The issue of gay marriage in Australia is on the boil with the inevitable legalizing of same sex marriages close at hand. Confronted with this reality, the Christian church is bound to make a considered response which recognizes the human struggle faced by homosexual people, while at the same time preserving Biblical principles.
Pope Francis set the agenda nicely when he pointed out that the Christian church will "fall like a house of cards" if it continues to obsess about issues such as abortion, gay marriage, contraception and the like. With such issues we move our focus away from the gospel. As he said of a person who had confronted him on the issue of homosexuality. "Tell me - when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person."
Today, in the Western world, we face a fundamental clash of values: a secular world-view which rests on the principle of equality and a religious world-view which rests on the principle of divine truth revealed in the Bible. Marriage, from a secular point of view, is shaped by an egalitarianism which promotes an equality of responsibilities and rights for all people. So, the argument for gay marriage rests on the principle that gays, as well as straights, should have equal access to marriage. To deny a person the right to marry on the grounds of sexual preference is to discriminate against that person. Those who would opposed gay marriage are homophobic, and those who preach against it are "hate preachers." Yet marriage, from a religious point of view, is the union of a man and woman under God and to suggest otherwise is to defy God's revealed will. This clash in values has the potential to cause deep divisions within democratic societies if not handled delicately. Both value systems can survive together where there is mutual respect. The evidence to date is that the modern secular value system of equality is set on a course of aggressively confronting what was once the accepted value system of Western societies, calling out its proponents as homophobic "hate preachers."
A Christian perspective
1. Tradition: Societies from ancient to modern have applied positive discrimination toward heterosexual unions. Even in ancient Greece where homosexuality was socially acceptable, even encouraged, particularly between older men and pubescent boys, marriage was viewed as a heterosexual institution of high status. Marriage was given this status for the provision of the next generation, an institution affirming the micro society of mum, dad and the kids. It has only been in the last ten years that Western societies have considered discarding positive discrimination toward breeders, and one wonders how such action can benefit a society going forward.
2. Marriage as an institution of divine design: The creation story pictures God forming two humans from one, male and female, incomplete in themselves, complete in union. This union, marriage, is established by a creation ordinance - "a man shall leave his father and mother, be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh", Gen.2:24. The resulting family, mum, dad and the kids, serves as the foundational unit of society. So, marriage is a divinely shaped institution, reflected in nature as a design for this age, but not the next, cf., Mk.12:25. Throughout history God has supported the institution, even at times extending the blessing of salvation from an individual to their family, cf., Acts 16:31. From the principle of the integral union of a man and a woman in marriage, to the inviable nature of that union, as defined by Jesus, Matt.5:31f, Lk.16:18, the divine shape of marriage is set in concrete - a work of art by the Master Designer.
3. Grace: Evidenced by the utopian ethic of Jesus, no human ever truly fulfills their marriage vows. Often there are multiple relationships before an official act of marriage, and if the marriage sticks, there are, if not physically, then certainly psychologically, numerous acts of infidelity. Sexual sin can extend to unnatural relations between males or females, and even animals. So, whether we are heterosexually inclined or homosexually inclined, we need to recognize that none of us are righteous, no not one. We are all flawed, we all struggle with our sexuality, we are all compromised and can only survive under the mercy of God. In our relationships we do the best we can, struggling to find some dignity within what may be highly compromised situations. To survive through the compromises of life, the failures and limitations, we can only but face them honestly and throw ourselves on the mercy of God. Gladly God accepts us on the basis of grace, his unmerited favor, and it is this grace which makes us accepting of others.
4. The separation of Church and State: A State rightly legislates on the formation of relationships so as to cover property rights, individual rights, and the responsibilities of child rearing. A State which gives prominence to anti-discrimination legislation may well wish to remove any discrimination under law as to the shape of relational unions. Yet, a State which seeks to legislate on matters of religion, in this case the religious rite of Marriage, a sacrament of the Church, which by definition is the union of a man and woman under God, not only deeply offends religious people, but intrudes on matters properly the domain of the Church, Synagogue, Temple and Mosque. A State which improperly adopts the term Marriage to identify relational unions which defy the meaning of the religious rite of marriage, fails in its responsibility to separate Church and State. If a State wishes to change the very nature of marriage it should choose another title for its unions under law.
The Church State divide has long been muddied in England and its former colonies when it comes to marriage. The Church of England administered marriage, but slowly the State took over its administration under law, although without changing the nature of the institution. Next followed State appointed registrars, then secular celebrants and now the move to change the very nature of marriage itself. So, the problem has been a gradual secularization of the institution, and only now do we see the consequence of the State's failure to separate the functions of Church and State.
5. Secularization: The Christian church no longer speaks with one voice on the issue of homosexuality. Conservatives hold to the view that homosexual sex is sinful and that therefore the institution of marriage cannot properly be extended to gay couples. Liberals hold that, as with the status of women, Biblical injunctions against homosexuality must be reinterpreted in line with our more enlightened view of humanity. Glenn Davies, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, writing on this issue, stated that homosexual acceptance is "the culmination of over thirty years of compromise with Western culture."
6. Freedom of religion: In Australia, a Premier, commentating on the views of an Islamic preacher who said that homosexuality was evil, stated that "I'll always respect a person's right to freedom of religious belief, but under no circumstances do these views have a place in Queensland." Her statement represents the new version of freedom of belief and expression; an extension of Mill's codicil, "except for harm." Freedom of belief and expression is now bound by the confine of offense, which of course means we no longer possess freedom of belief and expression. So much for Milton's "give me the liberty to know and to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties", or Voltaire's "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it", Hall.
7. Denominational response: It is unlikely that any government is going to drop the term Marriage in legislation, nor establish a separation of Church and State on the issue of marriage, nor guarantee in perpetuity protection for the Church from anti-discrimination legislation. This being the case, the Church has no other choice other than separating itself from State administered marriage. The Christian Church needs to remove the secular registration of marriage from the service of Holy Matrimony, issuing a certificate of marriage authorized by the Church, apart from the State - a union under God, but not sanctioned by the State, or by law. The married couple themselves can then later register their union with their local Registrar. It would be proper, in these circumstances, for clergy to no longer function as State celebrants by returning their license. In simple terms, the Christian Church needs to dissociate itself from this intrusion by the State in the affairs of religion.
8. Judgment: It is with great sadness that citizens of faith watch Western society abandon the very building blocks of our democratic institutions. Western societies continue to discard their Christian heritage, replacing it with humanistic atheistic socialism, but the issue of marriage equality is somewhat of a watershed - a blatant act of defiance against divine will. It is one thing to register secular unions of whatever shape, it is another to defiantly prostitute a creation ordinance. It would not be impossible for our political masters to find a consensus path on this issue, but they choose a path of radical social change destined to offend millions of the citizenry. An individual, or state, may fall short of God's will, and continue under his mercy, but to openly and defiantly reverse that will spells disaster. A society which overturns the natural order of God's design must ultimately reap disorder; They who sow the wind will reap the whirlwind.
I well remember a colleague speak of a transgender prostitute he would often say good morning to as he walked down to his local shop - all part of inner city life! On one Christmas she came to the midnight service and it was his joy to share holy communion with her. "'Is there no one to condemn you?' 'No one, sir,' she replied. 'neither do I condemn you', said Jesus. 'Go and sin no more.'"
The Pharisee in us drives us to exclude an overt sinner, to remove the speck while ignoring the log in our own eye. Gay people struggle with their lot in life and censorious disapproval from believers who are just as flawed is a poor reflection on our Lord. Flawed, unnatural, sinful lifestyles cannot be affirmed; black is not white. Yet, the sinner can be affirmed, welcomed, loved.
I am a remarried divorcee. Jesus has a lot more to say about my flawed lifestyle than he does about the lifestyle of gay couples. If my brothers and sisters in Christ can love me, accept me, welcome me, why not a gay couple? Loving the sinner doesn't necessary affirm the sin. We are all flawed and but survive under the grace of God.
Maintaing marriage as act of affirmative action for the mums and dads of society's next generation, a kind of tick for the breeders, is surely not unreasonable. Nor is it unreasonable in a secular society to provide a form of union for gays with all the legal rights of a married couple under the law. All it takes is a bit of tolerance from both sides of the divide, but sadly we seem to live in an age of toxic divides.