What I want people to know about marriage and the plebiscite…

What I believe about marriage

I’m a Christian.

This means I believe that Jesus Christ is God’s king (Christ just means ‘king’). It means I believe in a God who made the world, who made us, who loves us enough to send Jesus to die for us to not just connect us to the life God made us for, or pay the price for our failure to live that life, but to bring us a new sort of life altogether; eternal life. I believe the God who made the world and us actually has something to say about the ideal human life. The Bible opens with the story of God making us as his ‘image bearers’ in the world — representatives of the nature and character of God, and shows that his plan for humanity involves us ‘being fruitful and multiplying’ — in the next part of the story he puts people in a garden filled with beautiful things to do and eat. It’s legitimate to take this ‘fruity’ picture of human life and talk about what, for people who believe in the Bible, a ‘flourishing’ or good and fruitful life looks like.

The God in the Bible’s first chapters is good, and loving, and hospitable. We are to be like him. There’s another complex and mind blowingly good thing about the Christian God; the Christian God is triune, a God of relationship because the nature of God is relational — father, son and Spirit. When this God makes humankind, God says ‘let us make man in our image’ — the ‘us’ and ‘our’ are plural; and then we’re told he makes us male and female; different and equal, different and necessary in this job of being like God. We see something of God’s nature and image when his image bearers relate together in intimate love. Our culture believes intimacy is just about sex, but the Bible doesn’t say all intimacy is sexual, it does, however, then picture sexuality and marriage — between men and women — as part of what a flourishing life might look like. I’d say that intimate relationships with others are an essential part of bearing God’s image, and marriage between a man and a woman is a form of that; another form is family, so when the story of the Bible introduces marriage as a foundational and good-for-flourishing relationship, it says this:

The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
    for she was taken out of man.”

 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

This is what Christians believe marriage is — two different image bearers (man and woman) — joining together to express a particular sort of oneness, or intimacy, through sex (a joining of flesh) and a ‘communion’ or commitment to unity. Like God’s inter-triune love spills out to produce the creation of the world and humanity, this marriage relationship can produce a particular sort of fruit; the ‘multiplication’ Genesis 1 talks about — children. It creates families as a context for more love and intimacy. In an ideal world. The world doesn’t stay ideal for very long in the Bible’s story, in the next few sentences in the Bible this first marriage almost falls apart, and the love and intimacy pictured initially fades away, or is shattered, by self interest.

Christians believe this picture of marriage and intimacy is God’s design for all people; for the good and fruitful life. If we were able to achieve it, and as much as we are able to achieve it, the outcomes are better than alternative options. We believe it is good for people who don’t believe in God even if they don’t believe it is; and so that it can be loving to encourage people to see marriage the way it is created by God. This is complicated in a world where belief in God is contested, and where there are other understandings of what marriage is. It’s also complicated in a world where there is so much wrong with us, and with marriage, that this ideal almost never seems to happen; even in good marriages; those marriages are affected by our selfishness so that they aren’t ‘perfect harmonious unions’ or ‘perfect intimacy’. So we can’t argue for an ideal that is impossible to achieve, but nor should we ignore this ideal in thinking about what a good or flourishing life looks like.

When we get things wrong in this world it’s an expression of what happens in the next part of the story — sin — our rejection of God’s plan for human flourishing, and our pursuit of our own. It’s interesting that this attempt to redefine flourishing also involves fruit; and the rejection of God’s hospitable plan for a flourishing life.

For Christians, our goal is to pursue relationships that reflect who we were made to be, life and love reflecting the character of God. Our marriages are part of that, but not all of that… we also have a ‘church family’ that we belong to; brothers and sisters not just of flesh and blood, but people adopted into God’s family. We’re used to family structures that are bigger than just the biological, and understand that children are often raised in the context of a village or community far beyond just these biological family units. That’s what it looks like when we use our marriages and families for the overflowing of love, intimacy (beyond sex), and hospitality.

We can’t really do this getting back to the created ideal, we believe, on our own steam. Our hearts and loves are so disordered by our attempts to build fruitful or flourishing lives that we naturally put all sorts of things in the place God is meant to occupy in our hearts, minds, and devotion. We put money first. Or sex first. Or marriage first. Or the success of our nuclear family first. All these things are good things, but when our sin, our selfishness, leads us to put these things first we are both putting God out of his place, and distorting the way we live around our love for these things. An example of this would be where valuing my nuclear family might stop me hospitably loving those in need, or where valuing money above my family might turn me into a miser who doesn’t treat my children generously or kindly; we all have a hierarchy of loves; and if we put anything other than God at the top of that hierarchy, that thing becomes our god, and rules our other loves. We all understand the ‘flourishing’ life based on what we put in this God slot. The Bible says that just like in this first story in the Bible, when we reject God and pursue flourishing apart from him — he gives us what we want — life apart from him, which actually means death, because he is the source of life. The Bible pictures this as exile from God, or estrangement, or divorce. A breaking of intimacy. This is what Christians mean when we talk about sin earning judgment from God — he lovingly gives us what we ask for, we just don’t always realise we’re asking for death. And we miss that God wants our good, and that his ways are best for us, and that there’s actually harm and destruction involved in choosing to love things other than him.

The Old Testament frames life in this world in this way; we can pursue fruitfulness by choosing the living God, and be given the goodness of eternal life in him, or we can pursue fruitfulness apart from him and choose to love, or worship, dead, breathless, things and so die. These things are good things God has made — like marriage — but if we make them ultimate things we die. Over and over again it becomes clear that we can’t actually choose life by default; that we need God to intervene and change our loves by reclaiming them; the Old Testament is the story of humanity waiting for God to re-order our loves by his Spirit; it’s us waiting for the image of God in all of us to be rediscovered and re-breathed into, because we humans become the image of dead gods as we pursue them.

Now. This all seems a long way from the conversation about marriage; so let’s head back that way.

God, in the Old Testament, is depicted as a scorned spouse; a divorcee, who waits patiently for his ex — us — to stop playing the field, loving all sorts of things or partners, that aren’t our spouse, who waits with the offer that we might come home to the one who truly loves and is good for us; but doesn’t just wait passively. God sets out to bring us back by sending Jesus — a person of the Trinity — into the world to invite us back. We humans, generally, don’t think much of that offer, we like playing the field; so we killed Jesus. We mostly scorned his offer. We mostly choose to keep doing our own thing; but some of us — Christians — take it up. We re-enter the intimate relationship with God that we were made for. And this intimate relationship shapes how we understand our other intimate relationships; including marriage and family. We start pursuing God’s pattern for life again. We start ordering our sexual love and where we seek intimacy around God’s design for flourishing.

Now. I’m a Christian, as I said, which means I love Jesus. I love Jesus more than I love my wife. I love God too, but there’s something particular about a Christian’s relationship to Jesus. I love Jesus, and Jesus is a man, and I’m a man… the Bible even pictures the Christian’s love for Jesus (brought about by an intimate relationship where God dwells in us and makes us one with the Trinity by the Spirit, ‘uniting us to Christ’) as a marriage; the church is often called ‘the bride of Christ’. For some churches, especially the Catholic Church, marriage is a sacrament; something that reveals something deep, and true, and real, about our relationship with God. This is even part of why the Catholics practice celibacy for nuns and priests. I’m not Catholic, I don’t think marriage is a sacrament because I don’t think all people should (or can) participate in marriage. But I do believe marriage is a picture of the Gospel and the oneness it creates; it’s something beautiful for Christians because of this symbolism, and this symbolism is to shape the way we approach marriages as Christians (Ephesians 5:21-33). I believe, as a Christian, that how I understand marriage, and how I either participate in marriage, or don’t, is a product of who God is (and who I am, a sinful and broken image bearer being transformed by God’s Spirit). I don’t believe that Christian marriages are ideal, or never end in divorce, or never feature sinful behaviour; but I do believe Christians approach marriage by putting God first, and loving Jesus such that our ‘marriage’ to him is our ultimate reality. Jesus puts it this way when he is asked about marriage by people trying to figure out how it works in a broken world. They’re actually asking about divorce, and how that works, but he answers them by going all the way back to the beginning of the story, and God’s design for marriage:

Haven’t you read,” he replied, “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’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” — Matthew 19:4-6

As his answer continues, Jesus makes a bold claim that how we approach marriage, and sex (our loves for things and people God has made that reveal something about the nature of God) — how we approach the ‘flourishing life’, actually begins with how we understand our relationship with him as our loving king, and how we understand life in his kingdom. He says:

“Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” — Matthew 19:11-12

There are three things to notice here:

  1. Jesus knows this teaching is hard and some won’t accept it.
  2. Jesus says some are born ‘eunuchs’ — eunuchs were unable to be married or have sex, typically because they had been castrated so they could be ‘safely’ around a powerful person’s collection of wives (a horrible practice); but Jesus says some are born in such a way that marriage as God has designed it is not for them.
  3. Jesus says some will choose to live as eunuchs — without sex and marriage — ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’
  4. Jesus repeats that this teaching is for ‘the one who can accept it’ and that if they can they should.

Jesus is saying that our human flourishing; our need for intimacy, might first be found in the kingdom of heaven, and that this will, for some people, shape how we participate (or don’t) in marriage and family. There are many Christians who are same sex attracted, or single, who practice this teaching by not marrying and being celibate. If this meant ‘no intimacy’ that would be destructive for human flourishing; intimacy (apart from sex) instead needs to be found in the context of family; I think it’s reasonable in the first century to see this as taking place in being adopted into a household (the church, and the way it gathered as family), but it probably also comes with the adoption of children within that family, and a role with them. This has interesting implications for how we, the church, might accommodate families built around a same sex union where those parents choose to follow Jesus, and so redefine their family life around his teaching about sex, marriage, and intimacy.

Because I believe all this, I’m very happy to affirm the Presbyterian Church’s doctrinal position on marriage, before the plebiscite, and after it, no matter what the result is. This is what I believe marriage is, and the basis on which I will conduct marriages as a minister, and seek to have those marriages recognised by the government of Australia:

“the life-long union of one man with one woman, voluntarily entered into, excluding all others.”

I believe this is what marriage is. Unequivocally. I also believe that a good and flourishing life involves seeing marriage this way, and either entering or not entering one on that basis. I believe marriage, defined this way, is the best definition of marriage for my society and my neighbours.

But (the limits of my belief in a democracy).

I don’t think the plebiscite is asking “what is your definition of marriage” or “how do you understand marriage” but “what should the definition of marriage be in Australia”. I believe these are different questions (as I’ve been trying to spell out in previous conversations). While I understand the logic of people who agree with me on the definition of marriage in wanting to see that definition upheld as long as possible, and find it compelling, I also believe there are limits to how far this definition can and will extend.

I believe these limits are, in some ways, actually God-given, as a result of our departure from his plan for a flourishing life (as cultures, not just individuals); and our decision to have common gods, or idols, that shape our society and our understanding of the good and flourishing life in community.

I believe this makes this marriage debate more complicated than the plebiscite and this discussion allows it to be, and think we should have a much more sophisticated conversation, with better solutions than those that are currently on the table (one might be for the government to stop defining marriage altogether, and to just offer ‘registered relationships’, another would be to have an inclusive definition of marriage with very robust freedom of religion laws that go beyond simply protecting celebrants). This is why I don’t think there’s a clear cut binding case for Christians (or Presbyterians) to vote no in the plebiscite campaign, or persuade others to do so, while holding to the definition of marriage above.

There are five important things to notice.

  1. I am a Christian.
  2. I believe marriage is defined this way, and that it is built into a good life in this world, because I am a Christian and believe God made the world.
  3. Many of my neighbours are not Christians.
  4. Some of my neighbours identify as Christians and have a different understanding of marriage.
  5. Australia is a democracy.

I love my neighbours, and one of the ways I think I’m to do this is to participate well in the democracy (I don’t buy that participating well means accepting the status quo for participation established via special interests, or a winner takes all approach to power and discourse; I don’t believe it is limited to casting a vote). Here’s how this love shapes my thinking about this debate.

  • Because I love my neighbours and want them to flourish I would like them to become Christians; to meet Jesus and find God’s pattern for a flourishing life.
  • Because I love my neighbours I also want them to be free to pursue life in the same way that God wants them to; to choose life in God, and its consequences, or to choose life apart from God and its consequences. I want to make the case for the former, but I want to accept and protect the right for them to do the latter, even if that means they adopt different meanings for words and institutions as a result.
  • Because Australia is a democracy, I think it should accommodate this free pursuit, and my ability to make the case for a flourishing life being found in God’s design, including his design for marriage (and the corollary that life apart from God is not a flourishing life at all). You might think this case hangs on the plebiscite result; I’m looking beyond it. If you think the plebiscite is the be all and end all, then you should definitely vote no and campaign accordingly.
  • Because Australia is a democracy I believe other people should have a say in, and be represented in, the laws of Australia. Just as I should, and I hope my views might be accommodated still beyond marriage redefinition.
  • Because Australia is a democracy, and we all have the ability to have a say in how our society operates, and what the law does and doesn’t recognise, we should all speak, converse, vote, and live according to our consciences and our freedom; balancing this with the freedoms of others, and seeking their good (I can see how this can lead to a no vote, a yes vote, or a not voting approach to the plebiscite).

Here’s some other bits and pieces to throw in the mix of this conversation.

I believe that it is presently true that all Australians can enter into a marriage as God defines it for Christians, and as the law currently defines it; there have been and continue to be, many same sex attracted people entering opposite orientation marriages. My sister is married to my brother in law, who is same sex attracted.

I believe that it’s at least partly evident that what we’re being asked for is to change the fundamental definition of marriage (and that it’s not about love at all), and that this is clear because we have to qualify the word to talk about the campaign ‘same sex marriage’; some people calling for a changed definition have noticed this and started saying ‘or as I prefer to call it ‘just marriage’… it’s not bigotry to point this out, and to ask what might be at stake in the change; but nor is that we’re changing the definition of a word or institution a knockdown argument. We do that all the time, for very good reasons (and sometimes for bad reasons).

The best argument for same sex marriage

I hear many gay neighbours — those who are strangers and friends — asking for the definition of marriage to change because they believe they should have the right to pursue a flourishing life as they see fit; which includes changing the definition of the word marriage to incorporate their life long commitment to another, at the exclusion of all others. This is, I think, compelling in the context of a secular democracy where no religious view is given priority.

I don’t believe ‘love is love’ is actually the best argument for marriage redefinition, marriage equality, or same sex marriage. I don’t buy the argument that sex is love (or that it necessarily involves, or is involved in, intimacy). I believe it’s that for a gay couple to flourish as best as they can within their understanding of the good life in this world, a relationship of commitment, love, and intimacy, is, without God, better for them than alternatives. And, because gay couples can already adopt, birth, and raise children, I believe this sort of relationship provides more stability for children than alternatives (just as this is true for marriages that are not Christian marriages). I don’t believe these marriages are God’s ideal (or marriage at all, in God’s sight, or the sight of the church), but I am able to hold my (God’s) definition of marriage while recognising that other people can and will define marriage differently. That must surely be how Christians in nations where marriage has been redefined operate? And how we must operate beyond the plebiscite if marriage is then redefined at law in Australia. I don’t see this as involving cognitive dissonance, or cheapening my own definition or marriage just because the meaning of the word now being contested.

I believe it is important to listen well, and with empathy, to our gay neighbours, and to understand what they seek and why our best arguments for marriage don’t convince them. I believe it has been a mistake for Christian leaders to ignore the human rights arguments for marriage because we think human rights are either conferred by the God our neighbours don’t believe in, are non-existent, or must be universal. It means that there is some emotional weight to the argument that we are this century’s racists or bigots. We’ve utterly failed to engage with this argument in a compelling way because we’ve tended to simply deny its weight, or we’ve jumped straight to the important question of competing rights without acknowledging the strength of the argument (on the basis of human flourishing and ‘the good’ and that being derived from a competing view of the world).

What about the rights of the child and ‘normalisation’ of ‘genderless parenting’

Some people believe that our duty as Christians is to help the government ‘restrain evil’ or maximise morality, through our vote (I’d say that’s one way to do it, but it’s limited). This sounds nice in an ideal world where there’s a clear line between black and white. They use this line of argument to say that a Christian must oppose same sex marriage not so much because of the freedom of the people entering the marriage, but for the rights of the children. Life in this world — a world that isn’t ideal, but is broken by sin — is complicated, and a good life involves balancing non ideal options while pursuing virtue out of love for others. Here’s a little example of a conundrum; Christians are rightly heartbroken by abortion, we see it as a fundamentally unrelated question to the question of same sex marriage, but it isn’t. Everything is connected. One of the solutions for minimising abortion must surely be to allow more imaginative options for a woman fearing the results of an unwanted pregnancy; including, as many Christians have suggested, better adoption laws. Now. We say children should have a right to know their biological parents; but that’s not the same as saying they should not be adopted, because we’d say in this other circumstance that adoption is better than abortion. That creates a quandary though when it comes to same sex adoption, doesn’t it? Life is complicated; ethics are often about retrieving good, and restraining evil, is it better, for those opposing same sex marriage through the children’s rights prism, for those children to be adopted or aborted? Idealism can make for some pretty messed up politics; our world is a world of competing goods, competing evils, and imaginative solutions. Wisdom is about charting a course between these competing rights, wrongs, and contested rights and contested wrongs.

Human rights can, I think, be conferred within a particular community by the decision of that community, in response to the desires of people within that community. I do believe that the rights of children are important, and that in an ideal world a child would know their biological family (and they should have a right to know) — but also that family is bigger than biology (and the suggestion that it isn’t is relatively modern and western; for example, adoption in Rome made parentage a very interesting thing, and part of the early church growing as rapidly as it did was their practice of adopting and caring for abandoned and unwanted children, in part because our doctrine of adoption into God’s family as co-heirs with Christ makes that a really big deal). I don’t believe we operate in an ideal world, or a Christian one, but a world where ideas are contested and in some sense this contest should, wherever possible, involve contradictory ideas co-existing through a commitment to charity and empathy.

Now, let’s for a moment take off the political hat and put on the pastoral and evangelistic hat we should be wearing as the church; the Gospel hat. How will our words here and now be heard by the same sex families that already exist? Let alone the future ones? How will our statements about absolutes and ideals and good and evil (disconnected from the Gospel and its power to re-order our loves) be heard by these families, who are already vulnerable because they fall outside social norms (there’s a reason people in our community think we need Safe Schools, and it’s not that Christians have an exclusive run on bigotry/hatred of people outside the norm). How might we speak about these families in a way that supports them and invites them to see us as an ally in loving them and their kids in a world where there is no ideal? I want gay families to come to my church. I want them to be loved by us. I want them to hear of God’s love for them and decide together what impact that will have on their life together, and I want our church families to be geared towards intimacy enough that these families can continue to love each other, be committed to each other, be involved in the lives of the children they’ve committed to, but also pursue a flourishing life of faith in Jesus. This isn’t helped when Christians publicly suggest we’re creating a stolen generation or the ‘commodification of children’.

My biggest concerns

Let’s go back to my first paragraph. I’m a Christian. I think God is real and good and loving. And the best life is found in loving him. Not in sex. Not in marriage. Not in human family and having and raising children (though these are all good things). I don’t want to spend the next few weeks (or years) trying to tell people why they should see marriage the way I see it without also, or first, inviting people to see the world the way I see it; to see the goodness of God’s design for our humanity, for intimacy, and for love. To see that a life lived with God at the centre, following Jesus, is a better, more beautiful, and more presently and eternally satisfying life — so much so that we can change or give up other loves, and approach other good gifts of God differently to our neighbours.

I want my neighbours to understand how marriage operates in the lives of Christians who believe the stuff I’ve written above; that it is special and important and good for humanity. I want Christians to work hard at building marriage relationships, families, and intimacy beyond sex, in such a way that our way of life is compelling and definitively and persuasively ‘more flourishing’ than the alternatives. As I participate in this particular conversation I want it to be the top half of this post that is my consistent contribution to the conversation, it’s having that view accommodated that is my goal in a democracy (not having it squish all other views). I want to listen more than I speak. I want people to understand that love and intimacy in marriage is good, but love and intimacy in Jesus and his church is better (I want to build the church so it actually is better too). And that they’re fundamentally connected — that marriage is a metaphor for the bigger and richer reality of connection to God.

Here’s an interesting thing; McCrindle Research indicates that a growing percentage of Aussies know very few Christians in real life; some people are unable to empathise with our cold ‘rational’ arguments because they have no emotional/relational context to see or hear them in. You want to persuade people about Christian marriage and family — invite them into your home; but I reckon there’s a corollary. I think part of our tone deafness on this when it comes to the trenches, is that so many Christians have no deep relationships with gay people or couples. We’re not able to feel the strength of their emotional or coherently rational (without God) arguments, because we have no emotional/relational context to hear them, and when we do hear them it’s in the context of a fight where we’re just seeking to defend our patch.

We’re not even great at accommodating same sex attracted people in our churches and providing non-sexual intimacy, and non-biological family, in our church culture. How many of us have shared meals with gay friends in our homes, or even on our streets? How many of us are listening to reports from vulnerable gay people about what this plebiscite feels like for them? How quick are we to dismiss those emotions and hurts as valid data in an ‘evidence based’ democracy? How many of us are prepared to question the status quo of democracy in this country and whether a zero-sum game built around a non-binding vote following a public conversation where we hurl invective at each other is the best way to make decisions for the good of all? To participate in our democracy according to this status quo is to reinforce it… yet saying you’re not going to participate in a non-binding plebiscite creates the assumption you’re not doing your duty or participating in our shared life.

I believe the best thing for my gay neighbours — before or after they marry, if they marry or not — is loving Jesus. That marriage. I don’t want to be asking or answering ‘how does the church fight the gay marriage culture war’, but ‘how do we help our neighbours discover the love and intimacy of God and his people in a way that makes us wonder if sex and marriage are actually the ultimate thing to build our life around.

I want to be asking, talking, and pondering questions like: ‘how do we be a church that gay families come into, where they meet Jesus in such a way that it radically rearranges their lives’ in the same way I want to be asking ‘how do we be a church that straight families come into, where they meet Jesus in such a way that it radically rearranges their lives’ — at the moment our tone deaf, un-empathetic, approach to the marriage debate means I don’t think we need to worry too much about those questions; there’s very little chance that, apart from a miraculous work of God, these families are going to check Jesus out at all; we’re hardening hearts towards Jesus, rather than softening them. I say this appreciating the paradox that somehow it is always a miracle for someone to move from death to life as the Spirit works in us, and that it is God who softens and hardens hearts; I think God delights in doing this through soft-hearted people though.

A political theology (outlined): Or ‘why I’m not advocating Christians say nothing about politics’

Well. I’ve certainly learned my lesson. I will not be posting short posts very much anymore. They take far more time than long ones… I’ve also learned that when you leave things unsaid people will make all sorts of assumptions about what you are saying. So let me clear this up. Because this objection is the one that irks me most. People making this accusation may not be aware that I’ve consistently written about how to participate in our democracy, and spoken out about many issues, from the framework I’m advocating, but this framework does also keep evolving so this post might serve to outline some more of what I’m actually arguing for.

Allow me to introduce you to what is a growing body of work about how Christians engage in the public sphere, as Christians, and a growing conviction that pluralism is part of the picture when it comes to life in a democracy. Then. To clear things up a bit further; in my next post I’ll demonstrate how speaking into the marriage debate (while abstaining from voting in the plebiscite) is possible by actually doing it (again), according to what I believe is a consistent application of this model.

I’ll do another numbered list; with links to posts and short summary statements.

  1. Any ‘political theology’ begins with a theological anthropology. An understanding of what it means to be human (because politics is about being human together). My anthropology is built around the idea that all people are made in the image of God to worship, glorify, and represent him; but that the distorting effect of sin is that we worship idols, represent them, and are conformed into their image. The image of God remains in us so long as we draw breath (because that we live and breathe is part of what distinguishes us from idols); but we work to eradicate it, apart from God, until death when we finally become ‘breathless’ like the things we worship. We are worshippers. This, more than any other thing, is what separates humans from animals and actually underpins all the other differences and distinctives of our humanity (that we tell stories, that we imagine, that we make things, that we love etc).
  2. I believe that being made in the image of God is not a thing we do as individuals; that when God says ‘let us make man in our image’ and then he makes us ‘male and female’ it indicates that image bearing is something we do in community. Here’s a great quote from a journal article by Brendon Benz titled ‘The Ethics of the Fall: Restoring the Divine Image through the Pursuit of Biblical Wisdom’:

    “Genesis 1 indicates that God is imaged only when two or more are gathered in the freely self-limiting relational character of God…The implication of this requirement is that an individual neither posses the divine image as a substance of his or her own being, nor images God in isolation. Rather, the imago Dei is manifest only in relation”

    This is a big claim, but I think borne out by Genesis 2 and the declaration that unlike the rest of creation in its completion, ‘it is not good’ for Adam to be alone… This means that image bearing is itself essentially ‘political’ if politics is the ‘organisation of life together’.

  3. Any Christian political theology, and any ‘Christian’ engagement with the public sphere/politics, is built around an underlying conviction that Jesus is Lord, and life following him is life as a member of his kingdom. The Gospel is inherently political in that it creates a kingdom (a polis), and revolves around serving a king.
  4. The Gospel is a political message centred on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The crucifixion shapes our manner such that living as a citizen of the kingdom of God requires a certain commitment to the message of the crucifixion, and a posture of cruciformity. God’s strength is not found in political clout, but in weakness; in us embodying the Gospel as a community, and this is what it looks like for us to represent God by being conformed into the image of Jesus (this is, essentially, the subject of my masters thesis, with some of point 1)
  5. When I say I’m not interested in contributing to political discussion ‘apart from the Gospel’ as I did in my plebiscite post; I do not, and never have, meant we should speak ‘just the Gospel’ in a sort of emphasis on individual salvation through the cross, or say nothing (I don’t think that’s what the Gospel is, I think salvation is an implication of the Gospel, which instead, is the proclamation that Jesus is Lord and king, and an invitation to join his kingdom through his victory over sin and death at the cross and in his resurrection, and then to follow his example by the Spirit… Instead, I mean we must ground our positions in the goodness of God revealed in Jesus, and in his Lordship of our lives (and our belief that he is Lord of all and the source of the good, or flourishing, life for all people). When I say ‘apart from the Gospel’ I mean I’m not interested in public Christianity that comes from an anthropology that thinks natural law arguments will be enough to reason people into righteousness, or approaches the secular democracy we live in as though we must only make ‘secular’ arguments. When I say ‘the Gospel’ I include the invitation to turn to Jesus (away from sin), and the implication of not doing that (God’s judgment now — a less good life according to his design for life — and the trajectory towards death, not life, this puts people on).
     
  6. Because the Gospel is political and shapes the way we live in public as citizens of God’s kingdom, and of the place we live as embodied image bearers, there is no ‘secular/sacred’ divide; and the modern idea that faith is a private matter does not line up with our understanding of faith in Jesus. The idea that faith is private has reinforced a divide between the sacred and the secular in the minds of our politicians and media, which means that, for example, religious protections will almost certainly be offered to clergy around same sex marriage, but nobody else. One way to keep addressing this is to keep participating in public political debate as Christians not as ‘secular citizens.’ But that means point 4 and 5 are important and essential elements of our contributions.
  7. I believe, as Christians, we have legitimate insight into what the good and flourishing life looks like for our neighbours; but that this is always connected with the good and abundant life secured for us by Jesus; the call to rediscover our humanity as it was made to be through Jesus, and the renovation of our humanity that comes through the indwelling of the Spirit. I believe the goodness of God and his love for us reorders our loves of the things he has made, and it is this reordering that makes the Gospel truly good news for people who have rejected his design and worshipped created things instead. We should speak of that flourishing, but always in connection to its real source, and always as an invitation and an appeal to be recognised as participants in our shared life, as good neighbours.
  8. Our democracy is not Christian, it is secular. The constitution ensures that in a way that is protective for Christians and other religious groups. I believe that for those of us in confessionally reformed churches this presents a challenge because I don’t believe the Westmintser Confession of Faith anticipates this sort of construction when talking about the Civil magistrate (nor do I think it adequately assesses the nature of the state as Paul writes Romans 13). One of Charles Taylor’s insights in A Secular Age that is relevant here is that now all ideas on the ‘good life’ are contested and driven by a question of what place a ‘super-natural’ reality has in decisions about ‘material reality.’ We have to take on board that most of our neighbours have totally different, coherent, and wrong, visions of the good life, arrived at via a worship decision they have made (that God has confirmed in them — Romans 1), not just reason. I believe this means we should adopt a position that sees one of humanity’s chief goods being freedom to rediscover our ‘chief end’ — via freedom to worship — and we should extend that freedom to others (all human identities are constructed around worship). This means pursuing a sort of pluralism, rather than monotheism (trying to act as if everybody is Christian, or not), or polytheism (trying to act as though all views are true and able to be synthesised). This means when it comes to ‘identity politics’ or a ‘politics of recognition’ or a ‘pursuit of authenticity and finding our true selves’ we need to recognise that Jesus provides these things for us, but without Jesus people are left looking for these things elsewhere.
  9. I believe it is increasingly apparent that we Christians are exiles in the secular west, and not running the show (or even close to running the show), and to assume anything that looks like Christendom or that Australia has ‘judeo Christian values’ is to fundamentally misunderstand the Australian narrative apart from the ‘establishment’ story of the colonists/upper class; it misses the egalitarianism at the heart of the Aussie identity and that most people think the church has done more harm than good in Aussie life (especially in the light of the royal commission). I think part of a political theology involves reflecting on our position in society (to use the table metaphor ‘how far from the head we are’). We’re not at the head, we’re close to not even being invited anymore. The census data confirms this trajectory (the McCrindle Research on faith and belief in Australia even more so), and should give us a sense that we need to rethink how we be the church. This means freedom for religion is a luxury, and that our great temptation will be to take the ‘carrot’ of liberalism to avoid the stick. The answer here is perhaps to offer ‘pluralism’ generously to all.
  10. I believe that we aren’t just exiles who are faithful on many things and fighting a battle on sex, but exiles whose imaginations, narratives, practices, loves and lives have already been conscripted by ‘Babylon’ and sexuality is just the last (or only) place we’re resisting. We need to rediscover an urge to be different when it comes to money, the economy, the environment; and rediscover how our anthropology and creation story shape a way of life in the world that is different to the lives lived by those with other stories and visions of the good life. And consistency in these other areas would lend potency to our attempts to be different when it comes to sex and marriage.
  11. I believe faithful theology existed before Luther and the Reformation, and our best guides for a political theology in exile post-christendom comes from pre-christendom (and to some extent from Augustine, who’s ‘early Christendom’ — as in a little after Constantine). The apologies of Tertullian and Justyn Martyr, the Epistle to Diognetus, those insights from ancient texts about what it looks like to be the church in a hostile world trying to carve out space for ourselves for the good of our neighbours.
  12. One of the implications of this pluralism, and the command to love our neighbours and ‘do unto others’ is not just the idea of reciprocity (that would be ‘treat others as they treat you’) but generosity (‘treat others as you would have them treat you’). We don’t act the way we do because we expect others to respond by treating us the same way; but because we believe it is the right thing to do. I believe this means when it comes to issues like same sex marriage and religious freedom for baker and florists we might have to consider ‘third way’ options like helping Christians in those industries do imaginative things like saying yes to a request for service, especially when it feels like a trap, but refusing to profit; that hospitality of the other becomes our strategy (and a form of ‘turning the other cheek’).
  13. I believe, for example, the Australian Christian Lobby’s strategy and participation in the political process fails several of these points. They fail point 3 both in content and manner. They operate from a different theological anthropology, secondly, they operate from a different political strategy (not cruciformity but the wielding of the power of the Christian constituency) in a way that distorts democracy (I think we should advocate, rather than lobby, and that ‘lobbying’ is inherently coercive and involves attempting to take more than our fair share of the democratic pie), and I believe they’ve bought into an unhelpful understanding of a secular democracy which means they deliberately exclude religious arguments. I believe many of us Christians take our lead on political engagement from the ACL (and thus adopt their political theology), and I respect the people involved, but I believe they are wrong. I believe this model has become the strategy of the official organisations responsible for the ‘no campaign’; and this is part of what sees us forming a broad coalition with other advocates of natural law (including muslim religious leaders).
  14. I believe Christians should participate in our democracy with imagination, that we should not feel bound by the status quo or binary options tabled by people who see politics as a zero sum game of winners and losers. That this is part of pursuing Christian wisdom. I believe part of this will require Christians deciding whether or not their job is to ‘dirty their hands’ by getting into the muck of the political process (and compromise, perhaps joining a party), to keep their hands clean (standing apart from the process and speaking as an objective ‘conscience’), or being busy building ‘political institutions’ that operate apart from the government. Abstaining from the vote on the plebiscite is a form of maintaining clean hands.
  15. I believe participation in democracy extends a long way beyond just voting, or even just letter writing, that often when we call for change we should be prepared to carry the cost of that change. We shouldn’t pursue free speech but costly speech; recognising that we are embodied democractic actors not just voices. So; calling for changes to abortion laws means being willing to adopt babies into our homes and communities, and speaking out about asylum seekers means being willing to house them and support them. Participating in democracy is not about free speech or an easy vote; it’s about carrying the cost of our positions as we love our neighbours as Jesus loved us; this extends to letter writing too.
  16. I believe a generous pluralism involves seeing civic life as a ‘shared table’ where we practice hospitality when we’re the host, and recognise that we often are not. I believe both wisdom and hospitality require the hard work of empathising and listening to others we disagree with, and attempting to understand the desires, motivations, language, and categories they are using; so that we are engaging in dialogue rather than simply proclaiming our position (see Colossians 4, and Paul in Athens). I love this bit from the Benz essay cited above:

    “in 1 Kings 3, Solomon asks for “a listening heart (lēḇ šōmēaʿ) in order to judge your people and to discern between good and evil” (v 9). After expressing pleasure with this request, God identifies Solomon’s “listening heart” as a “wise heart” (lēḇ ḥāḵām; v 12). Read in parallel, these two statements indicate that wisdom is predicated on the capacity to listen (see Prov 1:5, 8; 12:15; 18:15; 19:20). Thus, wisdom demands a partner—one who is willing to speak, and at the same time, one who is willing to give ear. The result of this corporate engagement is the ability to discern between good and evil, and thereby administer justice.”

  17. I believe one of the most political things we can do is build the church as a ‘political institution’; an alternative polis, that lives and proclaims the Gospel. That we have to think of the church as more than a Sunday event, and instead see it as the community of believers who are representatives of the Kingdom of God in a particular place, living and proclaiming the Gospel — including showing how it connects to public issues of the day and is genuinely good news.
  18. I believe we should be cultivating a faithful presence where we present the truth and beauty of the Gospel as an alternative (and prophetic) voice in the public square, not one that seeks to dominate and drown out other voices, and that this means it is possible to faithfully articulate our position on things (and on the sinfulness of our culture and laws), without calling for our view to be implemented for all (and rather politely requesting that it be accommodated). I believe there are examples of this in Daniel in Babylon (an idolatrous regime), and Erastus in Rome (an idolatrous regime); and that we can simultaneously serve idolatrous and God-hating rulers who make awful laws (that order people to bend the knee, or crucify Jesus in Rome’s case), submit to their authority to punish us for rejecting their idolatry (eg not bending the knee, going to the cross), and that the Gospel works most powerfully in those moments.
  19. I believe it is possible to not ‘oppose sin’ without ‘affirming sin’ (and we manage it with most legislation around banking and the environment that seems to be predicated on greed), and even to be in ‘favour’ of legislation that enables pluralism in our secular democracy (in much the same way that I think we should support the building of mosques). If I affirm the building of a mosque I am, in Christian theology, enabling sin every bit as much as if I am ‘in favour of same sex marriage in a democracy’, but also, I believe, every bit as much as God enables sin in Romans 1, and as the father ‘enables the sin’ of the prodigal son by giving him his inheritance when the son basically wishes the father was dead (a picture of humanity’s rejection of God).
  20. I believe we can expect persecution to increase at some point; but that the best way to respond to cultural marxism or an aggressive anti-Christian agenda is to ‘treat others as we would have them treat us’ and to build strong mediating ‘pre-political’ institutions (the church, but also businesses etc) using our imagination and understanding of the human condition. Again, this is not to avoid persecution, I don’t believe the ‘golden rule’ will have us avoid persecution, but will vindicate us in the eyes of some when we are persecuted; and that doing right in the face of opposition, trusting that God will judge, will ‘heap burning coals’ on the heads of those who persecute us as we live faithfully and do what is right (Romans 12). I believe we should attempt a generous pluralism even if our opponents want to practice an aggressive and idolatrous monotheism (sexual liberation), but we should also invite our opponents to consider a generous pluralism, and community liberty (the freedom for communities to be built around common shared identities/visions of human flourishing), as a common grace, or common good. When I asked some of the most aggressive campaigners for same sex marriage if they would dial down their aggression in response to us offering pluralism rather than what they perceive as an aggressive monotheism they said yes.
  21. I believe our job is to hollow out the value of idols by showing them to be empty and the alternative to be greater; that we should, in a pluralist context, take our lead from Paul in Athens (at the Areopagus) and Ephesus (where the Gospel causes a collapse in the value of the idol market). We should be disruptors of the social order, not just ‘conservers’… and that the Gospel is unsettling. I believe that this is the way to bring people back from the distorted images they bear in the world; that the Gospel is our political strategy because it is how people and societies are transformed.

 

 

Living Faithfully in the ‘sexular age’ (a talk/panel thing)

A couple of months ago the Presbyterian Church of Queensland met for its AGM, we call it ‘Assembly’, and our committee (The Gospel in Society Today) presented a forum on how the leaders of our churches might process the rapid upheaval in our world around the areas of sex, gender, sexuality and marriage.

I ripped off Stephen McAlpine’s ‘A Sexular Age‘ pun on Charles Taylor’s work to provide what I believe is a framework that is both Biblical and ‘real’ to describe the age we live in and what’s going on in conversations around these topics. We filmed the thing. Here it is. I don’t always blow my own trumpet, but if you want a tight summary of the thinking behind all the stuff I’ve written about sexuality and marriage here on this site, it’s probably 30 minutes of me talking that is almost worth watching… the panel discussion is better because there are more voices and people’s actual questions.

We also launched a website for the committee which you should check out (which has a mailing list you should subscribe to).

 

10 Reasons why I won’t be voting in the postal plebiscite (or telling people in my congregation how to vote)

So we have a plebiscite. A non-binding postal plebiscite where MPs will still ultimately get to vote based on conscience. And I don’t know about you, but my newsfeed and email inbox has gone nuts. It feels like D-Day has arrived on the same sex marriage thing in Australia, and that there’s a certain inevitability to the outcome of the postal vote. Cue the hand wringing from Christian leaders (and Tony Abbott) trying to get out the vote for the no case.

The moderator of our own denomination sent out an email to all ministers which included this paragraph:

“It’s important to urge every Presbyterian Christian to engage in the process and vote, and to vote “NO” to change. We ask every attendee at church to both register and vote, and then seek to persuade as many as possible of their family and friends to do likewise.”

I won’t be doing this; I’ll be doing the opposite (hence this blog post). And here’s some reasons why:

  1. I believe the Golden Rule (treat others as you would have them treat you) isn’t just a nice idea, but an important command for Christians to pursue as we live together with neighbours who disagree with us.
  2. I believe the Christianity we see in the New Testament assumes a society and moral order that is fundamentally different in outlook to the way of being in the world produced by the Gospel, and it’s not our job to police sexual morality outside the church (1 Corinthians 5).
  3. I believe the best version of a liberal, secular, democracy is pluralistic; that our life together as citizens of Australia works best when we allow for and accommodate a diversity of views on what a good or flourishing human life looks like. If I want my definition of marriage recognised by law, and it comes from my convictions, as a Christian, about what God says a good and flourishing life looks like, then I should be prepared (because of the Golden Rule) to make space for others to have their definition of marriage recognised by law.
  4. I believe that religious freedom is a big part of pluralism, and that all people are worshippers, whether they worship God, or something like sex and marriage; that worship is about our primary love and our vision of the good or flourishing life. That’s part of our humanity. This means everybody defines marriage through the prism of their worship, or love, or vision of the good life (Romans 1 seems to make a connection between what we choose to worship (creator or created things) and how we live in the world. I believe that if I, as a Christian, want the legal freedom to define marriage as God defines it within our church community, and as a Christian in the community, then I should allow my neighbours to have their definition of marriage receive the same legal freedom within the context of a liberal, secular, democracy.
  5. I believe the plebiscite is a bad idea (and poorly executed); that democracy is not about populism and ‘majority rules’ but about balancing competing and different visions of the good life, and making space at the table for all views to be protected and represented in our life together. I think Christians should be particularly concerned about how minority groups in our society are treated both while we have power (because of the Golden Rule), but because I’m not sure we’ll have that power for much longer.
  6. I’d much rather encourage people in my congregation to love their neighbours, regardless of their religion or sexuality, because it’s in our Christ shaped love for those who are different (our following of the Golden Rule), that the message of the Gospel as the ultimate account of human flourishing actually has sense. I don’t want to fight for Christian morals apart from the Gospel, because seeing the world God’s way and living in it as those being transformed into the image of Jesus actually requires his Spirit (Romans 8).
  7. I believe that our current public posture (as the ‘institution’ of the church in Australia, or the political arm of Christendom) is damaging the Gospel by, amongst other things, failing to take points 1-6 into account. I want to be a different voice to those voices (also by failing to speak the Gospel at all, a Crikey essay on the ACL I read this week claims they deliberately avoid religious language in their lobbying).
  8. I have big problems with any ‘Christian’ activity that feels coercive or manipulative, or like an attempt to apply our power or clout to the lives of others outside the church. I don’t think coercion is consistent with the Gospel of the crucified king who ultimately renounced human power and influence; and I believe the Cross is the power and wisdom of God, not the sword (or the democratic equivalent). I think lobbying and special interest groups distort the operation of democracy.
  9. I don’t want to talk to my gay friends and neighbours about why the church doesn’t want them to enjoy what they understand as a basic human right in the context of telling people how to vote in the plebiscite, I want to talk to them about the goodness of Jesus, and the (I believe objectively) better life that is produced if we worship the God who is love, and created us to love, rather than what’s wrong with their ‘worship’… I believe, like the old preacher Thomas Chalmers, that what is required for people’s loves to be changed is ‘the expulsive power’ of new loves, not the creating of a vacuum.
  10. I don’t want to bind people’s consciences to follow my lead, or my vote, because I recognise that within my church community, and denomination, there are many different views on the last 7 points, and coercing or manipulating people to act according to my understanding of the world fails the Golden Rule too.

 

That’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but why not vote yes, instead of abstaining? This one’s complicated. I am broadly in favour of same sex marriage for religious freedom reasons, as I’ve said above and elsewhere, but I also do believe that God’s design for marriage between a man and a woman is the best path to human flourishing not just for individuals, but for communities. I totally get that others disagree and think those disagreements should be accommodated, but I also recognise that if I was to advocate voting for same sex marriage I’d be causing many brothers and sisters who hold deep convictions about marriage to stumble, and Paul talks about this in the context of eating food sacrificed to idols (and whether first century Christians should do it or not), because I believe how we view marriage is a product of worship, it’s in the same ball park of what the Bible says about idolatry (worshipping a created thing instead of God), and so I think similar principles apply.

As a leader in church community, and someone with a little bit of a say in how our denomination engages in the public sphere (through some committees I’m on at a state and federal level), I don’t want to be telling people how to vote on much at all or doing anything that appears coercive; so now that I’ve taken a public stance, the abstinence approach to same sex marriage seems the best way to not appear to be binding another to follow my lead.

 

Hungry Hungry Hippos: The danger of modern politics as a zero sum game, and the need for a more hospitable public square

Did you ever play the game Hungry, Hungry Hippos?

It goes a bit like this. Only with more punching and tantrums.

It’s a mildly fun competitive board game for kids; my fear is that this is pretty much what has trained today’s adults in how to participate in the public square. Nobody plays Hungry, Hungry Hippos and sets out to ensure an equal distribution of marbles to all players so that everybody wins. We play to get more than our fair share. That’s how you win; in fact, it’s what defines winners and losers. In the ultimate victory in Hungry Hungry Hippos, you’d get all the marbles and your opponents get none.

If I’ve understood the economic theory correctly, and it’s possible I haven’t because I’m not an economist… Hungry, Hungry Hippos is a ‘zero sum game’. It’s a game where my winning is directly relating to the losing of others; every marble I munch is one my opponents can’t munch. I get 1 marble, and my opponent doesn’t just get zero, they lose the opportunity for a marble, so the ‘sum’ of the interaction is zero. Or, as wikipedia puts it:

“Zero-sum games are a specific example of constant sum games where the sum of each outcome is always zero. Such games are distributive, not integrative; the pie cannot be enlarged by good negotiation.”

Modern politics; or the modern public square, feels like a game of Hungry, Hungry Hippos. We play politics these days as a zero sum game; there’s a finite amount of resources available for distribution, or there’s an issue where there’s a clear binary; winners and losers, and the major parties race to pick a side to champion (and therefore one to destroy), and we all line up behind them. We’ve lost the idea of a public square and political realm that operates for the common good of all people and we play the game as though goods are to be distributed in a sort of zero sum way; that’s sensible when it comes to dollars. You can’t just print more money to pay everybody everything they want… but it’s terrible for social policy. We’re perhaps so used to competing for marbles (or resources) when it comes to dollars and projects (whether its playing off health, education, and infrastructure development, against taxation policy) and then distributing those dollars according to priorities with a sort of ‘zero sum’ outcome, that we’ve forgotten that sometimes a commons, or a public sphere, might allow everybody to win, or nobody to win, or even for us to think in terms of things other than winning and losing, and find ways to negotiate towards acceptable outcomes for everybody.

It’s not just our political parties that take the Hungry, Hungry Hippos approach to public life and policy making; its lobbyists, activists and interest groups (pretty much all the same thing)… all these groups out to get their fair share of the marbles, or their interests recognised at law at the expense of all the other players. All looking to win. In fact, I’d say it’s the lobbyists/activists who keep us playing this way, they’re often the ones with particular interests, it’s not that our political parties don’t have ideologies (though often it seems our politicians have the ideology of staying in power by being populist, and that’s why there’s a growing disillusionment with the political process in Australia), but in my observation (and dealings with politicians directly or indirectly), often politicians know that their jobs involve compromise; that’s the reality in their party rooms, and it might just be a matter of different interest groups playing a different game and producing creative alternative proposals, that would see more democratic, less ‘zero sum game’ outcomes for people.

Maybe the alternative to Hungry, Hungry Hippos democracy, which is, in social issues, about making sure your views become the views favoured, protected, or enshrined, in legislation; that you not just ‘your fair share’, but a win, is Hospitable Hippos. Maybe this looks like allowing other participants in the public sphere to get their share too, perhaps even get their share first… perhaps even to get their share at our expense, or given to them by us rather than it being something we fight to take… Could this be what it looks like to move from a ‘distributive’ zero sum game to an ‘integrative’ game where the pie is enlarged, or at least we’ve got a better sense of how to eat the pie together in peace and enjoyment.

I wrote the other day about how Christians in particular should be approaching the public square; our ‘common’ life together with our neighbours as though it’s a dining table where we think in terms of hospitality; and I’ve previously written about how real secular democracy that makes space for different views, rather than just imposing ‘majority rule’ (the Hungry, Hungry Hippos approach) involves a commitment to a generous pluralism. Here’s a couple of principles, from the Bible, that should be governing Christian participation in the public square, or the life of ‘common’ community, that should cause us to rethink those times when we fall into the trap of playing Hungry, Hungry Hippos, pursuing victory at the expense of others (when there might be shared outcomes) in a ‘zero sum game’. The shortcut to thinking about why this might be good and right for all of us, not just Christians, is to imagine the other side winning a total victory and you losing, and using that imagining to come up with something a little more empathetic.

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. — Matthew 7:12

Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.” — Matthew 22:36-39

(The first commandment is probably not quite so applicable to an atheist, or community of atheists, operating in a pluralistic context).

Here’s a bit where Paul fleshes out what these bits

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. — Philippians 2:4-5

To name the elephant in the room, or the hippo, this is evident in the debate around same sex marriage, which has returned to prominence in the last couple of weeks, and people have been furiously bashing buttons to make sure their little underfed hippos get as many marbles as possible; at the expense of the other players. This debate has been framed by both marriage equality advocates and Christian advocates for maintaining the definition of marriage as a zero sum game.

It scares me, as a Christian, to think what might happen if marriage equality advocates win the zero sum game, and then decide to respond by treating us Christians as they feel like they’ve been treated. There’s a palpable push from some advocates for change to not protect religious freedoms beyond a secular/sacred divide (so people conducting marriages as religious celebrants will be protected) that, as someone who rejects the idea that there’s a secular/sacred divide, or that religion is a private matter within the home or the institution of the church, is threatening… The maw of those hippos, and their deadly, terrible, teeth frighten me a little…

But we Christians are no better. We’ve set this debate up as an all or nothing thing; as though the definition of marriage provided for us from our religious convictions about God, the world, and humanity, should apply to everybody because we say he says it is good for them. No matter how you frame it this is neither hospitable, pluralistic, or generous to those who have a fundamentally different vision of human flourishing. It pushes other views, and the people who hold them, away from the table (which isn’t actually our table), and insists they eat on our terms, or not at all. It is an attempt to define what a ‘fair share’ is that leaves us holding on to more marbles than our neighbours.

By taking this zero sum game approach we’ve essentially invited our neighbours to do the same thing… in fact, we’ve given them no real alternative option, we’ve decided this how the game is going to be played, or we’ve joined in without questioning whether this is how we should be playing it. By approaching the table, the ‘board’, or the public square as a competitive environment rather than a place where we work out how to live together across difference, despite difference, in a spirit of generosity, we’ve invited other people to crush us. To me this seems to fail those two key principles Jesus says sums up the Old Testament law (which is ironic, given where we draw our arguments from), and it’s a failure to truly love the other.

There are other options that might see us keeping our marbles, rather than losing them… there’s an approach to this marriage debate that we could take that would maintain our ability to be different and distinct, but also to share a table (metaphorically and literally) with those who are also different and distinct to us, without seeking to destroy them. It’s possible we could approach this debate with less punching. We just have to change the game.

What does this look like? A hospitable, or generous, pluralism?

It looks like stepping back from fighting to define marriage for everyone, and instead asking that Christians — either in public or private — be free to understand marriage according to our convictions (and that our neighbours with other religious, political, cultural, or moral, convictions be free to do the same). It seems that lots of us think this is the thing we’ll salvage after we lose the big war, by fighting robustly on the definition front to show how much we care — but that’s not how Hungry, Hungry Hippos, or a zero sum game works.

It looks like giving up fighting for our rights to win and define things for everybody.

It looks like recognising that the government are the guardians of the commons; that we live in a democracy (not a populist country ruled by a tyranny of the majority), so that the results of a plebiscite are largely irrelevant if there are even some people in our community who feel excluded from the table by our approach. Democracy, at its best, protects minorities from the majority because it views all people as equal.

I understand that many, many, advocates for the definition of marriage are arguing on the basis of a view of human flourishing connected to the family, to the uniqueness and importance of gender difference, and ‘for the sake of the children’; these are views I share, but they are views that are contested, there are other views of human flourishing held by our neighbours and we get into dangerous territory when we, as Christians, start suggesting that our God’s views, or the views of the majority, should dictate the practices of all (again, ironically, the same people arguing most stridently against marriage definition also argue most stridently against anything that looks like sharia law).

We don’t have to lose our marbles to participate in public life and politics as Christians, but maybe we might consider giving some up? Being less hungry, and more inclined to share the table with others…

 

Wake up! The Aussie church needs hopeful wisdom and imagination; not the ‘status quo’

“The sad truth is that many of us are, at best, only half awake. We think we’re engaged with the real world — you know, the world of stock markets, stockcar racing, and stockpiles of chemical weapon — but in fact we’re living in what Lewis calls the “shadowlands.” We think we’re awake, but we’re really only daydreaming. We’re sleepwalking our way through life — asleep at the wheel of existence — only semi-conscious of the eternal, those things that are truly solid that bear the weight of glory.” — Kevin Vanhoozer, In Bright Shadow: C.S. Lewis on the Imagination for Theology and Discipleship

I’ve spent the last few days feeling like most of us Christians in Australia need a bit of a wake up call.

And not because the world is going to turn against us because of what we think and believe and teach… but because we need to wake up to ourselves… to think — to rethink— or re-imagine even — how it is we live in the world as Christians.

I’ve been confronted recently about the stark reality of death, and the incredible and real hope the Gospel offers in the face of death; and how the cross and resurrection offer us some really amazing models for engaging with the problems we face in our world when people do stupid and evil stuff to each other.

But…

Day after day, week after week, I read think-pieces on Christian blogs, statuses posted on social media, and books, even books, about how the world is falling apart.

How Christians have it tougher in the west then ever before. How people now hate us just for thinking what we’ve always thought.

The Margaret Court saga is the latest in a long line of this… and if you’re part of my weird corner of the Aussie church there’s now a fight about whether some people at a conference said Christian women should exist to make men shine, should view being CEO of a company as an opportunity to be a ‘helper’ to men, or should not cut their hair short, and should avoid tattoos or something.

What are we doing? Why do we keep treading such obscure well trodden unimaginative paths that make the Gospel less and less appealing to our neighbours. Can’t we when faced with interesting dilemmas choose to be interesting and category confounding while still being faithful?

And yet. Time after time… we’re just…

So boring.

So predictable.

So.

Utterly.

Without.

Imagination. 

We’re sleepwalking our way through a changing environment and wondering why we keep bumping into things.

Seriously. There might be new problems; or at least new manifestations of old problems… but we’re not offering many new solutions. We’re retreating to the same black and white ‘factual’ answers to a bunch of complicated questions where people are feeling the implausibility of the way we live out those facts and so rejecting the answers that got us into a mess; and we’re wondering why it’s not working.

We’re wondering why even our growing churches are barely keeping pace with population growth (which means we’re shrinking in real terms).

And our answers aren’t the Gospel.

They’re not hopeful.

They so lack imagination that we wonder why the church in Australia is stuck in a rut. We can’t imagine why it is.

But there are a bunch of people clamouring to describe what is; to explain why things are so bad, but offering very little in terms of imaginative or new solutions to the problem except perhaps to bunker down and hope for revival.

There are a bunch of voices attempting to out doom-say one another about the future of the church here in Australia, predicting greater difference between us and our neighbours if we maintain the status quo… and maybe they’re right. But maybe instead of considering how to maintain the status quo in the face of opposition we might rethink the thing. Some of those doomsday prophets have had to re-think their narrative a little in the face of the latest McCrindle Research on Faith and Belief in Australia (it turns out the aggressive ‘secular left’ commentariat might be out of touch with what most Aussies think about religion and Jesus). Here’s a few interesting snapshot findings from the report:

“Australians vary in their current attitudes towards Christianity. When asked whether they themselves say that they are a ‘Christian’, almost two in five (38%) ‘consider themselves a Christian’ (compared to 45% who identify with Christianity as a religion). A further 24% are ‘warm’ towards Christianity with 12% neutral towards it. The remaining 26% of Australians are ‘cool’ (negative) towards Christianity.”

“Perceptions of Christians and Christianity are negatively influenced by the actions and behaviours of Christians in society. Perceptions of church abuse are the greatest negative influence (73% say this is massive/significant), followed by religious wars (65%). Two thirds (65%) say they are negatively influenced by hypocrisy.”

I don’t blame those who are ‘cool’ towards Christianity in Australia who are negatively influenced by our actions and behaviour (and I’d say even our thinking). Not just when it comes to abuse and wars… but when it comes to our utter failure to live out a plausibly better alternative to the visions of the good life offered by our world. I’m a Christian; a pastor; and half the time I don’t even feel like the Gospel is ‘good news’ as lived out by our churches… Certainly not if you’re something other than male, middle class, english-speaking, at least second generation Australian, educated, and heterosexual. Ironically, I wonder what percentage of the 26% of Aussies who are cool towards Christianity also fall in those categories… it also turns out that of the 38% of all people surveyed who define themselves of Christians only 7% of all people surveyed (18% of self-identifying Christians) are active practicers/’extremely involved’…

And I can’t blame them.

Because we’re terrible. And boring. We lack imagination so we’re unable to put together any particularly coherent and persuasive case even to those who call themselves Christians about why they should be involved in church life… let alone for those people who describe themselves as warm to Christianity who aren’t Christians, the 12% who are neutral or the 26% who are ‘cool’…

Here’s my doomsday prophet statement. I’ll put on my funky wizard’s hat:

The problem for the church in Aussie society isn’t with the society. It’s with the church. 

We have so utterly failed to understand the people around us and why they don’t like us that it’s left us fearful, or worse, unimaginative. We trot out the same lines in response to new challenges and wonder why they’ve lost their edge; and we never really ask if the lines we’re trotting out are actually coherently Christian (or Biblical), or if the way we’ve implemented our theology (our traditions) might need reforming.

Wisdom and the imagination

Maybe we should rethink what wisdom actually is. That it’s about navigating between two seemingly contradictory poles rather than picking one and beating people with it.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that wisdom requires imagination. Not a rule book. And we’re failing society at large (and ourselves) because we keep assuming wisdom is about having the right facts or knowledge; rather than about using our Spirit-shaped imagination to chart shrewd paths through difficult extremes.

That’s why Proverbs — a book of Biblical wisdom — can contradict itself within two sentences.

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
    or he will be wise in his own eyes. — Proverbs 26:4-5

Here’s two places where, in the New Testament, we’re called to be wise in the way we engage with the world.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” — Matthew 10:16

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. — Colossians 4:5-6

Now. These two use different words for wisdom (the word the NIV translates as ‘shrewd’ in Matthew 10 is φρόνιμος (phronimos) which means practically wise), but both attach wisdom to action rather than to knowledge; we’re to ‘be as shrewd as’ and ‘wise in the way you act’ — this isn’t about head knowledge but about the charting of a path in life, in Matthew it’s to live amongst hostile wolves, and in Colossians, where Paul has just mentioned his chains, it’s to live amongst hostile wolves who are ‘outsiders’ but in the hope they ask questions that we can then answer with the Gospel… he’s just said: “And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.” (Colossians 4:3).

A way this wisdom thing seems to play out in Jesus’ life is in those moments where the wolves are out to get him; to trap him between two undesirable positions, when, say, the Pharisees ask him a question about tax and the scope of Caesar’s power where they’re trying to trap him and he confounds them by picking a grander third way between those two poles. He re-imagines their question and uses it to show where they’ve got humanity and power all wrong…

“Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.”

This is wolf like. What Jesus does in response is shrewd.

Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. — Matthew 22

The implication here is that God’s image is on something other than these metal disks. It’s a bold gambit. It’s imaginative. It helps us re-imagine and re-image our humanity; and it avoids the obvious trap; Jesus would’ve been in trouble with the Pharisees and Israel if he’d claimed Caesar was the supreme power in the world, but he’d have been in trouble with Rome if he’d denied Caesar’s authority.

What a shame we appear to have lost the ability to imagine our own way through similar dilemmas and similar tests in the face of similarly powerful empires. Our answer now seems to be to just slam Caesar and those out there in the world who aren’t like us, and in doing so, to slam the door on Gospel opportunities.

I’m pretty sure our lack of ‘practical wisdom’ or shrewdness — our inability to imagine new ways — is limiting our ability to proclaim the mystery of Christ to people. And it is driving me mad. The way this manifests itself is that as soon as someone offers an alternative way they’re treated with the suspicion of liberalism or heresy, and interpreted in really binary labels; we can’t think outside the boxes that we’ve made for themselves.

Please. Can we start using our imaginations in the pursuit of wisdom… rather than simply doggedly repeating the same old mantras that got us here?

Here’s the thing; according to McCrindle’s research it’s not taxes and what we give to Caesar that’s the prime trap or ‘belief blocker’ for the church in Australia — for those Aussie Christians who want to take the Bible seriously as the word of God. It’s homosexuality. And again; this is an area where we rely on pat answers, ‘facts’, ‘proof-texts’, odd traditions and a total lack of imagination; both in the church and in our interface with the world at large. In a weird confluence; perhaps providentially… this is the issue that many doomsayers in the church are seeing as a sort of watershed, a sign that the culture has finally turned on us (perhaps, instead, this is just the only bit of the culture we’re prepared to offer some sort of resistance to, because for so long it’s been an area where we thought our norms were in the ascendency… we’ve ceded so much ground on stuff like economics and work (greed) and other types of idolatry so that we don’t look any different to our neighbours on that stuff). Here’s a quote from one famous piece of doomsaying, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (see my (mostly positive) review here):

“Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists. The culture war that began with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives. The cultural left—which is to say, increasingly the American mainstream— has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening.”

I liked The Benedict Option because while it used metaphors consistent with doomsday prepping and heading to the hills; it did outline a positive and imaginative way of being the church in the world. It stumbled onto a some great solutions for the real problem facing us as the church despite perhaps over-reaching in its diagnosis of the problems (though writer Rod Dreher is as much writing to wake the church up to who we should be as he is to diagnose the problems outside us and what they might do to us).

But what if to read the situation this way as a ‘Christian conservatives’ v ‘cultural left’ ‘culture war’ is to be impaled on the horn of a particularly nasty dilemma; to choose between, if you’ll excuse the clumsy labelling of Christian conservatives as Pharisees, Caesar and the Pharisees. What if there are a bunch of alternative ways we might imagine to engage with people who disagree with us on this issue while maintaining our own faithfulness? What if Margaret Court had considered options other than boycotting Qantas? This sort of ‘third way’ is what I was outlining a bit in a recent post; but now we’ve got some interesting data from McCrindle to throw into the mix.

Homosexuality and Same Sex Marriage

“The biggest blocker to Australians engaging with Christianity is the Church’s stance and teaching on homosexuality (31% say this completely blocks their interest). This is followed by, ‘How could a loving God allow people to go to hell?’ (28%).” — McCrindle, Faith and Belief In Australia

Where I think we’ve failed here is that we’ve assumed faithfulness to Jesus means opposing same sex marriage for non-Christians in a secular nation. Because the Bible doesn’t recognise same sex marriage as marriage we should not allow anybody to; and, charitably, because same sex marriage will be bad for participants and families because it is outside God’s design, the loving thing to do is to oppose it. I understand this logic; I just think it lacks imagination and is ultimately a net loss when it comes to love and wisdom (in part because it becomes a significant blocker for people who as a result misunderstand how we feel about same sex attracted people and so stops them considering Jesus). If you stop someone considering Jesus because of a stance you take, you’re a bit like the crowd in the Zaccheus story in Luke 19; a barrier to Jesus’ mission to seek and save the lost. You’re not loving. You’re hating. There are better ways to be clear about what the Bible says about sex than just to adopt a black and white opposition to same sex marriage.

Here’s a question. What would happen if we engineered everything we did and said around homosexuality around two scenarios (that might seem implausible to many of us).

  1. A gay or lesbian couple curious about Christianity who married overseas, have kids, and want to explore the Gospel.
  2. A same sex attracted Christian committed to Biblical teaching about sex who is pursuing a life of celibacy or a mixed-orientation marriage.

What if it was our prayerful hope that our churches would be full of people like the people in this scenario, and church life revolved around figuring out how to work out what it means for us broken people to follow Jesus together. With my doomsday hat on again — and backed by the stats — our current unimaginative approach to this complicated question is keeping these scenarios from playing out.

The lens these scenarios would have us bring to questions about same sex marriage outside the church is totally different to the lens it seems our Christian political organisations and institutions want to bring to the political question. I can not imagine many of my gay friends and neighbours wanting to explore the truth claims of Christianity when we take their current hopes, dreams, and understanding of what a fulfilling life looks like, and spit on it without considering that our thinking about sexuality might be at all shaped by our prior decision to believe there’s a God, who reveals himself in the Bible and in Jesus, who has a design for our present and future, and who we love above all other loves.

Let’s assume that deciding how to approach your sexuality and your desires is a decision you make (what you do with them not who you are attracted to) that is either pleasing or displeasing to this God… and that our sexuality is something that God’s law/outline for what a flourishing human life looks like teaches us about. How do we approach questions of homosexuality for those who do not love God when the Bible itself says:

The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. — Romans 8:7-9

What do we hope to achieve by taking God’s law (natural law, or revealed law) and arguing that it should be the law of the land? Where do our expectations for this come from?

Why have we just categorically assumed that marriage as defined by God (in the Bible, and as seen in human history in most cultures) is what marriage should be for a bunch of people who reject God, and see nature as a thing to be conquered by human will, freedom, and ingenuity? Our failure to imagine how to run a ‘shrewd,’ wise, loving and compelling line on this issue begins with an utter failure to apprehend the playing field (and this too, is a failure of the imagination. We’ve assumed a status quo that is no longer there, and then imagined the status quo is worse than it actually is, because we haven’t really understood why and how the playing field has changed and how we might actually be better equipped to play on it than we imagine).

What if people just want to hear that we also have a vision of the good human life, and that rather than beginning with loving another person intimately, and expressing that love in sex, marriage, and belonging to a family, we believe it starts with loving God intimately, and through that being part of his family in a way that changes how we view sex, love, and marriage. We understand that our views of marriage require a particular view of God, and for those who don’t share that view they’ll seem archaic and weird. But that’s ok. We’re happy to be weird, because we believe we’re right and nature and human history seem to support this conclusion but we recognise that people should be free to make their own decisions about God. I don’t know anybody at this point who would call me a bigot for holding these views (I’ve not yet been called one), but I also think it’s both Biblical and compelling. So long as we really believe and live as though God is more important to us than sex and marriage.

Let’s for a moment, consider marriage as an institution that is shaped by religious beliefs — not just a ‘natural’ order thing — we know this is a thing because the Catholics view marriage as a sacrament where Protestants don’t, because Mormons in some parts of the world allow polygamy as a result of their beliefs, and so too do some Muslims (so do the Old Testament patriarchs, so it’s not totally clear even in the Bible that marriage as monogamy is a natural rather than revealed thing)… Let’s for a moment draw an analogy with another religious practice prior to coming to love Jesus above all else; halal food. Do we expect a Muslim we hope to introduce to Jesus to stop eating halal food; perhaps even to eat bacon; before they become a Christian?

It seems an odd hill to die on, and like an impediment to Gospel ministry if the political changes happen (and it seems like they will); and even the most nuanced opponents to same sex marriage within the church get tarred with the same brush as the more extreme fringes because we’re not particularly good at explaining why Christian beliefs should shape secular legislation (let alone simply be accommodated by secular legislation).

Our responses to proposed changes to the Marriage Act have also been utterly without imagination; we’ve been worried about protecting Christian bakers and florists rather than thinking about how Christian bakers and florists might engage with the gay community who come knocking. Maybe instead of refusing to serve our gay neighbours because we hold to a different definition of marriage; we should refuse to profit from a changed institution and so offer our services for free.

Maybe we should pursue a generous pluralism; allowing other people to re-shape a secular/common understanding of marriage while still recognising our own religious distinctives, rather than seeking to defend the status quo for as long as possible.

Maybe we should, as much as possible, seek to create opportunities to have conversations with our gay neighbours from a position of love for them, and belief that Jesus is actually fundamentally better than sex or romantic love and could be more compelling than sex should a gay family come through our doors, and leave that for us to figure out with our neighbours in the context of a loving Christian community rather than relying on public statements that are interpreted as hateful or that close down doors and opportunities.

Maybe the voices we should be listening to at times like this are the voices of the faithful brothers and sisters living out the Gospel calling when it comes to their sexuality; about their experience of their desires, about what they find compelling about Jesus, and about what helps life in the church, following Jesus, be a plausibly better alternative than embracing an alternative ‘gospel’… Here’s an interesting piece in Eternity from this week, from David Bennett, a same sex attracted, celibate, Christian. Here’s a bit from him:

“The pressure that has been put on the Christian Church by the gay lobby only makes things worse for LGBTQI Christians like myself who are trying to bring a subtler, but far more profound change in the Church. You heap pressure on faithful Christians like me, most of whom hide themselves away. But we are part of you – we are just as ‘gay’ but we don’t have gay relationships.

We are defined by our relationship with Christ; we have had lives that are just as hard and if not harder as a minority within a minority. We are not trying to change the Church’s theology, but agree with it. Marriage between a man and a woman is scriptural and God’s design and a picture of the gospel. But we are trying to change a deeper ethic, bringing a revival to the Church’s worship life, which has for too long enshrined the idols of romanticised notions of love, money and middle-class life, which denies many from the gospel whether refugees, the poor, people of other cultures, religions and ethnicities, and LGBTQI people.”

Let’s re-imagine and hope for something better with David. A church where his sort of faith is more celebrated and more plausible… but this isn’t going to happen if we just accept the status quo.

How do we do create a new ‘social imaginary’? 10 helpful starting points

Maybe the doom and gloom scenario from doomsayers like Dreher and the Christian blogosphere is not totally accurate.

Maybe what we’ve seen is just a small development in the secular ‘social imaginary’ — the phrase philosopher Charles Taylor uses to describe how we imagine the world we live in; the kind of structures that shape the way we understand life in the world. Maybe once the world’s social imaginary, when it came to sex and homosexuality, looked very much like ours; our vision of the ‘sexual person’ and how that part of us fit into the order of things was uncontested. We didn’t have to worry about being out of touch with reality because our cultural reality shared much of the same cultural furniture; and there hasn’t been this wholesale and sudden rejection of the Christian social imaginary, but rather this last piece of the furniture was chucked to the curb; and it was our favourite chair. Maybe if we want to respond coherently we should be thinking about what a ‘social imaginary’ is comprised of, how to spot what’s going on in the world, and how to build an alternative reality that can exist alongside the dominant one as a plausible, though weird, and reasonably welcome alternative. At the moment we seem to want to insist that everybody should imagine the world the way we do; with God present and revealing the image of the flourishing human. And, just to be clear, the imagination does not just mean ‘fantasy land’ but how we see the world as it is, and where we turn to plot what it could be.

This could be the first time I’ve positively linked to Desiring God; but this Kevin Vanhoozer talk/essay on the imagination and its place in the Christian life is good and important.

“We feel a discrepancy, a fateful disconnect, between the world in which we live and the system of theology we believe. The imagination can help. I have said that theology is about the new reality in Christ and discipleship is about participating in that new reality. I now want to say that imagination is the faculty that wakes us up to that new reality and helps us to stay awake…

Here is the marvel: the one whose story the Bible tells is not confined to that story. He is Lord, and he is here. To see the common things of daily life drawn into the bright shadow of the Christ — this is the mark of a well-nourished theological imagination. It is precisely the biblically formed and transformed imagination that helps disciples wake up and stay awake to what is, and will be, in Christ Jesus.”

These are ten basic tips to be less boring and more imaginative. They’re a bit abstract, and I’ll unpack them over time… but feel free to explore what this might look like by asking questions.

  1. Tell better stories.
  2. Build better (and bigger) institutions (communities with a purpose — churches and groups/organisations on a ‘mission’ to do or create stuff) that hold the Gospel and ‘action’ (eg social justice or ‘deeds’) closer together.
  3. Be a more compelling alternative to the world (be saboteurs).
  4. Prepare to significantly change the way we live together so we look and feel different to our neighbours.
  5. Read more ancient (less panicked) voices.
  6. Use these ancient voices to question modern ‘orthodoxy’.
  7. Imagine better answers to complex questions.
  8. Listen more (especially to the voices of people grappling with the application of our doctrines).
  9. Be comfortable with mystery not just black/white ‘pat’ answers.
  10. Get the relationship between belief, behaviour and belonging the right way around (maybe it’s actually belong, behave, believe).

Pluralism, same sex marriage, and the silencing of the lambs: charting a new way forward for Christians in Australia

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” — Jesus, Matthew 10

If some of the hyperbole I’m reading online is to be believed, the ‘enemy’ of the Australian church now has a face. And a name. Michael Barnett. His face and name might be familiar to you if you tuned in to the SBS show Living With The Enemy a while back, because he and his now husband, Gregory Storer, spent some time with Sydney Anglican, and fellow blogger, David Ould (I wrote about the show back then). I’ve been chatting online to both Gregory and Michael in the midst of this latest issue, and will feature some of that conversation below. I think rumours of Michael Barnett being the enemy are greatly exaggerated, and I do wonder if we’re our own worst enemies when it comes to how we Christians with traditional views on marriage speak about our views, and what we ask for in our political context.

The situation

Michael Barnett is a campaigner for LGBTIQ rights (not just a same sex marriage campaigner) and has been tweeting in support of a group called Pride In Diversity. Lots of Australian companies have signed up with Pride In Diversity to ensure work places are safe places for members of the LGBTIQ community. The list of companies includes IBM, and Macquarie University, and those companies happen to employ members of the boards of the Australian Christian Lobby and its affiliated training centre the Lachlan Macquarie Institute. Michael has publicly pressured Macquarie and IBM to act according to commitments they’ve made to the Pride In Diversity movement, and this is, in turn, being linked to the Coopers brewhaha (see my reflections here) in a narrative that says, essentially, ‘same sex marriage campaigners (especially activist members of the LGBTIQ communityare out to destroy free speech and religious freedom, the stakes on the marriage debate are higher than the marriage debate’.

I want to say at the outset that I wish we’d get better at talking and listening to each other across the divide on this issue, but that if you view the issue of same sex marriage, and other LGBTIQ rights through the lens of human rights where opposition to change is communicating that LGBTIQ people are sub-human, then I can understand the tactic being employed here with companies who’ve signed up to say they recognise the full humanity of LGBTIQ people. It’s also a shame that Christians in general aren’t better at understanding the position of LGBTIQ people and their desires (and I’m not casting aspersions at the particular individuals caught up in the campaign here, I’ve had some interactions online with Stephen Chavura, and met Lyle Shelton, and while we disagree on this stuff, I believe they do their best to be compassionate and empathetic across this divide). I have, however, been present (both in the flesh and virtually) when Christians have specifically claimed that we do not need to understand the desires of the LGBTIQ community, and I think that’s a terrible indictment on us all. I’m slightly (though not overly) concerned, as a Christian, that there might come a time when holding a traditional view of marriage within the Christian community will be cause for similar action from LGBTIQ rights advocates, and I’m hoping to articulate a middle way that listens to the concerns of LGBTIQ people (including Michael Barnett, see below), but charts a way forward for Christians.

I do think religious freedom is at stake in this debate, free speech even, but I think we (Christians) are actually doing more against these noble common goods than those who are fighting back after years of having their freedom to define marriage according to their own religious beliefs (religious freedom), and to call their relationships marriage (free speech). I’m hoping to demonstrate that this isn’t a disingenuous shifting of the goalposts, but is actually the way we should always have been understanding this issue Biblically.

The ACL’s Lyle Shelton framed the issue this way:

“The message from the activists is clear: if you don’t support our campaign to change the Marriage Act then you have no place in Australian society. The unrelenting, uncompromising, totalitarian nature of these activists should concern every Australian who wants to be free to believe in marriage.”

I wonder if the words ‘unrelenting, uncompromising, totalitarian’ could equally be thrown at Christians by members of the LGBTIQ community who are pursuing changes to the Marriage Act? And I wonder if, properly understood as a religious freedom issue, we might not be better off, as Christians, throwing our support in behind changes to the Act in order to preserve our ability to believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I don’t want this to be purely a pragmatic way to respond to what seems to be the inevitable changing of the Act. I don’t want it to be a thing we do because we fear that if, or when, we lose this ‘fight’ we will be facing an ‘uncompromising, totalitarian’ ruling class who want to stamp out our views. The fear driven ‘slippery slope’ rhetoric in this discussion serves nobody, but it is quite possible that having been perceived as uncompromising and totalitarian in our attempts to maintain our position on the definition of marriage at law, those who oppose us will treat us as we’ve treated them (and it’s interesting that the ‘golden rule’ for Christians is not ‘do unto others as they do to you’ but ‘treat others the way you would have them treat you’). I don’t believe we should respond pragmatically — to secure a certain sort of treatment — but rather our response should be driven by a consistent theological position — including a theological understanding of what it means to be human (which is that to be human is to love something ultimately (worship) and be shaped by that love), and this golden rule.

Like Lyle Shelton and Stephen Chavura, because of my Christian convictions, I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, entered into for life, and I believe this because when Jesus spoke about marriage he said:

Haven’t you read,” he replied, “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

However, unlike Lyle Shelton and the Australian Christian Lobby, and many other Christians campaigning to maintain this definition of marriage — Jesus’ definition of marriage — in Australian law, I do not think the view Jesus takes on marriage is necessarily the view that should define marriage in Australian society.

I believe that on the whole, people do better if they love Jesus, and order their lives (and their sexuality) around that first love, but I accept that many of my neighbours do not love Jesus above all else, and have that love shape how they live and love. I think we make a positive case for this by living good, and beautiful lives, as a community, amongst our neighbours. We make the most compelling argument for our way of life by living it, and explaining how our lives reflect who Jesus is.

A religious freedom solution in our secular, pluralist, democracy

We talk about religious freedom being at stake in this marriage debate, and yet we refuse to afford religious freedom to our LGBTIQ neighbours when it comes to how marriage is defined in a secular, pluralistic, democracy. This is our context and it’s worth briefly unpacking what each of these words means.

Religious Freedom

On the whole, Christians who advocate for religious freedom — like Freedom for Faith — do a fantastic job of advocating for religious freedom for people who are not Christians; we’re consistent in our advocacy for our Jewish and Muslim neighbours and their freedom to worship, even though we believe they worship a false understanding of God (even if they’re also Abrahamic religions, they worship a God who is not Trinitarian, and deny the divinity of Jesus… much like the Pharisees were participants in ‘man made religion’ once they failed to recognise the divinity of Jesus).

While atheists and other members of our community who do not identify with an organised religion might not consider themselves religious, and so subject to the need for protection of religious freedom, there are a couple of things I think we Christians need to consider.

Firstly, when we talk about religious freedom we all also want freedom from having religious views (including functional atheism)  imposed on us by law, part of religious freedom is freedom from the undue influence of other religions.

Secondly, as Christians, we believe that all people are ultimately worshippers even if they are not participants in an organised religion. This isn’t to say that there is no such thing as atheism, or that atheism itself is a religion (I’ll leave that to David Foster Wallace in This Is Water), rather it is to say that we all love and desire things in ways that allow those loves and desires to shape us (sometimes there’s ‘one thing,’ one ultimate love, other times people are polytheists and love many things that compete, or cooperate). We Christians recognise that this ‘worship’ is a religious belief that shapes the way people approach life, sex, money, work, knowledge… everything really. Including, importantly, how we believe humanity and marriage should be understood and defined.

That LGBTIQ advocates for same sex marriage view this as a human rights issue, and want to define marriage differently is an expression of what Christians should understand as religious views of the world (even if they don’t themselves understand things this way). When Paul does the ‘everybody worships’ thing in Romans 1; when he makes the case that everyone is religious, he says:

“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator”

Our own theology makes this a religious freedom issue.

Secular

Secular does not technically mean that our public is free from religious interference, rather it means that there is no state religion that dominates all other religious views. This tends to mean that our law does not favour one religious belief over another, though a way this is commonly understood is that we should keep religious beliefs out of decision making; that we should make decisions on the lowest common denominator for the common good. I’ve suggested that we’d do best if people with religious beliefs acknowledged those beliefs, and the different impacts they have on religious communities, and that the secular state should attempt to make space for these community views to govern interactions in the ‘commons’We should say more often that our view of marriage doesn’t just come from nature, but from Jesus, and it is legitimate for people who believe Jesus is God to follow Jesus’ definition of marriage.

Pluralistic

That we’re pluralistic acknowledges that not only are we secular (with no state religion) but there are many religious views held and communities created by citizens of Australia, and the people who hold these different views can and should expect to be able to practice them in our nation (provided they don’t cause significant harm to other citizens). A pluralist approach to politics makes space for a plurality of views rather than enshrining the views of a majority (or coalition of minorities) over other minorities.

Christians, based on our theology, should be relatively comfortable operating in a pluralistic context. We are free to be pluralists, but not polytheists. The distinction is important. Christians are called to absolute fidelity to the triune God in our worship. We are to organise our loves around our love for God (which is why we’re to love the Lord with all our hearts, then second, to love our neighbours as we love ourselves). We are monotheists. In the Old Testament this monotheism meant there was no place for idols in Israel. Faithfulness meant the utter destruction of other gods in the hearts (and land) of Israel. But we are not in Israel. Australia is not the kingdom of God; the church is.

There’s still no place for idols in our hearts, as the kingdom of God, and we should take the metaphorical sledgehammer to those idols (or perhaps cultivate a love for Jesus that expels other gods and loves from our hearts). And there are implications here for same sex attracted Christians who hold to conservative/traditional theological convictions, just as there are for heterosexual Christians who hold to these convictions. Christians in the New Testament also recognised that the rules for Israel no longer applied — they certainly preached and lived in such a way that they hoped idols and false worship would be shown to be less valuable, good, and beautiful than the true God, true worship, and thus God’s design for humanity and relationships) — but they didn’t take a sledgehammer to other people’s Gods. This is also how the Old Testament prophets seemed to approach the idols of the nations around Israel — using rhetoric to remove the idols of their ‘power’ (like Isaiah 40, which describes how an idol statue is made from the wood that the craftsman then uses to cook his dinner, and offers the analysis that this probably isn’t what a god should be like). When Paul gets to Athens he shows what pluralism looks like for Christians. He seeks to understand the desires of those in the city that lead them to worship things other than God, and then he has a conversation with them. He doesn’t try to legalise Christian worship and make other forms of worship illegal. Christianity — at least theologically, if not always historically — makes space for other religions, and other gods, outside the hearts of those in the church; that’s part of what distinguishes it from other forms of organised religion.

Democracy

The nature of a democracy sometimes feels like it’s a case of majority rules, when we might be best to think of it as we all rule. Democracy does away with monarchy, and it stands in contrast to other forms of government where a powerful autocracy, or to totalitarian regimes where ideological groups or communities rule over people from outside that particular caste. The beauty of democracy is not found in populist politics, but in the way it views each citizen as equal, and in the promise that those who govern govern for all, to protect different minorities and communities not simply to reflect the will of most of the people. That we are secular and pluralistic and that we believe religious freedom and freedom of speech are common goods or human rights reflects that we are also democratic.

The proposed solution

A solution on the marriage equality issue that is democratic, pluralist, secular, and allows freedom of religion is an outcome that should be desirable to all. Sadly it often feels like we Christians want a solution that continues to recognise our beliefs at the expense of the beliefs of others; and we fight for this in ways that are more populist than democratic, and more theocratic than secular or pluralist (even if we predominantly make ‘natural law’ arguments for maintaining a traditional definition of marriage).

There is another way, one that few public Christians and representatives of traditional churches seem prepared to make. We could, as lovers of religious freedom, support changes to the Marriage Act to be more pluralist, secular, and democratic, where we offer our support to changes that recognise other religious beliefs in the common law, but maintain our own approach to marriage as individuals and within our communities. This would mean being free to hold and act according to personal convictions (though probably not in state institutions), while being prepared to let others do the same.

It seems so simple. We could say “I support your right to define marriage as you see fit, and to have that definition recognised in our nation’s laws, while holding my own convictions about what marriage is that are different, but also recognised in our nation’s laws.” We could say that understanding that the LGBTIQ community desires marriage equality for reasons that are essentially religious (as we understand religion), and that this is from a conviction that religious freedom is a good thing. Which is what we keep saying.

I can understand why it’s not simple, or why people don’t seem prepared to make it. Sometimes it’s a result of our historic privilege, and the belief that Australia is a Christian nation (or at least has been at the ‘establishment’ level); though it’s debatable whether this has ever been the case outside the elite, and it certainly doesn’t seem to be the case now (despite the census data). Privilege is hard to give up, especially for conservatives who tend to see this history as a good thing, and change for change’s sake as a bad thing. Sometimes this opposition is based on a belief about what is good (according to God’s design), and attempt to be loving (even in ignoring the desires of others). I’m not sure this is a feasible option given that Romans 1 says that the loves and desires produced by false worship now shape people because God makes it that way, and I’m not sure it’s truly loving to fail to understand others or offer them the freedom and privilege we enjoy. I’m also fairly sure that many of the reasons people give, like ‘won’t somebody think of the children’ or ‘this will ‘normalise’ something that is not natural (ie children have a mother and a father)’ are the result of people who’ve missed the memo; that these things are already ‘normal’ and that this comes from the bottom up in our society (via culture), and that this ‘new normal’ also seems to come from God in Romans 1. If the Christian framework is true then these are bad arguments that can’t convince, and if the Christian framework is not true then these are bad arguments that won’t convince.

But it won’t work!

One of the things I often hear when I raise this idea is that the campaigners for LGBTIQ rights want more.

That this campaign for marriage (and human rights/equality more generally) is a slippery slope. That “they” hate us and are out to get us. And they are people like Michael and Gregory. This is the thin end of the wedge in some great anti-Christian conspiracy. Now, this might certainly be true for some. But let’s get the golden rule back in the mix; even if it is true, we’re called to love people and treat them as we would have them treat us. It’s also very possible that people like Michael and Gregory intuitively recognise the irony of us Christians calling for ‘religious freedom’ and labelling our opponents as totalitarian, unrelenting, and uncompromising — when we also won’t listen to, make space for, or compromise with their positions, and that this irony is actually something more like hypocrisy, and it does actually cause hurt because it communicates that we actually don’t see the concerns of this community and its desires as fully or equally human to our own.

The objection I hear is that doing this won’t work.

That these campaigners want more and they won’t rest until they get it… despite their consistent statements that they want a particular thing, that they believe is a right according to their understanding of what it means to be human. We do tend to conflate a whole bunch of issues into a narrative (usually a narrative of fear) — and so the 18C stuff (which is about race) gets thrown in the mix here too (although, to be fair, the modern ‘left’ do this with the whole ‘intersectionality’ thing too). Losing some of the privilege we’ve enjoyed via a bad approach to democracy while white, protestant, men have been largely the ones in power is probably going to involve some real pain for us too. But maybe that pain is good, and maybe it’d be less painful if we’d been doing the ‘golden rule’ thing.

Now. One of the ‘golden rule’ things I’d like to try is to actually listen to people and take them at their word. So I asked Michael on Twitter if this sort of ‘pluralist solution’ would work for him. I first had a bunch of replies from Gregory, Michael’s husband, on Twitter, which he has given me permission to quote here, and then I had an email exchange with Michael. It seems to me that they (as in these two individuals, not the entire LGBTIQ community) would be happy with such a solution, and that Michael’s campaign is not about silencing Christians, but rather about securing the sort of equal rights that Pride In Diversity allied companies sign up for… and maybe the sort of equal rights they’re asking for actually do line up with our desire for religious freedom, and freedom of speech, and we need to start practicing what we preach.

I outlined the position I’ve gone into in more depth above in an email to him, and his response included these words (if they aren’t totally representative of how he’d respond to all these extra words here, he’ll have right of reply in the comments, and I’ll be sending this to both Michael and Gregory):

“Thanks for your thoughts.  I appreciate your thoughtfulness. This is how the story goes from my perspective. I just want to get on with my life, but since beyond 2004 I’ve been trying really hard to overcome the discrimination LGBTIQ people face in society, mostly because of the impact of the ACL and their supporters… I don’t want to take down the ACL and LMI boards but when Lyle Shelton names me in his blogs I feel I have no choice but to explore those possibilities.” — Michael Barnett

I had a longer back and forth with Gregory on Twitter.

Me: If I’m happy for people to live freely/for secular laws to govern all, does this satisfy goals?

Gregory: I’m not an expert on the requirements…

Gregory: It certainly is the ideal situation for all.

Me: Can a Christian hold traditional views within the church/progressive views outside the church & not be a hater?

Gregory: of course, I know lots of them

Me: If Christians were better at a ‘generous pluralism’ understanding the LGBTIQ community’s desires and limits of our ‘moral frame,’ and so were ok with SSM etc…Would it be appropriate for such Christians to hold public positions in ally organisations?

Gregory: They already do.

Me: cause the ‘enemy’ narrative is: once we lose this, we lose ‘everything’ and that there is no public place for us.

Gregory: “That is not true and not the case.”

Gregory: “There is no reason why people can’t live together in harmony.

Now. You, Christian reader, might not be prepared to take Michael and Gregory at their word, or might not be prepared to see them as representative of the whole (unless they’re the ‘villains’ who are out to get us). But I’m, because of the ‘golden rule’ going to take their words on faith, and believe that a generous pluralism is the way to go on the question of the definition of marriage and religious freedom. So I’m going to approach this latest kerfuffle as it is; not a reason to be hysterical about the future for those who hold traditional marriage, not a reason to jump on the bandwagon with Andrew Bolt and other commentators who want to use it to fuel outrage and division in the Australian community; but as an opportunity for us Christians to consider how we might better practice what we preach on religious freedom, and how we might be good neighbours in our secular, pluralist, democracy.

The Light Beer Apocalypse: 9 things a viral video reveals about the world

This week a Christian organisation, The Bible Society, hosted a civil conversation featuring political disagreement between two members of the political party who, at least in the short term, will be the people who determine the future of marriage in Australia. It featured some cross promotion with Aussie beer company, Coopers, who were going to release some special edition beers in support of the Bible Society’s 200 year anniversary. And the world exploded. Coopers backflipped on the deal. It’s a real brewhaha (sic).

Disclosure: I write for the Bible Society’s Eternity Newspaper. They’ve paid me for some stuff. I like them. I like the video (though I think it has some issues). I know the host, and like him. I think public civility is really important. 

You’d be forgiven, reading the response pieces around the Christian blogosphere (and the outraged responses in comments sections and the Coopers Brewery Facebook page) for thinking that the world as we know it is ending (or has ended), and that we find ourselves in some sort of (un)brave new world. I don’t think it’s the end of the world, but I do think this episode is truly apocalyptic.

apocalypse (n.)
late 14c., “revelation, disclosure,” from Church Latin apocalypsis “revelation,” from Greek apokalyptein “uncover, disclose, reveal”

An apocalyptic text doesn’t really describe the ‘end of the world’ (not primarily), it reveals the world as it truly is. And that’s what has happened this week; the discussion around this video has been revealing both when it comes to the church, as we speak about issues our world disagrees with (and about our expectations about speech), and about our part of the world and its religiosity. Because what’s going on is really a clash between religious views of the world. A clash between the religious, the irreligious, and those who are fundamentally religious without realising it.

The religion of a section of the Australian left treats heretics with the same sort of sympathy that the church has, historically (when the church has been closely linked to the state and able to punish with the full force of the law); which is to say it seeks their utter destruction. Just ask Coopers (or read the one star reviews on their Facebook page, and see the pubs that are moving to quickly distance themselves from the company). And the thing about these moments of revelation is that they’re actually ‘apocalyptic’ in a true sense; they pull the curtain back and reveal the world as it really is, and give us a sense of the future as it could be. Stephen McAlpine’s posts on this story are worth a look (yesterday’s, and today’s), and ultimately his conclusions from the wash-up today look a bit like mine. Only I’m more hopefully optimistic about things than he is.

The conversation itself featured two politicians — a gay agnostic, and a Christian conservative. These white blokes trotted out well worn arguments for and against a change to the definition of  marriage in Australia over a light beer in a product crossover that has copped some flack. What was remarkable was that they were attempting to model civil debate, that they listened and disagreed respectfully. What is even more remarkable is what the fallout reveals about the end of the world as we know it. Twitter went nuts. Coopers was flooded with one star reviews on its Facebook page, accusations of homophobia (for a video they didn’t make, that featured a gay man who will potentially be the most effective advocate for marriage equality if the Lib/Nats move towards a free vote), and boycotts from individuals and pubs. Coopers released three statements; one in favour of dialogue on the issue, one distancing themselves from the video, and a third and final statement capitulating and signing up as paid up members of the marriage equality movement. They’re also pulling the release of the Bible verse beers… the Bible Society has been criticised for featuring two liberal MPs, but this criticism seems to miss the point that only Liberal MPs think this issue is possible to discuss anymore…

Personally, I’m tired of the idea that marriage is a zero sum game; that we (as Christians or conservatives) can only conceive of an approach to marriage that is a binary ‘no gay marriage’ or ‘gay marriage’ — this is where most of the anger seems to be levelled at us. Why we can’t do pluralism well and figure out ways to acknowledge the religious import of traditional marriage for some Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc, and protect that for both institutions and individuals within the community, while also acknowledging the religious import of changing the marriage definition for those who do not worship a god at all, but individual freedom, is beyond me. That’s my disappointment with the ‘debate,’ and why my position is closer to Wilson’s than Hastie’s.

Here are some things I think this episode reveals about the church and the world.

1. Our failure to practice listening as Christians means later attempts at ‘civil conversation’ fall on deaf ears

In terms of revelation, this reveals a certain degree of ‘out-of-touchness’ when it comes to Christians in Australia and our sense of just how distant our assumptions are from some people around us. That this video seems quite reasonable and good to us but to others is the stench of death (and the sort of thing that certain people believe should lead to the death of Coopers). If people are shocked by the vicious outrage in response to the video it probably represents how far removed some people advocating for traditional marriage are from the lived reality of those arguing for it.

There has been a tendency in some corners of the church — some that I move in — to suggest that we do not need to listen to, or understand, those asking for same sex marriage. Our job, we’re told, is simply to speak ‘God’s truth to the world’ not to listen to sinners or understand what they want; I can point to specific examples of this in the Presbyterian Church of Australia, and I’d say a new Sydney Anglican website on same sex marriage also does this when it employs slippery slope arguments and just generally fails to listen to what people on the other side are actually asking for and why, while ‘speaking faithfully’. The Bible Society is doing something different and commendable in this video, but it can’t escape the baggage of the Christian brand at this point.

It is possible that if the church continues apparently not listening our own speech will be treated the same way by those who disagree with us (and I think that’s happening), so it was nice to have this circuit breaker that said “hey, we’re not afraid to listen to a guy who disagrees with Christians, or even to give him a platform and share his thoughts with Christians all over the country”…

Our engagement in this debate as the church has involved a failure to listen, and so our arguments always feel like non-sequiturs, or nonsense, to the ears of people who have totally different understandings of what it means to be human. From where I stand, there has not typically been much sympathy for the desires of same sex marriage supporters or their view of the world; we’ve tended to impugn the motives of those asking for it, to see a bunch of other potential changes being ‘freighted in’, to be fearful of our own place in society, and there hasn’t been a real attempt, by Christians, to grapple with how our moral vision fits in a pluralist, secular, society where many of our neighbours don’t believe in God so reject the natural law arguments we serve up (Hastie offers a conservative, natural law, argument for maintaining the traditional definition of marriage).

This means it feels like we’re not interested in listening to, or understanding our neighbours, which means it seems disingenuous for us Christians to be making the case for civil discussions of the issue now. The great irony here is that we have a Christian organisation also giving a platform to a conservative case for same sex marriage from someone who is on the record as being sympathetic for a range of religious freedom concerns. If I was a non-Christian I’d be celebrating that a Christian organisation is providing a platform for that sort of view, and a conservative Christian politician is modelling actually listening.

2. The church needs to figure out how to operate in a pluralistic world… and fast

This video from the Bible Society was a nice example of a step towards pluralism. It doesn’t actually pick a side in the marriage debate, despite what those who’ve already settled on changing the definition of marriage might tell you. If we can’t figure out how to operate in a pluralist, secular, democracy then we can expect much more of the sort of treatment Coopers got from this video. And it’s not so much Hastie’s position (though he’s a Christian) that reveals the problem here, it’s a thoroughly consistent conservative position; it’s the ongoing sense that the future of the church’s witness, or our position in society, depends in some way on how this debate goes; it’s that the video presents the options on marriage as a binary choice between legislating same sex marriage, or maintaining the conservative position. This binary lacks imagination and backs us into a corner; if we can’t advocate a generous and pluralist solution to those opposite, then we can’t very well turn around and ask them for a pluralist solution (religious freedom) if/when they win. When it comes to same sex marriage it doesn’t have to be a choice between Wilson and Hastie.

Every belief about marriage is a position derived from a type of ‘religious’ conviction (a ‘theological anthropology’ even). A belief that there is no God brings with it a certain account of who we are, and opens up a range of potential visions of ‘the good human life’ — our ‘religious beliefs’ shape our understanding of what is and isn’t good for people. For the theist, the ‘good’ is the personification of the nature of God, for the non-theist the thing that acts as ‘god’ (a sort of organising force in the world) is the deification of the ‘good’ (in the case for same sex marriage the ‘divine good’ looks like love and individual freedom). We’re not good — many of us (Tim Wilson is an exception) — at accommodating different gods, or visions of ‘the good life’ in a shared political framework.

3. We need to be slow to overreach in our reaction to the reaction, because the outrage cycle is built on perpetual overreach

It’d be a shame to over-reach though, in terms of what the reaction to this video represents for us as the church. We’d need to do a good and careful job at parsing out exactly what people are angry at, and why, and whether they’re angry at Christians speaking at all, or angry because of the way Christians have spoken out on this… and we need to ask ourselves some pretty bracing questions if it’s the latter (and I think it could be, in part because as a Christian looking at how we speak about marriage, I think we’ve often got this wrong).

The thing about the outrage cycle is that it often involves a tit-for-tat ‘hot take’ driven over-reach, and there’s not always enough time given to that careful analysis of what is happening and why (this tends to be diminished the more somebody has been developing a systemised approach to understanding something more broadly, when it’s possibly a response to ‘data’ rather than anecdote).

We might be tempted to describe this as the death of free speech in Australia. It could be. Free speech is definitely under attack from a certain section of the Australian community; and the attackers do have some politicial clout. I’ll suggest below that Christians shouldn’t be into free speech, but costly speech, anyway… but I think it’s a mistake to think that the chattering class (who can be found writing opinion pieces, blogs, and comments below the fold on these pieces) represent the whole Australian landscape. It certainly doesn’t seem to value Tim Wilson or see his perspective as one shared by those outside a particular intellectual circle.  I spoke to someone yesterday who had reached out to Tim Wilson to see how he was coping with the fallout, and he’d remarked that the outrage simply proved his point. Not everybody in this world, outside the church, finds outrage appealing (just as not everyone in the church wants to join in the outrage but from the opposite end).

It’s possible that the hardcore, reactionary left is massively over-reaching in its response to this video (and Coopers is over-reacting, and responding far too quickly in response to this over-reach). I’ve written lots about marriage and same sex marriage, I haven’t hidden my Christian convictions, and yet I manage to have pretty robust and civil conversations with gay friends, my neighbours, my friends from the left, and friends from the right. The hard left gets a disproportionate and distorting influence on certain issues (including marriage) in the Labor Party, just as the hard right gets a disproportionate influence on certain issues (including marriage) in the Liberal Party.

I do think our problems, as the church, are more about a failure to listen, a failure to do pluralism, and some problems when it comes to what we say when we speak… I don’t know many people in the real world who planned to change their beer buying habits as a result of this campaign; I don’t know many people who have the sort of spare time that allows them to fill up the comments sections on different websites, or write one star reviews. We need to be careful not to over-react, in fear, to a noisy minority (while being careful in how we engage) because that actually serves to amplify the voice and impact of the over-reachers.

4. The new religion of the secular left learned how to treat heretics from the best… the church

In the 14th century there was a guy, John Wycliffe, who dared to translate the Bible into the language of the people. The church felt like its power was threatened by this dissenter. Sadly he died before they could kill him. So the church dug up his body and burned him. In the 16th century there was a guy named Servetus; his teaching was heretical and considered dangerous. Calvin reluctantly worked with the government of Geneva to have him executed. When religion co-opts political power, bad things happen to ‘heretics’… the state religion destroys them. The state hasn’t destroyed Coopers in this case (and the future of Coopers remains to be seen), but the treatment of the company, and its business, at the hands of their critics looked a lot like a witch hunt, a lynching, or a heresy purge. It remains to be seen whether Coopers’ repentance and contrition will save them — it would’ve saved a Christian in Rome, if they’d just chosen to bend the knee to Caesar… but it feels like the online outrage machine is less forgiving than Rome, and it’s certainly less inclined to forgive than Calvin was with Servetus. There isn’t much space for grace in the ‘gospel’ of the hard left. Just shame and destruction. The more we point that out not just by decrying it, but by modelling a compelling alternative, the better…

5. We need to tighten up our speaking; sometimes we can try to be too clever and homophonia gets us in trouble

The Bible Society has, for some time, had the slogan ‘live light’ as part of its brand. But its playfulness and lack of clarity about what ‘light’ is, has bitten pretty hard this week.

In its mission statement is says:

“Early in the life of Australia, passionate community leaders like Lady Macquarie created the Bible Society. They knew it wasn’t just government that could build a nation. It would need people of hope, people who live light.”

Indeed, its logo prior to this bicentenary celebration was this…


It’s not (though the tone of the video might suggest otherwise) really about treating the issue lightly (as though they don’t matter or should be laughed off); the two people conversing are very serious stakeholders in this debate mounting serious arguments for their position. It’s about bringing ‘light’ not darkness.

The bit of the verse featured on the Coopers carton in the picture above (a ‘light beer’) says:

“Whoever lives by truth comes into the light”…

That’s, of course, not the full story. It leaves ‘light’ a bit ambiguous. The verse that is, in part, featured on the Coopers cartons that support the campaign is John 3:21:

But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

This is about light as opposed to darkness; not light as opposed to ‘heavy’ (as in beer), or light as opposed to serious (as in discussion)

The context of this verse is:

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. — John 3:19-20

This verse is ultimately about Jesus. Coming to Jesus. Jesus is the light. He’s not darkness or watery beer.

Bible verses don’t work so well if we pull them apart and lift them from their context. And it’s especially dangerous to take a word like ‘light’ and be flexible with the definition for the sake of a clever campaign. Biblically, in the Greek, light in weight is ἐλαφρός while light as opposed to darkness is φῶς. It’s not a great bit of word play to let the definitions creep into each other. It’s confusing.

That the public conversation is now about how wrong it is for the Bible Society to treat such a significant conversation lightly shows that we have a real problem, in our culture, with homophonia. When words sound the same, we take the least charitable possible understanding in a way that serves our own purposes. But it doesn’t help when the people speaking are obscuring the charitable understanding they should be promoting… Sometimes we try to be too clever with slogans — so when we have ‘a light discussion about heavy issues’ in connection with a Bible verse about Jesus, that can catch us out. Mixing metaphors gets us into all sorts of trouble, and this campaign mixing a Bible verse, light beer, and a light hearted conversation is a bit confusing for all of us.

6. The Bible has useful principles when it comes to public civility; but its point is usually about something much more important than that

The video is meant to promote the idea that following the Bible’s advice when it comes to disagreement produces better outcomes (I think it does). It’s part of the Bible Society’s campaign to show how the Bible brings light to the world. What the video was meant to demonstrate, or reveal, is that it is possible that living in the light of the Bible, and its wisdom, produces better, more civil, conversations in public about significant issues. The way Wilson and Hastie attempted to model advice from the book of James does seem to demonstrate a virtuous type of public civility that I desperately crave in and for our nation. It’s not that the Bible alone produces this civility, Wilson isn’t a Christian, but the Bible does, or should, produce people who do this. The fuller context of James 1 says:

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”

Now. I’m sure that being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry is good advice for civil conversation. But really… that’s not what James has in view — he’s writing to Christians (brothers and sisters) and the way we’re meant to approach speaking is connected to the ‘righteousness God desires’ and is meant to be about a connection between words and actions. There’s a lot more behind this verse than just a guide to civil conversation, and we’re not actually helping people see the value of the Bible by limiting its impact to ‘wise advice for everyone’… When Jesus talks about the Bible he says stuff like:

“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me…” — John 5:39

It’d be interesting to consider how this shapes how we should speak about same sex marriage, or what our position we should be advocating with great civility.

7. Talk is cheap, but public speech should be costly not free.

As Christians we signed up to the idea that speech should be costly when we signed up to follow the crucified ‘word of God’… Jesus. I don’t think ‘free speech’ in a political sense is dead; words have always had consequences because speakers have always been challenged to back up words with actions (cost), because without that you’re a blowhard or a hypocrite.

The problem with the virtual outrage machine is that clicktivism costs nothing. People are free to jump on to a business’s page and destroy its reputation without ever changing their actions. This is what some now call ‘virtue signalling’ — for talking about virtue to be real not just a signalling exercise, it has to be backed up with action.

Ethical speech should not be free for Christians. It should be costly. Political speech should also be costly (I fleshed this out a bit more in a thing about how to write to your MP). Words for Christians need to be underpinned by action. We’re meant to do what the word says (to quote James). Speech should at least cost us ‘having listened’… but it must cost us more than that. If we want our speech to have integrity we need an ethos that supports our logos. 

“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” — 1 John 3:18

8. We should live light in response to this apocalypse (and this doesn’t mean light beer or pulling our punches)

 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him — John 1:4-5, 9-10

The last few days has revealed much about the church, and much about our ability to have meaningful conversations in Australia. It has revealed the gap between what we think and believe about humanity and the world, and what the ‘world’ thinks about humanity. People outside the church have taken offence at a Christian organisation appearing to support a conservative political position because it lines up with Christian moral convictions. They’ve called even talking about traditional Christian views offensive, oppressive, and hateful.

It seems the deck is stacked against us; especially if this is some sort of majority position. If this is the case, we may as well be bold and be offensive for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. If people are going to be offended and mock us whether we make conservative political arguments from natural law, or for approaching the secular political realm as people who believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus (and that this should shape our own politics and how we think of sex and marriage within our own communities, and in terms of God’s design for human flourishing), then why don’t we bring the real light?

“You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” — Matthew 10:22

Jesus says that’s what’s going to happen to us because of his name… and this isn’t some shibboleth test, but I’m not sure the name of Jesus got a mention in this little video. It might just be worth our while to be hated for living light — promoting Jesus in word and deed — rather than being seen to be pushing some sort of conservative political agenda according to the secular rules, or even to be seen to be advocating for the very good thing of public civility (as nice as that would be to see from my perspective as a citizen in the Australian public).

Here’s how this worked for Paul…

Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God. — 2 Corinthians 2:12-17

If we’re inevitably going to be offensive, let’s be offensive for good reason (and we might just be the aroma of life for some people) rather than carrying the stench of stale light beer.

9. We need less ‘hot takes’ and more cold ones

Hot take (n.)

“a piece of commentary, typically produced quickly in response to a recent event, whose primary purpose is to attract attention.”

Cold one (n.)

“a cold beverage, usually a beer”

I’m reluctant to add this post as another piece of chatter on this issue from the chattering class. Another hot take in a sea of outrage. Another rhetorical ship passing other ships in the night. I’d rather be a lighthouse than a ship.

I’d much rather have a beer with my gay friends and neighbours and really listen to them so that together we might imagine better ways forward than either binary solutions, outrage, or totalitarian solutions that aim to silence those who disagree with us. My shout (let me practice costly speech). It probably won’t be a Coopers this week (I confess, I’ve never drunk a Coopers), and it certainly won’t be a light beer, because I don’t want to mix metaphors, nor do I want to drink light beer.

But this sort of conversation should shed light on life lived together in the world, and on where my hope for my neighbours and our society is really found. The one who didn’t just ‘bring light’ to conversations, but who is the light of the world.

I don’t think civil public discourse is served all that well by fast, attention grabbing responses and conversation by hashtag. I hate boycotts — whether it’s Christians boycotting Halal certified food, or LGBTIQA allies boycotting Coopers. Boycotts are self-serving and self-seeking; they are the worst form of virtue signalling. Imagine how much more effective and persuasive it might be to write to Coopers and say “I don’t like that you’ve done this but I’m going to keep drinking your beer because I value you, it, and your workers”… We Christians don’t change hearts and minds through hostility (even if Coopers has backflipped), but hospitality, love, listening, understanding, and then carefully speaking the Gospel as it relates to an issue.

What saddens me is that as much as this has been a useful revelation about the state of public discourse in Australia, almost all of my Christian friends (myself included) have spent the last three days talking about beer, same sex marriage and civility, when we could’ve been talking about Jesus. Let’s aim our ‘living light’ or ‘keeping it light’ at that goal, even if apocalyptic moments like this one keep revealing that the world can be a pretty dark place.

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. — 2 Corinthians 4:1-6

Labor kills the plebiscite (why this might be good news)

I love Eternity News; I think the team at Eternity do a great job of representing the views of the width of the Aussie church, of giving adequate space to complex issues, and of using their platform to tell positive stories about people whose lives have been changed for the better because Jesus has made ‘eternity’ good news rather than a soul-depressing reminder of our smallness, and bad news when it comes to God’s judgment. So I enjoy writing for them and answering questions; even if they have to edit me…

Eternity ran a piece on Labor knocking  the plebiscite on the head which includes some of the reasons I gave for this maybe not being such a bad thing. It was edited, because it had to be. But I quite liked some of the bits they cut so thought I’d post my whole response (I’m not suggesting I was misrepresented or anything silly like that). Also; while I’m billed as being a Presbyterian Minister and from Creek Road (and these things are true), don’t assume I’m speaking for either institution, like you I’m just an idealistic voter with an opinion…

I love liberal democracy; especially when governments made up of elected representatives who are elected for their character and ability to make decisions aim for more than simply holding power by looking after the majority.

I think we should pursue a more idealised version of democracy than the one we’re given and hold our leaders to this sort of standard, that we should call them to govern not just for the liberty of those who voted for them, but for other communities of people within the community who didn’t.

In a secular, pluralistic democracy like ours there are lots of views of human flourishing. As a Christian, who thinks flourishing is ultimately about the Holy Spirit transforming us into the image of Jesus, I have a certain sense of what the ‘good life’ looks like; but I understand that many of my neighbours hold different convictions. Democracy has to be a balancing act where those convictions are held in tension, and people are free to hold them, and work towards them.

I didn’t think the plebiscite was the best mechanism for making a decision about Same Sex Marriage because it is inconsistent with some of the values of a liberal democracy; plebiscites seek to guide decision makers based on what’s popular — they’re the ultimate opinion poll — I’d rather our politicians make decisions based on what’s right; and what maintains our ability to live well with people who disagree with us.

There are many arguments for and against same sex marriage that flow out of different understandings of human flourishing, and the decision is much more complicated than some of our political leaders and Church leaders allow.

There’s a very good case to be made for gay marriage in a secular democracy if we think of it as something akin to a matter of religious freedom for those whose equivalent of God, their object of worship, and their vision of what it means to flourish as a person, is caught up with having as much sex in the context of a loving relationship as possible.

If we want religious freedom and protection from those who think our views are wrong and have no place in public, we should be prepared to offer it to others. There are, of course, very convincing arguments for Christians to maintain God’s definition of marriage as the one flesh relationship between one man and one woman, forsaking all others, for life; personally I’d love us to be able to maintain that definition within our community and in public life, for as long as possible because I believe it is both good for people, and that it’s a picture of the relationship created by the Gospel; I simply don’t expect my neighbours to be convinced of this goodness, nor that legal definitions should reflect my view and not theirs.

One danger of moving away from the plebiscite and potentially moving to the better, more democratic, option of the vote on the floor of parliament is that we lose the discussion that would’ve accompanied it and that the majority view will simply be imposed on different minority views in a different form of populism. The language that Labor leader Bill Shorten is using around those who oppose Same Sex Marriage worries me because it seems intolerant, and it seems to beg the question somewhat; he framing it as a decision about what sort of love our society will accept when those opposed seem much more interested in talking about what marriage itself is, it’d be great for Christians to be able to have good discussions with our neighbours about how marriage is part of God’s design, and ultimately about how it reflects the love God has for his people and the oneness we experience with God when we follow Jesus. Apart from the need to have this conversation robustly, and charitably, I’d love it to happen quickly because I believe this conversation has been a massive distraction from other priorities, and that it has made it look like the good news of Jesus is not good news for our LGBTQI neighbours; there are much bigger issues we should be staring down as God’s people in Australia, and it has also kept us from the priority of confidently and winsomely offering the Gospel — the offer of resurrected life in Jesus — as the best place to understand what it means for people to flourish.

 

Is marriage a created thing like math, or like music?

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” — C.S Lewis

math-music

We should stop speaking to our world as though the definition of marriage is a truth they should know like mathematical laws and start speaking as though it is a good and beautiful thing like music.

That C.S Lewis quote up the top of this post is profound. My Christianity actually shapes both the way I see and understand math and the way I see and understand music, because it shapes the way I see and understand everything. But how I see and use math and how a non-Christian sees and uses math is relatively similar; how I see music and how I use it is much more closely aligned to my faith. I sing in church, I do not do math in church (no matter how boring the sermon). There’s something different about the truth math contains and conveys and the truth music contains and conveys, and the way our faith or religious framework shapes the way we see and use them. No matter what we believe.

Christians who love natural law or revelation (and rightly) believe that creation points to God had much less to argue with when people held that nature and reason were good guides to truth. The problem is that everyone thinks nature points to their God; idolatry in its basest form is turning something from nature into God and understanding the rest of nature through the grid that creates. Just as C.S Lewis said he saw the world through the lens of his Christianity; secular Aussies do the same with their ‘religion’ or their sense of what the good human life looks like. Our worship frames how we see nature and created things like marriage. Secular worship (which expresses itself in diverse human cultures and sub-cultures built on common objects that people love like music, a sports team, an activity, or a shared sense of what a ‘good life is’) doesn’t present much of a challenge to how we see math; math doesn’t really challenge anyone’s view of the good or flourishing human life… but what we worship does shape the way we see other created things (objects and human relationships or realities) like marriage.

So here’s a question. Is marriage like math — an objectively true created thing that describes how the world works in a way that can be universally understood, or like music — a good created thing that cultures produce and enjoy subjectively based on their values? Should we expect everyone to think the same as us about marriage; is it an objectively knowable created thing, like math, or is it like music?

 

There are certain natural or created laws that from our finite and limited ability to observe how stuff works, seem universal. These laws — things we believe we’ve proven —are observations about nature; objective statements about how things are. We can express them as axioms or equations. These are universal.

2+2=4

When it comes to marriage many observers of nature who hold a belief that nature reveals something of God want to suggest a similar equation:

Marriage = 1 man + 1 woman

Often the natural argument here is that:

1 man + 1 woman + sex = a potential child.

That is natural. It is a biological equation; it seems axiomatic for those who think about the world like created things are like math not music. The only way we can change that is by artificially intervening with what is natural. That’s also long been the argument for defining marriage the way human cultures have defined it. It seems a natural fit for this objective truth. But it’s not necessarily axiomatic that marriage means that relationship; that is what is contested at the moment in our world. Because there is an alternative equation, more in the realm of music, where:

Marriage = 1 person + 1 person + love

Love is clearly a subjective thing, and much music is written trying to evoke and express that feeling. And this isn’t so much a question of how marriage should ultimately be viewed; but how it is in societies where people worship more than one god or different created things. It might have been enough to argue for marriage as though it is like math in the world operating in the age of reason — the enlightenment era when nature and our ability to know things about nature, and we viewed the world through that grid; but now we’re in the age of feelings, and arguments from reason are largely starting to sound like nonsense to people when it comes to how we should live or what should become cultural axioms and definitions.

 

So do people see marriage as being like math or music?

The position we come to on whether marriage is a universal truth or law that people will definitively see in the same universal way regardless of what they choose to worship (like math), or a thing we shape meaning for in our cultures (like music), will shape how we speak about marriage in our world. Do we speak of it like math, or like music?

Lots of Christian arguments I read in favour of the secular state defining marriage the way God defines it are built on the basis that it is a universal created good; a moral law written into the fabric of our humanity, much like math is written into the fabric of the cosmos.

But I don’t think it’s that simple, I think it is more like music: an imaginative shared act of creation where we act in concert with God’s design in a way that reflects who we are and what we believe about the world we live in.

We all — everyone, not just Christians — approach marriage as a ‘created’ thing; a part of nature, and we all approach created things through the ever-changing grid created by our worship. When we worship in such a way that we, or our cultures, become creators of meaning, and we create that meaning as we interact with created things. So modern secular Aussies believe we can even redefine the nature or purpose of created things (like marriage, or family, or human life) to fit our view of how the world works, or how we work best in the world. That’s why the definition of marriage is now contested; our culture keeps changing its common objects of worship and so re-ordering our loves and re-examining the way we interact with ‘nature’…

Mathematical truths operate at the objective level. We argue for them using proofs and logic and reason. The aim of discussions about these laws is to ‘prove’ something using a way of viewing and understanding the world that all people who know about math seem to share. The implications from our proving of things are clear axiomatic description of nature; the way things are. Natural law (for the ‘enlightened’ rationalist). Natural revelation (for the Christian).

Math is a pure way to get to the heart of how stuff works. To do math we employ logic and reason to describe the relationships underpinning everything in the cosmos; from the relationship between atoms to the relationship between planets. We can, using numbers, express, model, and predict the way these parts of creation will interact. Math describes the world. It has been described by some as the language of God; and there is something about the intricate order and design of the cosmos that it reveals; and its unchanging nature too; that says something about the nature and character of God… But not everyone sees math in these ways, and you don’t have to in order to believe true things about math or about the way different bodies interact in the world.

What we do with math, or the truths about the universe we extrapolate from math will vary based on what we worship, we may choose to worship math itself (or our own logic and reason), because of its explanatory power, and a very strange form of unnatural worship may even convince us that 2+2=5. But mathematical truths are natural and we can establish them, and see them in operation across human cultures towards good ends like commerce, agriculture and engineering. We harness math, but we don’t make it. It originates in nature itself and in the nature of God.

Music, at its heart, is the application of mathematical principles to sound. It is the ordering of mathematical truths to create beauty and is, by the nature of our different ears and cultural practices a subjective thing that has the potential to mean (and so reveal) different things to different people in a profoundly different way to math. Unless we’re recording the sounds of nature — like birdsongs or running a record needle over the cross section of a tree so that its rings form some sort of melody — music is something that we create in and for a culture. Music will still reveal what we worship — and human cultures across time and space testify to its place in forming us as people and representing how we view the world through the lens of our worship. It is totally ‘natural’ but in a way that works in harmony with who we are and what we worship, not in a way that directly demonstrates who God is via ‘nature’… Its origins are both divine and human. I’m fairly sure God is a musician who sings and makes beautiful noises (because of the birdsong and the picture of the throne room and what we’re called to do with music as his worshippers), but not all music points to God and not all musicians are expressing divine truth as they play — beyond the sounds themselves that arise as a product of cause and effect; when you bang stuff together, according to the laws of math, noise happens and travels through different mediums depending on what they are (physics is just math really). It is a natural phenomena but taken and shaped, subjectively, by people based on what we worship. You can’t really reasonably argue that Bach is better than Kanye, no matter how reasonable your argument is. You make that decision based on a values system you bring to the data; their music.

Problems with seeing marriage as math (a natural law)

One of the problems I observe in the way the western church, and its leaders, argue for our vision of a good natural human life is that we argue about issues that are like music as though they are like math; and expect reason and logic to win the day. This is perhaps truest in the arguments the leaders of the institutional churches in Australia are mounting in favour of the secular government maintaining a traditional definition of marriage. The problem with natural law arguments is that once an enlightened and liberated individual knows something is a ‘natural law’ they still feel totally free to break it; it’s not an argument that convinces anyone anymore once they’ve decided that real goodness lies apart from nature.

We modern Christians are so profoundly indebted to the enlightenment and the ‘age of reason’ and the natural theology tradition championed by Aquinas and his followers, and so excited about the way natural and special revelation sing in harmony to those of us attuned to hear both, that we treat moral arguments on issues that we see as derived from creation or nature as though they are mathematical truths for us to prove. An example of this way of thinking of marriage would be to insist on the axiomatic equation for marriage described above (1 man + 1 woman) and to point out that almost all cultures everywhere have recognised that as truth. The modern secular response is ‘so what’? And we don’t answer that objection by simply restating the proof, we need to demonstrate the proof in action the way music gives life to mathematical proofs.

We Christians want to keep riding the enlightenment pony in a post-enlightenment world. We settle for mounting reasonable arguments (that are reasonable and logical and tightly line up with ‘nature’); but these arguments are implausible because the good life now is much more about music than math. Our sense of what is good is much more derived from our ‘worship,’ our different stories of the good life, and our feelings than it is from some sort of natural law that we can simply choose to walk away from. Math might be true, as true as music… but it feels cold and emotionless. It takes a certain sort of rare soul to find math beautiful in the same way we find music beautiful. You might make avant-garde music celebrating obscure mathematical equations composed by algorithms rather than humans, but that is a particular taste that not everyone will share, and because it ignores the experiential nature of music; it won’t seem beautiful to anyone who doesn’t get the math.

We’re so used to operating in a culture where the ‘music’ sounded enough like ours that we could see its goodness. We’re like a bunch of Beatniks surrounded by Beatles tribute bands, that we didn’t really feel the need to keep pointing people to the Beatles, but now we live in the age of One Direction and Autotune and Pitbull and Kanye and Bieber… suddenly the music our world is making sounds very different and it’s like we’ve turned back to the math underpinning music to point out why the people around us have got music wrong.

Even though the Beatles are objectively and subjectively better and more beautiful than Bieber (and Bach is better than the Beatles), arguing for that with a bunch of numbers won’t shift anyone, you probably can’t actually argue someone out of their love for Bieber at all (and by analogy, I’m not sure you can argue someone out of or into a particular view of marriage without inviting them to first change the lens they use to see the world).

Math makes us understand music better — there’s a reason a lot of musicians do musical theory; which ends up being a bit about math. The answer for those who like Bieber rather than the Beatles, or Bach, isn’t pure math; it’s not to outlaw all other forms of music, it’s to make better music. Perhaps we also need to realise that part of the reason people like bad music and don’t see math as important — or rather the reason people are walking away from a ‘natural law’ in favour of what appears to be a position built entirely on feelings and personal preference, is that after we walked away from God’s design he gives us the consequences of that decision; which is to believe that bad stuff is good and math only important for making stuff we can use to do stuff we want to do.

Marriage is actually like music

There’s actually a bunch of objectively real and true things underpinning the making of music. How sound works; how our ears work; the physics involved with making, and recording, noises. But it also involves humans and human creativity. And that’s true in marriage too. God might have created and defined a fundamental relationship called marriage, but marriage is always experienced as a living breathing thing involving humans and human creativity. It’s always experienced subjectively, which is part of why how marriage works changes from culture to culture even if the fundamental axiom of what marriage is largely does not and has not. Marriage as God created it is music, not math.

Marriage is a good thing God made — but like music it’s a thing created when people take up a good thing design from God and approach it with love and imagination and the desire to make something beautiful (again, why Bach is better than Bieber); and ideally it’s something that reflects the relational, loving, life-giving, sacrificial nature of God (which is perhaps why the Bible speaks of our marriages as both a reflection of the ‘us’ who make men and women as people who bear the image of God, and as a reflection of the relationship between Jesus and the church, and about our oneness with God secured by our union with Christ as the ultimate marriage that our lives as Christians should anticipate).

Marriage and how we do it and speak about it in our world — a world full of knock-off Gods with cheap knock-off versions of marriage — is an opportunity for us to make something beautiful that glorifies God. To make a joyful and compelling noise that says something to the people around us about what is good for them and to call them to something better.  Talking about marriage in our public square is not just something we can reduce to a simple ‘natural’ or ‘reasonable’ equation. Even if 2+2=4; the world is convincing itself that 5 feels like a better answer. Understanding math or the created goodness of marriage will help our marriages be better and more beautifully musical; but that doesn’t mean we should speak to the world as though marriage is math when they don’t and can’t see it the way we do because their paradigm for approaching nature is different.

The reality is that just as knowing math helps make better music; knowing that there’s a created reality to marriage helps us make better marriages; but also, people don’t really want to hear about the math underpinning the music they’re listening to, they want to experience the beauty of the music, we show the goodness of our view of marriage by having and promoting beautiful marriages within our communities, and by helping other people have more beautiful marriages when they ask. We need both the objective truth that marriage between one man and one woman is created by the real God for a good purpose, and the subjective reality that we’re able to make something beautiful in our marriages using our imaginations.

But we also need to be empathetic listeners who try to understand why people make music that looks very different to the kind we like, and the kind we know is good, because that music reflects who they are. People are going to like different music, and make different music, and when we listen to that ‘music’ carefully — when we pay attention to how people speak of the created thing they call marriage (or what they want to call marriage) — we should pretty quickly be able to see that natural (math-like) arguments aren’t going to convince anyone who doesn’t first share our assumptions about the world and the place of reason. We talk like we’re talking about math while they’re talking like they’re talking about music; and it’s actually ok to talk about feelings and what beauty and the ‘good life’ looks like.

Listening to others in our world, and also knowing the deep truth math expresses (and even marriage as math in as much as the axiom is actually an expression of how God designed things) allows us to make music that resonates with people and with creation, and so might actually change the way the people around us see the world; the real way to change how they see the world is via Jesus and the ‘new eyes’ the Spirit brings; eyes that help us see the world through ‘by our Christianity’ in the C.S Lewis way… but when it comes to marriage and how to see truth about a created thing, repeating axioms isn’t going to cut it. We need symphonies that are remarkably more compelling than Bieber or whatever mass produced music people are pumping into their ears to hypnotise themselves to the truth of whatever view of the world is hot today; not cold laws. 

The way to prove that God’s vision for marriage is better isn’t to walk up to a bunch of people listening to music to shout numbers at them, it’s to play better music. It isn’t to insist on a natural proof, but to sing a supernaturally more beautiful song and then point to the amazing and intricate natural order behind the beauty, and the real relationship that marriage testifies to.

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” — Ephesians 5:31-32

Why our Queensland committee doesn’t think withdrawing from the Marriage Act is a good idea

Next week the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia will meet, and amongst other things, decide what the denomination will do should the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act change in the next three years (this court of the church meets every three years).

The proposal to withdraw, being championed by the national Church and Nation Committee (of which I am a member, dissenting on this proposal), has received significant air time in the media, and in state Assemblies over the last two years. Earlier this year the Queensland Assembly voted unanimously to oppose this Church and Nation proposal, and put forward a series of counter-motions (an alternate proposal). You can read the recommendations our state committee (the Gospel in Society Today Committee) made to the Queensland Assembly here. Since the Queensland Assembly the Church and Nation Committee has modified its proposals to be discussed at the General Assembly of Australia moving from declaring that no minister conduct a marriage under an amended Act to withdrawing as a recognised denomination under the Act.

We summarised that paper, and tried to capture some of the spirit of the Queensland objections to the proposal in this summary document that our committee released this week. What follows is not simply my objections (though those are well documented in these 8 reasons, and 21 questions), this is the official position of our committee as circulated. Personally, my preference is that we maintain God’s definition of marriage to the point of submissive civil disobedience where we face the wrath of a potentially hostile government in order to testify to the goodness of the created order and the way one-flesh marriage between one man and one woman is a reflection of the relationship between Christ and his bride, the church. I’m also very concerned about the message withdrawing sends to our gay neighbours about how we see their position in a secular society and what sort of welcome they might find should they come into one of our church communities.

In sum, we think it’s a problem the Church and Nation proposal argues on the basis of wisdom and tradition, not citing any Biblical rationale, we believe there is a Biblical rationale for staying in marriage and upholding the Biblical definition of marriage within a changing system, and a Biblical rationale for allowing freedom for ministers to act according to their own conscience and wisdom (given that ministers can already choose not to conduct marriages, or not be celebrants under the Act), we believe that withdrawing will remove a Gospel opportunity from those churches who want to stay engaged with our community, and we believe the idea of ‘Presbyterian Marriage’ is not necessary, not sensible, not possible under our polity, and not workable for our local churches (especially those who conduct lots of marriages).

But here’s the argument in full.

The case for remaining a recognised denomination under an amended Australian Marriage Act

The Church and Nation Committee of the Presbyterian Church of Australia is recommending that the Presbyterian Church respond to any change of the Marriage Act to recognise same sex relationships as civil marriage by withdrawing from the Act, and further, by establishing our own form of marriage for the purpose of providing for couples who cannot in good conscience be married, civilly, under an amended definition of marriage.

This is a radical proposal which to date has not gained widespread support in the wider Christian community, the wider Reformed movement (in Australia and abroad), or the evangelical church (here or abroad). To date both the New South Wales and Victorian State Assemblies voted in previous years to ask the Church and Nation committee to continue investigating withdrawal. Anecdotally, many who voted this way were voting for what they believed was the European model where a couple would obtain a civil marriage certificate but then have a church ceremony. This is different to the establishment of a Presbyterian form of marriage, where the proposal is for a Presbyterian registry of marriages, with local oversight from the session, and services conducted following a marriage rite produced by the Public Worship and Devotion Committee.

The Queensland Assembly (which incorporates the Presbytery of South Australia) at its 2016 assembly voted unanimously against this proposal.

The proposal discussed at the Queensland assembly was not the final form of the GAA deliverances brought by Church and Nation (which, at that point, was not to withdraw but to declare that no Presbyterian Minister conduct marriages under the Act). The Queensland Assembly voted to bring several counter-motions to the GAA representing a position that it believed better reflected how the Bible suggests wisely navigating life in a sinful world for the sake of the Gospel as those under the Lordship of Christ, our reformed theological convictions, and our Presbyterian polity.

This document is an attempt to summarise both the case against withdrawing and the case for remaining and allowing individual ministers to determine their response to an amended Act, within the confines of our established definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. Nobody within the Presbyterian Church of Australia is, to date, suggesting we change our definition of marriage from that articulated consistently in Scripture — by Moses (Genesis 2) and Jesus (Matthew 19). 

  1. There is no Biblical argument being put forward for withdrawal

The Church and Nation Committee proposal cites no Scriptural reason for withdrawing from marriage under an amended act; its argument is based on wisdom and a particular understanding of the relationship between church and state, one not universally shared within the Reformed tradition or the Presbyterian Church of Australia.

The main argument seems to be that society is shifting, and has been for some time, and we must decide at what point we withdraw from participating in civil marriage. The argument in the Church and Nation report is that since there is no Biblical or historical reason for us to necessarily be involved in civil marriage as ‘agents’ of the state, we can withdraw whenever we want, and should withdraw at this point once the state’s definition profoundly departs from the Biblical definition.

This proposed response is not built on any explicitly Biblical rationale; no texts are cited in support of the recommendation; the argument is purely an attempt to provide a wise response to significant social change and the erosion of a human relationship established at creation. What we are being asked to decide is:

  1. That staying in a relationship with the civil magistrate, as celebrants recognised by an amended Marriage Act somehow makes us complicit agents in a wrong definition of marriage.
  2. That withdrawal is a necessary option at some point should the Marriage Act change.
  3. This is the wisest point to withdraw, not a future point where we might be compelled to act against our doctrinal position on marriage.
  4. Once we withdraw from recognised status, in order to serve those who believe that marriage under an amended act, even marriage between a man and woman conducted according to the rites of the church, is participating in evil, we should create our own form and registry of Presbyterian marriage.

None of these points are necessarily held unanimously within the Presbyterian Church as being wise or necessary conclusions in response to an amended definition of marriage in the Marriage Act. It was argued in the Queensland Assembly, in arguments that seemed to be well supported in the Assembly, that:

  1. Partnership with the government as celebrants is not an expression of agency or agreement with the broader set of relationships recognised by the Act, so long as ministers conduct marriages according to the doctrine and rites of the Presbyterian Church.
  2. That withdrawal may not be the best option, but rather gentle and respectful civil disobedience of the kind that expresses we worship the crucified Lord Jesus might be a better path to take should the magistrate attempt to force ministers to marry same-sex couples under an amended Act. The deliverances of the Queensland Gospel in Society Today Committee were explicitly amended during the Assembly to leave open this option.
  1. There is a Biblical rationale for remaining

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. — 1 Corinthians 5:10

Sexual morality matters. Marriage, as the God-ordained context for human sexual activity, is the only context for moral sexual activity (with celibacy the alternative moral sexual inactivity). While of course sexual immorality outside of the church should cause us concern, the primary context for our concern for sexual morality that follows God’s design is within the church (1 Corinthians 5:10-11). What we do as citizens of God’s kingdom who live in a fallen world with a sinful understanding of sex and marriage should both mark us out as different to the world and be a witness to God’s good design.

When Jesus is confronted with a defective view of marriage (Matthew 19) he does not tell Christians to create their own form of marriage with more Biblical practices regarding divorce, but to conduct their marriages in a way that reflects God’s design within this corrupted system. When Paul speaks about marriage in the Roman world, in 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5, he does not call Christians to create their own form of marriage, but again, to conduct their marriages as Christians.

Our concern, Biblically, should be that in the midst of broken and sinful pictures of marriage we live out a version of marriage that expresses the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality, and the goodness of his love for us so that our marriages anticipate the heavenly marriage of Christ and the church. Withdrawal in the face of sinfulness, when it is not agreed that as ministers we act as agents of the State in conducting weddings, is an unprecedented step that runs counter to the practice of sexual morality in a fallen world described in Scripture.

  1. There is a Biblical rationale for allowing Ministers to act according to conscience in wisdom issues

If there is no clear Biblical reason to withdraw (and none being put forward by the Church & Nation committee) but rather this is a question about wisdom and how to best serve the Lord Jesus as ministers of the Gospel, then there is a good Biblical principle for allowing ministers to act according to conscience on disputable matters. The Marriage Act in its current form allows celebrants to refuse to conduct any wedding for any reason, and grants ministers within recognised denominations the ability to act as celebrants only according to the rites of the church. Those wishing to not conduct marriage under an amended Act for reasons of conscience can already choose not to do so, because such freedom exists; and because disagreement exists on the assumptions put forward by the Church and Nation Committee, this is a case where the principles of Romans 14 – in relation to freedom to act according to conscience – apply.

  1. Withdrawing from civil marriage further disconnects us from the community, from a creation ordinance, and a significant gospel opportunity

Around one in ten Aussies attend church more than once a month; nine in ten don’t. While the Church and Nation proposal points to a decline in church marriages (or marriages by ministers) conducted for non-church members that corresponds with an overall decline, it seems an odd argument (and somewhat anecdotal) that because we have less gospel opportunities via our involvement in upholding God’s design for marriage, we should choose to have none.

Many ministers, especially in larger churches and church plants seeking to establish themselves in particular communities, report that conducting marriages for non-Christians is an opportunity to talk about the goodness of God’s design for marriage, and of the gospel, in pre-marriage counseling, an opportunity to build significant long-term pastoral relationships, and an opportunity to preach the gospel during the marriage ceremony. Marriage itself, as it reflects God’s design in Genesis 2, is a created good, and upholding, participating, modeling, and encouraging people towards this good, even within a fractured and sinful system which defines marriage more broadly than God does, is a way to love our neighbours.

 

  1. There are problems with the polity of this proposal

There are a number of significant polity problems with the Church & Nation Committee’s proposal

  1. Kirk Session jurisdiction over a Minister. Church & Nation’s overture has several highly problematic statements which imply that in this area the Kirk Session has jurisdiction over a minister. For example, Clause 1c uses those very words. However, these kinds of arrangements are determined on a state-by-state basis within the PCA, with PCQ for example not providing for Sessions to be able to exercise any jurisdiction or give any directions to ministers in any aspect of the ministerial functions including decisions about whom they may perform marriage services for or the specifics of how the marriage service may be conducted. The Church and Nation proposal at this point therefore appears to be incompetent. The relationship between the rights and responsibilities of the Session and those of the Minister in a matter such as the celebration of marriages is provided for in the State Codes and the GAA does not have the power to rule in this area, let alone make problematic statements such as Sessions having “jurisdiction” over ministers.
  2. The Kirk Session as a divorce court. The proposal contained in Church & Nation’s overture would give to Sessions the requirement to approve who would be able to be married and therefore who would be open for divorce. This is a potential minefield, and elders in Queensland have expressed concern that eventually our alternate system of marriage will come under fire from anti-Christian members of the community, and they, as elders, will not have the same personal, legal, and financial protection that ministers operating as employees of the church will have. In addition is the potential for already stretched sessions to be bogged down in administering and registering marriages and divorces, and worse if Session decisions are appealed to Presbyteries and Assemblies. The proposal seems particularly unworkable for larger churches within our denomination
  3. Mandating a particular form of the marriage service. Church & Nation’s overture seeks to mandate how the marriage service shall be conducted. This is unprecedented since all the GAA has done in the past rightly, has been to provide guidance as to how services should be conducted. This raises the legality of such a clause as the GAA is seeking to bind its ministers to do something outside of the formula. Whereas the GAA can give guidance in terms of worship services, nothing gives the GAA any authority to bind its ministers to form of worship service for marriage as the proposal seeks to do.
  4. Requiring ministers to act apart from their adherence to the formula. This is perhaps the most serious polity difficulty with Church & Nation’s proposal. Presbyterian ministers are required to follow the doctrinal position in the formula which requires allegiance to the confessional position on marriage. Presbyterian ministers therefore must seek to respond to a changed Marriage Act in accordance with the confessional position. However it would be quite legitimate under the formula for a minister to respond to a changed Marriage Act by continuing to marry couples who come to him for marriage provided the couple’s relationship falls within the bounds of the confessional position. Church & Nation’s proposal however would require ministers to respond to a changed Marriage Act in a particular way outside (or in addition to) their adherence to the formula, on the basis of a ‘wisdom’ judgement by the GAA. GAA simply does not have this kind of jurisdiction hence Church & Nation’s proposal is incompetent and contrary to fundamental principles of Presbyterian polity.

It should be noted that every minister and representative elder in Queensland and South Australia voted against this proposal at the Queensland Assembly. That’s a lot of ministers Church & Nation is seeking to force to act in this way.

In light of the above difficulties it would be appropriate for Commissioners to ask the GAA Moderator to rule, prior to debate, that both Deliverances 6 & 7 of the Church & Nation report plus Church & Nation’s overture are incompetent.

There are several other reasons the Queensland Gospel In Society Today (GIST) Committee, and Queensland Assembly (incorporating South Australia) believe withdrawal will not serve the interests of the gospel, our churches, or the Australian Community. You can read GIST’s Assembly Paper presented (and adopted unanimously) to the 2016 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland here: http://www.pcq.org.au/pcq_pdf_gist/gist-responding-to-changed-marriage-act-07-16.pdf

How not to vote (1): Don’t vote just to secure a plebiscite

howtovote

In the first post in this election week series I wrote about how I think we should be discharging the responsibility of voting this weekend, now I turn to a specific reason not to base your vote on in this election; and it’s important, and the reasons are many, so it’ll take a few posts (rather than one mega post).

There are many, many, Christian voices telling us that this election is different from every election that has come before it.

We’re told there is lots at stake in our vote; so much at stake, that we might even have to give up on liberal democracy and its values — and the freedoms it should be providing us as a minority group — in order to attempt to enshrine our view as the popular one.

I’ve read a handful of blog posts and opinion pieces now that say Christians must vote for the Liberals or the National Party in order to secure the electoral Holy Grail — a plebiscite on Same Sex Marriage — that will allow us to protect our view of marriage (with the caveat that we believe it really is the best relational unit to enable humans to flourish).

I’ve read a couple that very strongly infer it but then stop short of endorsing a party because it’s not only marriage at stake but our religious freedom, and freedom of speech.

My own denomination stopped short of telling us exactly who to vote for in a public statement, but did state that it is our duty to vote for the definition of marriage to remain unchanged should a plebiscite happen, and further, that churches should be involved in the campaign for this particular result in a hypothetical plebiscite.

I believe if this is your sole reason for voting for the Liberal Party then it is a bad reason to vote for them. There are perhaps many good reasons to vote for them, and many good people standing for election with them.

I believe a plebiscite is a bad idea and will be bad for our country (though not really for the reasons the same sex marriage advocates say it will be), and that it will be bad for our Gospel witness to our country if we actively campaign for a plebiscite, or in a plebiscite. Clearly it’s too late to stop the former…

Further, I believe those pushing for a plebiscite and those arguing against same sex marriage are holding onto a modernist (old fashioned) view of law and Australian society, and this view in an of itself will become increasingly damaging to the Gospel. A modernist Christian approach to the public life of our secular country will lead to fear, disappointment, and discouragement for Christians, and will have us fighting battles on the wrong front. It’ll lead to isolation, and misunderstanding of what Jesus desires, for non-Christians.

We need to reframe the way we think about politics, and more importantly, about being the church: God’s Kingdom of people following King Jesus, as citizens in a post-modern, secular, world.

In a later post, but in order to flag where things are going now, I’ll suggest that if we want people meeting Jesus to be the chief good we stand for in our nation, then pushing for a plebiscite is a bad idea, and so too, potentially, is opposing Same Sex Marriage (though practicing marriage as Christians are called to practice it within our counter-cultural ‘kingdom’ will be an important part of our witness to the chief good).

Life as a Christian in post-modern Australia

Here are a couple of not uncommon scenarios, that are, in fact, real. They’re not just real in an isolated sense either; they’re real in that they happen in Australian communities all over the place.

There’s a Christian who loves the gay community in his small town and is seeking to build relationships with them in order for them to experience the love of Jesus in action, and to hear the Gospel. This Christian meets with this couple who tell him of their great desire to marry as an expression of their freedom to be who they are. This couple might not realise what the Christian perceives as the spiritual reality behind this desire; which is a function of putting sex and marriage as the chief love and aim of this couple’s humanity, a spot we believe belongs ultimately to Jesus; but this desire is real. It is fundamentally as religious as the Christian’s desire to love and worship Jesus in Australia. The Christian wants to hire a public space at the local pub to run a course on Christianity, and is relying on a shared belief in religious freedom, to make that booking a reality.

There’s another Christian family who lives on a street full of friendly people. They talk about politics regularly, and religion sometimes. They love each other, lend a hand, and do life together. One couple on the street are men who wish to marry. The people on the street see the love and commitment these men have for one another, and they see the love the Christian family has for those who live on the street; they struggle to reconcile a consistency between these people who want to live following Jesus and their speech about love and freedom, with what Christians say about the relationship they witness in the house down the road. If the Christian’s rationale for denying these men who already have children the object of their desires is: that it is unnatural, that marriage is for raising and protecting children, or that a God they don’t believe in, or a 2,000 year old book says it is wrong, this fails to adequately address the humanity and experience of the couple on the street in a way that works for their neighbours.

Both these Christians desperately want their neighbours — gay and straight — to hear about Jesus. They both want religious freedom and the freedom to speak about Jesus, but this freedom, in a secular post-modern world of competing truths and differing moral visions, is earned, not an inherent right, it is earned by extending the same freedom to others.

These realities are our post-modern, post-Christian, secular realities. They’re not easy scenarios, but we need to be careful that in our desire to proclaim the Gospel in this context we don’t keep hold of old strategies that didn’t really work. The moral framework of the 1950s may have had a bunch of people living like they were Christians, and ticking a box on the census that indicated a Christian identity, but it didn’t do a great job of forming people as disciples of Jesus. And holding on to the idea that Godly morality will deliver anything for the Gospel, or that resisting a shifting public moral framework is what will win us religious freedom just seems quaint and old fashioned. And it’s entirely the wrong question for Christians to be grappling with.

It is, to borrow an Australian expression “arse about” — people won’t meet Jesus because they’re told not to gay marry, or that gay marriage is wrong; they might, if they meet Jesus and put him at the centre of reality — their own reality, and the cosmic reality of the universe — understand marriage in a different way and approach it differently in their own lives.

What we should be spending our intellectual energy on as Christians is what to do if after they get married these couples, their children, and their neighbours, turn up in church wanting to hear about Jesus. How do they then live in the light of the Gospel?

A plebiscite, whatever the result, and for various reasons that I’ll elaborate on in future posts, denies the complexity of reality in post-modern, post-Christian, secular Australia. It’s a bad idea foisted on us by the very conservative wing of a political party as a last ditch attempt to defend a good thing that our society has walked away from. Marriage as God created it is remarkably good. It is almost all the things people campaigning for it say that it is — but the campaign is falling on deaf ears because the arguments being mounted are the arguments of modernist, nominally Christian, Australia. And most of our neighbours don’t live there any more.

Don’t vote just to secure a plebiscite. Vote for three years of government, not 6 months of uncertainty, and an uncertain and by no means final outcome.

Why choosing how to vote just on the basis of a plebiscite is a bad idea

Making the plebiscite your single issue this election is a bad idea. It’s probably not great to tell Christians that it’s their duty to vote a particular way either to secure a plebiscite, or in a plebiscite either — but that’s the subject of one of the next posts.

You’re going to vote to give government to a party you may or may not agree with on a bunch of other moral issues over one issue that will be voted on and legislated in the first six months of government where all the evidence suggests the result is a foregone conclusion?

What about the next 3.5 years? What about all the other defining moral issues of our times? It might be that you can have your cake and eat it to on that front if you believe the Liberal and National Party platforms deal well with these issues, and if their candidates are well equipped to govern with wisdom and virtue. That’s good.

Is that period of government so unimportant, or same sex marriage so important that all other considerations about ethical and good government are irrelevant? Vote for the person in the party who is going to make decisions with the most wisdom and virtue.

Even if it isn’t, a plebiscite in and of itself is a bad thing in our form of democracy and will come back to bite us if we further enshrine a belief that democracy is a combination of populism and majority rules.

A plebiscite in particular is a bad reason to vote for a party; and I believe (though I understand others will differ) that support for same sex marriage is a bad reason to vote against a party in a secular liberal democracy. I’ll unpack this in two subsequent, longer posts, unpacking some of the rationales I’ve heard from Christians in support of a plebiscite.

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.

8 reasons withdrawing from the Marriage Act is a bad idea for the Presbyterian Church

I’m pretty tired of writing about gay marriage. Presumably you’re tired of reading about it too. But this one involves the denomination I work for and a proposed response to proposed changes to the Marriage Act 1961 where the Australian Government would recognise same sex relationships as marriage. You thought that last post about gay marriage was long… this one is twice as big, but again, it has headings to make it easier to skim.

At their Assembly (a gathering of ministers and elders from around the state), the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales overwhelmingly voted to support the idea that if the definition of marriage changes in Australia, the Presbyterian Church of Australia should cease being recognised as a Recognised Religious Denomination for the purposes of the Marriage Act 1961. It’s hard for me not to think of this as the example of the kid who owns the cricket gear, packing it up and running home to play by himself in the backyard if he is given out in contentious circumstances. Nobody wins when that happens.

This, to me, is like the denomination trying to do en masse what Nick Jensen proposed to do as an individual, only it won’t apply retrospectively (so there’s no proposal for people previously married in Presbyterian Churches to hand in their marriage certificates). I had problems with Nick’s idea – and I have problems with this idea, in part because I think it embodies so many things the church in general has got wrong about our approach to gay marriage in a secular democracy. I’ve previously expressed major issues with the withdrawal idea, conceptually, here I’m addressing some concerns with the proposed models of withdrawal as well as the notion of withdrawal itself.

John McClean has written at some length to outline the rationale behind the change, but also to acknowledge that nobody really knows what this model will look like, and it’s probably premature to speculate about models because it’d still have to be voted on by the General Assembly of Australia.

The Sydney Morning Herald covered the decision, and ran an op ed written by McClean, outlining the rationale. The Op Ed is reasonably gracious and thoughtful.

Jesus’ view was that sex is for marriage, marriage is for life and marriage is for a man and a woman. When he was asked about marriage, he quoted from the beginning of the Bible which says that God made marriage for a man and a woman to share a life and sexual union. From that he came to his famous conclusion: “what God has joined together, let no one separate”. Jesus’ account of marriage is reinforced by many parts of the Bible.

Not every church or every Christian agrees with our view of marriage. Some Presbyterian churches elsewhere in the world have changed their view about the exclusively heterosexual nature of marriage. We are not persuaded that this change is faithful to the Bible. Each church and Christian has to work out their own answer on that.

There is a growing gap between the classic Christian view of marriage and the attitude of Australian society.

Many people don’t share any of the three key elements in Jesus’ definition. Most people do not think that sex is only for marriage and the vast majority of couples in Australia who marry live together first. Many Australians are not convinced that marriage should be for life. Often wedding vows don’t have the “till we are parted by death” kind of words. Now a significant section of the Australian population also want marriage redefined to include same-sex couples.

I don’t list these differences to insist that Australian society comply with the classic Christian view.

Same-sex marriage may be introduced this year. The “tide of history” argument is a poor reason to change, but there is no denying which way the tide is running in English-speaking nations.

I am in full agreement right up, I think, to the conclusion about what to do at the parting of the ways between our definition and the State’s…

The question for churches like ours is what to do if marriage is redefined. Should it mark the point where we end our co-operation with government in the area of marriage? Will it be time to admit that this partnership isn’t working and to go our own way?

It would still be possible to form a life-long monogamous heterosexual union under a changed act. But the act, and the way Australian society will use it, will be so different from the classic Christian view that the rationale for the church sharing in the system will have gone. From the church’s point of view, a wonderful blessing from God would be largely emptied of its meaning and purpose. It might be better for us not to be part of a system which endorses that.

If we decide to separate from the Marriage Act, we hope there will be a way in which we can continue to celebrate marriages, though our services won’t be recognised by Australian law. We don’t want to divorce marriage, just the Marriage Act. We’re still looking at how this could be possible.

I think this is a bad direction to head in. That last paragraph is the clincher. It doesn’t quite go to the extent of outlining a model for us celebrating marriages that a similar proposal from Tasmania’s Campbell Markham, but the proposals are of the same ilk, and in what follows I’ll deal with them together having outlined the sort of model for withdrawal it seems we’re talking about. I’ve had a fairly long conversation with McClean and other proponents of this idea on Facebook, so I’m incorporating some of the insights from that discussion in the below.

The Queensland Assembly voted to write to Church and Nation, the national committee who think through this sort of stuff, to urge that we, as a denomination, not rush to respond to changes to the Marriage Act unless we are in any way compelled to conduct or recognise same sex marriage within the church. I think this is a sensible place to draw a line and say we need to take action — though my preferred course of action, as outlined in this post (near the end) would be simply to refuse to conduct same sex marriages and face the legal consequences for doing so, rather than withdrawing from the Act.

There are elements in the below where I’m dealing with arguments I think are profoundly flawed arguments to bring to the table in a secular democracy so if you’re reading this as a non-Christian who is interested in how Christians speak about same sex marriage and homosexuality, and who finds some of this stuff offensive, please read this other thing I wrote instead (or first), or better yet, get in touch with me and we’ll catch up for a coffee. I want people who are in gay relationships, or people who have friends and family who are in gay relationships to know that they are welcome to come along to Presbyterian Churches to find out about Jesus. What a person does with their sexuality and identity depends largely, in my thinking, of who they think Jesus is and whether they want to follow him.

“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” — 1 Corinthians 5:12

A summary of the withdrawal options on the table

The McClean Proposal

Here are some of the arguments McClean puts forward in favour of withdrawal in a response he wrote to Neil Foster, an Associate Professor in Law who spelled out some of the problems with the withdrawal idea on his blog Law and Religion Australia. In it, he argues that withdrawal is the right response to the change of the institution of marriage involved in a redefinition of marriage in the Marriage Act.

“First, same-sex marriage, if it were introduced, would be a fundamental change to the nature of marriage as understood under Australian law and practiced in Australian society.”

McClean suggests that even if Christians continue to hold our own definition of marriage, and continue to be protected by law, and free to hold that definition while conducting marriages that are recognised by the Act, the church should consider withdrawing because we no longer share an historic “shared understanding” of the church’s role in marriage, or the Biblical definition of marriage underpinning the official state definition (ie the Church of England rite supplied the definition of marriage in England).

“So the premise for cooperation of the Church and State on this matter was a shared understanding. This is the legal arrangement inherited by Australia. Now that the shared understanding is lost, what is the rationale for continuing to cooperate?”

The real rub, so far as I can tell from McClean’s piece, is that the once the State deviates from its role ruling one of God’s two kingdoms we must not associate with this system because of the damage this redefinition will cause to people in our community — especially children, but also those who are impacted because the change serves to “further normalise gay relationships in the community.”

“If we object to these results, we should not associate with the system which will promote them. Positively, we can show the classic Christian view of marriage far more clearly by not co-operating with the government in marriage.”

A brief note on political theology

McClean’s piece also outlines his political theology — one that fits within the confines of a Reformed approach to the world, and especially one that is developed looking to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) for guidance on matters of faith and practice. Presbyterian Ministers sign up to the WCF, within certain parameters, so this sort of approach to Government is quite legitimate.

Presbyterian theology contains a two kingdom theology as an understanding of the relationship of Church and State. That is, each is seen as established by God and operating properly in their own sphere. Each is independent of the other, but are inter-connected and should co-operate. They are parallel institutions. The Westminster Confession, which expresses this theology (see ch XXIII, XXX, XXXI), was written in a period in which the connections and co-operation were far more extensive than in modern Australia. The key phrase is “The Lord Jesus, as king and head of His Church, has therein appointed a government, in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate” (WCF XXX.1)…

The principle of this theology can still be applied. The church submits to the State where it is required to, unless that submission entails evil; and it co-operates with the State to the extent to which its teaching and ministry are not compromised. It can and should have its own integrity and makes its own judgements. Both Church and State have an interest in marriage. Where their views of marriage correspond, they can co-operate. When their views no longer correspond, the Church is not bound to co-operate. It can develop its own institutions of marriage which still run parallel with the State and interact with it at points.”

I’m a little unconvinced that these particular parts of the WCF have managed to look beyond the political context in which the confession was produced. Here’s what chapter XXIII.1 says, note its similarities to XXX.1.

“God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, has ordained civil magistrates, to be, under Him, over the people, for His own glory, and the public good: and, to this end, has armed them with the power of the sword, for the defence and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil doers.”

This is pretty much Romans 13. It’s good stuff. I’m not convinced the Westminster council looked back far enough into a pre-Reformation, or pre-Christendom, world, and I don’t think they anticipate a liberal, secular, democracy. This is one little quibble I have with the Two Kingdoms view, and while I know there are many who share McClean’s views, this isn’t the only political theology in operation in our denomination that is consistent with the WCF, or our adoption of it as a theological guide.

Personally, I’m not sure how the two kingdom political theology works when the State, still appointed by God, turns its sword against Christians. Which presumably is ok for Christians, because it’s what happened to Jesus. I’m not sure how “co-operation with authorities” works with “exile” — and both ideas are present in 1 Peter, which is one of the WCF’s texts for XXIII.1. I think it’s more likely that the church is called to co-operate with the State, to the point of suffering, whether the state is acting for the “public good” or not. Here’s a brief sum of my understanding of a political theology that holds these two ideas in paradoxical tension.

 

McClean’s (sort of proposed) Model

McClean doesn’t think the good reasons for acting as government celebrants are enough to justify staying associated with the government — and in what follows I’ll attempt to outline what I think the good reasons for staying are — and he thinks setting up our own ‘church weddings’ (presumably also ‘church marriage’) would let us have our wedding cake, and eat it too.

“What is more, having withdrawn from the Act the church could still conduct a church wedding for any couple which sought one, since membership of the church and profession of faith would not be conditions for having a church marriage. We solemnise marriages now because marriage is a creation ordinance for all people. On this basis, we would continue to offer church marriages to non-Christian couples. Couples who wanted to make a connection with a church at this important point in life would still be able to do so.

If the “institutional change” argument is persuasive, then the possible loss of a benefits is too minor to outweigh a conclusion arrived on important principles.

Here’s the model he proposes…

Given a covenantal view, the church should teach that couples are required to have a ‘wedding’ (a public exchange of vows) before they consider themselves married and live together and commence a sexual relationship. The wedding could take two forms: it could be conducted by a celebrant recognised under the Marriage Act (including a minister from a denomination which remains registered under the Act); or it could be one conducted by a Presbyterian minister following the rites of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, but which is not recognised under the Marriage Act. For matters of pastoral care or church discipline, the church would recognise either form of marriage. If other denominations also withdraw from the Act, the church could recognise marriages conducted by these denominations as well.

I do not believe that we should recognise private marriages which are not solemnised by a recognised celebrant — either by a minister or a civil celebrant…

Why would a couple seek a ‘church marriage’ as well as civil marriage? The reasons may partly be cultural and sentimental (which are not to be dismissed). The theological reasons are that all promises are made before God, and in the case of the solemn vows of marriage, it is appropriate to acknowledge this by exchanging them in a religious service; also the service shows that the couple seeks God’s direction and  blessing on their marriage. (These reasons are applicable to a non-Christian couple, even if they do not articulate them). For a Christian couple, the further reason is that their congregation is an important part of the community which witnesses their vows and will be affected (for the good, we hope) by their marriage.

The second option, rather than having a civil marriage, is that a couple chooses to only have a church marriage. Foster does not deal directly with this in the section considering the model of withdrawal, but when he raises detriments of withdrawal he refers to “the possibility for confusion among persons who had been through ceremonies at a church, as to whether they were married or not”…

The Marriage Act makes it an offence for a person who is not an authorised celebrant to purport to conduct a marriage. It would be important, then, that any minister who conducted a form of marriage service outside the Act clearly identify the nature of the service and its (non) relation to the Act.

While he’s comfortable with the idea that Presbyterian Marriage would be a form of de facto marriage in the eyes of the law, McClean notes that there are a few differences between de facto marriage and marriage marriage in the law that should be considered in this model, and may be a reason to encourage couples to have a civil ceremony first (like couples do all over Europe). The ones that are particularly interesting are that de facto relationships take two years to be recognised by the state as de facto marriage, and that if a couple moves overseas state recognition of a marriage will probably be required for the purpose of a marriage being recognised.

These differences are the main reason why we may recommend that couples have a civil ceremony first. They are not major detriments and are easily preventable, yet they may be enough to make the civil marriage the preferred approach. Nevertheless, we should recognise that if the church decides, on principle, that it will not continue involvement in the Marriage Act, some couples may also decide not to married under the Act because of their own conscience. (I do not think that the first conclusion requires the second, but I recognise that some couples will come to that conclusion). For these couples, at least, we should provide the possibility of only church marriage.

McClean is confident that we won’t need a Presbyterian divorce court to go with Presbyterian marriage, or to arbitrate/determine marital status any more than we already do. He doesn’t see a huge difference between the legal standing of Marriage Act marriage and Presbyterian marriage.

“The model I propose expects the same level of clarity and commitment from a couple having a church marriage as for marriage under the Act. Indeed, the deliberate choice to marry outside the Act in an explicitly Christian setting may indicate an even higher level of deliberation and commitment. There is certainly no reason to think that couples choosing only a church marriage would have lower levels of dedication to the relationship. The structural constraints on ending a relationship would be marginally less, since a couple would not have to seek a divorce under the Family Law Act. Most of the other constraints would apply, if a couple have followed their promises and built a shared life. Divorce is relatively easily accessed in Australia, and is considered and pursued relatively frequently by Christian couples.”

I have a few concerns in this area. One, for instance, is that while we’re being asked to adopt a national approach to marriage, I suspect there is a diversity of opinion throughout the Presbyterian Church on grounds for divorce (say, domestic abuse), and if we’re going to approach marriage nationally, we’d need to approach divorce nationally too, even just within the church.

Nothing in the proposal will deny couples access to Australian Family Law should their marriage come to an end. Even if couples choose to have only a church marriage, some careful planning and advice can ensure that they are at no practical disadvantage.

The Markham Proposal

The first I heard of the withdrawal idea was at a conference held at the Presbyterian Training College in Sydney (now Christ College), where John McClean teaches. Campbell Markham was a speaker at this conference, and he brought his withdrawal proposal to the conference. I wasn’t sure how seriously to take it. When I wrote about gay marriage, gay wedding cakes, and my status as a wedding celebrant, I briefly touched on Markham’s proposal, which is not significantly different from the McClean proposal. Markham lists seven reasons that he believes gay marriage is a terrible evil. They’re compelling reasons for Christians not to enter a gay marriage, but most of them simply have no weight in a secular democracy, or involve the weighing of competing priorities.

I find myself disagreeing with both McClean and Markham on their assumed model for what bearing the laws of the state has on the church, and thus, what the church should do when it disagrees with such laws or identifies evil in them (more on this below). Here’s Markham’s rationale for withdrawal, and his proposed model.

On the one hand, although I may feel that I can maintain my registration without personally endorsing the evils endorsed by the Act, how will this not cause outside observers to assume, by my formal allegiance, that I think the changed Act is acceptable? No gospel minister is compelled to register under the Marriage Act. It is something we freely choose to do. If you freely join the St Kilda Football Club, then you should expect to be seen as a supporter of that club. Likewise it is impossible to see how a freely registered marriage celebrant of the Marriage Act would not be counted as someone who endorses the Act…

“Christians must not only not commit evil, we must not even associate with evil. If a redefined Marriage Act represents the legitimisation of the evils of homosexual practice, same-sex parenting, and third-party donor surrogacy, then as a Christian I will want nothing to do with it, and will separate myself by resigning my celebrant’s registration…

How then will I marry people? In many nations, such as Singapore and France, Christian couples register their union with a civil servant for legal purposes, and then get married by a minister in a worship service. This is what I intend to do if the Marriage Act is changed. I would allow the couple (Christian or not) to register at a government office, and then I would conduct a Christian wedding service. I should add that I would not require a couple register at a civil office. For they may well feel that by doing so too are endorsing the Marriage Act and the evils it will represent. I would leave this decision up to them. In any case, I am urging my brother ministers to form the same intention to resign from the Act if it is redefined. Like baptism, we can use our own rites, keep our own records, and issue our own certificates.”

 

1. It’s unnecessary.

It’s fair to say that all of us who believe that God designed marriage as a lifelong, one flesh, relationship between one man and one woman, feel like we have to draw a line somewhere as that definition is eroded. I believe Campbell Markham’s survey is probably accurate, which found that most Presbyterian Ministers believe that line is at the point at which we are compelled to conduct gay marriage. That is specifically ruled out in the current proposed amendments to the Act.

I think the withdrawal proposal, like Nick Jensen’s plan to divorce his wife if the definition changes, is based on a misunderstanding of our role as recognised celebrants. As I argued in my response to Nick, we’re not agents of the government, we’re agents of the church. I think the clearest way to demonstrate this is that I receive no benefit from the Government in my capacity as a celebrant.

I marry people according to my understanding of marriage, which I believe is shaped by God’s definition of marriage as expressed in his word, and as adopted by the Presbyterian Church of Australia, the people I marry, whose relationships are then registered by the government (and will continue to be under any currently proposed redefinition), are married according to these terms and this understanding. There is no sense that the damage to the institution of marriage extends to a marriage that I conduct. I am not supporting the Marriage Act and its definition, I am upholding the Biblical definition of marriage, which I believe is actually more important to do, with as much recognition as possible, as our society continues to redefine its visions of personhood and human flourishing apart from the God who makes us people and gives us life.

2. It binds the consciences of those who believe this step is unnecessary.

This is a big concern for me in terms of how the withdrawal option is being pursued. I’m all for ministers acting according to conscience. I think that’s absolutely essential. Our ability to operate as marriage celebrants recognised by the government is the product of three clauses in the legislation, we must be:

1. From a recognised denomination.
2. Which nominates ministers to act as celebrants with the relevant state or territory registrar.
3. And be nominated as celebrants.

This proposal stops us participating at point 1. It binds all ministers in the denomination, nationwide, with the decision being put forward. It would be workable for individual states to decide to no longer nominate people to their state’s registrar, and for individual ministers to choose not to act as celebrants.

I think this is clearly a question of both conscience and an area of Gospel freedom. Different members of different state assemblies in the Presbyterian Church around Australia will bring different frameworks to this issue and reach different conclusions. This is great. It’s a sure sign that we don’t belong to a cult.

The Bible has some nice things to say about issues of conscience. I think it’s possible to draw an analogy between one’s view on the damage done by ‘gay marriage’ and the damage done by food sacrificed to idols in Corinth. I personally don’t believe gay marriage is marriage according to God’s definition. So in this sense, I’m a little like a Corinthian who says “idols are empty” and so enjoys the benefit of tasty tasty meat. I want to be able to marry people because I think that marrying people is a chance to testify to God’s good design, and to the Gospel, because marriage is a picture of the relationship between Jesus and the Church (and I’ll say that whenever I marry a couple). Others in this marriage debate think that gay marriage is evil (or in Corinthian terms, associated with demons). Incidentally, I’m with Bruce Winter on this one, who suggests that the “demons” in view are a specific reference to the Imperial Cult in Corinth, where he’s calling the divinised Imperial family “demons” with a play on the word for the Spirit of the emperor, but that’s another matter…

Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.

Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. — 1 Corinthians 10:18-33

If I believed I was acting as a Government agent I might be convinced by the argument that conducting marriages under the Marriage Act is akin to trying to simultaneously worship the emperor/idols and Jesus. But I don’t. I believe the government might choose to recognise a thing for the sake of some other citizens, and I can choose to keep doing my own faithful thing without being threatened by that. It’s interesting, too, in this little analogy, that Paul does not seem interested in shutting down the meat market. He doesn’t say “idols are harmful so run out and fight with tooth and nail to stop people worshipping them,” his solution to idolatry seems to be for Christians to be Christians in their community who want to share meals with their non-Chrisitan neighbours while doing it all for the glory of God, so that people might be saved…

Interestingly, Markham’s proposal suggests this model (but from slightly earlier in 1 Corinthians) applies in support of withdrawing.

“If this scenario parallels that of “eating meat sacrificed to idols” in 1 Corinthians 8, and I think it does, then love would compel us to give up our freedom to conduct marriages under a changed Act, so as not to “become a stumbling block for the weak”, and so as not to “wound their weak conscience” (1 Cor. 8:9,12).” — Campbell Markham

What’s interesting, I think, in the times Paul addresses the strong and the weak on ethical questions largely associated with questions of conscience regarding the idolatrous use of good things that God has made, is that he inevitably sides with the strong (while calling for the strong to act with love towards the weak), and by codifying a position on these issues in what I believe he knew to be an authoritative text for the church, Paul actually sets a course of action or thought for the church on these issues. Making sure the Lordship of Jesus is clear to anyone looking on seems to be the goal.

Markham is worried that continuing to marry people in a manner recognised by the Marriage Act will lead people to believe that we endorse the changes to the Act, and he’s worried that will lead people astray. Markham then applies Psalm 26 to justify not keeping company with evil doers.

As Psalm 26:4 says, “I do not sit with deceitful men, nor do I consort with hypocrites; I abhor the assembly of evildoers and refuse to sit with the wicked.” — Campbell Markham

This would seem, I think, to be speaking about evil doers within Israel, if it’s to be considered at all consistent with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? — 1 Corinthians 5:9-12

These sexually immoral people are presumably the unbelieving people who Paul hopes will invite Christians to dine with them in 1 Corinthians 10.

I think withdrawing the denomination from the Act, if that is even possible, is a crushing blow to liberty of opinion on this matter, when I think there’s demonstrable disagreement on what’s at play in the debate, and I think there are much more reasonable solutions that would allow ministers to act according to conscience until such time as ministers are no longer able to act according to conscience, if we’re ever compelled by law to conduct gay weddings.

3. It communicates wrong things

No matter how carefully the rationale for withdrawal is laid out, no matter how winsome our engagement with the media is on this issue, it’s going to be perceived that there are two unspoken things happening…

1. The Presbyterian Church definitely doesn’t want the gay married couples of the future coming through the doors of our churches or coming into our community to think about what it means to follow Jesus. Because we want to send a very clear signal to such couples that we think their relationship is more evil than any other sort of non-Christian relationship, and they, as parties to such evil, are evildoers in a way we don’t ever publicly speak about, say, the greedy or the gossiper (even though Romans 1 lumps all sorts of evil in together in a sort of universalising way).

2. The Presbyterian Church doesn’t want to stay connected to marriage as an institution in Australian society, and especially we don’t want to stick around to face the consequences of our particularly strident objections to the changes to the Marriage Act when the tide turns against us.

Both these things are the very opposite to what I think we should be communicating, and so even if withdrawal seems well intentioned, I think it’s a mistake to not simply maintain the course of marrying people according to God’s definition of marriage and lovingly pointing our gay neighbours to Jesus as a better source than sex and human relationships for love, identity and intimacy, even if this produces opposition and presents legal challenges for us down the track.

4. It creates confusion about “evil,” and our response to it

I haven’t read the paper that was discussed at the NSW Assembly, but I understand that it, too, spoke about the “evil” of same sex marriage. A statement from the NSW Moderator, outlining the Assembly’s decision, says:

“In this case the positive reason for our co-operation with the Marriage Act would have been removed, and we would be better to avoid association with evil by no longer acting as celebrants.”

I note this language because it is quite similar to the language used in Markham’s proposal, and I think it’s important to make the point here that if we make it sound like conducting a traditional marriage according to the Presbyterian Church of Australia’s marriage rites (and the Biblical definition of marriage), in a manner recognised by our nation’s legislation is associating with evil, then we are implicitly inviting or encouraging those in our care not to have a civil marriage for exactly this reason. I have some big questions about the “association with evil” line on gay marriage, like where we draw it. If a political party supports same sex marriage do we then oppose all of their policies because they are associated with evil? Do we then become a little like Jacqui Lambie, the Australian Senator who promised to oppose every piece of Government legislation, regardless of merit, until the Government increased defence force pay. What are we saying here about all the people, Christian or otherwise, who do marry with the intention of it being a one flesh relationship between one man and one woman for life, are we saying their relationship is so tainted by evil they’d have been better staying in a de facto relationship if a church marriage wasn’t something they considered?

Greed is evil. Our legislation is littered with provisions that ensure that greed happens in our land, and that people benefit from it — the laws around the gambling industry are a nice example, but perhaps in a more pernicious sense, the laws around banks and incentivising investment. Nobody doubts that our banks are greedy. But there is no Presbyterian Bank that allows us to avoid such evil, we also don’t tell our parishioners who work in the banking and finance sector to overthrow this system, or to quit their jobs (though some might do that), we expect a certain amount of navigating through evil and brokenness to be part of every day life and decision making in this world.

Roman taxes were used to prop up all sorts of evil, including the insidious Emperor Cult, which was both an incredible affront to the Gospel message — the claim that Caesar was truly the divine king — and essentially part of the reason that Jesus was crucified (“we have no king but Caesar”). The coins Jesus picks up when he answers a trick question about taxation aren’t just coins, they’re propaganda tools in the establishment of this cult… and yet the interaction goes like this:

“Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” —Matthew 22:16-21

I think a case could be made that if a couple wants to be viewed as married, in a way that doesn’t cause people to stumble into de facto relationships, or even just in a way that upholds the covenantal, legal, reality of marriage, we should be at the very least absolutely insisting on a civil marriage, no matter how evil the government or its laws might be, so long as these laws still recognise what we consider to be good. If Jesus can tell people to give money to the regime that executed him, because that regime has a God-ordained place in the world, without fear that they might be ‘associating with evil’ then who are we to stoke such fears?

I think we discharge our duty as God’s people by not partaking in “evil” and by speaking for good in a loving way. I don’t believe that marrying someone according to God’s definition of marriage, if the state recognises that definition amongst others is partaking in evil, and it is a chance to speak for good as we proclaim that in the beginning God made them, male and female… And most importantly, as we speak about how marriage is a picture of the sacrificial loving unity involved in God’s commitment to his people through Jesus.

5. It devalues marriage

There’s an argument, which I’m not a big fan of, that creating “gay marriage” devalues all other marriage because marriage is a thing that should not need a qualifier. It should self-evidently describe what it has already described. I don’t like this argument because I don’t think what I know is true is in any way threatened or damaged by other people thinking that something else is true. My dog, and my relationship with my dog, is not damaged if the person I live next door to insists that their cat is actually a dog. There’s potential that my relationship with my neighbour will be damaged if I insist on correcting them, rather than simply allowing them to hold a belief that I believe is wrong. Analogies like this are crude. But my point is this — if we believe that God created and defines marriage then it shouldn’t damage our picture of marriage if a person or people decides to attempt to define marriage in a different way to God, nor should it surprise us.

I don’t think the right response to someone redefining anything God creates and declares as good is for us to create our own sacred version of that thing. Our job is simply not to buy into the redefinition of that thing, or the idolatrous thinking that drives the redefinition.

When we create a second category of marriage (or third, assuming gay marriage is the second), marriage will no longer be practiced or understood as a creation ordinance, available for all people. Government recognised civil marriages will inevitably be by some, if not implicitly by our new practice, as tainted or inferior. Presumably if we’re offering Presbyterian marriage to non-Presbyterians on the basis that it’s a created ordinance it’s because we think this version of marriage is truer than what might otherwise be available to them, in that sense we undermine the value of other marriages conducted in our society, and according to other rites. We do exactly what we’re accusing those seeking a redefinition of marriage of doing… we change marriage for everybody. By creating another answer to what we believed to be an illogical question: “What sort of marriage do you have?”

6. It creates uncertainty where certainty is important for when things go wrong

I’m working on the assumption that at least some people won’t get civil marriages under a withdrawal model, in part because of how we’ve spoken about civil marriage as an evil that we do not want to be associated with as a denomination. Obviously, I’m hoping this proposal doesn’t go ahead at all…

Here are three scenarios where not having the security and definition of a civil marriage will be troubling, even if de facto relationships provide some legal protection in terms of family law. Life is messy. Marriage can be messy — even Christian marriages, even Presbyterian marriages. I don’t think this proposal adequately anticipates what the breakdown of these marriages will look like, even if McClean is adamant we don’t need a divorce court to go with our marriage registry.

1. A couple gets Presbyterian Married, one partner has an affair, this partner announces the “de facto relationship” is over and marries the person they were having an affair with. There is no technical legal impediment to such a marriage as the state will not recognise that a prior marriage exists.

2. A couple gets Presbyterian Married, the husband is an abuser who thrives on manipulating his wife, and those around him. He holds influential positions in the Church. They have children. This sort of abuser loves situations where there is enough uncertainty to mislead. The wife is unaware of the legal nuances of her relationship, and believes marriage provides more certainty than de facto relationships. She was happy to have a church marriage by itself because her husband told her that civil marriage is evil and his word should be enough. She now feels like she cannot leave, or take her children to safety, because she knows the church will probably believe her husband, and she doesn’t think she can really turn to the state to help her out of a relationship they don’t recognise.

3. A couple get Presbyterian Married. One spouse decides they no longer recognise the authority of the Church, or to God, but wants to remain committed to the family unit. So they have a civil marriage. All Christian spouse’s non-Christian friends, people they’ve met since getting Presbyterian Married, hear about their decision to ‘get married’ and assume the couple have been ‘living in sin’ for years, just telling people they were married. This causes more questions for the spouse who is already reeling from their partner’s decision to no longer follow Jesus.

I’ve already mentioned above that different Presbyterians have different ideas about what constitutes grounds for divorce. If the wife in scenario 2 were to leave the relationship, making the allegation of abuse, would she be free to Presbyterian re-marry? Who would make the call on whether or not a Presbyterian Marriage has ended in a divorce? Are we going to attempt to go back to an approach to marriage pre no-fault divorce? Are we just going to work on the honesty system?

Another question I have is even trickier. Presbyterian ministers are not members of their churches for disciplinary purposes, but of Presbytery. Any one of these scenarios could involve a Presbyterian minister. This creates a messiness in terms of pastoral care and accountability at a Presbytery level that I’m not sure we can handle without the certainty of being able to point to transgressions under the civil law as well as church law. The more confusion there is around this model, the more open it is to being abused by someone with an axe to grind when things go wrong.

7. Our involvement in marriage beyond the boundaries of the church demonstrates our commitment to the common good, and is a chance to communicate the Gospel

We don’t view marriage as a sacrament in the Presbyterian Church. But we do see marriage as a picture of the Gospel, and a good thing that God created pre-fall for the benefit of humanity. Interestingly, every marriage after the version we read about in Eden is fundamentally broken by sin. There aren’t many pictures of healthy marriages that create conditions for flourishing in the Old Testament, I think God’s pattern of love in Jesus is something that transforms marriage so that it starts to do what it was made to do. So it’s actually Christian marriage, built on the essence of this sort of love, that is a clear picture of the Gospel, not just two differently gendered individuals becoming one flesh.

Here’s Markham…

“Many Christians say that they won’t protest against same-sex marriage because “it is not a gospel issue”. But God gave marriage to be a picture of the gospel (Eph. 5:25-27), and so a perversion of marriage is a perversion of the gospel.”

Continuing to clearly uphold God’s definition of marriage, for the common good in the commonwealth is, I think, the best way to make the good picture of marriage. Running away and conducting our own niche version of marriage, even if we offer it to those outside the church, isn’t the way to do this.

I take McClean’s point that fewer and fewer non-Christians are turning to the church to conduct marriage, so that part of the “Gospel opportunity” argument is almost moot. But we get Gospel opportunities every time we conduct a legally binding marriage for two Christians who want to use their love for one another to proclaim their love for Jesus, and want to clearly articulate the relationship between marriage and the Gospel, for their friends and family who come along to witness their wedding. Sure. This will still happen to some degree in the event of withdrawal, but we’ll lose the sense of the event being connected to the couple’s status before the eyes of the nation as well as before the eyes of God. Presbyterian marriage is not the same as marriage marriage.

I don’t understand how walking away from the field where the definition of marriage is contested and established for the vast majority of people — the Act, and in the practice of legally recognised marriage — and walking away from having a key role in articulating the definition of marriage for the couples we marry, is helpful in promoting God’s definition of marriage or the Gospel. God’s design for marriage is good for everyone who chooses to follow it, just as the Gospel is good news for everyone who chooses to accept it, and I’d think we’d want both offered as widely as possible from whatever platform we’re given, so long as we’re not compromising the Gospel by taking that platform (and I think this is about maintaining our faithful position more than about being guilty by association).

Withdrawing is not the path to loving our neighbours. Helping them discover God’s design for sexual relationships, and ultimately his design for a flourishing, life-giving, relationship with humanity in Jesus is surely our goal?

 

8. It is a confusing and potentially damaging example and stance towards those we disagree with for those in our care, and those in our community,

I think most people these days pay lip service to the idea that Jesus dined with sinners and that’s a pattern we should try to follow. I guess my question is where we think that happens if we recoil from sinners in our attempts to avoid sin-by-association. Sometimes dining with sinners means inviting sinners to share our table with us. I think this is where we’ve got the question of marriage definition mostly wrong. We’ve assumed the right, on the basis of history, nature, and theology, to have our understanding of marriage be the understanding enshrined in law as though those are the only relevant factors on the table in a secular democracy. Individual liberty seems to be the main priority, and what’s interesting in the marriage debate is we’re only now starting to read things like Paul Kelly’s recent article that spells out the competing liberties at stake in this debate.

The idea of a shared table is a big deal in 1 Corinthians, as outlined above. And it was a big deal in the New Testament world. It was a marker for identity – you were who you ate with, at least in the eyes of those looking on. Paul tells Christians not to eat with sexually immoral Christians (1 Cor 5), but to dine with sexually immoral non-Christians (sexual immorality was part an parcel of Corinthian life, and of idolatrous practices), so long as you weren’t being seen to endorse the idols involved in the meal. We’re not told what it looks like to avoid this perception being created, presumably it meant not personally partaking in the idolatry or sexual immorality (like the Gentile converts were instructed in Acts 15), and it probably meant being clear about your position on idolatrous practices and sexual immorality as a result of your faith.

I think sharing the (legislative) table with people who disagree with us on marriage means affording them the right to pursue their idolatry (any rejection of God’s design for a created thing, like marriage, involves idolatry), while believing this decision isn’t in their best interest. I don’t see Paul urging the Christians to tear down the idols in the cities he preaches in, though this is the implication for what happens in the heart of those who turn to Jesus, that this tears down the idols in our own hearts. Paul even uses the idolatry of Athens to talk about God’s design for the world when he speaks at the Areopagus. I don’t think we’re setting a great example for engaging with a world tainted and broken by all sorts of evil and idolatry by pursuing this model. This description in Romans 1 is a description of our world, and it’s a description of our hearts and heads and lives without the work God has done in us, as Christians, by his Spirit.

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. — Romans 1:28-32

If we’re going to withdraw from association with same sex marriage because it is evil, there’s a long list of behaviours here that we benefit from as members of Australian society, where many of these behaviours produce revenue for the government (that help the government afford to give us tax free status, and help our clergy be paid in tax beneficial ways). We better start withdrawing to some self-sustainable communes in the hills if this is how we understand the call to flee from sexual immorality.

Withdrawal might stop us being in danger of being tainted by evil, but it opens us up to some other evils and difficulties I don’t think the proponents are truly factoring in, and it’s just a bad model for participating in our society for the good of our people, our neighbours, our King and his Gospel.

It’s also a dangerous pattern to set for our people — we need to think about what this looks like for others whose actions might involve being associated with evil, if this is really where we want to draw the line (and line drawing like this is a little bit like what the Pharisees did when they created a bunch of man made rules to stop people transgressing God made rules). What do we tell the banker whose bank deals with a Casino, or online betting company? What do we tell the legislator or public servant who works in departments that are impacted by these changes — like Centrelink, or public schools, or people who work for the registry of Births, Deaths and Marriage? How do we consistently approach this debate holding to a priesthood of all believers, which means the church isn’t just an institution, but also the people who are part of the church — and any “perception of being associated with evil” is potentially just as damaging to the cause of the Gospel as the Church being ‘compromised’ in this way, if it really is a compromise?

In the worst case scenario, where we stay at the table when it comes to marriage, and keep conducting weddings for our neighbours and members who ask us, while maintaining the Biblical definition, people will no doubt come after us via the law… that’s what a win in the fight against ‘bigotry’ looks like, not just ‘marriage equality’ but ‘belief equality.’

If we pull out and avoid these fights what does this communicate to bakers, florists, etc in our care about how to be citizens in a world where people disagree about moral issues? What protection do we offer if we’ve abdicated the field years before this conflict reaches boiling point? What example do we offer as Christian leaders for how to stand for truth, but do it lovingly and with the charitable recognition that we only see the world the way we do because the Holy Spirit has renewed and transformed our minds (Romans 12) when we became children of God (Romans 8), so that we are no longer given over to sin such that we think patterns outside God’s design for sex and marriage are normal, and experience them as natural (Romans 1).

Conclusion: How to marry people under a changed act without being “associated with evil”

I may have mentioned the problems I have with this concept of avoiding association with evil. I think we’re called to avoid being evil, and to love those around us who by nature of their rejection of God’s design have hearts that are “only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). But here’s how I plan to continue marrying people for as long as the Presbyterian denomination and Australian Marriage Act allow… I’m pretty sure this is an exact fit with our existing marriage ceremony anyway…

1. I would start by explaining why people are gathered. To witness a marriage between two people, according to God’s design for marriage – a life long commitment, made before witnesses, joining a man and a woman together as one flesh, as the appropriate context for sexual intimacy.

2. I would explain how God’s design for marriage was established at creation and affirmed by Jesus, and also explain that marriage, understood in this way, is a picture for the Gospel, expanding a little on Ephesians 5.

3. I would explain that my involvement in the proceedings are because the Presbyterian Church recognises me as someone who has been given the authority to conduct marriages, and that this is about more than simply MCing a wedding. I’d explain that in order to avoid pointless ceremonial duplication, the Australia Government also recognises this marriage as legitimate, so there’s some paperwork that is part of fulfilling all legal righteousness, and certain questions that need to be asked to ensure that there are no legal reasons why these two people should be unable to marry.

4. I would then make the vows, the reading, and the words of counsel as clear an articulation of the true nature of marriage and its relationship to the Gospel as possible to ensure no confusion.

I can’t see how taking those steps, which seem pretty rudimentary to me and to be consistent with the Presbyterian Marriage rites, at least so far as I’ve been taught them, leaves me looking like I have any association with a redefinition of marriage apart from God’s design. And frankly, I find the idea that somehow this process would be associated with evil by those looking on a little insulting to my ability, and the ability of other ordained ministers in the Presbyterian Church of Australia, to be clear about what we believe marriage is and why we’re involved.

I understand that individual ministers, and collective groups of ministers, may reach different conclusions according to their political theology, and their conscience, and I’d heartily recommend those ministers choose to no longer function as marriage celebrants within the denomination. To set up a separate category of Presbyterian Marriage is, I believe, a dangerous idea. If we are going to withdraw I’d prefer us simply to celebrate the civil marriages of those in our flock without our own “wedding ceremony” or version of marriage.

 

Gay marriage, wedding cakes, and Jesus

gaymarriageweddingcakejesus

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or even a political scientist, to anticipate that Australia will make changes to its laws in the near future to recognise gay marriages. The Labor Party is making noises about moving away from allowing a conscience vote on the issue (even if they’re currently maintaining the conscience vote status quo), the Liberal Party is still a while off moving away from their party line on the issue — but the mood is shifting, partly because it has shifted elsewhere, amongst our international friends.

It seems inevitable.

Which presents a host of challenges to Christians.

The Marriage Mess

We haven’t covered ourselves in glory in the political debate. We’ve bombed it. We’ve messed it up. This is one of the things the church gets wrong about same sex marriage. And marriage in general.

We’re not great at listening to, or understanding those we disagree with in this debate. Especially those people who want gay marriage because they want to be part of a gay marriage. We don’t really hear what they’re asking for, or why they desire it, before telling them that they can’t have it because we know best (often because the God they don’t believe in knows best).

We’ve tended to hold up signs, send petitions, get angry, people have promised on our behalf that our votes as Christians will be decided on this issue, and this issue alone (and this has been true for some of us).

We’ve tended to assume that Christian morality makes sense to a non-Christian world (despite what I think are some pretty clear things in the Bible that speak against this being possible, like Romans 1, which suggests people who reject God can’t possibly understand God’s view of the world (including sex), and 1 Corinthians 5, which calls us not to judge those outside the church as though they should be behaving like those inside the church – and also to behave differently to the world, which won’t work if we all behave the same…).

We’ve failed to listen to, or accommodate, the desires of our gay neighbours because we’ve essentially argued that listening to or accommodating our gay neighbours will damage us and heterosexual marriage, as though that institution is in a pristine state, undamaged by human sinfulness.

Marriage is a mess. Heterosexual marriage is a mess. Even though God made it a good thing, we, humanity, trashed it.

Our selfish hearts damage every institution and culture we build, we’ve — whether inside the Church or outside it — turned marriage into a modern day tower of Babel. A bridge to God. Our stairway to heaven. Without understanding that its only having our hearts fixed by God through the Holy Spirit, and its only when we follow the pattern of life demonstrated in Jesus, that we have any ability to do anything good.

There are, I’m sure, good arguments against gay marriage. But I don’t think they’re arguments that will be all that persuasive to people who don’t acknowledge a creator — or to people who think that everything we observe in this world must be as God made it to be, therefore good. As Christians we believe God made marriage as a committed one flesh relationship between people of the opposite sex, and the ideal family unit involves parents who are married. The problem with defending this ideal is just how clear it is that the world isn’t ideal, and that none of our opposite sex marriages live up to God’s ideal given the selfishness and brokenness of the people involved. This is true of my marriage. If you’re married and it’s not true of yours then I’d love to know how you stopped being sinful. It’s funny that so much of our marriage counselling involves dealing with family of origin stuff, it’s a little acknowledgment to the idea that the source of mess in our marriages is often hereditary, and the result of bringing the functions and dysfunctions of two different families together (and those two different families brought together the functions and dysfunctions of two other different families, and so on, back up the line).

Marriage in this world is a mess. Jesus, when he talks about marriage in Matthew 19, says divorce is a concession God gave us in the Old Testament because of our hard hearts. Our hearts are messy. The way we talk about marriage in this debate makes it sound like an ideal. The way people arguing for gay marriage speak about what marriage robs them of also makes it sound like an ideal. The problem, for Christians, with looking at created things like ideals, like the place that we’ll find true satisfaction or completion as people, is that there sometimes doesn’t seem like a lot of difference between ideals and idols. The problem is that when we defend marriage because of the ideal we do it in a way that is detached from the broken reality. We talk about marriage and children in a way that alienates single parent families. We talk about marriage and its fundamental goodness and the bedrock role it plays in our society in a way that alienates single people who want to be married, or who have chosen not to be married. The world is not an ideal place. That’s observationally true, and theologically true. The whole world has been broken by our collective decision to reject God. This is the problem with arguments from nature — it’s never quite clear which nature we’re arguing from. And even when we’re arguing from creation-as-God’s-creation, if we’re not careful we start defending a created thing, passionately fighting for it, without reference to the creator — and without thinking about how our defence might be relevant to people who don’t even acknowledge the existence of the creator.

The created purpose of marriage, just like the created purpose of humanity, is to reflect the nature of God. The eternal self-giving love of the persons of the Trinity. For Christians, the purpose of marriage — whether we’re married, or not married — is to reflect the nature of our relationship with God through the sacrificial love of Jesus. For married people this means loving each other, and others, the way Jesus loved. For the unmarried this means showing that our real, eternal, satisfaction comes from this relationship. Of course this is easy for me to say as a married guy, and the reality of unmarried life in this world can be hard and lonely. It shouldn’t be. If Christian community was what it is meant to be. But it is. But our relationships are a mess because we’re messy people. We’ve actually made the mess bigger by loading marriage up with expectations it can’t bear — marriage won’t satisfy all your longings, it won’t fix your brokenness, it won’t complete you, it won’t get you out of the mess. If we suggest anything else, if we speak in a way that raises marriage above its station and suggests it will do any of these things (though marriage is good), we’re compounding the felt needs of unmarried people with a bunch of nonsense ideals. If we say “marriage completes you” or “marriage satisfies” or even “marriage will fix you” and then some people can’t get married, and we tell some people they can’t marry, then we’re making a bigger mess of an already messy world.

We’re going to feel the painful results of this mess. It looks like the result of our failure to make a clear distinction between what we think as Christians and what we should expect the world to think, is that victory for the other side doesn’t look like establishing the church’s ability to define marriage as it sees fit, according to its conscience, but for the church to be brought into lockstep with the world. While we hear that nobody will be forced to conduct gay marriages if its against their religious convictions, we’ve heard that elsewhere, and it has turned out just to be the next battlefield in this war. And regardless of what happens in the church, in terms of recognition of gay marriage, it seems that Christians operating in the world are going to face some big challenges.

On wedding cakes

There have been some big, public, lawsuits in the US revolving around Christians who work as bakers who don’t want to bake cakes for gay weddings. I guess I can understand the rationale behind a decision not to bake a gay wedding cake, and part of me wants people to be free to exercise their conscience when it comes to how they run their business, and for the market to decide if that is a legitimate way of doing business. I’m not opposed to women’s only gyms.

Eternity, the magazine thing run by Australia’s Bible Society asked some Christians from Australia to answer the question: “would you bake a gay wedding cake,” there’s some good stuff there.

If I was a baker, I’d cook the cake. Perhaps especially if the person asking was asking because they knew I was a Christian and they wanted to be able to sue me. I think this is probably what Jesus is talking about when he says “turn the other cheek,” I think it’s what it looks like to love someone who is acting as though they are your enemy (although that might also look like lovingly declining the request to bake the cake and being sued, there’s a classy way to do that). And if there’s no malicious intent involved from the person ordering the cake, I think it’s just the reality of life and love in a messy world. I’m not going to say no to my gay neighbours if they ask me to come and help them lift something heavy because they’re gay, why would I, if making cakes was my business, not make them a cake?

I think this is what it looks like to take Peter’s words in 1 Peter 2, and Paul’s words in Romans 12-13, on board in this debate. But I appreciate that this is ultimately a question of conscience, and other people might reach different conclusions.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 1Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God;once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

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.  Live as free people,but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor. — 1 Peter 2

 

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

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. — Romans 12-13

Practice hospitality— this doesn’t just mean put on dinner parties for your friends, but use what you have for the sake of everyone.

If your enemy is hungry, feed him wedding cake.

If you think gay marriage is evil, overcome it with good.

It’s clear from the example of Jesus, from Paul, and from the early church that submitting to governments does not mean total obedience to their orders, but acknowledging their right to order certain things and willingly facing the consequences if you choose to disobey.

This Roman Emperor the church is called to submit to is a descendant of the Roman emperor whose authority was used to put Jesus to death. The emperors immediately after Jesus don’t get more godly (until a few hundred years later), they get worse. Paul even uses his arrest, and his trials described in the book of Acts to get closer and closer to Caesar in order, I think, to preach the Gospel to him. He’s prepared to be put on trial for his faith. He’s prepared to be killed for his faith. Because he hopes this will give him an opportunity to preach to those in authority – he does this with his jailers, with soldiers, with governors, with kings, and in Philippians his references to Caesar’s household suggest he gets pretty close to the heart of the empire.

On weddings

I’m not a baker of cakes. But I am a registered marriage celebrant because I’m an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland.

The Presbyterian Church in Australia, in its various State Assemblies, will be, in various ways, wrestling with this paper written by Campbell Markham, a Presbyterian Minister in Tasmania. Campbell’s argument, in short, is that if gay marriage becomes a legal construct in Australia, the Presbyterian Church should withdraw from its involvement with the government’s approach to marriage. This means handing in our right to conduct marriages, simultaneously acting as both civil and religious celebrants.

“And so what should our ministers do if marriage is redefined to embrace the evils of same-sex marriage? The survey showed that most intend to retain their registration and go on marrying people “as normal”, so long as they are not compelled to “marry” same-sex couples. They draw a line not at the point of redefinition, but at the point of compulsion…

Christians must not only not commit evil, we must not even associate with evil. If a redefined Marriage Act represents the legitimisation of the evils of homosexual practice, same-sex parenting, and third-party donor surrogacy, then as a Christian I will want nothing to do with it, and will separate myself by resigning my celebrant’s registration…

How then will I marry people? In many nations, such as Singapore and France, Christian couples register their union with a civil servant for legal purposes, and then get married by a minister in a worship service. This is what I intend to do if the Marriage Act is changed. I would allow the couple (Christian or not) to register at a government office, and then I would conduct a Christian wedding service. I should add that I would not require a couple register at a civil office. For they may well feel that by doing so too are endorsing the Marriage Act and the evils it will represent. I would leave this decision up to them. In any case, I am urging my brother ministers to form the same intention to resign from the Act if it is redefined. Like baptism, we can use our own rites, keep our own records, and issue our own certificates.”

Apart from the question of how we would handle divorce cases if we went down this road of running our own registry, I think this is the wrong move, and I’ll be arguing against it — in Queensland, where I’m on the committee that will interact with this issue, but further afield, in part, I guess, by publishing this counter argument. I think the call to separate ourselves from sexual immorality is within the boundaries of the church (1 Cor 5), and I think we’re called to promote what is good for our neighbours because we’re called to love them. And marriage is good. That’s why the church has traditionally performed this function for people outside the church.

As Christians, I think the Bible calls us to believe that God created marriage as a good gift, and that he didn’t limit it just to the church or Christians. Marriage is part of how all people bear God’s image. It’s not just Israel who are given life in order to represent the living God. It’s not just Israel who have the capacity to love in a way that reflects God’s love. They do have a particular calling to do these things in connection with God as a “kingdom of priests,” but all humans have the capacity to bear God’s image, and do bear it in certain ways even if our hearts are turned to idols. I think the logic of the Old Testament is that idolatry shapes us in a gradual process, from the heart out, so that eventually we become dead and dumb, like the idols we worship but every living person is a mix of bearing the image of the God who made them and the idols they pursue. Every thing we do as people —even people who don’t follow God—is a product of our mixed natures. This means we see the actions of non-Christians as actions produced by people who are simultaneously image bearers and idol worshippers, while our actions are the actions of image bearers who naturally worship idols, but who are being transformed into the image of Jesus, the true image bearer.

Marriage is one way we — humanity— continue to represent God — wherever it exists as a one-flesh relationship between different people (people of different genders) involving some sort of loving commitment its an echo of the life God made us to live. It is a good thing for Christians, and when we — Christians — add the sacrificial love modelled by Jesus to the mix it becomes a very powerful thing (ala Ephesians 5). Even if Christian marriages tell God’s story, the Gospel, better, as we live out this sacrificial love, marriage for non-Christians are also a good thing for our world, and part of God’s loving provision to all humanity. Walking away from marriage because the government no longer conforms to our ideals is a bad idea, because of the power marriage has to show people God’s good intention for his world and humanity.

As Christians, I don’t think the Bible calls us to just walk away from the mess of the world. That’s not the example we have. That’s not following the example of God’s plan to redeem this broken world through Jesus. God didn’t walk away from the mess.

If the world doesn’t like the stance we take then that’s ok, there’s an example to follow there too. Whatever happens on the legal front I believe the church needs to maintain its understanding of how marriage for Christians, conducted by churches, should take shape. It’s part of our core business as Christians to live and love differently to the world around us. The way Jesus approached the idea of the Kingdom of God, and the sort of king this would involve, was dangerously unpopular with both the Jewish and Roman empires. He was put to trial for this difference. And put to death for this difference. He didn’t withdraw from the world and set up his own weird structures, he didn’t call people to withdraw from life in Rome (or human empires), he called people to live in the world knowing we’re citizens of elsewhere. Paul, reflecting on his example, calls us to love, and submit to, our government. This doesn’t mean agreement, it means lovingly making our case, and then submitting to the consequences they decide are the consequences when we disagree with their actions. It means being prepared to be crucified by the Government while loving the government and acknowledging their God-given right to crucify us.

That’s a really big ask. It’s a really big challenge. But it’s the challenge the Gospel lays down. Anything else is a sidestep and a failure to live out our calling to live and love in radically changed, unpopular, ways.