Amending the Marriage Act: the case for change
Tuesday, 6 December 2016
| Karl Hand
How should Evangelicals respond to marriage reform?
Australian society is considering changing the Australian Marriage Act to allow couples of the same gender to marry. In this short article, I am going to present some reasons why I think Christians of all theological and ethical views should support the reform.
I feel confident that a high percentage of Ethos readers, as intelligent Evangelical Christians, will agree with me on a few basic values, so I will begin by outlining these. Then, I will make three claims of cumulative weight about why Christians should support amending the Marriage Act.
Firstly, I think Ethos readers will tend to agree on a high view of scripture, as God’s revealed, saving and authoritative Word.
Secondly, Christians should show unconditional love to LGBTI people, regardless of our view about the morality or legality of their relationships.
Thirdly, Christians should recognise the dignity of LGBTI people as God’s creation, and we should hope that they come to a relationship with God through Jesus.
Fourthly, I think Ethos readers will share a deep concern and even grief about the way that many in the LGBTI community feel aggrieved by Christian religious institutions, and will desire to heal that rift.
Fifthly, the commitments that many of my LGBTI brothers and sisters have made to celibacy, or to a mixed-orientation marriage (e.g. between a heterosexual male and a homosexual female), are sacred. They are not something that should be undermined. Many ‘affirming’ Christians have taken an attitude (which I view as condescending) that such people need to be rescued from their ‘repressed’ lives. I disagree.
One of my favourite books on this topic is Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting. I disagree with him on many things, but I am in awe of the way he describes his painful choice of celibacy as (quoting Walter Moberly) ‘a life-enhancing vocation of faithfulness to Christ’. To choose such suffering for the sake of Christ is God-glorifying in a way that is so rare in our ‘sexually liberated’ culture. His candidness about the unlikeliness of orientation change has also been instrumental in changing harmful attitudes within the church.
So, I have no agenda in writing this to undermine people like Dr Hill. I am not trying to undermine scripture or shipwreck anyone’s faith. I will recognise that those who disagree with me are not acting maliciously or hatefully towards LGBTI people. By leaving such stereotypes aside, we’ll have an opportunity to really listen to one another.
Based on these assumptions, I want to make three cumulative claims. By this, I simply mean that the earlier claims are the easiest to accept. You might accept the first, but not the second or third. Someone even read a draft and agreed with the second but not the first. Let’s see how far I can take you.
My first claim is simply that Christians shouldn’t oppose the reform.
This requires a certain understanding of the relationship between the church and secular sphere, following Richard Niebuhr’s model in Christ and Culture. Christians should not be opposed or indifferent to human culture, and not try to dominate it. Our relationship with culture is paradoxical, and characterised by Christ transforming and even fulfilling culture.
C. S. Lewis’ words in Mere Christianity are an example of the strategy I’m suggesting:
I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is the quite different question - how far Christians… ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws… the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. (emphasis mine)
I think that we should similarly separate the Christian conception of marriage from our beliefs about marriage reform today.
This is not an absolute principle. I am well aware of the response to this argument that says Christians must engage with social justice issues. This includes the welfare of children who live in families, formed by marriages. The theological ground for such involvement is based on the creational good of marriage modelled in Genesis 2.
However, even though this is true, opposing marriage reform now (or in Lewis’ day) is not a good idea. The loving opposition of Christians in such settings is not effectively communicating the intended love. It probably won’t even prevent the suggested harms anyway, because kids with two mums or dads will still exist regardless of the marriage reform. We need the wisdom of the military general who chooses which battle to fight and where, based on the impact this will have on the whole war.
The Early Church was wise like this. They saw some shocking, orgiastic, dehumanising expressions of sexual immorality in Roman society. Their response was to feed the poor, build hospitals and orphanages, and live in communities in which dominance and violence were overcome in the New Creation. Their visible, effectively communicated agape was magnificently effective in converting the Roman Empire.
My second claim is that we should actually recognise this reform as a beneficial outcome within the secular sphere.
We should listen to Jeremiah, who instructed the exiles to seek the good of the city in which they lived (Jeremiah 29:7). That is, Christian witness implies doing things which are beneficial for those who are not following Jesus.
The word used here for ‘good’ is shalom, which means completeness, safety, welfare, health, prosperity, peace, etc., not necessarily moral good.
So, this claim goes further than my previous claim in that is asks you to accept the same empirical research that has led modern psychiatry and jurisprudence to form positive views about the health and legality (the shalom) of same-gender relationships. It does not require you to affirm homosexual relationships.
I may not morally condone heroin use, or teen promiscuity, but I want there to be clean needles and safe injecting rooms, and for very young kids to know what they need to know about how to avoid pregnancy and STIs. When we ‘seek the shalom’ of our addicted or promiscuous neighbour, we are truly being salt and light as Jesus taught us to be (Matthew 5:13–16).
Some examples of materially positive outcomes from the reform would be:
- Challenging the stereotype that says gay, lesbian and bisexual people are incapable of monogamy.
- Family stability for the kids of LGBTI folk.
- Religious freedom for those same gender couples who want marriage for religious reasons.
- Psychological and social wellbeing, by treating same-gender couples with equal dignity.
- Full equality in situations like immigration, and rights to hospital visitation and funeral arrangement.
Non-affirming Christians should be able to rejoice about all these good outcomes from a change in the law.
Now, my final claim will be the toughest sell.
We should recognise it as a morally positive thing for a Christian couple of the same gender to marry.
I am well aware that many can or will not take this final step with me. If so, bless you for coming as far as you did.
Our high view of scripture requires some mention of specific verses in Leviticus and the Pauline Epistles, which cannot be given adequate weight in a discussion this size.
The majority of ‘affirming’ theological works have admittedly been written from a low view of scripture. However, very recently, more Evangelical works arguing for LGBT inclusion in the church have been published. This has in part been possible because of a paradigm shift in the exegetical literature first articulated by Marti Nissinen.
Instead of micro-analysing individual verses, Nissinen focussed on how the ancient Mediterranean world conceived of homoerotic behaviour as a whole. Erotic acts occurred within a hierarchy in which penetration enacted sexual dominance. Men were expected to penetrate only their inferiors, women, slaves, children etc. For men to be dominated by other men, or for women to dominate or penetrate anyone, was seen as an act of violence that shamed the inferior (penetrated) member within the action.
Within this overall understanding of erotic behaviour, various expressions of homoeroticism all fall under Biblical condemnation. This includes rape as an act of dominance, the hieros gamos (ritual sex), pederasty and uncontrolled excess of lust. The Bible is right to condemn these acts, and they should fall under our moral condemnation too.
However, since homoerotic behaviour as an expression of mutual, equal affection within a covenantal relationship is not within the horizon of Biblical culture, it cannot be part of what the Bible is condemning. Of course, Genesis and Paul’s Letters have heterosexual marriage as their point of reference. That was the only expression of erotic behaviour that embodied covenant faithfulness in their cultural horizon.
Contemporary followers of Jesus always need to apply the intent of the text to situations which the original readers of the text never imagined. Western society has very recently become aware of sexual orientation. This has opened up the possibility of a committed sexual partnership between two equal persons of the same sex. To bridge this culture gap between the Biblical and Western world, we can hold up covenant love as the model in which to express such an orientation.
Nowhere in the Bible are the traditional rationales of openness to procreation, hierarchical gender roles or (more recently) ‘anatomical complementarity’ put forward as the basis of morality. Instead, moral sexual relationships in the scriptures are founded on covenant. Adam and Eve are made ‘one flesh’ (lebasar echad, Gen 2:24), a Hebrew term meaning that they entered a covenant of kinship.
This covenant rationale is cited in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 and Ephesians 5:31-32 as the foundation of Christian sexual morality. LGBTI couples, fully capable of upholding the covenant love these passages call for, may model the love of Christ for the Church through mutual submission and faithfulness.
The outcome I would like to see from this discussion, more than anything, is that the five shared assumptions I proposed today will be the basis for a meaningful dialogue. In addition, I have made three claims that I hope you will consider. We who really do love LGBTI people will see just how valuable it would be if our deep-seated disagreements were placed under the healing grace of God.
Karl Hand is a church-planter and the pastor of Crave Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Paddington, Sydney. He came to know Christ in the Pentecostal Tradition, spent his early 20s learning how to think in the Reformed Evangelical environment of Sydney Anglicanism and was formed for ministry in the Liberation Theology context of MCC.
 Wesley Hill, Washed and waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and homosexuality, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010, 75.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York: HarperCollins, 2009, 101–02.
 Francis Brown, S. R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs, eds, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906, s.v. shalom.
 I would most highly recommend David P. Gushee, Changing Our Mind: A Call from America’s Leading Evangelical Ethics Scholar for Full Acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church, Canton, MI: David Crumm Media, 2014; and James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church's Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2013.
 Marti Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective, Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1998.
 Consider the use of basar in verses like Gen 29:14, Lev 18:6 and 25:49, Jude 9:2 etc., where it certainly cannot mean anatomical complementarity.