In his book “The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divide”, author Arnold Kling argues that political debate is framed around three dominant axes: oppressor-oppressed, civilisation-barbarism, and liberty-coercion. Understanding the way different views are framed is a helpful first step towards dialogue. Kling suggests we should do our best to ‘hear what people are saying,’ and speak to the real fears and concerns that lie behind divisive issues.
Typically, left or progressive voters see most social and political issues as a fight for freedom from oppression. Right-leaning conservatives, on the other hand, are fearfully defending what they see as the hard won gains of civilisation and social order. So, when it comes to the same-sex marriage debate, it’s not surprising that political and moral conservatives argue that marriage and family are foundational building blocks for civilisation. Attacks on marriage are ‘de-civilising,’ and should be opposed. Some (like commentator Andrew Bolt) argue from a conservative political framework, while others will be concerned for gospel issues, or a wider theological mandate, or a concern for loss of future religious freedoms.
Naturally, if you’ve experienced harsh treatment because of your own same sex attraction, or you’ve been concerned at the way others have been treated, you’d probably find it easy to view the “Marriage Equality Debate” through the lens of the ‘oppressor-oppressed’ narrative. For too long, you’ll argue, minority religious views of marriage have been oppressively applied to non-religious people. Why can’t same sex couples be treated equally under the law, rather than unfairly limited? After all, “marriage is a basic human right.”
Here’s a comment from a social media post that sums it up. “Traditional values have a history of arbitrary oppression. Progressive values have a history of fighting to end arbitrary oppression.” (David Cameron, Facebook). Marriage Equality, then, is just a small battle in an ongoing war against the arbitrary imposition of outdated religious preferences.
Thirdly, (and it’s big in Australian thinking) there’s the liberty-coercion axis. Maybe you look at the Marriage debate and say, “Why should government interfere with peoples’ private lives anyway? Why not let people do what they want when it comes to marriage if they love one another.” If you view the marriage debate this way, you will either choose not to vote (out of disinterest) or vote to redefine marriage because on the surface the ‘marriage equality’ case seems to be arguing for greater freedom. Ultimately, though, there may not be as much freedom as you think.
As we approach the Same Sex Marriage Plebiscite, I want to acknowledge that there’s some merit in almost all the views described above. We live in a complex world where goals of liberty versus equality, justice versus mercy, and tolerance versus order are often in conflict. Sometimes my freedom comes at the cost of your oppression, and I’m not even aware of it. At a time like this, conservative minded Christians can be over-reactive, lose our cool, and play to the stereotypes that we’re often accused of. In doing that, we forget our primary purpose of graciously proclaiming the hope that we have in Christ. Worse, we can divide over side issues and strategies; friendships can be lost, and churches split – even when there’s basic agreement on core issues.
Looking Both Ways
With all that in mind, I want to lay out a number of points I think are relevant to the debate. You’ll probably agree with some of them, and question others. Let’s at least try to take part in the debate with a degree of understanding, and an acknowledgment of the complexity of the issues.
- According to God’s original design, marriage is clearly intended to be a life long union between one man and one woman, forsaking all others, and providing a stable ‘home base’ for the raising of children by a father and a mother. Even so, in our fallen world, this ideal isn’t always achieved. Marriages are broken by death, unfaithfulness, violence and divorce. Couples longing for kids remain childless, children who long for parents remain parentless. Our world is full of people who have been disappointed by their experience of ‘family.’ Often, it’s the people who have lacked this sense of family who want to redefine “normal” to fit their own experience. We need to empathise with their experience as we speak.
- In Mark 10:6-9, speaking about divorce, Jesus makes his own view of marriage clear: “But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and join to his wife; And they two shall be one flesh: so then they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” As we appropriately apply this passage to same sex marriage, we need to humbly ask ourselves if we’ve had the same zeal in applying it to divorce.
- A person is not bigoted or homophobic for holding to the traditional view of marriage. In fact, in almost every culture, the view of marriage as a legal commitment between a man and a woman for the raising of children has been universal until the last few decades. Few on the conservative side are actually Homo-phobic (a fear of homosexuals); listen more carefully and you’ll discern that the real phobia is either fear of losing the ‘civilising effect’ of traditional family units, or fear of losing religious freedom.
- Marriage was never just a ‘recognition of love’ but a social discipline – particularly to protect the interests of women and children. Hollywood and fairytales change our definition of marriage long before the current debate.
- Most Christians have had a poor understanding of the LGBTIQA community. Most of us don’t even know what the letters stand for, and make lame jokes about ‘alphabet soup.’ But, behind the acronym lies a diverse community of marginalised people. Some are Christian brothers and sisters who struggle with unwanted inclinations, and are committed to godliness. Further, Intersex individuals are born with ambiguous genitalia due to a genetic abnormality. This is in no way a ‘moral issue’ – rather, it’s evidence that we live in a struggling world where things are far from perfect, just as the Bible describes it. Our bodies and our desires are broken in all kinds of ways. Likewise, same sex attraction can often trace back to broken-ness, abuse, or unmet emotional needs at key developmental stages. Often, our treatment of LGBTIQA people has lacked nuance, humility and sympathy. We need to do better. (The Presbyterian Church of Queensland has issued an excellent paper on these questions at http://www.pcq.org.au/pcq_pdf_…)
- Our culture has made sex an idol, and sexuality the core issue of our identity. As Christians we worship Jesus instead, and our identity comes from our relationship with him. This is the profound issue at the core of the current debate.
- Because of our faith in Jesus, Christians are called to choose to avoid all kinds of sinful behaviour, sexual and otherwise. The New Testament speaks specifically of homosexual activity, and more generally about ‘porneia’, the catch-all term meaning ‘sexual immorality.’ In the early generations of Christianity, Christians were well known for their unusual sexual purity. Their standards were very different from the community around them. But be clear that the Bible doesn’t focus on sexual sins in particular. In Mark 7:21,22, Jesus says, ‘For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly…’ Jesus is concerned for behaviour change which comes from a change of heart. Likewise, in other similar lists in the New Testament, homosexual sin appears alongside more mundane sins like greed. It’s probably true to say that we tend to be more critical of particular sins if we don’t share that specific temptation. And it may just be that the ‘greed lobby group’ has already fought the battle and won our hearts.
- It’s clearly true that some political groups are keen to remove Christian influence from our society. For them, “Marriage Equality” is simply a vehicle for a larger agenda. There is plenty of evidence to back the claim of former Prime Minister John Howard when he says “Changing the definition of marriage… is not an exercise in human rights and equality. It’s an exercise in de-authorising the Judeo-Christian influence in our society.” (spectator.com.au, 7 September 2017)
- Most Australians just want ‘a fair go.’ The majority of Australians, who see marriage as simply the ‘public recognition of romantic feelings’ think it’s unfair that same sex couples can’t share in the same rights as others. But surveys show they also think it would be unfair to reduce religious freedom. Unfortunately, there won’t be legislative clarity about this before the plebiscite vote is taken.
- In England, where Same Sex marriage was legalised four years ago, religious freedoms have gradually been removed. Equalities Minister Justine Greening has insisted that churches must be “made to keep up with modern attitudes.’ Couples are not permitted to foster children if they are not prepared to ‘celebrate homosexuality’ and Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron was forced to resign, saying that it was now ‘impossible for a believing Christian to hold political office.’
- Australia is not a Christian country. Our democracy is pluralistic, and constitutionally designed not to give preference to any one religious group over another. Instead, our civil laws are meant to allow people with different views to co-exist peacefully. As Christians, we don’t have the power to legislate morality for our community – although for generations we have assumed that we did. However, we do have the right to express our view of marriage in the plebiscite. We should do this fearlessly and graciously, aware that we may not win.
- Even if we could, how far should we attempt to legislate Christian morality? For example, the 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas argued that there were many things which were immoral which should not be illegal – and so regular state law must “leave certain things unpunished on account of the condition of those who are imperfect, and who would be deprived of many advantages, if all sins were strictly forbidden and punishments appointed for them.” (Greg Sheridan, The Australian, 7 September 2017) .
- If same sex marriage is legalised, our goal should be to preserve the beauty of Biblical marriage in our own communities; to work harder on our own marriages, to raise our kids (surrounded by competing voices) to understand and value the beauty of complementary opposite-attracted sexuality and marriage, and to live graciously and distinctively in our world, much as the first century Christians did. In all of this our primary goal will be to bear witness to Jesus Christ, and keep proclaiming the gospel.
- As we seek to bear witness to Christ, another of our goals should be to so love LGBTI people, married or not, kids or not, that coming to church to hear about Jesus remains a possibility even if we’ve been seen to be voting against their interests. We should try never to play into the ‘oppressor’ paradigm (and we might need to confess that we have done that historically.) Because the debate has already been framed around ‘human rights’ and oppression, it will be hard to avoid – so pray for wisdom and grace!
- Exercising my democratic right, I will vote “No.” But I’ll take this position as graciously as I can, recognising that many who hold the opposite view genuinely desire the social affirmation of their loving relationship. I’ll do my best not to damage the cause of the gospel by putting my view harshly, stridently and paternalistically, because I don’t want to give the appearance that the church is in the business of “morally policing” the community, while turning a blind eye to very public moral failures in the church.
Summary and Conclusion
Life is complex, Christianity is no longer in a position of political power, and we’re no longer considered the moral chaplains of our culture. In fact, the failure of denominational institutions to protect vulnerable kids has left our moral credentials in tatters. We’ve often lacked grace as we’ve approached difficult social issues, and been overly critical. We need to be humble enough to acknowledge and repent of the times when we haven’t shown grace in the past, and seek to do better in all kinds of ways in the future.
On the other hand, there are clearly some who are determined to destroy Judeo-Christian influence however they can. Deconstructing marriage and family life is a great place to start – the marriage equality issue is just a small step towards a much bigger agenda.
As Christians, we need to remember we have a bigger agenda too. Our goal is not to ‘bring about civilisation,’ but to bring about heart transformation, one heart at a time, as people hear the good news of Jesus, turn from their rebellion against God, and find new life. It’s hard to believe that anyone is listening, because it’s a message that goes against the flow. But let’s keep our hearts and minds on that bigger gospel agenda in all we say and do over these coming troubled months—because ultimately there’s only one who brings true liberty; one who truly sets us free from oppression; one who truly civilises our selfish inclinations by his Spirit. No matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, as a follower of Jesus you’ll recognise our only hope is in Him, through the promise of the gospel that together we proclaim.
In accordance with s 6(5) of the ‘Marriage Law Survey (Additional Safeguards) Act 2017,’ this communication was authorised by Phil Campbell, of Brisbane, Queensland.