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).
- 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:
- 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.
- That withdrawal is a necessary option at some point should the Marriage Act change.
- This is the wisest point to withdraw, not a future point where we might be compelled to act against our doctrinal position on marriage.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- There are problems with the polity of this proposal
There are a number of significant polity problems with the Church & Nation Committee’s proposal
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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