I wasn’t going to say anything about the recent furore surrounding Canberra couple Nick and Sarah Jensen’s plans to divorce if same-sex marriage is introduced in Australia, but I think it’s worth noting a few points. (If you haven’t read the article yet, I encourage you to do so before reading on.)
I’ve written a number of times (on this blog and on social media) about how Christians might approach the issue of same-sex marriage (you can find a couple of my posts here and here), and I won’t bother rehashing those arguments here.
What I would note are the following two points:
Firstly, I think Nick and Sarah do actually identity a crucial issue. For Christians, the meaning of marriage is not (or should not be) so much to do with legal recognition of the union. Rather, for Christians (and people of numerous other faiths), the significance of ‘marriage’ is the recognition of the union ‘in the sight of God’. This is something that the secular State cannot—and should not be asked to—oversee. The State’s recognition of unions has to do with the legal framework around it; it has nothing at all to do with the religious significance of that union.
Secondly, I think the Jensen’s make a serious blunder both in regards to their interpretation of how same-sex marriage would impact the current arrangement, and in regards to how they are going about engaging in issues of public faith.
In regards to the former, Nick notes the following in his article:
When we signed that official-looking marriage certificate 10 years ago at Tuggeranong Baptist Church, we understood that the state was endorsing marriage, as currently defined, as the fundamental social institution – with all that this implied.
But if this is no longer the case, then we no longer wish to be associated with this new definition. Marriage is sacred and what is truly “marriage” will only ever be what it has always been.
The truth is, “marriage” is simply too important. It is a sacred institution, ordained by God. It has always been understood to be that exclusive relationship where one man and one woman become “one flesh”. Any attempt to change the definition of marriage by law is not something in which we are able to partake.
It seems that the Jensen’s were under the impression, when they had their marriage solemnised by a representative of Tuggeranong Baptist Church on behalf of the State, that what the State was thus endorsing was a/the ‘biblical’ view of marriage. It was not. The secular State, as noted above, simply cannot do that. Rather, Nick and Sarah had what may well have been a lovely ceremony that had, to be sure, religious elements attached to what is essentially a legal agreement, for which the State can and should provide the framework.
In this regard, absolutely nothing has changed, and absolutely nothing would change if same-sex marriage was legislated.
When Nick and Sarah were married, they were sharing the legal definition of ‘marriage’ with people who have no faith inclination, people who may be on their second/third/fourth/whatever ‘marriage’ (for whatever reason), people who have ‘open’ marriages, and numerous others who don’t view the institution in the same way as the Jensens.
Apparently, none of this was a barrier for Nick and Sarah. Same-sex couples being able to be ‘married’ in the sight of the State, however, indicates to the Jensens, it seems, that the ‘sacred institution’ of marriage has finally been lost.
This is absurd. The fact that the Jensens have chosen this point as ‘the end of marriage as we know it’ makes them look either extraordinarily naive or somewhat vindictive.
And this brings us to the next point.
In regards to how the Jensens are going about engaging in issues of public faith, I think they have fallen precisely into the trap of presenting a tone or posture that reeks of “We’re taking our bat and ball and going home”. This, to my mind, is a petulant form of Christianity that exhibits all the traits of ‘losing badly’.
My suggestion, for quite some time now, is that we as Christians take note of what the Jensens have rightly recognised concerning the nature of the legal recognition of unions as being distinct from their religious significance, and voluntarily (and graciously) ‘hand back’ our ability to solemnise ‘marriages’ on behalf of the State. The State can do that for itself, and the Church can offer (non-legally recognised) ‘covenant ceremonies’, which speak of the significance of the union ‘in the sight of God’ (and people can decide for themselves if they participate in either or both of these ceremonies).
Such a voluntary ‘handing back’, done in the right spirit, would, I think, act as a kind of circuit breaker in the current debates. If we, as the Church, were to acknowledge that we had no real right to be acting on behalf of the State in regards to solemnising legally recognised unions, I think—if it was done with the right tone/posture—it could be taken as an act of good faith, allowing us the requisite space to dialogue about how churches (and other religious institutions) could identify (non-legally recognised) unions ‘in the sight of God’, and be allowed the freedom to do so.
As it stands, I fear that (with the inevitable introduction of same-sex marriage) many Christians will adopt the sulky posture of the Jensens (though perhaps not going to—or threatening to go to—the same lengths), and that it will confirm for many what they’ve always suspected: that Christians want to force their views on everyone else and, when they don’t get their way, they act like entitled idiots.
I don’t think it has to be this way.