There has been a large deal of interest and commentary over my recent piece in the Canberra City News – http://citynews.com.au/2015/gay-law-change-may-force-us-to-divorce/. The reason we went public with our decision however was to encourage a deeper debate around some of the unspoken potential issues and consequences of a changing of the definition of marriage. My main concern however has been a general lack of clear understanding among Christians. Therefore I have decided to provide some clarity as well as address some of the more sensible questions raised by my colleagues:
Isn’t divorce a sin in the eyes of God?
This is the most common objection I have found among Christians on social media. Unfortunately it appears that many people have simply read the headlines or stories around my opinion piece rather than the piece itself. What I attempt to do is really draw a distinction between the law a State makes, and God’s law. In ancient Israel this was generally the same thing, and even today most of the time these two will share the same principles, but not always. There have been times in our own history for example where the State law has defined an Aboriginal person as less than human. God’s law however states that we are all equal in Jesus Christ, made in the Imago Dei. Therefore when we make the statement that we would get a ‘divorce’, it is really more of an annulment of our ‘State marriage’. Our marriage under our church and God would still remain, and in this way we would not have broken any of our wedding vows or Biblical definitions. This separation of Laws is not that clear in the Bible (Acts 5:29, Luke 20:25 are the closest) but is certainly much more evident throughout Church History (e.g. St. Augustine’s ‘An unjust law is no law at all’).
This is especially important for young Christians to understand who may think we are saying they shouldn’t get married at all or all people married under the State shouldn’t be. On the contrary, all we are saying is that for a Christian the State law comes second to God’s law, and if in our understanding they contradict, as a couple would no longer be involved in the State’s definition.
Isn’t this just a vain publicity stunt/threat/protest?
I can’t deny I am sometimes vain, but let me be clear about our intentions. I write a semi-regular column in the Canberra CityNews and was requested by the editor to do a piece on same-sex marriage. This decision of ours to annul our marriage if the law change was made over the last few years as we wrestled with potentially the biggest issue of Church and State in the last 500 years. Therefore I agreed to do the piece. The editor decided it was interesting enough to put on the cover, which went viral even before the hard-copy was distributed.
It was not an act of protest, but for us simply an act of Christian witness according to our conscience. We were not ‘threatening’ anything as we have already made the decision and are simply stating the natural consequences for us as individuals. Neither was it intended to be a publicity stunt, as we had no intention of getting this much attention and the fact it was picked up by the media in no way affected our decision.
Don’t you have to be separated for a year to get divorced anyway?
This is true, and in an original draft of my piece this was acknowledged but cut in the final edit. Obviously the problem is that a judge would not grant us a State divorce because we would have to show our marriage is irreconcilably broken and be separated for a year. This is a minor problem however if a simple ‘annulment’ option was available in any legislation for conscientious objectors such as ourselves. If this wasn’t available then perhaps a larger legal challenge could be made (with the irony of the State not allowing us a divorce not lost on me), or some symbolic movements to create awareness of the issue and find a more creative way.
Would a change in legal definition change the nature or value of existing marriages?
This point has been raised by my colleague Rod Benson from the NSW Council of Churches as well as Associate Professor Neil Foster. They deny that any change would change the nature of value of marriages. I tend to agree and in no way are we trying to suggest that our approach is the only valid response if the law did change. In our eyes it is simply following the logic of those ministers who may choose to return celebrant licenses. They would presumably only do ‘religious marriages’ rather than ‘civil marriages’. Some Christian couples would decide that they want both and may get married by their church and then register their relationship with the State. Others, like ourselves, may feel that the religious one is all that is necessary or desirable in the event of a redefinition. We will of course aim to continue to represent a healthy, loving marriage based on Christian principles – we simply feel convicted that the purpose of that marriage would be a clearer witness apart from the State in such a situation.
Isn’t this just defeatist? Shouldn’t we be simply focussing on holding the marriage law as is?
Any indication that we have given up on this legislative battle is not intended. In fact not only do I think the tide is turning on this issue, but also that this attention can help move the debate into the broader consequences around religious freedom, children’s rights, and the nature of marriage itself. I support the ideal as the State upholding marriage as a good law, and have been on the frontline of this issue for 7 years now. What we are doing is at the same time attempting to deepen the discussion and prepare for any outcome. I would be disappointed if this discussion however stopped people writing to their MP’s, talking to their friends, and engaging in the public space in order to keep marriage in its true and good definition.
Aren’t you just being petty and a sore loser?
John Dickson’s piece from the Centre for Public Christianity comes to mind here called ‘The Art of losing well’. Some have painted our act as simply a petty tantrum, a toddler’s reaction who doesn’t want to share and will simply take his toys home if he can’t win. Firstly, this is not about winning and losing. As a Christian trying to be involved responsibly in power my aim is to attempt to influence a society towards what is good, beautiful and true. As soon as we talk about winning and losing, us and them, we have lost the ability to engage well in public policy.
Secondly this decision of ours in not due to any dislike of any people, same sex attracted or not, but simply around how we understand marriage as defined by God. We have always aimed to conduct ourselves in this affair with truth, but also grace, love, and humility. In this way I hope that our action fits more comfortably with Dickson’s ‘cheerful loser’ angle if the law did change, even if it is not portrayed that way in the media.
Isn’t it true that Jesus didn’t say anything against same-sex attraction or marriage?
In a word – No. Jesus was not only quite clear about what marriage is (Mark 10:7) but also uses the word ‘pornea’ (Mark 7:20-23) to describe what he considers as against God’s design which includes the Jewish understanding of appropriate sexual relations (cf. Lev 18:6-23). Despite recent attempts to find some wiggle room on this in regard to same-sex relationships, from a Biblical scholarship perspective this debate is well settled for those who hold a high view of Scripture.
What is it like to be one of the most hated couple in the world right now? How has it affected your family?
It has been a demanding few days for sure, but overall I am happy with how we responded. Certainly most people’s reactions online were quite vitriolic, but in all honesty I am yet to see someone in Australia come out in support of the State retaining traditional marriage without receiving this vitriol (the threats against tennis great Margaret Court come to mind). Our situation obviously caused deep offence to some people due to its unusual nature, but it was not our intention to harm anyone or to make a judgement on the value of other relationships.
We have many family and friends who have been very supportive however and this is of key importance. Our children are not at school yet and this is a real blessing as they would certainly be feeling the pressure if they were. All in all it was non-stop 36 hours and then it mostly quietened down. There have been a few very personal and public attacks following but I find that these only hurt when they are from people you deeply respect.
Lastly, what have you learnt from the experience of going viral?
In all honesty if I had the opportunity I don’t think I would do anything differently or change any part of my opinion piece. It was a tough line to walk trying to translate the meaning of a Biblical marriage with grace into the public sphere. I was generally clear, happy with my message, I didn’t lose my temper, I didn’t attack anyone personally, I stayed on point despite aggressive questions, I managed to protect my wife and children from the media (which was requested by Sarah), didn’t let the threats and abuse made to my phone, email and Facebook bother me, and I felt wise decisions were made around which opportunities I took and which I didn’t.
What has been the biggest boost however is seeing Christians, even those who wouldn’t take the steps I have taken, support me in the many forums. They have defended my right to speak my opinion, rebuked those who abuse, and sought to understand and articulate the points I was actually making rather than what was sensationalised in the media. I hope my stand has not only provided Christians with a deeper discussion around the issues at play, but also inspires them to step out likewise into this furnace in God’s grace. But if not… (Daniel 3:18)