Further Reflections on Same-Sex Marriage

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Excessively Long Introduction:

One year ago, I wrote a blog post explaining why I intended to vote “Yes,” to the then upcoming postal survey regarding the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia. I was overwhelmed by the response. While there were certainly some Christians who responded with what I’d describe as excessive harshness (who called me a heretic and had no desire to listen, etc.), the response was far more predominantly positive from both Christians and non-Christians alike. I even received a message from a gay, formerly Christian man I’d never met who said that reading the article had caused him to reconsider Christianity, and even to pray for the first time in years.

While I was pretty amazed at how many people read the post, I kept wondering whether it was having a genuine impact on the actual voting outcome of the Christians who read it. While I’m sure it did change some people’s decisions on what to vote, the most common response I got from Christians was something like, “Thank you for writing this. I think I’m still going to vote no, but you have changed the way I think about this issue.” Most people didn’t change their vote through reading the article but it caused them to be humbler in their decision and more aware of the complexities, both theological and relational, of the issue. To me, that is a deeply encouraging victory. I knew as I set out to begin this conversation that I probably couldn’t change what people think. But hopefully I could change how they think – something far more important, I believe. If I couldn’t sway the outcome of the postal survey, at least I might be able to help Christians think differently about it, so that in their subsequent conversations with other Christians, with non-believers, and with homosexual people, their priorities would have changed.

Having said all that, I also wished I could have been more persuasive and more clear. Due to the complexity and multi-dimensionality of the issue, I found the article incredibly hard to compose. The 8,000 word document that I posted had had a lot of argumentation cut out of it. It was a painful compromise between comprehensiveness and readability. With so many reasons that different people were objecting to SSM, it was hard to know which ones to focus my energies on refuting, and I had to be selective. The problem is, beliefs work in such a way that, when you’re challenging ways of thinking that have been held by your community for generations, which have been seen as the default position the whole time, it takes a great deal of intellectual energy to move one’s beliefs up and out of the groove that continued defaulting and repetition have engraved. It’s very hard to see the alternative, not necessarily because it’s unreasonable, but because it’s unfamiliar. It is universally true that it takes more work to believe a new thing than to continue to believe an old thing. Thus great imagination and the willingness to scrutinise one’s own beliefs is required of the hearer of the new idea. And from the presenter is required not only some very clear thinking, but also usually a sheer volume of content big enough to compete with a lifetime of community influence. (If you don’t think your beliefs – and mine too – are influenced by community, you’re just not paying attention.)

I knew that there was only so long an article that people were going to read, and so there was only so much one guy can do. But at the same time, as I look back I wonder if I cut out some of my more persuasive pieces of argumentation from that article. Who really knows. I know I did my best and I trust God to use what I gave. But then this other annoying thing happened: It was in the weeks following my posting of that blog that I actually thought of what I think are the clearest and most compelling theological arguments in favour of the legalisation of SSM that I’ve come up with. But by the time I would’ve had any chance to write any of these further thoughts up into something formal, the vote had already happened. So I felt that the show was over, and there was no need to further defend a Christian “Yes,” to SSM.

But now, a year on from the postal survey, and 11 months into the institution of SSM in Australia, I think it might be valuable for the Church to continue to reflect on and challenge how we think about this new law of the land. Because, although the issue of SSM has been decided by the nation and is here to stay, the Church has an ongoing decision to make in how we live with that reality moving forward. Now, in addition to an open mind, and high exposure to well argued new ideas, one of the other things that’s usually required in changing long-entrenched beliefs is time. Minds don’t change overnight, especially regarding long-held views on very complex issues. When enough time has passed – a few years, decades, or generations, I suspect that most Australian Christians will view the legalisation of SSM in the same way as we currently view the decriminalisation of homosexual activity: a no-brainer. It’s easy for us today to see the distinction between the moral question of homosexuality and the legal question of it. But back when it was a debate, this distinction may not have been so easy for the average Christian to see. And I suspect and hope that with the issue of SSM, a similar transition will take place in due course.

But, as I was recently rereading Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, I was reminded of what he said about time:

“It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively … We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

While I hope that we will transition in our attitude to SSM, I fear that this may not happen automatically. If we are passive, who knows what the next generation will believe. And not only that, but I don’t want the church to learn to accept the legality of SSM in Australia merely by acquiescence to the culture, but rather by genuine theological reflection, and a deeper, more accurate understanding of God’s revelation to us. And so in wake of this very long-winded introduction, I wish to do some of that theological reflection, to use the time creatively, to try to convince more of us that the legalisation of SSM is something we as Christians should accept with gladness.

What I want to do here is not build an entire case from the ground up. I did that in the last one. Here I simply want to add to the arguments I’ve already made by making some points I didn’t make in my original post because I either cut them out or hadn’t thought of them yet. So in this article I want to lay out two arguments in particular. Here they are:

 

1. God Legislated Immorality in the Torah

One of the most common objections made to me in response to my decision to vote yes to SSM was that in doing so I was condoning sin. That for the state to sanction SSM is inherently an affirmation or celebration of homosexuality. That in legally recognising same-sex relationships as marriage, the state is necessarily affirming and condoning those relationships. If God doesn’t affirm it, why are you voting to allow it?

Slavery

Well. The thing is, God has a track record of not only allowing, but even commanding and instituting things that he personally finds disgusting. Namely, there are certain Old Testament laws in which God permits or even commands things that he ultimately doesn’t like. One of them is slavery. Moses’ law has a complicated relationship with slavery. If you read Exodus 21, Leviticus 25, and Deuteronomy 15, to name a few, you’ll find that God most certainly permitted slavery among his covenant people of Israel. In fact, the Law regulated slavery in some detail, laying out the circumstances under which slaves could be taken, the way they were to be treated, and the circumstances and manner in which they were to be freed.

There is no question as to whether slavery was lawful according to the Torah. But let me ask you this question: Does God hate slavery? He most certainly does. At the meta level, the very story of the birth of Israel begins with God hearing the cry of an oppressed and enslaved people: “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their suffering.” (Exodus 3:7) God sets free an oppressed people and takes them to be his own free nation, meanwhile he judges Egypt and Pharaoh for having enslaved them. Later on, when Israel breaks their covenant with God, his punishment for them is that they become slaves again in a foreign land. Note, this is a punishment – not something he considers a happy state of affairs. After eventually restoring Israel back from exile, he turns his eyes on those nations that enslaved the Israelites and brings judgement on them for their injustice.

Thus, it makes sense that in the laws about slavery in Exodus we get clauses like Exodus 21:16 where God categorically forbids the kidnapping of people to make into slaves. The only lawful kind of slavery in Israel was voluntary (even if reluctant). Slaves were also only to serve 6 years and then to be given the option of freedom. And Deuteronomy 15 commands that a master was not to let him go free empty-handed:

“You shall furnish him liberally from your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today.” – Deut 15:14-15

This section even ends with God commenting that a slave owner shouldn’t complain about this law, since their slave has just served them for “half the cost of a hired worker” (15:18). I can’t help but read that comment with a slightly taunting overtone, as if God is underhandedly critiquing the fact that they’ve held a slave in the first place.

None of this reads as a God who is happy about the practice of slavery in Israel that he is permitting. Rather, it reads as a God who is making a compromise between what’s morally ideal, and what’s socially, economically, and culturally viable. God’s legislation about slavery wasn’t a simple case of, “Well, slavery is wrong, so slavery shall be illegal.” Nor was the reason for its legality because God thought it was right. It was a more complex, nuanced approach, which took into account many other factors. God hates slavery, and yet he allowed it in the law for his people.

Polygamy

But it doesn’t stop there. We have to discuss polygamy. Does God like Polygamy? No, of course not. So why does he not only allow it, but effectively command it in Old Testament law? Deuteronomy 25:5-10 commands a man, if his brother dies without children, to marry his brother’s widow in order to provide her with children. This necessarily amounts to polygamy in all cases where the brother-in-law of that widow is already married. Why did God command this? To God, the ideal is monogamy. But God knew that he wasn’t dealing with an ideal society. He was dealing with one where there were very few economic protections for women, such that the only real economic security most women had was marriage. And thus when navigating the world of marriage people had to consider not only love and relationship, but also financial and social factors. And so, in spite of his aversion to polygamy, God saw it necessary in certain cases in that society. Even in the theocracy of Israel, under his immediate rulership, God allowed and even commanded a sexual and marital practice that he abhors.

Hermeneutics of the Law

This is very important in general for our hermeneutic of Old Testament Law. Because maybe, if you were told, “God in the Old Testament Law commanded and permitted certain things that he hates,” you would have thought that this is impossible, contradictory, inconceivable. That God’s Law was the perfect expression of his wishes. How could God command something that he is against? But laws like these demonstrate unequivocally that we simply cannot read Mosaic Law as a timeless list of everything God approves of and everything God disapproves of, as a list of sins and virtues. We cannot consider Mosaic Law to be identical to “God’s universal moral law”. We cannot unconditionally define “sin” as “disobedience to Mosaic Law”, and we cannot have a Christianity in which our failure to live up to Mosaic Law is the thing for which we have been forgiven. And this isn’t because the Old Testament Law got things wrong – it got things right for Israel in that time and place. But, as literature, the Torah is a more legal than purely moral entity. And thus it is full of compromises and concessions to make the best of complex social and economic circumstances. Mosaic Law isn’t God’s universal moral law in written form; it is the product of God applying the principles of his universal moral law to a particular national group, facing particular issues, at a particular time. We are not ethically subject to Mosaic Law. We are subject to the moral realities that produced Mosaic Law.

But more relevantly to same sex marriage: If God in Israel was willing to allow and even command practices that he actually abhorred, why should any aversion to homosexual practice on God’s part mean that he is automatically against the legalisation of homosexual marriage? The fact is, God’s moral disapproval of the sexual relationship just doesn’t necessarily preclude a legal recognition of it. We have real-life, Biblical precedents of our God choosing to institute laws that allowed or even required people to do things that he didn’t like. If God thought that an absolute “no slavery” law would have been better for ancient Israel, he would have given that law. If God thought a “no polygamy” law would have been better for ancient Israel, he would have given that law. But he didn’t give those laws because he didn’t think they would have been better laws for that society. He thought these compromises were worth making. In his literally infinite and perfect wisdom, he thought that things would be better if he allowed slavery and polygamy.

The need for SSM in our society

Isn’t it conceivable, then, that God could prefer, all things considered, in our current society, for the state to recognise certain non-heterosexual relationships as marriages? Not because he likes it when people take sexual partners of the same sex, but because of numerous social factors in the society that make it necessary to legally recognise such unions? I wrote in my previous article about what these social factors are. One is the fact that many of these same-sex couples have children. You can say all you like that homosexual relationships are, by themselves, incapable of producing children. But gay couples generally aren’t by themselves; they are parts of communities in which they have various means of becoming the joint legal parents of children in those communities. Given that gay couples are raising children, it makes sense for the state to come in and recognise these relationships as marriages, bringing the force of law to the unity of these families. This is especially true given that their connection to children is the main reason cited for why the state should recognise heterosexual marriages in the first place. Another social factor is that SSM is legally the simplest way – without all the linguistic gymnastics of “civil unions” – of ensuring those real same-sex couples in real, existing relationships all the legal rights that marriage endows one with, from hospital visits to matters of succession. Another is the social exclusion felt in the gay community by not being included in the institution of marriage. Before SSM, homosexual relationships were the only sexual relationships in Australia that were at the same time legally permissible and also not able to be recognised as marriages. It was a unique kind of relationship in our society – allowed but not acknowledged – a relationship equivalent to second-class citizens. And it came with a mental health toll on the gay population.

A different kind of social factor is the relationship between the Church and the gay community. I wrote at length in the last article about how the Church’s constant opposition to SSM has been a stumbling block for gay people to hear about and receive Christ as their Lord. What is gained by our efforts to oppose SSM is nothing in light of what is lost. A world without SSM isn’t worth a Heaven without gay people in it. It’s just not worth fighting for. And when you combine all of these things with the fact that there are actually no tangible, foreseeable, practical negative consequences inherent to SSM… well, as write this paragraph I struggle to even remember why we ever opposed it. If they wanted it that bad, and it actually has no inherent negative consequences, why not let them have it? If God, under his own direct theocratic rule, was willing to allow slavery and polygamy based on social and economic considerations, then surely we can consider same-sex marriage on similar grounds.

Now, of course, you might say, “Sure, all this is a great reason to have civil unions for gay couples, but why call it marriage?” Well, for one thing, a civil union doesn’t solve all of the social problems that SSM is intended to fix: Marriage is not just a legal but also a social construct that carries not only legal but also social force. It’s the social force of the word “marriage” that is partly needed to keep families with gay parents together for the sake of their children, as well as to foster the sense of inclusion that SSM is intended to create. Another question I’d ask is, why not call it marriage? And at this point, hopefully you’ve found what I’ve said so far persuasive enough that you’re in a position to find what I’m about to say next a little more palatable…

 

2. The Bible Doesn’t Define Marriage

Well that’s a bold claim, isn’t it. What on earth am I talking about? Now I’ll warn you: This is going to get somewhat complicated and nuanced. So you’re going to have to read me carefully and thoughtfully to understand what I’m really saying.

We all know how much this debate has centred around the assumption that Christianity, and the Bible, have a definition of marriage, and that same-sex marriage is an idea that defies this Christian definition. This Christian definition of marriage is, of course, something to do with the lifelong union of one man with one woman to the exclusion of all others, etc.

Is this true? Does the Bible put this forward as a definition of marriage? Is a conversation about the definition of “marriage” one that the Bible has something to say about? I have come to think that the Bible has little to no interest in polemical questions of the definition of marriage. See, I think we’ve been putting a lot of words in the Bible’s proverbial mouth.

Redefining a debate

Here’s what I think has happened, and I genuinely think this: One day, some gay people started saying that they wanted to be able to marry their gay partners. The first thing Christians thought was, “That’s wrong and immoral and bad, so we shall oppose this in the public forum.” But very quickly we Christians realised that the world we’re living in has a radically different understanding of sexuality to the Christian one, and so there was no traction to be had with arguments against SSM that were premised on any kind of moral objection to homosexuality itself. And so we had to change our approach, and we started to come up with all sorts of other arguments that might be more palatable to the homosexual community. One of these arguments amounted to, “It’s not that it’s wrong. It’s just that it’s not what marriage is.”

This has been one of the key arguments used in this debate, and I think it’s caused all sorts of trouble. This argument changed the rhetoric and reframed the whole debate from one about what people are allowed to do and not do into a debate about what the definition of a certain institution is. It changed it from a debate about values to a debate about meanings and semantics. And it did this so that Christians could say what we wanted to say without having to actually say it. We were able to say we were against gay marriage without saying why. While sidestepping the whole issue of the moral value of homosexual relationships, we still sought to prevent our society from placing value on homosexual relationships. It was essentially an attempt to win a moral battle by means of a semantic loophole. And I believe, as far as I can tell, that it is this argument that is the origin of any notion that the Bible presents a definition of marriage as a matter of sacred truth.

In reality, I don’t think the Bible itself tries to do this at all. Of course, the Bible has plenty to say about marriage. It has much to say about how a marriage ought to look. But I don’t see anywhere that the Bible wants to argue for a particular definition of the word “marriage”, such that there would be some communities out there have their definition wrong. Actually, I think the Bible is far less interested in whether a relationship is a marriage than whether a relationship is good. It’s not as interested in categorisation and definition as it is in evaluation; not as interested in the semantic question as the moral question. And these are not the same thing. The Bible seems quite content with the idea that there are many relationships that might be called marriage, some of which are godly, and others of which aren’t.

The Wives of Solomon

Why do I think this? Mainly because of Solomon. As the Bible tells us in 1 Kings 11:3, Solomon had 700 wives, as well as 300 concubines. If I’m not mistaken, this Biblical definition of marriage that we have received from the Bible is something like, “the exclusive lifelong union of a single man and a single woman.” Polygamy does not fit this Biblical definition of marriage. In fact, if I’m still not mistaken, I recall many politicians and clergy making the argument that, if we broaden the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, there’s nothing stopping us from broadening it further to other things like… the legalisation of polygamy. But it seems that the Bible was perfectly okay with calling all of Solomon’s 700 wives, well, “wives”. If the Biblical author was adhering to the correct Biblical definition of marriage, he would have said that Solomon had 1 wife, and 699 fake wives. But instead, not only does the author describe all 700 of these women as his wives, but he even makes a distinction between these “wives” and the other 300 “concubines” that Solomon had. So there is a line between a wife and a mere sexual partner, but the author draws that line way, way after bigamy, trigamy, etceteragamy… Why does he draw the line where he draws it? Probably because that’s where the culture of the day drew the line, and the author wasn’t trying to pick a fight about the definition of marriage. Because, if the Bible was operating under some sort of deeply held conviction about the definition of marriage, surely the author of 1 Kings would have demonstrated a bit of that backbone in his narration of Solomon’s love life.

“But Lachlan,” you say, “The Bible is critical of Solomon’s practice of polygamy here, and points out how it led to his downfall.” Yes, that’s precisely my point! The Bible here condemns Solomon’s marital practice, but still calls it marriage. “But Lachlan,” you say, “Polygamy is still heterosexual. The idea of a man having more than one wife doesn’t contradict the Biblical definition of marriage; it just multiplies it. Every marriage is still one man and one woman, it’s just that a single man is involved in multiple simultaneous marriages.” Well I have to say that if you were to make that argument to me it would strike me as somewhat ad hoc. Here we are, defining marriage as the lifelong, exclusive union of one man and one woman, and now you want to say that the exclusivity isn’t part of the definition, but the heterosexuality is. That is arbitrary. For thousands of years the Church hasn’t allowed people to get married if it is found that they are already married to someone else. For some reason, we don’t tend to say that for someone to be married simultaneously to several people is inconceivable; we simply say that it is wrong. And yet when it comes to the idea of homosexual marriage, we say this is inconceivable. If we were to be consistent with our conviction that the Bible has this particular definition of marriage, then we must either say that A) neither homosexual nor polygamous marriages are logically conceivable, or B) they are both conceivable, but immoral practices.

Jesus, Genesis, and God’s design

But what about what Jesus said? Of course. Often Jesus’ quoting of Genesis’ creation account has been cited as a case of the Bible, and Jesus himself giving the “definition” of marriage. In Matthew 19, Jesus was asked whether it’s okay for a man to divorce his wife for any reason he likes. Jesus responds by quoting Genesis’ account of God creating male and female:

Jesus answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)

What was Jesus (and the author of Genesis) saying? Well, it’s important to understand that he was not having a conversation about what does and doesn’t constitute a marriage. That wasn’t the question Jesus was answering. The nature of the conversation was not semantic, but ethical. No one in that conversation (or in any other conversation in the entire Bible) was talking about what marriage is, but rather how to do it. And, as with any topic in the Bible, in the absence of any explicit intent from either Jesus or Matthew to address the definition of marriage in this passage, if anything can be concluded about that topic it is not without at least one layer of interpretation. Nothing Jesus says here automatically, before several interpretive steps are taken, tells us how he would deal with an explicit conversation about the definition of marriage. This should simply give us pause, and humility. But I do think there are things we can ascertain from the passage about how God thinks about marriage. In answering an ethical question, Jesus, like any good Bible scholar, responds by appealing to the creation narrative of Genesis. From his telling of this “origin story” of marriage, and the way he argues from it, I think we can draw out the following: 1) Marriage is somehow predicated on the maleness and femaleness of humans, 2) Marriage involves some kind of separation of its participants from their family of origin, 3) Marriage involves a man and wife becoming “one flesh”, 4) Marriage involves God joining the two participants, 5) Married people should not be separated.

So, this much is clear: there is a thing that God designed. We can call it marriage, and it is the lifelong, romantic and sexual union of a man and a woman. And yes, it seems that polygamous and homosexual unions (and presumably all manner of other ones) were not part of the fabric of this creational design for human relationships. The problem is that, from this reality, many Christians have been inferring more than is actually implied. Namely, they have been inferring that, because God designed humans to join together in a particular way, God has some kind of particular interest in the name or the categorisation that is given to this as opposed to other unions. It is not implied from this or any other passage in scripture that, because God designed us to be sexually joined together in a particular way, that it is somehow important that society holds a unique kind of recognition for this relationship as opposed to other kinds of relationships. It is not implied that God is concerned to ensure that the kind of union he designed be linguistically set apart from all other kinds of union, and that the same word not be used to describe it as well as another. And it is certainly not implied that the weight of God’s objection to polygamy or homosexuality has something to do with their falling outside of the boundaries demarcated by a semantic definition.

God, and semantics

There is no indication from anything Jesus, Moses, or any of the prophets or Apostles said, that God is interested in this philosophical and semantic conversation about what is and isn’t a marriage. In everything the Bible says, in the Torah, the Prophets, and the New Testament, about the myriad of ways that humans can practice immoral sexual relationships, never once is the problem with them framed as being that “they are not marriage.” The problem is simply that they are not good. Never is the point of it that they are some kind of fundamentally different entity to the kind of union that God designed. Because in reality, from an amoral point of view, polygamy and homosexuality and all manner of other kinds of relationships actually bear many similarities to traditional marriage. The ultimate difference is not one of categorical description but of moral prescription – only one of these is good. Thus it is hard to see that Jesus would have made a point of arguing against someone who wanted to say that a homosexual or polygamous relationship was some kind of “marriage” in some sense of the word. It is hard to see that, if Luke were penning a chapter for the Book of Acts, and he featured an episode where Paul came to some obscure city where they had the practice of “same-sex marriage”, that Paul in his conversations, or Luke in his narration, would have made an issue of that city’s use of the word “marriage” – that out of some sort of religio-semantic conviction, they would have refused to go along with the culture of the day in calling these same-sex couples as married. Nowhere in the Bible do we ever find this kind of definition polemics. And if we were going to find it anywhere, we should find it in 1 Kings’ divinely inspired narration of Solomon’s marital life, but instead the author follows the language of the culture quite happily.

There is no Biblical reason to think that God wants to be involved in some divine campaign to set society’s definition of the word marriage, or even generally to control the naming of anything. Note that never is any attention drawn to the name that is given to any immoral sexual relationships in the Bible – read Levitical laws on sexual practice; it describes unlawful sexual acts, but never names them. Because what God has to say about all the possible relational arrangements out there is not what they are but whether they are good. God doesn’t appear interested in going around categorising and defining relationships, telling us what we ought to call them. What a trivial thing that is, when compared with the tangible human experiences of all these different relationships and their deep and lasting consequences – for good or for ill. God is far, far more concerned with what people do, whatever it gets called.

Because the fact is, while these other unions are not part of the fabric of God’s design for sexuality, they do bear enough similarities to marriage that one can see why it might be useful to call them all by the same name – and what do you know, the author of 1 Kings did exactly that. You can have a philosophical and semantic conversation about the boundaries of what does and doesn’t constitute a marriage if you want to. The point is, don’t fool yourself into thinking that this is God’s work, that it is part of the divinely mandated Christian mission, or that it is something the Bible shows concern for, or that it is anything more than an interesting philosophical discussion. There are many interesting things that are not very important. And there are even many relatively important things that are not as important as the work of the Kingdom of God. Semantic debates about the meaning of marriage do not fall into the category of Kingdom importance. It is just not a conversation that God has shown interest in.

Man was not made for marriage

See, it’s just not about semantic categories for God. God isn’t going around saying, “Don’t do that; that’s not marriage.” He’s saying, “Don’t do that; it’s not good.” We must remember, humans were not made for marriage. Marriage was made for humans. God didn’t make humans to fit into this neat institution he had come up with called marriage. He made marriage to fit into and live up to the needs of our humanity. Thus the problem with these alternative unions is not that they are not marriage; it’s not that they fail to live up to the definition of marriage; it’s that they fail to live up to what it is to be human.

And here’s where this gets important: in failing to live up to the needs of our humanity, polygamy and homosexuality do not differ from divorce, or adultery, or marital abuse, or any other relationships that are dissonant with humanity’s design. It’s not that some of these are a corruption of the ideal marriage, while others are fundamentally something else entirely. All of them are an adulteration of the same good thing, all of them in their own way fail to express and enjoy the fullness of God’s good design. This is why the definition of marriage can be an irrelevant and unhelpful distraction. Because if you’re asking which relational arrangements fall within the definitional bounds of “marriage”, your question will get an answer that includes many relationships that are not pleasing to God, because an abusive, or adulterous, or loveless marriage still counts as a marriage. But if you ask which arrangements live up to the fullness of God’s good purposes for humanity, you will find no distinction between homosexuality or divorce or polygamy or abuse, since they are all united in falling short of this.

If you ask the question of whether a relationship counts as a marriage, you’re asking a question that God just isn’t asking. Because the only thing he is asking of our relationships is whether they are right, and good, and just, and loving – not whether they live up to the mere definition of marriage, but whether they live up to the purpose marriage was intended for in the first place.

 

ABRUPT END

I’m a Conservative Christian, and I Intend to Vote “Yes” to Same-Sex Marriage

GayWeddingCake

I want to start a conversation. A conversation that we don’t seem to be having inside the Church. We’re at a very unique and important place in Australian history where, like it or not, the whole country is getting the chance to “have its say,” on the contentious topic of same-sex marriage. But, while it is contentious within the nation of Australia, there seems to be almost no contention within the theologically conservative Church about what the best way to vote would be. That is, among Christians who hold the classical, historically Christian view of marriage and sexuality – of which I am one – there is a near universal assumption that the only faithful Christian course of action is to vote “No”.

I want to question that assumption. I want to challenge the way we are all thinking about it as a Church. I want to propose that the most God-honouring thing might be to vote in favour of same-sex marriage, or otherwise to abstain from voting at all. And I want to invite Christians to consider choosing one of these two options. I don’t see this as a case of disregarding the Bible’s teachings for pragmatic or any other reasons; I see it as an honest attempt, with fear and trembling, to apply Biblical priorities and principles to a complex world.

*TLDR: I understand that this article borders on the gargantuan. It has been incredibly hard to try to do the topic justice as concisely as I can.

But I have make this article skimmable by putting some of the most important sentences in bold.

 

INTRODUCTION

The moral vs the political

The first thing I want to clear up is that the question about the moral status of homosexual relationships is a related but completely separate question to the question of same-sex marriage. One is a purely moral question, the other is a political and legal question. The political takes into account the moral, but it also takes into account many other things. This is why, while it’s immoral for high school girls to systematically and vindictively exclude each other from their lunch time groups, it’s not illegal and shouldn’t be. Christians believe that it’s immoral for two unmarried people to have sex with each other, but we don’t believe it should be illegal. Likewise, we may believe that homosexual sex is outside of God’s best intentions for human sexuality, but we don’t believe that it ought to be illegal, even though not that long ago it was. That is because the state (in a Western democracy) is rightly not intrinsically interested in punishing people for immoral acts. It is interested in creating whatever laws happen to enable our society to function peacefully and prosperously. Of course the definition of peace, prosperity, and the good life, will be determined by one’s ethical worldview. And so it is not that good laws won’t be informed by a moral framework. But the laws are not equal to the framework.

And this is a wonderful context for Christianity to operate in because it means that we have the opportunity to persuade people to freely choose to live God’s way rather than have them coerced to do so by the government. To God, only voluntary obedience is of any worth. God want our hearts, not just our actions. He’s only interested in obedience that comes from genuine love and desire – something which no amount of legislation can generate. And for the most part, Christians in Australia get this. There are all kinds of moral laws that we don’t think should be enforced by law. So, why then is it that so many of us automatically think that if God disapproves of homosexual activity, that that answers the question of what the state’s role is in recognising homosexual couples? The Bible is clear on sexuality itself and what marriage is. But it is actually silent on how Christians ought to respond to a nation of unbelievers that want to deviate from the Biblical understanding of marriage. Why, then, do so many of us default to thinking that the questions of homosexuality itself and of gay marriage are one and the same question?

Framing the debate

Of course not all who oppose same-sex marriage (hereafter SSM) have simplified things to quite that degree. Many have thought very carefully about this, concluding that not only from a moral point of view is God’s intention for marriage that it be between a man and a woman, but also that the legalisation of homosexual marriage will not be conducive to the flourishing of our society. And this question of the societal consequences of SSM has dominated the debate. To convince a secular culture, Christians have produced numerous secular arguments positing that SSM will not be good for our society. I want to spend the first portion of this article assessing whether the arguments we’ve given against gay marriage can reasonably be expected to succeed in persuading a secular mind. From there I will begin to look at whether these and other argument ought to persuade Christians to vote against SSM.

 

 

PART 1: PERSUADING NON-CHRISTIANS

The rights of children

Many Christians have said that children have a right to being raised by both of their biological parents, that this is the ideal, and gay marriage, by design, robs some children of that possibility. Well… the thing is, not really. Because, regardless of whether or not they are married, gay couples are already raising children. They can legally adopt children, and many of them also choose for one member of the couple to have a biological child by whatever means, and for them to raise that child together. I don’t know how to put this more clearly. This is already happening. The ability of same-sex couples to be married makes no difference to whether or not they raise children.

Further, while I do believe that a child being raised by both of their biological parents who are married to each other is the ideal situation for any child, we must remember that this is only one of many factors that contribute to the ideal situation. We know that countless children who are raised by both of their biological parents are experiencing terrible domestic situations. No, that doesn’t negate the fact that both biological parents is ideal, but it shows that the presence of both biological parents isn’t by itself enough to create the ideal. There also needs to be love, economic security, good access to education, safety from physical and sexual abuse, and so, so many other factors. All other things being equal, a child will be better off with both of their biological parents, but the reality is all other things are not equal. We are not going to get the ideal in most cases so we simply need to accept the good. And there exist gay couples who are in a far better position to provide a good upbringing for some children than those children’s biological parents. Moreover the statistics show that the adoptive children of same-sex couples tend to do better in life than the overall average, yes the overall average. This is partly because gay couples that wind up adopting tend to be people who really, really want kids, and are also in a financial position to go through the difficult and expensive process of adoption. Meanwhile all manner of heterosexual couples around the world are having children by accident, well before they’re financially or emotionally ready to do so. It’s just wrong to say that gay couples can’t provide children with genuine, meaningful love. Many of them can be far better parenting teams than than innumerable heterosexual couples. This is something I believe the church needs to accept and embrace.

Children as a reason for gay marriage

Now there’s more to say about children. One of the ways Christians have argued against SSM is to bring up the whole question of, why does the state even need to play any role in marriage in the first place? Why not just leave the state out of it and leave marriage as a purely cultural (and sometimes religious) phenomenon? The reason, which I think is a good answer to a good question, is because of children. Children need parents, and children are going to be way better off if both of their parents stick together. State sanctioned marriage is a way of adding legal force to the union of a couple, such that when they produce children, the state makes it hard for them to leave each other. That legal accountability to the couple’s marriage vows is in the child’s interest. The anti SSM argument goes, since gay relationships are inherently sterile, there’s no need for the state to take an interest in them.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I realised how much this argument backfires. And boy does it backfire. Because it actually turns out to be one of the best arguments for gay marriage that I’ve been able to think of.

Think about it… Gay couples have children. What would happen to those children if their gay parents were to split up? Wouldn’t that make things worse for the child? Isn’t the fact that the state’s interest in marriage is contingent only on the rearing of children a really good reason for the state to barge in on gay relationships and keep those families together too? Isn’t the welfare of children a really good reason to have gay marriage?

What’s in a name?

But of course, why call it marriage? One common argument we’ve made against SSM is that, well, that’s not what marriage is. Marriage has always been defined as the union of one man and one woman. To take a word and a concept that has always meant one thing, and then to redefine it as we see fit is just dishonest – calling something marriage doesn’t make it marriage. We can have same-sex relationships, but why do we need to call them marriage? I will say that this argument is especially relevant in present-day Australia in which the legally recognised de facto relationships that gay couples can partake in enjoy almost all of the legal benefits of marriage. For the most part all they really lack is the name.

This argument is stronger in a way than many others Christians have made because it doesn’t rely on any discredited empirical or factual claims. Instead it appeals to intuitions of both semantics and tradition that are commonly felt – that that’s just not what marriage is. The problem with this is that it can’t really be proven right or wrong. It becomes as much a matter of opinion as disputes about when “next Friday” becomes “this Friday”. It’s just an argument about what people think a word means.

Thus the semantic argument against gay marriage is only as persuasive as its sentimental power. And it has some, but can that power match the sentimental power of the gay community seeking the recognition that they feel would be endowed upon their personhood by their inclusion into the institution of marriage? Not even close. The fact is that words can change their meaning; it happens all the time, and if you believe that homosexual relationships are just as virtuous and healthy as heterosexual ones, and if you feel that gay couples are being discriminated against by their exclusion from the symbolic legitimacy that the title “marriage” places upon relationships, then in your mind any semantic conservatism that must be sacrificed to change the definition of the word is a negligible price to pay. And if you think that something of such deep importance to you is being withheld from you because of a mere semantic quibble, you will not feel that you and your community are being afforded due consideration and respect. I see no reason why a person without a Christian sexual ethic ought to be convinced by this argument.

The bottom line

The main point I’ve been trying to make up to this point is, our secular arguments against gay marriage have not convinced our society. But really, we shouldn’t be surprised. The whole enterprise of Christians using secular arguments to persuade secular people to adopt Christian values is a pretty strange one. Why did we ever think that would work? Here’s the bottom line: Despite going to great lengths to downplay its relevance to the debate, the fact can’t be avoided that Christians only have an objection to SSM because of a moral objection to homosexuality. Now, our society simply does not believe, in fact repudiates the very notion, that there is anything morally wrong with homosexuality. And we have learnt well that arguing against SSM by trying to convince people of some moral fault with homosexuality is a lost cause, but we don’t seem to have learnt that, in the absence of that underwriting moral objection to homosexual relationships themselves, no argument against SSM will ever make adequate sense.

 

PART 2: PERSUADING CHRISTIANS

 

And so I think the project of using secular arguments to persuade our culture against SSM is a failed one. The question now is, how ought these arguments be received by us as Christians?

Sticking to our job (The problem with secular arguments)

Well, to my mind one of the overarching problems with all these secularised arguments that have characterised so much of the Church’s opposition to SSM is that it’s not our job as Christians to make them. Because these secular arguments by their very design go beyond what God has revealed to us. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong (though I think they are), but it means that they’re not the things God has sent us to tell the world. I recently read an anti-SSM article by a Christian who analysed Roman and Greek culture and attributed both of their declines to the breakdown of the strength of the family unit due to sexual deviance. It predicted that if we continue down our current path the same thing will happen to us. Arguments like this, as well as ones about the impact SSM would have on children and semantic arguments about the meaning of a word, strike me as being disconnected from the message God has told us to tell the world. If the redefinition of marriage will cause a gradual deterioration of the family and therefore society, God hasn’t told us about it. Because the Bible never tells us that; we have reasoned it ourselves. These insights didn’t come from someone’s knowledge of the Bible, but from someone’s knowledge of sociology and political philosophy. Anyone could have made these insights, regardless of whether they’re a Christian. And being a Christian doesn’t make you the best amateur sociologist, philosopher or historian. We are not called to be right about everything; we are just called to be right about who Jesus is.

Being a Christian ought to have no bearing whatever on whether I am persuaded by secular arguments against SSM that are based on worldly predictions about its effect on children, families, and broader society. That SSM would be bad for children or will cause society to crumble is not the “Christian position.” It is just the position some Christians have taken. Being a Christian does not constrain you to accept it.

I believe that we as the Church would have much to gain if we focus our energies on saying the things that only we can say. And leave it to the world to discuss worldly matters. It is not our job as Christians to correct the world on everything. It’s not our job to tell them about insights we have arrived at by our own intelligence. Our job is to deliver to them the message God has spoken. And I believe the more we strip our message down to focussing on just the things God has said, the more fresh, inspired, credible, and powerful our message will be. Because the world doesn’t need to hear our ideas one trillionth as much as it needs to hear God’s. And I wonder if the fact that we think we have time to do someone else’s job means we have been neglecting to do our own.

A stalemate of symbols

I’ve been trying to show that our secular arguments against SSM have failed to show that there will be any negative societal consequences as a result of gay marriage – in fact it could well have good consequences for children. These anti-SSM arguments don’t convince non-Christians and they shouldn’t convince Christians either, especially since they have little to do with Christianity. Concordantly, at the end of the day is that it is only those who have some moral objection to homosexuality itself that have any reason to oppose SSM.

And at this point, I think we all have to admit that the significance of gay marriage is almost entirely symbolic. Of course, both sides of the debate have been using this as an argument. The gay rights movement say, “It’s just a symbol, why does it matter to you so much?” And the Christians say, “It’s just a symbol, why does it matter to you so much?” While I think both of these arguments are actually quite powerful, I’ve come to realise that gay people’s desire for the symbol of marriage is not as childish as I once thought. Symbols are important in society, and they communicate things very powerfully. For gay couples to be bear the title “marriage” means that, after centuries of persecution for their sexuality, gay relationships are recognised as just as legitimate and valuable and human as heterosexual ones.

It can be easy to forget that it’s actually not easy to be gay, even in 21st Century Australia. That there are very few people who, if given the choice, would choose that orientation given the hardships it comes along with in life: There is still discrimination, there is still marginalisation, there is still bullying – things that I just have no experiential understanding of. Same-sex marriage, by contrast, would be a powerful symbolic recognition of the equal personhood of homosexual people. It would reverse the message that society has sent to gay people for centuries – that they are unworthy of consideration, dignity, even safety – and instead it would celebrate homosexual people, saying that they and their relationships are valid, valued, and important. I think the impact this would have on the lived experience of a gay person is real. The felt safety and affirmation of living in a society that is officially on their side is, I think, a very important thing to take into account.

Christians want to affirm and celebrate homosexual people, but they’re uncomfortable with society celebrating homosexual relationships.

Christians, the world, and sin

So what is the right Christian reaction to the world celebrating something the God denounces? Well here I think Christians need to remember that we do not own this world. That our citizenship is in Heaven, and we are sojourners and exiles here on Earth. That our job is not to shape the present world into our image, but to conform ourselves into Christ’s image so that in us the world can see Christ. That we are not called to demand that the world act like God’s kingdom, but are called to simply be God’s kingdom and invite those in the world across the border.

Of course, part of the way we be God’s kingdom is indeed by defending the oppressed and marginalised, which sometimes does involve petitioning governing authorities to act mercifully and justly. But read the New Testament: This directive for the Church was never about holding society to a standard of morality or holiness for its own sake – it was always mandated specifically with a view towards helping “the least of these.” That is, the goal was not to hold people to account for their evils, but to alleviate the impact of evil on the lives of those affected. The New Testament always assumed that the world will follow its own way. That’s why Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 tells us that it is not for us to judge outsiders; it is only for us to judge within the Church (and note that the context here is specifically about sexual sin). The Church is only called to intervene in the world’s sin where there is a victim in need of protection. The fact is, homosexual sex is an act committed between two consenting individuals. There is no victim involved that the Church needs to step in to protect. I believe that what unbelievers do regarding homosexual activity is not under our jurisdiction; it is not our concern.

Likewise, unless we can show that the state’s sanctioning of same-sex marriage will have serious, real-life, foreseeable, damaging consequences for our society – that it would entail the oppression of someone – I don’t think it makes any sense to try to hold the nation to our standard. I believe it is a case for the Church to let the world be the world, while showing them what it is to be the Kingdom.

 

PART 3: RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

 

But here’s a question: What if the victim is the Church?

That is, what if the legalisation of same-sex marriage will entail violations of the rights of Christians (or people of other faiths) to sincerely disagree? This is where one of the more significant concerns Christians have about SSM comes into play – that of religious freedom: Will pastors be compelled by law to marry same sex couples or otherwise go to prison, as does seem to be happening in some countries? Will all ideological disagreement with SSM be defined by law as hate speech?

The wrong target

Well the thing is, no matter how connected they are, the legalisation of same-sex marriage and the Church’s right to disagree with it are fundamentally distinct issues. There is no necessary connection between the legalisation of SSM and the prosecution of anyone who refuses to conduct same-sex weddings. Currently in Australia, celebrants are under no obligation to marry any couples they don’t want to marry for pretty much any reason, even if it’s because they’re a part of the wrong denomination. There is no reason why the broadening of the definition of marriage should change that. And in reality all the proposed legislation for SSM includes provisions for celebrants to refuse to marry couples based on sincerely held religious beliefs.

More broadly, it’s one thing to make a law; it’s quite another to say that you’re not allowed to disagree with that law. The question of religious freedom is not about whether SSM exists, but about whether people are allowed to disagree with it. There are so many laws that we all have a right to express disagreement on; why should SSM laws be any different? And on any laws with which there is no right to express disagreement, the problem is not that the law exists, but that freedom of speech doesn’t. Why do we think that the prevention of SSM is necessary for the retention of religious freedom? Any threat to religious liberty that SSM comes along with is not an essential part of what SSM is, and can be quite easily avoided with well worded legislation. In fact I fear that the more we push this idea that we cannot have SSM and religious freedom simultaneously, the more we perpetuate the narrative that tolerance equals agreement and that it is impossible to have a society in which peaceful disagreement exists. Even if problems for religious freedom do arise out of SSM, they can be resolved without having to going back to the traditional definition of marriage. Because the enemy of religious freedom is not gay marriage; it is religious intolerance. We can accept gay marriage while still fighting against religious intolerance. I am aware that there have been serious violations of religious freedom in some countries in relation to gay marriage. But I am saying that I don’t think preventing gay marriage is the only way, or the best way to stop such things from happening.

The Church vs.

But here’s the thing, even if the gay lobby is a bloodthirsty persecution machine that is out to get Christians (which I really do doubt is their main objective), what is that to us? It troubles me that one of the main and most strongly felt objections the Church has to SSM is the threat that SSM poses to the Church, as if we object to it because we feel threatened. It makes me wonder what we think our goal is as Christians. This passionate resistance to SSM for the sake of safeguarding our religious freedom comes across as if Christians are primarily concerned with protecting our own tribe, even at the expense of others. I fear that it communicates to the gay community that we are more worried about our own well being than we are about theirs. And more than that, I fear that we are more worried about our own well being than we are about theirs. I fear that it communicates to the gay community that we have an “us vs. them” mentality towards them. And more than that I fear that we do have an “us vs. them” mentality, as if our purpose as Christians in this world is just to get on with this life peacefully and happily, defending ourselves against any competing tribes who try to stop us from getting our due.

My friends, why would we try to compete with the world when we exist for the world? We are the Church. We are not of this world. The world’s concerns are not our concerns. It’s wars are not our wars. Its governments are not our adjudicators, and its armies are not our defenders. We serve a higher King, and he has sent us with one mission, and that mission defines our every action: to serve the world by preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. Don’t we know that there is nothing the world can throw at us that can threaten the Church? The Church is indestructible. It exists and persists by the very power of God, and not even the gates of Hell itself could ever prevail against it. Why are we trying to protect the Church from the world when it is the Church’s job to save the world?

Should we chase after persecution? Certainly not. Should we try to avoid persecution by reasoning with those in power? Absolutely. But we can do that without opposing gay marriage. And avoiding the persecution of the Church by stopping gay marriage from happening makes it appear as if the gay community is Christian enemy number one. It is seen by the gay community as us persecuting them before they gain the power to persecute us. Indeed, I wonder if their assessment is accurate. It appears as if we are vigilantly careful with our lives, but callously reckless with theirs, willing to prevent them from enjoying the recognition of marriage in order to avoid hardships for ourselves even though these hardships can be avoided in other ways.

These actions are pushing gay people away from us. This unnecessary yet firm opposition to gay marriage creates an enmity between the Church and gay people, and is thus a hindrance to them hearing the Gospel. And for that reason it can’t possibly be the best way to escape persecution as Christians. It’s important to avoid persecution and to value our earthly lives. But it’s more important to reach other people with the Good News, and value their eternal lives. How can we make an enemy out of the ones God has sent us to rescue?

Overall, I am personally not too worried about religious freedom in the face of SSM in Australia. I would like to trust the people of the Australian SSM movement when they say they’re not trying to take away religious liberty from anyone but are only trying to increase their own liberties. Apart from anything else I think that choosing to trust people is a good way of building trust. But ultimately I think we are faced with something of far more urgent concern than the distant possibility of the loss of religious freedom. Because the Church is indestructible. But the lives of gay people are not.

 

PART 4: THE RELATIONSHIP PRIORITY

 

We are losing more than a debate

The reality is, we are losing this debate. But there is something more important to talk about. Because we are losing more than a debate. We are losing friendships. The relationship between the Christian and the gay communities is currently entirely occupied with – to the point of being defined by – the debate over same-sex marriage. And because of this, the relationship between our two groups is overwhelmingly characterised by enmity. The debate about SSM is getting in the way of relationship. And as Christians we need to take that as a serious problem.

I recently read an article written by an Australian Christian that pointed out the fact that relationships are being torn apart by the debate over SSM. But to my disappointment, the author was pleased to sacrifice these relationships and friendships for the sake of “speaking the truth”. He considered the division to be the fault of gay people’s unwillingness to listen to truth. And he encouraged Christians to continue to speak out against gay marriage to their gay friends, even at risk of losing the friendship.

I propose that that is actually not a Godly way of approaching this. I think there is a better way. There is a difference between being a people pleaser and being someone who simply values relationships. While we mustn’t live for the praise and approval of people, we must follow Paul’s example in becoming all things to all people that by all means we might save some (1 Corinthians 9:22). We must aspire, as Paul commends in 1 Timothy 3:7, to be well thought of by unbelievers. And we must obey the command in Romans 12:18 to, if possible, as far as it depends on us, live peaceably with all. (I find that it tends to depend on “us” far more than we realise.) See, there is a way of not caring what people think that is actually just a lack of care for people – an unchristlike disregard for relationships.

To me the fact that there is such a wide and deep division between the Christian community and the gay community is too terrible, too important, too alarming a reality to accept and settle for. Are we really ok with allowing several generations of gay people to be almost entirely unreached by the Gospel? I believe we the Church (and not just previous generations of the Church but this one) are more responsible for this divide than many of us have realised. I do not think we have been doing all that we can to live peaceably with the gay community. I don’t think we have been doing all that we can to save them. I think there is yet more we can do. We have been choosing to sacrifice peace for the sake of “speaking the truth.” But we need to understand that this is not just about a debate between ideologies. This is not just about what the correct answer is to a philosophical question. This is about people. And the fact is, Christians are pushing gay people away by our insistence on continuing to fight against gay marriage. And as we push them away from our community, we become a hindrance to them discovering the love of Christ.

What are they hearing?

What do you think is the main message God wants to communicate to gay people? I think it is clear: God wants to say that he loves them. The main message God has for the gay community is not about marriage, or sex, or sexuality. It is the same message he has for everyone: He loves them and he wants them. But what do you think is the main message gay people are hearing from Christians? How often do we talk publicly about homosexual people in a way that isn’t dominated by the topic of SSM, and isn’t broadly characterised by disagreement? Unfortunately, most gay people seem to believe that the primary attitude of Christians towards them is one of opposition, and our primary message towards them can be aptly summarised as, “No.”

I am not okay with gay people thinking that God’s main message for them is that he is against them. Whether we mean it or not, our fervent opposition to their ability to get married is taken by them as fervent opposition to them as people. It doesn’t matter if we don’t actually oppose or hate gay people. If they think we do, we have a problem that we must take responsibility for. A pastor friend of mine once told me that effective communication is not about the message you deliver; it’s about the message they receive. As the Church I think we need to start taking responsibility for the message that the LGBT community is receiving from us. Because here’s the thing: Our attempts to try to clarify that our resistance to gay marriage has nothing to do with any contempt for them as people clearly haven’t worked. They just don’t believe us. And it’s not enough to just say that that’s their fault and they should believe us. Put yourself in their shoes for one second: Would you really believe the Church if you were them?

That same pastor friend of mine recently said something to me that stuck: The Church hasn’t been there for gay people. We weren’t there for them when their sexual activity was outlawed. We weren’t there for them when they were hunted down and beaten in the streets. We weren’t there to defend and stand up for them when they were being bullied in schools and workplaces. We haven’t been there on their side in the past. Why should we expect them to listen to us now? Why should they believe that the Church’s current antagonism to gay marriage is not just more of the same disregard for their welfare that they have come to know all too well from the Church?

 

PART 5: A WAY FORWARD

 

I am convinced that the only way that we can mend the relationship between Christians and gay people is to, believe it or not… stop arguing with them. Stop speaking and acting against same-sex marriage. Stop being an obstacle for them getting this thing that means so much to them, that they consider to be the ultimate recognition by the state of their equal personhood. I believe we have said enough about it. I don’t think we need to explain it anymore, or remind them anymore. And unfortunately every sentence we utter in resistance to gay marriage only reinforces the enmity between our two communities and only continues to push them away. The faintest whisper of it is a deafening screeching in their ears that drowns out anything we try to say about God’s love for them. I believe it is time to stop talking about gay marriage, and focus entirely on talking to the gay community about God’s perfect, amazing love – for as long as it takes, until they forgive the Church for its sins against them. Until God’s main message to gay people can be heard again.

I think we do need to accept the relative inevitability of SSM in Australia, and the futility of any attempt to prevent it. If SSM is blocked this time around, it will only be postponed another few years, and the cost will be a gay community that is even more frustrated and alienated from ourselves than before. We need to ask ourselves, is this losing battle worth continuing to fight, at the expense of enormous relational damage, just for the symbolic value of not giving in? Was this battle ever worth winning in the first place? Is this really what God has commissioned us to do? Are we going to stay in this sinking ship and go down with it, along with any hope of reaching current generations in the gay community with the love of Christ?

I want same-sex marriage legislation to pass in Australia because 1) I believe it would make Australia feel kinder and safer for gay people, 2) It’s not the mission of Christians to hold the world to our standards on this type of issue, and 3) I believe it would end a conversation, a conversation that is not doing the gay community or the Church any good.

My invitation to Christians

Christians, I can’t tell you how to vote. Part of what I’m trying to challenge here is the notion that there is only one Christian way to vote on this issue. But I am asking you to seriously consider joining me in voting “Yes” to same-sex marriage. To do this as an act of friendship, so that we can help make the world better and kinder for gay people. So that they can feel safe and valued as equals in this country. And so that this monumental obstacle in the way of relationship, and this loud distraction from God’s main message to the gay community, will be gone.

If you don’t feel that you are able to vote “Yes,” I would ask you to consider abstaining from voting. You don’t have to help make SSM happen, but you don’t have to take action to prevent it either.

I am sure at this point the objections are still many. Let me now consider a couple of objections you might be thinking about:

What do they need to know?

You might be thinking, “Well they need to know the truth.” But, first of all, not all true things need to be said at any given time. Proverbs tells repeatedly of the wisdom of silence. Proverbs 12:23 says, “A prudent man conceals knowledge,” (also see Proverbs 10:19, 13:3, 29:11, 29:20). Wisdom tells us when to refrain from speaking true things because we understand the consequences of our words. Second of all, telling someone something doesn’t make them know it. They already know what Christians think the truth is. Saying it again won’t suddenly make them believe that it is the truth. The only piece of knowledge they’ll gain if you tell them that homosexuality is sinful is that you think that. Just because you’ve said something to someone, doesn’t mean they’re any closer to believing it.

And third, yes, you’re right they need to know the truth: They need to know that they are deeply and unconditionally loved by the one who created them. They need to know this desperately and urgently. And our loud talking against gay marriage is stopping them from being able to know that truth! People need to know the truth but they don’t need to know every truth equally. Some truths are more important than others. It is nowhere near as important that they are told about the Christian understanding of homosexuality as it is that they are told about what God has done for them in Jesus. We do not need to convert them to a Christian sexual ethic. That on its own will ultimately do nothing for them. We need to invite them into a relationship with Jesus, and upon their acceptance of that invitation can we then begin to graciously and slowly work out with them what discipleship looks like, knowing that neither they nor we will ever have it all worked out. Telling them about the Christian sexual ethic is hindering them from hearing about Christ. It is infinitely more important that they hear about Christ. I don’t want these people to miss out on Jesus because I was pushing them away by talking about something other than Jesus!

The meaning of a vote

Now maybe you’re thinking that by voting yes you’d be enabling or condoning sin. But first of all, gay people are already in homosexual relationships and will continue to be whether they’re married or not. This is not going to affect people’s sexual behaviour. So certainly doesn’t enable anything that is currently disabled. And second, saying that it necessarily condones sin fails to appreciate the complexity of what a vote means.

The crazy thing about democracy is that we have the opportunity to express our preference, but our form of expression is always limited to a one-word answer to an incredibly complex question. A lot of Christians think that by voting in favour of same-sex marriage, you are necessarily expressing an endorsement and approval of same-sex relationships. But, in a world where all kinds of people can prefer the same outcome for radically different reasons, I don’t think it is reasonable to assign only one possible meaning to any given vote. During the Trump vs Clinton election in the USA, there were a number of people who thought Trump was a buffoon, but who wanted to vote for him. Why? Because, for whatever reason, they thought the consequences of him being in office would be better than the consequences of Hillary Clinton being in office. Some of them even thought that Trump’s policies were positively worse than Clinton’s, but that because of his lack of political tact and poor standing with other politicians, he would be unable to get anything done politically, and they thought a president who can get nothing done is better than president Clinton effecting her policies. But I heard so many people say that you can’t vote for Trump because a vote for Trump is by definition an endorsement of him, an affirmation of his fitness for office. They suggested not voting at all. But to this these voters tended to reply that to not vote was to effectively hand the presidency to Clinton, that failing to act was the equivalent of acting towards a worse outcome.

Perhaps you can see here that there were two very different understandings of a vote. One ideological and one consequential. One group saw a vote as an expression of favour and approval towards a candidate; the other saw a vote as an action that influences an outcome. For the latter group, to vote for Trump didn’t mean that they approved of him, and it didn’t mean that they would vote for him in any election at any point in history; it just meant that in that situation, all things considered, they would prefer a state of affairs in which Trump was the president. But the other group saw a vote as an endorsement of a leader and felt that they couldn’t in good conscience express such a thing about Donald Trump.

My point is, I don’t think either the ideological voters or the consequentialist voters had a monopoly of correctness on that question. There were genuine merits to both sides, and we don’t need to go around to people insisting that their vote expressed one particular idea. I think there is room for many people to vote for the same thing for different reasons. To deny that possibility fails to appreciate the complexity of a democratic society, and the complexity of every single issue that has ever been voted on. It is precisely because voting is a single-word answer to a complex question that large, diverse populations are able to vote on anything at all. The more detail you put into an option on a ballot paper, the more reasons there will be for large portions of voters to disagree with it. If we had to choose between two 1000-word essays on the merits of either side, almost no-one would find either option to be representative of their view. The fewer words in the ballot, the fewer words we put in voter’s mouths. Voting is vague, and that is a good thing. Any vote can be interpreted in a number of ways. To say that voting “Yes” to gay marriage intrinsically means that you endorse the celebration of homosexuality is like saying that voting “No” intrinsically means that you hate gay people. Both of these are putting words in people’s mouths.

For me, voting “Yes” means that, in the current state of affairs, all things considered, I think the best outcome for our society will be if gay couples are able to get married. Could I be misinterpreted? Sure. But, first of all, Jesus didn’t seem to worried about being misinterpreted to be condoning sin when he associated with sinners. He seemed much more concerned with ensuring that these sinners knew they were loved. And it was an absolute scandal. And second, as I’ve mentioned, voting “No” could be misinterpreted. Voting “No” can and will be received by a vast number of gay people as expressing hatred or disdain for gay people. How is that better than being interpreted to be endorsing homosexuality? We’re worried about being seen to endorse sin? Hatred is sin. Being a violation of literally the most important commandment, hatred is one of the worst sins – a status never given to homosexuality in the Bible. I’m just saying, if I’m going to be misinterpreted, I would rather be interpreted to be endorsing homosexuality than to be hating gay people. Not only because hatred is worse than homosexuality, but because the appearance of hatred on my part would be a hindrance to homosexual people discovering the goodness of God.

See, I don’t think God is as concerned with the formal appearance of our actions as he is with their relational consequences. I believe God is more concerned with the practical than the symbolic. It’s not that God doesn’t care about symbolic things; it’s just that in the face of really big practical issues, symbols are not his first priority. It seems to me that the Church has been preoccupied with a symbol in the face of the very serious practical problem of our relationship with the gay community. In the present situation, I want to prioritise remedying a significant real-world problem with my vote.

What to do with uncertainty

I have to acknowledge that this is a very, very complicated topic. And, while I believe I hold my position with integrity and with good reasons, I do not have absolute certainty about it. So if I am uncertain, would it be better to err on the side of caution and “No”? Well, no, I don’t think so at all.

When Jesus healed a man on a Saturday, the Pharisees were caught up in the technicality of Jesus having “worked” on the Sabbath. Now, the Law forbade working on the Sabbath, but it actually didn’t stipulate what “work” means. Jesus responded to the Pharisees by asking whether it is lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm (Mark 3:4). That is, he filled in the questions the Law leaves unanswered not with further regulation, but with the rule of compassion.

As I mentioned earlier, the Bible is silent on the issue of how to respond to a nation that wants to deviate from the Biblical understanding of marriage. It is a complex question in a complex situation. I think to say that marriage in the Bible is between a man and a woman and therefore we must obviously do everything in our power to ensure that non-Christians in our country to define it that way too is an oversimplification. And it fails to deal with the important relational factors that are at play in this situation. It fails to take into account how our speaking and our voting will affect individuals, communities, and the relationships between our communities. But I also cannot say that we should obviously vote “Yes”. That would be rather hypocritical, and I just don’t think any answer to this question is obvious. But when things get complicated, and there are arguments for both sides, and I am at risk of error whichever way I choose, out of reverence for God I would rather err on the side of compassion than err on the side of technical correctness. I would rather choose that which I know in myself is motivated by love and has foreseeable practical rewards than that which seems pious and orthodox but has foreseeable practical costs. God is not a bureaucrat. He’s our Father. And I’m making this decision in the context of relationship with him. I could be wrong. But if I am wrong, God knows what led me to choose wrongly. He knows that in a complex situation it was a decision motivated by love. And I pray that that pleases him, either way.

 

 

CONCLUSION

 

The following I don’t say as an accusation but as a confession: I believe that we as the Church have failed the gay community. We, who are called to be the defenders of the marginalised and the oppressed, have failed to defend these people, many times because we have been the very ones we were supposed to defend them against. For me, voting “Yes” to same-sex marriage is my way of saying, “I’m sorry we haven’t been there for you before, but I want to be there for you now.”

I want to help make the world better, safer, kinder, for gay people. I want them to live in a society where they feel that they are valued as equals. I want to be known individually as a Christian who prioritises love, compassion, kindness, and relationship. I don’t consider myself to be very good at doing that. But I hope I am getting there, and I hope this decision to vote in favour of same-sex marriage is a step along that path. I want gay people to believe that the Church is on their side, that our main message for them is about a love that is stronger and deeper and better than they can even imagine, a love that upstages everything, undoes everything, changes everything.

Imagine what could happen if they received that message.

I don’t believe they can hear it and hear a Church opposed to same-sex marriage at the same time. And I truly believe that the Church has no mandate from God to contest against gay marriage in this world. We must remember where our true citizenship lies – a Kingdom from which we come to the Earth as ambassadors and servants. What if, before trying to tell the gay community how we can serve them, we listened to them?

Perhaps it is not until they have the world as they want it that they will be willing to hear about a new world.

When faced with all the crimes the Church has committed in the past and the present – the judgementality, the bigotry, the discrimination, even the violence – the Christian who doesn’t understand unity will turn to the world and denounce and condemn these “other Christians”, distancing themselves from their works.

But the Christian who understands unity will turn to the world and say, “I am sorry.”

On the Unity of the Church – What is this thing called Christianity?

[Edit (03/10/14): Apologies for how long this post is. If you’re in a hurry you may find it effective to just read the bits in bold to get the main points, and prioritise reading the final section.]

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“Christianity” can mean so very many things.

When you meet enough people – especially people who have met a lot of other people – and when you see enough of the world, you must concede this fact, that two different “Christians,” when randomly plucked from different places on the globe, will not necessarily adhere to beliefs or practices that at all resemble each other. To study history only multiplies this phenomenon: not only is Christianity different from one place to another, but also from one time to another, within the same place! Over the centuries since Jesus walked the earth, those who claim to follow him have said and done radically different and irreconcilable things. In the name of Jesus, some people have fed the hungry and clothed the poor, while other people have fought wars and taken land by force; some people have abolished slavery, while others have enslaved generations; some people have set up schools as centres of free education, while others have sought to suppress and persecute free thought. Some Christians have called Jesus the very Son of God, while others have called him only a good teacher; some have said that salvation is a free gift received by faith, while others have said we are to earn our way into Heaven by our good deeds. Some Christians believe fully in the authority of scripture, while others say it’s only a flawed human guideline. Of those who do believe the Bible, they can’t agree on how long it took God to create the Earth, or whether God exists as a Trinity, or whether or not women ought to preach. All the while some of these people are singing hymns while others sing rock music – and have even waged war on each other over differences comparable to this.

I hope you get the point. There is a serious question on the minds of so many people on the outside, looking in: What is this thing called “Christianity”? And why can’t its proponents get along? How can you say that there is one Christian religion worth talking about, when there as many interpretations of it as there are “Christians”? Of course, Christians like myself will say that people who fight wars in the name of Christianity have entirely abandoned the very essence of what Jesus came to earth to achieve – a kingdom “not of this world” (John 18:36). “They are not true Christians,” I will say. But of course that’s exactly it, they shall reply: who gets to decide who are the true Christians and who are the fake ones? Your peaceful Christianity is just your interpretation, while those who want to advance Christendom by the sword will tell you that your interpretation is wrong; you are the fake Christian. Who, then, can be the arbiter? Who can really say what ‘true’ Christianity is?

To complicate matters further, while there are a whole bunch of people who claim to be Christian that I will say are in fact not Christians, there is a whole group of other people whom I affirm when they profess to be Christian, even though I disagree with them on smaller but still major theological issues, such as the nature of God’s sovereignty and its relationship to human free will, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, or creation and the age of the Earth. Yes it seems as though Evangelical Christians (by which I mean roughly “Protestant Christians who believe that Bible is the sole authoritative word of God and that people must be saved from deserved punishment for sin through a personal faith in the atoning work of Jesus’ death and resurrection”), have decided upon a certain set of criteria for what it is to be a real Christian. We have at some point drawn a theological circle, inside which you count as a Christian and outside which you don’t. And of course, “to be a Christian” is here synonymous with “to be saved”, and thus such theological line drawing comes with a certain level of moral connotation, and can cause all sorts of offence. And yet such line drawing must be done, for not just any old person who believes any old thing can be called a “Christian” just because we want to be nice – no more than just anybody can be called a “hipster” (not that they necessarily want to be). The question then is, on what basis do we mark the cut-off between Christian and not? Just how much can a person disagree with me before I say they have departed from the true faith? Ultimately, on what basis can I say that there is one religion called Christianity? Continue reading

Don’t preach against abortion if you’re not willing to help take care of abandoned children – and single mothers.

Don’t preach against corporate greed if you’re not willing to give your possessions to the poor.

Don’t preach against homosexuality if you’re not willing to invest part of your life into befriending and encouraging gay individuals. On that note, don’t preach against homosexuality if you won’t also preach against all bullying inflicted on homosexuals.

And don’t preach about Hell if you’re not willing to put your life on the line to stop people going there.

Love is not something that happens to you.

I am tired of the seeing the mess we all get ourselves into almost entirely because of this profound and ubiquitous misconception.

Love is not a force that acts upon us. It is not something we must wait for. It is not something we idly hope will remain in us. It is not something that binds us to a person we didn’t choose. And neither is it something that diminishes or departs from us at its own will, leaving us stranded.

Love is not something that happens to us.

Love is something that we do. Love is something that we can choose.

And when we realise that we can choose who to love, when to love, and how to love – when we realise how free we in fact are – then we will really be free to love.

For The Love Of Gays

It has come to my attention within probably the last year, the seriousness of the enmity that exists between the Church and the homosexual community – and not just the community, but the lives of individual homosexual people. The relationship between these two groups is at this point in history really quite disastrous.

I’ll illustrate this with a story. After church one night a few months ago, a large group (about 20 or 30) of my church friends and I went to a local restaurant for our weekly post-church dinner. We hadn’t been to this particular restaurant before, and we were all having an interesting time noticing that things weren’t running quite right. Continue reading