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.