Nick Jensen, Same-Sex Marriage, and Public Faith

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.

Further,

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.

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.