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.
“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.