Same-Sex marriage: A topic too hot to touch? Or an argument too out of touch?

In this month’s edition of the Eternity Christian newspaper, Karl Faase contributes a short piece about same-sex marriage in Australia, entitled ‘A topic too hot to touch’.

Karl’s argument goes something like this: ‘many’ evangelicals in Australia have ‘gone silent’ (or, God forbid, support same-sex marriage legislation) due to a broader focus on love, justice, and the desire to present a relevant message to society—all of which are, Karl suggests, ok in-and-of themselves, but which seem to have conspired here to confuse church leaders or to rob them of their courage on this issue. This has left them unable or unwilling to defend the ‘clear biblical values’ that should, it seem, inspire staunch opposition to any such legislative changes.

Now, Karl is a smart guy, a successful pastor, a gifted communicator, and someone who is no stranger to issues of faith in the public square.

I would suggest, however, that, in the process of calling out what he sees as the error of passivity in his opponents, he has here fallen squarely into the equal but opposite error of coercion. Passivity and coercion, as Miroslav Volf reminds us, are the two common malfunctions of public faith. One of the results of his call to action is to align (and thus to radically reduce) his version of Christianity with conservative politics and to align those who disagree with him to progressive politics. This is as unhelpful as it is misguided.

I’ve written before about my thoughts on a Christian approach to legislation concerning same-sex marriage, so I won’t repeat myself here.

What I will say is that I think it’s now time for what I proposed there to come into effect.

I believe that the best possible thing that churches in Australia could do at this point in time is to jointly and voluntarily renounce our authority to perform (legally recognised) wedding ceremonies on behalf of the State. Churches have no place acting on behalf of the State in performing this service, and the fact that we have allowed ourselves to be caught up in the whole matter means that we end up in futile arguments like the one Mr Faase invites us back into.

Everything to do with legally recognised unions in Australia should rest with the State alone. Churches should leave that responsibility with them, and seek instead to offer ‘covenant ceremonies’ which recognise the status of the union before God, which a State obviously cannot do. A couple might, for example, have their union legally recognised by a representative of the State (for taxation and superannuation purposes, and the like), and then choose to have one these covenant ceremonies which celebrates the union in the sight of friends and family and, of course, God. Everyone wins—even the wedding industry, which could continue to extract preposterous amounts from couples wishing to throw a huge party and to pay an exorbitant premium on it because someone might be wearing an over-priced white dress!

It’s my suggestion that a voluntary and coordinated ‘handing back’ of the power to perform marriage ceremonies would act as a circuit-breaker in the current debate, and also might build goodwill among the general population as churches suggest that these covenant ceremonies—as ceremonies that have no legal standing—should be offered entirely at the discretion of the churches. Many would only offer these for the union of one man and one woman, but others might also offer them to same-sex couples. Either way, as something that holds no legal standing, the churches should be free to offer them to whomever they like. Of course, the State could offer the legally recognised civil unions to whosoever they like too, including same-sex couples.

This, I suggest, removes discrimination against same-sex couples, as well as allowing us to retain our authentic voice in matters of public faith while falling neither into coercion nor passivity. If we truly believe that there are ‘clear biblical values’ related to marriage, then as we demonstrate the way that a certain model offers a ‘better’ way of flourishing, then surely it will be attractive to others who might like to be part of it. In this way, people would be invited to participate rather than being forced to comply (or have no choice but to be excluded). I, for one, think that this is a more excellent strategy.

So, who’s with me?

Let’s start a campaign to get churches all around Australia to hand back to the State what belongs to the State and, in the process, I think we might just win a few hearts.


Published by

Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

19 thoughts on “Same-Sex marriage: A topic too hot to touch? Or an argument too out of touch?”

  1. I like how you think 🙂

    It would be truly sad if someone caught wind of this and forced churches to give back their marriage authorities before churches offered it back.

    Would love to understand the legal groundings on this. Especially across different denominations.

    This is a great place to start a wonderful conversation.

    1. I’m not convinced that there’s great danger in the Government revoking the authority for churches to perform marriage ceremonies, but I am sure that we’re currently going about painting ourselves into a very uncomfortable corner.

      We have, I think, a great opportunity to act now and to change the conversation, and I think it would be a win/win situation. The possibility for this won’t last forever.

      1. I would only think that if the Church had its authority in this area taken, rather than volunteered, it would cause the Church to pull away from society and disengage. This is not an ideal situation. Similar to an old man losing his driver’s license than coming to realisation that he himself should not drive anymore. I can only see bitterness in that situation.

        I agree however, inviting God into a marriage is much better than forcing Him out of it.

        1. I’d like to see church leaders (and denominational leaders) make this decision but, if they were unable to, then I think Christians should just make the decision themselves, i.e. get their unions solemnised by a representative of the State and have a ceremony for friends and family that is about recognising the union before God and the community.

  2. Passivity and coercion seem like quite opposites on a spectrum. Do you (or brother Volf) have any other ideas about public faith? For example, you suggested a practical alternative of handing back power…

    1. I spent a long time coming to a position which I found out Mr Volf had explained much better than I could in his brilliant little book ‘A Public Faith’. Best book on the topic I’ve ever read. Well worth a read.

  3. I like what you propose Josh, on paper it seems sound. I just wonder how this would look in practice. I wonder if it is not just washing one’s hands of the political conflict and exchanging it for a theological delima. In offering a “covenant ceremony” one still has to wrestle with the biblical/theological grounds of homosexual relationships.

    It is a topic that I have wrestled with much as it is close to home and for the most part I land where you do, however I have still not landed anywhere constructive in terms of the deciding factors of who can and can’t participate in a “covenant ceremony”. I know what I believe personally, however when that is in conflict with the movement of which I am a part of, it is still not a straight forward exercise.

    I don’t know if this is a comment a question or even and answer, but I appreciate you at very least trying to offer a constructive and grace filled response…

    1. I hear you, Tarun.

      I guess I don’t see it as washing our hands of the political process, in that everything we do is ‘political’. I’m trying to draw the issue out from the confines of party politics, and to do so in a strategic way. It’s my belief that churches are backing themselves into a corner with the way things are currently going, as we’ve tied ourselves to legislation and, when it does eventually change (which it will), we’ll find ourselves without the ability to negotiate a way for churches to have the freedom to perform only those ceremonies that they feel line up with their beliefs.

      By genuinely offering something freely as a first move, I think it helps us build goodwill for when we ask that our non-legally recognised ceremonies be offered as we see fit. The theological discussion, as I see it, *should* be an internal thing, because it only really affects those who have freely chosen to be part of the group.

      The discussion about who those covenant ceremonies would be offered to would definitely come, but at least we’d have the space to have it.

      We’d also have the opportunity to model for the rest of society what we think it should look like, in a truly prophetic way. If there is one model that clearly provides the best chance at human flourishing, then it should become abundantly clear.

      It’s my belief that committed, loving, monogamous relationships between two consenting adults, and which understand themselves as a sacred promise provide the best environment for children to flourish, and a great building block for society as a whole. I’d argue for that model in my faith community.

      1. Fair point, I concur this is a discussion that needs to happen within the community. i don’t however hold out much hope of this happening until we are actually backed into the corner. I hope I’m wrong but history suggests the Christian community has largely remain reactive in controversy debate rather than proactive. Thank you for your insights, I find them extremely helpful.

        1. I still hold on to the hope that, one day, we’ll learn these lessons and stop falling into the same traps. It’s foolish I know : )

          I do think, though, that the more we have these conversations the more chance there is that we’ll do things differently to how we’ve done them in the past. It’s tough going sometimes when people want to restrict the boundaries of acceptable possibilities, but we just keep pushing back, gently but firmly.

  4. Josh,
    I have been thinking those exact same thoughts. I have one wedding in my calendar for the New Year. I may be my last as a ‘data collector’ for the Commonwealth of Australia. It would be great to be ale to not just stop performing legal weddings but to make a statement about what I would like to do instead; that is conduct Christian wedding before family, friends and God.

    I have had the privilege of conducting a ‘hand fasting’ for want of an alternative name. It was conducted before God and witnesses. It was some time after that the couple had the papers signed. Mind you, it was a bit of an odd story.


    1. Very interesting. I shouldn’t be surprised by these sorts of reactions to people genuinely seeking to think things through or to have a good old fashioned discussion, but this issue has become so loaded that it all just sort of explodes.

      It’s the very reason I decided to write this post, after reading Karl’s piece in Eternity on Sunday morning. I feel like the sort of position he outlines adds fuel to these fires.

  5. Hi Josh,

    I agree that the church should be progressive and active in this social conflict. However, my mind runs to questions around other legal practices or restrictions, which have a grounding in western christian morality, that could be brought into question. Could it be argued that if the church gives the state it’s authority to marry (which really has already been taken away anyway, since the introduction of celebrants) then we open up the possibility to question the authority of the church to speak into other social conflicts or moral debates. Should the church have an authoritative voice to our society on abortion? Or should we only be heard by those who ascribe to our beliefs (however we define our ‘beliefs’ and however we define ‘ascribe’)? Should the church speak to our communities on stem cell research, and if so on what authority? Sanctity of life questions are just the first that popped into my head but I imagine there are many other social conflicts where the church would like to have a voice – asylum seekers (one of your babies).

    If the church says, “look, civil unions really aren’t that big of a deal to us – if you aren’t a churchie, then do as you please – let us have our own little bible weddings” then I think we may become the passive ones. We may run the risk of loosing our authority to speak to the next hot potato.

    Principally, I agree with a separation of church and State, but unfortunately we can’t separate God and State and herein lies the tension. Where should the church do it’s own thing and shut it’s mouth and where should it be standing up and proclaiming the values of the Kingdom of God?

    If your proposition is to work in practise, the church in Australia must start to be seen living the values of, and proclaiming the message of, Jesus and the Kingdom of God. It must do this in such a way as to legitimise it’s voice and add an extraordinary amout of value and weight to its contribution to our society’s conversations on morality, welfare and justice. Unless the church can unify, find commonality and speak up on difficult social conflicts, I think handing back marriage rites to the State, may be seen as subjugating it’s task of bringing the kingdom of God to earth.

    1. You raise some great points, Luke!

      I guess I would begin by saying that the issue of ‘marriage’ is quite different to some of the others you mention. Legislation around marriage concerns issues like taxation and superannuation and the like and, at that level, the current legislation is almost identical for de facto couples and same sex couples—except, of course, for the name. Why, then, do we persist in having separate legislation, when the issue is really, when you boil it down, the ‘God factor’? As a matter of principle, I find it difficult to defend this situation. The State should be able to legally recognise whatever unions it will, for legal purposes. We should feel free to add the spiritual and social value to the legal framework.

      What I’m suggesting, then, is not a retreat to passivity, but rather a moving away from what I see as a coercive situation imposed upon others. We can actually have a win/win situation here, as I see it, because I think it would give the general public what they’re overwhelmingly in favour of, as well as being a move of goodwill on behalf of the churches. I actually think that this would open up more opportunities for us to speak in our authentic voice on this issue. The way things are, I think our argument is hopelessly tangled (and unnecessarily so). As such, I see this as a very active move, rather than a retreat. We can change the whole conversation, lifting it out of its current stalemate.

      In regards to some of the other issues you mention, I still remain convinced that we should keep Church and State firmly separated. I see the churches playing a prophetic role to society, seeking to model life and flourishing in a way that others want in. We can certainly use our voice as citizens of a representative democracy like Australia, but I think that we also need to remember that we have the burden of humility and love and service. I fear that, too often, the churches see their highest priority as defending ‘biblical values’, and forget that we are here to serve a broken world (acknowledging our own brokenness). We have something to say to the world, but the way we say it matters.

      The Church’s reputation in Australia is bankrupt at the moment. We need to think very carefully about our posture in all of these discussions. Personally, I think this idea would help build good faith in our community. This is something we desperately need to do.

  6. My understanding is that your scenario already exists in many European countries where the religious ceremony has no legal status and couples need to have their marriage recognised seperately.

    1. The answer is yes (in the form of ‘civil marriage’), though I’m not sure that all of them recognise same-sex unions. As such, there are sometimes other pieces of legislation in place, like the ‘PACS’ legislation in France.

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