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

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

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

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

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

But here’s the argument in full.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. There are problems with the polity of this proposal

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

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

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

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

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

21 Questions for those advocating Presbyterian withdrawal from civil marriage

The Presbyterian Church has been getting itself in the news lately.

Darren Middleton is the convener of a committee I’m on called Church & Nation, which has been tasked by the denomination to respond to potential changes to the Australian Marriage Act 1961 which would recognise same sex marriage. He appeared in The Australian recently, championing our committee’s position.

The committee has now issued its proposed ‘solution’ to a potential change for public scrutiny within the church; it’s a recommendation that the General Assembly of Australia declare that no Presbyterian marriage celebrant should solemnise a marriage under the amended Act. Here’s some detail:

“Once the Committee formed an opinion we should no longer conduct marriages under a redefined Marriage Act (1961) our mind then turned on how best that is achieved. Two options were considered.

The first option was to withdraw as a ‘recognised religious denomination’. If the GAA made a decision not to solemnise marriages as a celebrant of the state, it would need to give a written request (to no longer be a recognised denomination for the purpose of marriage) with an appropriate minute to either the Attorney General or his department. As a consequence, the Attorney General would prepare the papers for the Governor General’s consideration at the next Federal Executive Council.

The second option is for the GAA to make a declaration that no minister should solemnise marriage under a redefined Marriage Act (1961). Such a decision is provided for under the existing provisions of Section 47(a) of the Marriage Act (1961) which states nothing in the Marriage Act “…imposes an obligation on an authorised celebrant, being a minister of religion, to solemnise any marriage…”

This Committee considered the latter approach as the preferred option as it is simple, clear and avoids any unintended consequences of giving up our status as a ‘recognised religious denomination’. ” — Church and Nation, Marriage Redefinition Proposal

As a flow on from that, the committee is proposing that we establish our own ‘ecclesiastical’ version of Presbyterian Marriage, where we would issue marriage (and divorce) certificates because if our logic is that civil marriage has departed from God’s design we need to provide for those whose conscience would not allow them to enter a civil relationship. The proposal is then, that we would recognise only two types of marriage: those conducted by the Presbyterian Church, and those conducted by a civil celebrant under the Act.

Perhaps the strangest part of this proposal is the form the deliverances put forward by the committee take (to read more on the proposed form of ‘church marriage services’ read the report in full):

Proposed Deliverance:
(6) Declare, if the Marriage Act (1961) is redefined to allow for homosexual unions to be recognised as marriages under the Marriage Act (1961) that no PCA Minister should solemnise marriage under a redefined Marriage Act (1961).
(7) Declare, that only two forms of marriage are recognised as valid Christian marriage — marriage under the Marriage Act (or the equivalent in another country) and marriage under the forms of the Presbyterian Church of Australia apart from the Marriage Act (or marriage by some other church with a similar arrangement approved by the GAA).
(8) Adopt the following as the regulations which Ministers and Sessions shall follow in conducting a church marriage service.

It won’t be a surprise given the post I wrote when this proposal surfaced that I still think it is a bad idea. There were 8 reasons I thought it was a bad idea then.  But here are the questions that need to be answered by those moving these deliverances at the General Assembly of Australia.
1. Does the GAA actually have jurisdiction in this area if this is, as the proponents say, a “wisdom issue” not a “doctrine issue”?

The GAA has already resolved that the Presbyterian position on marriage, doctrinally driven, is that it is the “lifelong union of one man with one woman, voluntarily entered into, excluding all others…” This doctrinal position provides the boundaries for ministers, elders, churches, presbyteries and state assemblies to exercise freedom and liberty of conscience within the Presbyterian Church of Australia. To my knowledge no minister disagreeing with the C&N proposal is suggesting we change this doctrinal position.

So this isn’t a doctrine issue so much as a ‘deciding how we might respond to the world outside the church’ issue. The proponents of this cause are offering no official Scriptural support for the position (with the exception of Campbell Markham, a member of the Church & Nation committee but in papers published outside the Church & Nation report). It is being presented as a ‘wise’ move; with an added sense from the committee that our response to this issue must be to put forward a united voice to our community.

In the Basis of Union the GAA has jurisdiction (‘powers legislative, administrative, and judicial, which powers shall be supreme with respect to’) these three areas which might be relevant for this decision:

(a) doctrine of the Church;
(b) worship of the Church;
(c) discipline of the Church;

The proponents are adamant this is not a doctrine issue; and if it is not a doctrine issue, I would argue the GAA has no authority to make a decision like this on a wisdom issue. When the initial proposal was to withdraw as a recognised denomination under the Marriage Act 1961, there was a legal rationale for the GAA to make the decision because the Federal Act recognised the Federal church, but the new proposal is different and reaches well beyond that scope, especially in the attempt to establish eccles

2. Does this proposal, which to date has been officially rejected by one whole state, and been strongly debated in other states, not represent a restriction on the liberty of Assemblies, Presbyteries, Sessions, and Office bearers — liberty protected by the Declaratory Statement that forms part of the Scheme of Union?

Given the opposition already expressed from several Assemblies, Presbyteries, Sessions, and ordained ministers and elders of the Presbyterian Church, and given that this is a ‘wisdom issue’ not a doctrine issue, does it not fail to meet the spirit of the following parts of the Declaratory Statement?

That liberty of opinion is allowed on matters in the subordinate standard not essential to the doctrine therein taught, the Church guarding against the abuse of this liberty to the injury of its unity and peace.

Isn’t it possible that this proposal, given a whole state has almost unanimously indicated at its assembly that it will not be taking this step, or wishes not to, will actually injure the unity and peace of the denomination created by allowing liberty of opinion on non-doctrine matters. From what I gather, a minister who refused to act according to this edict on the basis that they believe it to be outside the scope of the Declaratory Statement would face church discipline.

3. Further to this point, the Declaratory Statement also provides office bearers with a particular understanding of the ‘civil magistrate’ which means we already ‘disclaim… intolerant or persecuting principles’ and frees us from being considered as committed to principles we disagree with as made by the civil magistrate because God is Lord of the conscience. Why does this not render the ‘association with evil’ or the ‘agents of the state’ arguments invalid?

This paragraph seems to me to undo any sense that we should be worried about ‘association with evil’ if we ever act in partnership with the magistrate while they also do things we disagree with (which is the Markham position).

That with regard to the doctrine of the civil magistrate and his authority and duty in the sphere of religion, as taught in the subordinate standard the church holds that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only King and Head of the Church, “and Head over all things to the Church, which is His body.” It disclaims, accordingly, intolerant or persecuting principles and does not consider its office-bearers, in subscribing the Confession, as committed to any principles inconsistent with the liberty of conscience and the right of private judgement, declaring in the words of the Confession that “God alone is Lord of the conscience”.

4. Is this seriously the best way forward, given the strong disagreement expressed, and these principles?

Is there not a way we can handle this better by simply providing ways for ministers to exercise freedoms (wisdom freedoms, not doctrine freedoms), and act according to their conscience (in not celebrating marriages, or celebrating marriages), rather than making freedom-restricting declarations as a church?

5. When pressed on the GAA’s jurisdiction on this matter, the Convener of Church & Nation, Darren Middleton, suggested this matter falls in the ‘worship’ category of the GAA’s authority. Does this not represent a significant change to ‘worship’ as we understand it in the Presbyterian Church?

If this is a significant redefinition of the scope of our worship, particularly via the introduction of ‘Ecclesiastical Marriage’ and a set order of service for such a marriage, then does this not change the formula that Ministers have sworn to uphold upon ordination, especially:

“I further own the purity of worship practised in this Church, and the Presbyterian government thereof to be founded on the Word of God”

Personally, and because this is not a doctrinal decision, but a wisdom decision, I’m not sure I understand this expansion of the ‘worship’ of the church as the same expression of the ‘purity of worship’ I signed up for, nor do I believe this shift, in particular, is founded on the word of God.

6. Are we recognising the authority of the state when we act as celebrants recognised by the Marriage Act (and acting as agents of the state), or is the state recognising that we act as agents of the church, and recognising our forms of marriage as containing all the legal elements their definition of marriage requires?

The C&N proposal rests strongly on the assumption that being a minister within a recognised denomination involves us acting as agents of the state. We are, under the current Act (which at this point seems unlikely to change beyond the expansion of the relationships the government will recognise), free to marry people according to our rites, and to add whatever requirements we deem fit in our capacity as religious celebrants. We’re also free to refuse any marriage we deem fit, for whatever reason we deem appropriate. That we are ‘agents’ of the state is a contested interpretation of the Act that goes well beyond a relationship built on ‘recognition’ and the church’s historic involvement in marriage.

7. The Church & Nation report specifically downplays the value of contact with the community as a rationale for maintaining a connection with the state. How many marriages per year are being conducted by the people putting forward this proposal — from within the church community or from outside? What sort of geographic or demographic contexts do these views come from? Is this the universal testimony and experience of ministers within our denomination?

“If the church were to withdraw from the Act, no doubt there would be fewer non-Christian couples who sought a church wedding. It should be remembered that the number of couples seeking church weddings is declining quickly. Between 1990 and 2010 the marriage rate dropped by about 20% but the number of couples having a religious wedding dropped by almost 60%.”

This, frankly, is a sloppy argument and disconnected enough from the experience of many ministers, some of whom are arguing most strenuously against the proposal. I’d be interested to know how different proponents of this proposal see the role of the church in evangelism, and how they prioritise any engagement with people in the community.

8. Why are we completely unworried about the perception that our communities are not places that gay couples might come to investigate Jesus? Do we really not care how this stance is perceived by the gay community? Do they not need the Gospel too?

Do we expect any gay-married couples to repent before they come into our gatherings? We’re asking totally the wrong questions in the light of massive social changes. Perception matters. What we should be asking is what we ask a gay-married couple with children who have been living as a family unit to do if one or both of the parents start to follow Jesus.

9. If we believe marriage is a creation ordinance created by promises before witnesses, and that we can create our own version of marriage, why will we only recognise Presbyterian (or other ‘like minded’ Christian marriage), and civil marriage, but not other forms of marriage entered into voluntarily between one man and one woman?

Why limit it? Why one rule for us and the state, and another for others?

What do we do if the local mosque decides to create their own version of marriage, and a couple married in the mosque enter our church community. Do we treat them as married? If not, what does this say about marriage as a ‘creation ordinance’?

10. How does no longer conducting socially recognised marriages for our people, or for people in our community, help us better advocate for God’s good design of marriage, and male and female, in the public square — especially given it is likely to be interpreted as us walking away from a shared social institution (a creation ordinance) no matter how we might like to argue that it is the government walking away from true marriage?

What do we gain in terms of our witness to the world by losing an opportunity to speak into the political process as parties to the process? How are we standing in line with the examples of Esther, Daniel and friends, or Erastus (Romans 16) who were people who worked with truly ‘evil’ regimes in order to bring good outcomes for God’s people, and for others?

11. If we stay recognised under the act, but then ‘declare that no minister, elder, or home missionary in the Presbyterian Church may conduct a marriage under the Act’ are we not still recognised under the Act?

Does this actually achieve any purpose beyond limiting the freedom of our ministers, elders or home missionaries? Does this option actually achieve the stated goal of the Assemblies who asked Church & Nation to make recommendations? Aren’t we, in this option, still operating under the Marriage Act that we’ve decided is so deficient we must not be associated with it? Does this actually go far enough for those who don’t want to be associated with evil?

12, Have we really understood the implications and complications of establishing a ‘form of marriage under the Presbyterian Church of Australia apart from the Marriage Act’?

A friend who is a Presbyterian Minister and a former family law lawyer has suggested this move is not as clear cut, pastorally, as those advocating it suggests. Having a second definition of marriage in operation outside the law, creates confusion that people will abuse. I can think of multiple scenarios where this confusion might be abused. Let’s not be naive. Jesus says the reason God allows divorce is that people are hard hearted.

Our society is addicted to pornography, there’s a plague of domestic violence going on behind closed doors, do we really want to introduce shades of grey for hard hearts to abuse? Do we really want the uncertainty created by a new construct operating outside the social, common good, creation ordinance of marriage. The proponents may argue that we’re not creating our own version of marriage, but I’m not sure this stacks up. To be clear, I’m not suggesting the law won’t provide the same protection from domestic violence if we do that, but we will, I think, create some uncertainty for those not aware of the law (or whose husbands make them believe they’re under God’s law). Since I’ve posted these questions, another family lawyer who practices in this area has asked me to make it clear that I’m not talking about legal uncertainty in the area of Domestic Violence. I’m worried more about how unhelpful headship theology and wrong views of submission might come together in an institution that is not the social/legal institution shared by those outside the church.

Do we not want people to feel their promises bring immediate obligation both under God and within the parameters of the Family Law Act. Perception and certainty matter. Unregistered de facto relationships are not recognised by law until certain milestones are reached — 2 years of relationship, a child, or a wronged partner having made a ‘substantial contribution’ that requires recognition by the courts. Do we not think people might find opportunities for abuse within that two year period?

13. Do we really, really, want to turn our sessions into marriage and divorce courts and have them tell ministers who they can and can’t marry? 

From the deliverances proposed by C&N:

“The determination that a couple may be married is to be made by the Session of the congregation. Where a minister has a non-congregational ministry, he shall submit the matter to the Session, which has jurisdiction over him, or to a Session related to the couple or his field of ministry. No minister shall proceed with a church marriage which has not been approved by a Session.”

And:

“A person who has been married in a church marriage by a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia may approach any Session for a certificate of divorce. The person must provide a copy of the marriage certificate and the Session shall verify the certificate with the Session under whose jurisdiction the marriage was conducted or with the Clerk of Assembly. The Session shall, in the first place, determine if there is any possibility of a reconciliation. In doing so, it must seek to contact the other party to the marriage. If it is satisfied that the marriage has dissolved and that there is no possibility of a reconciliation, or that there are grounds to end the marriage, it shall provide a Certificate of Divorce.”

14. How does any of this even come close to working for our military chaplains?

15. Do we really want to restrict the ‘form’ a wedding takes to following a script from the Public Worship  and Aids to Devotion committee?

From the deliverance again:

“A church marriage service shall be conducted by a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia according to the service provided by the Public Worship and Aids to Devotion Committee.”

Is this an expression of trust in ministers to uphold the Formula they’ve signed up to? Or is it changing the nature of the ‘worship’ we’ve signed on to uphold?

16. Given the media reports about this proposal, from the time of the NSW Assembly decision, have framed this as either us running from sinners (not us personally fleeing sexual immorality in the church), or have misunderstood us in the case of the story in the Aus, do we really want to be taking steps that communicate very different things to what we intend, rather than clearly using every wedding to very clearly communicate our own understanding of marriage to those getting married and those witnessing the marriage?

The C&N report says:

“It is important to stress that we are not proposing to withdraw from an amended Marriage Act as a political protest nor for self-protection. If we decide to withdraw, we will do so with sorrow since we will be losing a connection with the wider community which we have valued. We should not imagine the making such a decision will have any impact on the view of Federal Parliament or Australian society…The primary reason for the church to withdraw is that what the Act would call marriage would no longer be identifiable with the institution established by God in creation and described in the Bible.”

The SBS report on the proposal at the NSW assembly says:
“Church seeks to stop performing legal ceremonies to avoid ‘evil’ gay marriage”

The Aus report, featuring Darren Middleton, is not only unclear in that it appears to suggest the decision has already been taken, but seems to make legal persecution an issue, so infers that this is ultimately an act of self-protection:

“Mr Middleton ­believes it is only a matter of time before anti-discrimination laws are wielded as a blunt club against ­religious freedom. “Those who seek to redefine marriage will seek to redefine freedom of speech and freedom of religion, as surely as night follows day,” he said.”

If our very nuanced position is so nuanced that nobody seems to understand it, are we really sure it’s the clearest way to say things that are distinctive and true about marriage?

17. What are we modelling to those in our church communities about how to engage with the world, particularly in response to a changed Marriage Act, but more broadly in response to social change?

If leadership is something we exercise by example is this the example we wish to demonstrate? Are we following the example of Jesus, or did he engage with the laws of Rome to such an extent that he was put to death after going on trial before Pilate and not bending the knee to Caesar?

18. Gold, like marriage, exists before the Fall, and Genesis 2 seems to establish that it has some beauty and value. All nations use it, or money. Our banks use it but are built on greed, which is idolatry. When will we be starting a Presbyterian Bank so that we are not complicit with our banks and their harmful narratives about this created good, which was made, like marriage, to reveal things about the divine nature and character of God (Romans 1:20)? 

19. Why are we not pursuing the European option?

If we must withdraw, why not ask couples to get a civil marriage and then conduct a religious blessing service? Why open up the idea that not having a civil marriage is wise or somehow more pure? Creating our own version of Presbyterian Marriage, and inviting other churches to do something similar so that we might also recognise their forms of marriage, is confusing and stupid. Should the Baptists adopt a similar model, do we ask transferring members to bring their marriage certificate with them in order to prove their marital status?

20. Does the status quo not already allow all Presbyterian ministers, elders, and home missionaries to act according to the doctrinal position outlined in the Westminster Confession of Faith 24.1, which was reaffirmed at the 2013 GAA, and to act according to the principles of freedom of conscience articulated in the Declaratory Statement

Those making this case have argued that unity is important, but seem to fail to realise that what they are advocating for is a limiting of the freedom that makes unity possible (within our doctrinal framework). This is a wisdom issue; we do not create unity by forcing ministers to do things they believe are unwise, or doctrinally problematic, or that come at the cost of Gospel ministry. We do it by encouraging ministers whose consciences do not allow them to act in a particular way to not act that way. Ministers are already, under the Marriage Act, free to not conduct marriages. State Assemblies already have the responsibility for registering ministers as members of the recognised denomination, it is possible, already, for individual ministers to withdraw from the Act.

21. If the status quo does already allow for freedom, and does already prevent the binding of an individual’s conscience, and this is not a doctrine issue, then why pursue unneccessary change that will be misinterpreted by those we are trying to reach with the Gospel and will restrict the freedom of our ministers, thus undermining the Basis of Union?

Ok. So this may be the same as question 4. But apart from the question of whether the GAA actually has jurisdiction in this area, this one is the big one for me. It seems unprecedented to bind the denomination to act in lock step on a wisdom issue.