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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Drawing the line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should the State legislate Christian morality against an unwilling majority?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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