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

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

In sum, I think this is a dumb idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In section 45 it says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

or words to that effect.

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

Nothing in this Part:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Thank you Nathan. There has been so much rubbish written about this story this week. Good to see you didn’t attack the person you disagree with, but explained where you feel they are coming from and why why you disagree. Well done.

  2. “I can’t get my head around how people pushing this sort of idea think a secular government should govern for people who are not Christians, and so don’t share our fundamental convictions about what marriage is, which starts with the God of the Bible (who many in our nation do not believe in, and do not claim to follow).”
    What if there was a people group who didn’t recognise property law or the concept of ownership. Everything belonged to everyone, to be used when needed. Should the state not enforce “do not steal” on them? How secular can the state become because it encounters absurdity?

    1. Nathan Campbell

      I’m not sure I’m following the logic of this question?

      The state does something similar, I think, in aboriginal communities where from memory (from my half a law degree 12 years ago) property crimes (and some others) are dealt with according to community law, not national law.

      I don’t think that’s a great model. I think the state is simply deciding what relationships it recognises between people for the purpose of conferring legal rights and benefits for the good of the state. Now, I might be able to make a case that traditional marriage is a greater good than same sex marriage, but there are plenty of advocates of same sex marriage out there suggesting that there are some rights their relationships don’t currently receive that would make recognition of those relationships better for the state than lack of recognition.

      If your point is more that “do not steal” comes from the Bible via the Christian heritage of our nation and so it to is fair game in a secular state, then that’s an interesting question. It’s true, that historically, our laws are derived from the Bible. But there are countries where this is not the case, like China, that also have laws against stealing. I looked up the Chinese Criminal Code, here’s an example:

      “If anyone commits a crime of theft, fraud or forcible seizure and uses or threatens to use violence on the spot in order to conceal booty, resist detention or arrest or destroy criminal evidence, he shall be decided a crime and punished according to the provisions of Article 263 of this Law.”

      I tend to think laws governing goodness are generated by the parts of our humanity that still reflect the goodness and character of God. Humans are also created things in a Romans 1 sense. The tragedy of the idolatry mentioned in the post, from Romans 1, is that the results are that our collective thinking (the judgment in Romans 1 is corporate, rather than individual) gets further away from this part of our humanity that reflects God. We become what we worship. While our laws might slow this process if Christians are able to make a persuasive case (I think this case should start with the Gospel, not be derived from it), I don’t think our expectation should be that our society which largely rejects God, should govern as though it recognises its history, or that we’re a nation of people who still, in some capacity, bear the image of God.

      1. My point is that as a society we do hold ideals that promote the ordering and functioning of society in a particular way. The do not steal and implication of property rights is an example of this.

        I don’t think we should be expecting our nation to govern as though everyone believes in God, but I do think we should, as part of participating in a democracy, be advocating for for our version of good, because we believe it reflects a created order.

        I do see that it is problematic to speak as Christians and be making arguments from natural law because we can give the wider society the impression that that is the essence of Christianity.

        I also don’t think we should be approaching it from a position of assumed privilege.

  3. Thanks for writing this. It’s the best thing I’ve read on the subject of marriage equality. I particularly love your point that there is little value in pointing people towards Christian living if we’re not pointing them towards the Gospel.

    As Christians in Australia I think we often forget our privilege. We want our religious values enshrined in law, but nobody else’s. That’s not a realistic or fair thing to expect from a secular government.

  4. 1. TL;DR – The current Marriage Act recognises marriages according to an individual celebrants authority to solemnise the marriage. Christians are still included in the states recognition of marriage if the words ‘two persons’ are substituted into the marriage act, as this is broadening the definition not restricting it… Thus no need to divorce. Have I got that right?

    2. From this standpoint is the logical position to promote a change in the marriage act? If it already recognises the different authorities which solemnise marriage, then what difference does a change make if it’s all inclusive?

    3. My concern is if the marriage act is changed, Christians then hold the position that while there are many authorities under which one might be married, we are no closer to equality, because a ‘one flesh marriage’ is biblically endorsed, and others are not. Isn’t a way forward is to recognise the differences, and at the same time promote legislated equality. Would it be to simple to rebrand the marriage act as a whole? Within that rebranded act it could distinguish between different traditional marriage, and other types of unions. Everyone comes under the one legislated act, but differences are honoured while being all-inclusive?

  5. I am unable to see how Nick and his wife will be able to divorce without lying. Divorce requires a couple to no longer be living in a conjugal relationship. Nick and his wife declare that they will continue to do so. Nick seems to be taking divorce and its meaning very lightly, along with his marriage vows.

  6. Hey Nathan, loved the piece and part of my intention was to encourage deeper debate on theology, engagement, and the role of church and State. I will look forward to the opportunity of replying in depth when the dust settles if that’s okay. I appreciate your grace and wish this was the way Australia held all debates.

    Stay tuned brother…


    1. Nathan Campbell

      Thanks Nick. Just read your follow up on the Bible Society page. Hope you’re holding up ok through the media storm. I felt today like I was a bit harsh opening with “I think this is a dumb idea” and only later saying that it is intellectually coherent based on your theology and your view of church and state.

      1. Yeah I thought about the opening but was then fine with it. There is a world of difference between calling someone dumb and saying something is a dumb idea, a fool and a foolish act. Now I can simply focus on the argument and defend why it might not be dumb. I thought I should try and include you in the response on Bible Society but I think it might take more than a line or two! As I mentioned above, I am greatly looking forward to this particular chat.

  7. James Turnbull

    Hey Nathan,
    Thank you for wrestling with this topic and sharing your insights – I find them a huge relief to see them laid out and connected with our world in a coherent and God-honouring way.
    It is hard to be gracious and make sense of this stuff, and the underlying assumptions are the hardest!
    I thought that your comment “When Robyn and I married we didn’t make an agreement with the state, we asked the state to recognise our agreement, made before God, with each other.” gets to the heart of it.
    (Thanks also Nick – it is good to generate discussion beyond the populist level, but I also do not see the wisdom of your proposed divorce..)

  8. Hi Nathan – thanks for this, so great to read something written on this topic that is so thoroughly thought out.

    I think the statement you make early on “marriages are defined by the people entering into the covenant, according to the organisation that conducts the solemnisation of the agreement” just about sums things up for me. As a married Christian I can point to my wedding day as a moment in time that I was able to make promises to my wife before God and also friends and family. No supposed “redefinition” of marriage or changes to the sort of relationships that the State will recognise as marriage (whatever shape or form those changes might take in the future) can undo that. In fact as I can see it, I am actually the only one who is capable of un-doing that solemn vow – by not loving my wife as I promised I would (i.e. as Christ loved the church).

    I appreciate this is a sensitive topic for people, but if we can have the debate in the gracious tones that you have used that will be a great step forwards.

  9. Pingback: Nick Jensen responds to my response to his proposal to divorce his wife if the Marriage Act is amended | St. Eutychus

  10. Pingback: 8 reasons withdrawing from the Marriage Act is a bad idea for the Presbyterian Church | St. Eutychus

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