to recognise as a legally binding commitment.

Any move to undo the government’s recognition of this commitment, while not undoing the lifelong commitment or the promises, is pointless, and a misunderstanding of the government’s involvement in the initial process. They aren’t defining the relationship, but recognising it.

Marriage has value because of the people entering it, and the promises they make, on the basis of their understanding of the relationship being entered. For Christians, it has value because we’re entering into a relationship that reflects the character of God — the united oneness of different persons, and the story of the Gospel, sacrificial love offered to bring lifelong relationship secured by faithful promises.

As an aside, the argument that somehow heterosexual marriages will be damaged or altered by this redefinition has always seemed somewhat specious to me. If you think your marriage is valuable because the state thinks so, I think you’re doing it wrong.

I’ve met Nick Jensen. He seemed like a reasonable guy who made cogent arguments about Christian participation in the political sphere, just with a different theological framework to me, and a different understanding of the relationship between church and state. My issues with the Australian Christian Lobby, with whom Jensen is affiliated via the Lachlan Macquarie Internship, are pretty well documented. In fact, that’s why I met with Nick.

I’ve not doubt he’s a rational guy who is behaving quite consistently according to his theological and political framework when it comes to his announcement this week that if the Australian Marriage Act changes to recognise same-sex marriage, he and his wife will attempt to legally divorce. Here’s some of what Nick says in his piece in Canberra’s CityNews:

So why do this? It will certainly complicate our lives as we try to explain our marital status on the sidelines during Saturday sport. The reason, however, is that, as Christians, we believe marriage is not a human invention.

Our view is that marriage is a fundamental order of creation. Part of God’s intimate story for human history. Marriage is the union of a man and a woman before a community in the sight of God. And the marriage of any couple is important to God regardless of whether that couple recognises God’s involvement or authority in it.

My wife and I, as a matter of conscience, refuse to recognise the government’s regulation of marriage if its definition includes the solemnisation of same sex couples.

The State (initially England) only got involved in marriage laws in 1753. For the 600 years before that in Europe, the Church acted as the official witness. Before the church had this role, marriage was simply a cultural norm ensuring children had the best possible upbringing.

This otherwise odd move of the State into marriage was ultimately permitted as long as it was seen as upholding a pre-existing societal good. Families, as the basic building block of communities, benefitted from the support and security of formal legislation.

When we signed that official-looking marriage certificate 10 years ago at Tuggeranong Baptist Church, we understood that the state was endorsing marriage, as currently defined, as the fundamental social institution – with all that this implied.

But if this is no longer the case, then we no longer wish to be associated with this new definition. Marriage is sacred and what is truly “marriage” will only ever be what it has always been.

It’s worth saying that our decision is not as extreme as it may seem. We will still benefit from the same tax and legal provisions of the state’s “de facto” laws.

However, what is significant is this issue will echo the growing shift from state education to private religious institutions.

This shift is no doubt because the majority of Australians, who are people of faith, believe their children are better served there. If the federal government pursues a change to the definition of marriage it will further alienate and divide the community.

For example, there are many Christian denominations that will simply stop officiating for any civil marriages rather than go along with the government on this.

Many Christians, like my wife and me, as well as people of other faiths, will simply reject the need for the State to recognise their marriage. Instead they will look to the authority of their church, mosque or temple. But there are broader implications for everyone, not just people of faith, to consider on this issue; for example, children’s rights, religious freedom, freedom of speech, and the broader fundamental rights of conscience and association. With our media’s relentless push to get this “over the line”, these issues have barely been noticed so far in the national debate.

Like I said, I’m sure Nick’s decision is consistent with his beliefs, I just think these beliefs are wrong.

Nick and I — and the Australian Christian Lobby and I — have fundamentally different understandings of the role of government, the extent of the authority of government, and how much we, as Christians, should expect to have any impact on secular government apart from the proclamation of the Gospel, so I won’t unpack everything I think is wrong with that article, or this idea.

I think the history lesson is interesting, but I’m not sure the way things were necessarily has any bearing on the way things are now, or the way things will be, except that it’s where things came from. I’m sympathetic to the idea that the state should not be defining marriage at all, but they do.

I’m also not sure “the majority of Australians” are “people of faith” regardless of what box they tick on the census form, and I’m also pretty sure a significant number of people who identify as Christians are supportive of committed same sex relationships, and as a result, see no problems with redefining the definition of marriage.

Here’s my problem with Nick’s idea. It’s caught up in this sentence here, and what I think is a fundamental problem with his view (and the view of others) about what the state is recognising, or doing, when Christians marry.

When we signed that official-looking marriage certificate 10 years ago at Tuggeranong Baptist Church, we understood that the state was endorsing marriage, as currently defined, as the fundamental social institution – with all that this implied.

The state does not solemnise marriages via the church, the state recognises church marriages as legitimate forms of marriage, just as it recognises civil marriages as marriages. If this is the case then I don’t think there’s any reason to “divorce” because our weddings aren’t two agreements or contracts – it’s one agreement, between two people, that is made and witnessed by God, those in attendance, and the state. It’s a fiction to think you can “divorce” in the eyes of one of these groups of witnesses simply because their understanding of the sort of relationships they recognise changes.

In order to be consistent, Nick would also have to divorce his wife if one of the people who stood as a witness to his marriage, and signed the paperwork, changed their own understanding of marriage, or at least tell his friend he must no longer consider them married.

When Robyn and I married we didn’t make an agreement with the state, we asked the state to recognise our agreement, made before God, with each other.

Nick’s definition of marriage is great, and I agree with it:

“Our view is that marriage is a fundamental order of creation. Part of God’s intimate story for human history. Marriage is the union of a man and a woman before a community in the sight of God. And the marriage of any couple is important to God regardless of whether that couple recognises God’s involvement or authority in it.”

But this definition can’t possibly be meaningfully applied to people who do not believe in a creator, even if such a marriage, as Nick acknowledges, is a good thing and that couple is important to God. This is also the understanding of marriage that is proclaimed in a marriage conducted and solemnised via most church marriage rites, including those conducted by the Presbyterian Church of Queensland.

As a minister of religion who is a recognised celebrant under the Marriage Act 1961 I am “registered as a Minister of Religion authorised to solemnise marriages,” I conduct marriages under the rites of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland, which, presumably includes conducting marriage according to the way we define marriage.

Indeed, the Act itself, in defining my participation as a Minister of Religion says the following:

“a person recognised by a religious body or a religious organisation as having authority to solemnise marriages in accordance with the rites or customs of the body or organisation”

In section 45 it says:

(1)  Where a marriage is solemnised by or in the presence of an authorised celebrant, being a minister of religion, it may be solemnised according to any form and ceremony recognised as sufficient for the purpose by the religious body or organisation of which he or she is a minister.

And, when it talks about the obligation of civil celebrants under the Act, in Section 46, it provides a specific exemption from stating the definition adopted by the Marriage Act, for ministers of religion.

Subject to subsection (2), before a marriage is solemnised by or in the presence of an authorised celebrant, not being a minister of religion of a recognised denomination, the authorised celebrant shall say to the parties, in the presence of the witnesses, the words:

“I am duly authorised by law to solemnise marriages according to law.

“Before you are joined in marriage in my presence and in the presence of these witnesses, I am to remind you of the solemn and binding nature of the relationship into which you are now about to enter.

“Marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”;

or words to that effect.

There are a couple of other important provisions, like this one, in Section 47:

Nothing in this Part:

(a) imposes an obligation on an authorised celebrant, being a minister of religion, to solemnise any marriage;

It’s pretty clear to me that at least as far as the Marriage Act works in its current form, churches are defining marriage as they see fit, and the government is recognising these relationships according to their understanding of marriage. I don’t see any changes to this arrangement in the proposed amendments to the Act, even if the state broadens the relationships it will recognise as marriage.

I wonder if, for consistency’s sake, Nick, and others advocating and adopting this withdrawal approach, would withdraw if the debate was about recognising Islamic polygamous marriages under Australian law.

I can’t get my head around how people pushing this sort of idea think a secular government should govern for people who are not Christians, and so don’t share our fundamental convictions about what marriage is, which starts with the God of the Bible (who many in our nation do not believe in, and do not claim to follow).

That the secular state is willing to recognise Christian marriages for the purpose of legal rights, property law, and inheritance, and that we’re able to continue to offer to conduct marriages recognised by the state for those who in our community who ask, according to a definition that promotes and advances the Gospel, is a privilege that I’m not sure we should be walking away from.

So long as we are able to conduct marriages according to our definition of marriage and have them recognised by the state, taking actions which play out like the equivalent of a toddler’s tantrum, where we chuck the toys out of the cot, gain us nothing.  We gain nothing in terms of our ability to bear witness to the Gospel, and the created order, through marriage, if we advocate either this sort of ‘divorce’, or that churches withdraw from conducting marriages recognised by the state. These courses of action simply appear to throw the courtesy of being allowed the freedom to continue to define marriage according to our beliefs back in the face of those offering it. It gets worse when we appear to be campaigning simply to prevent the secular government extending the same kind of courtesy to other sections of the Australian community.

I understand the desire to advocate the created goodness of marriage, I even understand that desire in the context of this debate. I believe that marriage is a good thing and God made it a good thing for reasons which include the one flesh, life long, relationship between one man and one woman —the bringing together of two different genders in one unit is, I think, a relationship that is tied up with human flourishing. But humans can flourish without being married, and children can flourish without both parents, and sometimes our arguments against gay marriage are just silly. Gay parents can already adopt. Infertile couples can and should get married because children are, in many ways, a potential (and welcome) biproduct of marriage rather than the purpose of marriage.

I believe that marriage as God created it is a good thing, but personally, I only think advocacy for the picture of marriage we get from the Bible (and so from God) is valuable when it is clear that we’re also advocating the goodness of the Creator, not simply about the goodness of life following his design, otherwise there’s a danger that we’ve turned marriage into an idol.

Putting a created thing in the Creator’s place as an ultimate good for our society, not simply a good thing that points us to the goodness of the ultimate good. I get the sense that that’s how Romans 1 sees all created things operating when they’re achieving their created purpose. Showing us something about God.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse… They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. — Romans 1:20, 25

Ultimately I don’t think it makes much difference for a couple if they choose to marry following a “Christian” tradition if they don’t know Christ. I don’t think marriage is the ultimate good for that couple, and I’m not sure couples in our community (or anyone in our community) would get that sense when they hear us talking about marriage, or about this particular political debate.

These options — withdrawal or ‘divorce’ —  both seem to be based on an assumption that the state should be functioning, quite deliberately and consciously, as God’s ‘sword’ operating according to his plans (Romans 13), rather than God simply working his plans for the world out through whomever he chooses to place in government. I can’t figure out where this expectation about government actually comes from, theologically speaking (though I can historically).

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour. — Romans 13:1-7

There’s no guarantee in this passage (or any New Testament passage) that the government will honour us back when we honour them. There’s no guarantee that the government will govern according to our view of the world. In fact, Peter simultaneously tells the church to live as exiles and submit to the government, with the expectation that “the pagans” will accuse them of wrongdoing, this presumably includes the government of his day. You know. Rome. Who insisted that people worship Caesar.

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. — 1 Peter 2:11-15

God always manages to advance his Kingdom through, and despite, hostile governments like Egypt, Babylon, and Rome. Romans, the letter where the sword idea comes from, was written to the church in Rome, about the Roman Empire, you know. The guys who killed Jesus.

While Nick Jensen cites history to argue his case, the real historical anomaly was the period of time that the church occupied the place of honour and power at the heart of an empire. Posturing in response to the state, when they do things we don’t like, or that don’t line up with the Bible, isn’t really what the Bible seems to describe in terms of church-state relationships, or what it seems to require of us in our relationship with the state, or what it looks like for us to live as exiles and citizens of the Kingdom of God. Posturing like this, pushing our agenda as though we should hold power over the state, or the worldly state should conform to God’s agenda, is what it looks like to hold, kicking and screaming, to a place at the adult’s table, while demanding that others don’t get to join us.