I hope the Marriage Equality Bill achieves its goals

I believe in the Biblical vision of marriage as the voluntary union of one man and one woman for life. And yet I think there are good Biblical reasons for Christians to applaud Bill Shorten’s motives in proposing amendments to the Marriage Act. And if passed, I hope it does achieve its goals.*

This may seem inconsistent – so let me explain.

I still believe that marriage is a social recognition of our genetic origins – that it is (at least in part) a way of making sense of the arrival of children through sexual reproduction, involving a man and a woman’s genetic material. So it makes sense to me that marriage has been traditionally interpreted, across most cultures I can think of, as having at its core an expression and celebration of sexual difference.

I have strong anxieties about possible unintended side effects of redefining this basic social unit.

I don’t think, as Bill Shorten put it, that the debate has been had long ago – in fact I don’t think we’ve had anything like the kind of sensible, respectful, good-faith-seeking-of-the-common-good that I hope we could be capable of (and the fault for that lies as much on the conservative side of the debate as anywhere else).

But I do recognise the good goals which the Marriage Equality Bill is trying to achieve, at least according to Shorten’s Explanatory Memorandum tabled in Parliament.

First, I thoroughly approve of Shorten’s desire, in line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Article 26, to give equal protection under law to all people regardless of their sex, sexuality, gender identity or intersex status.

What has become apparent in this debate is that my main disagreement with pro-same-sex-marriage friends is not with their goals but the proposed mechanism. Christians believe, don’t we, that all members of our society deserve love and respect and protection as fellow bearers of the image of God? We abhor, don’t we, the abuse and violence which minorities of all kinds routinely experience at the hands of the powerful?

  • Recently two dear friends came over for dinner at our house and I was horrified to hear about the insults they endured on public transport simply in order to get to our house (and we live in the inner west of Sydney for goodness sake, what is it like in the rest of Australia?!)
  • This week I have had to rebuke someone in my congregation for using a derogatory term for a homosexual man. The minority sexuality church members I pastor have told me that our community is normally, thankfully, much more loving. However even isolated incidents of such sub-Christian attitudes are extremely painful, because they are experienced in a context of every-day discrimination in other spheres of life. Wounds from people we trust often sting the most.

Bill Shorten thinks these things are not okay and he thinks changing the marriage laws might be a step towards fixing them. I’m not convinced yet by the strategy – for starters, I don’t think of marriage laws as a way of giving a governmental imprimatur on the validity of a type of love, or as a particularly good way of expressing the value of people. But I can’t fault his explicit motives.

I think Christians do well to remember these motives, regardless of the outcome of Shorten’s amendment. If the amendment becomes law, let’s pray that it will succeed in this goal: that we will become a more loving nation. If it doesn’t, we need to work out other ways to tell people of minority sexualities that “hey, I know you and I are quite different, but I’m glad you’re here.”

Second, I am moved by the gracious consideration given to the amendments’ implications on my civil and political rights.

This could have been a winner takes all piece of legislation. Yet the Bill in its current form provides protection for my rights under Article 18 of the ICCPR for my freedom of thought, conscience and religion. As a minister of religion I will not be forced to conduct a marriage ceremony which contradicts my own religion’s teaching on marriage.

One thing this debate has helped me to realise is how privileged I am: I am, after all, a white heterosexual cisgender man, the oblivious beneficiary of so much discrimination in my favour. I have no reason to expect protecting my rights to be high on anyone’s agenda. And yet here it is. To me this is an extremely gracious gesture of goodwill.

[* EDITED 2/6/15 3:48PM: Several readers have pointed out that I could have been clearer here in my opening paragraph so I have clarified accordingly. Some people may assume that because I support what Shorten is trying to do I would therefore vote for his Bill. As I hope I make clearer later on, this is not necessarily the case. I have doubts that changing the definition of the Marriage Act will achieve his goals, and I worry about the unintended consequences. At the very least I don’t feel like we’ve had the kind of serious and respectful debate such a major change to the basic unit of our society warrants.]

6 thoughts on “I hope the Marriage Equality Bill achieves its goals”

  1. We should also ask ask as Christians what does the Bible say about marriage
    And agree we should treat others with respect

  2. I am very sorry to hear that you held this view. Since you are a christian minister of religion, the LORD your GOD has never tolerated sinfulness of people and Christ did not die for us to tolerate evil of the world. Whilst it is commanded that we are to love GOD and our neighbour, it does not mean that we pass laws to permit moral evils as a legal right. When the secular world looks to our parliamentary laws for moral guidance, I hope, they will find our laws reflects the goodness and justice that our LORD intended for his creation. Yes, the act of homosexuality is a sin in the bible. May GOD have mercy on us Christians, who are too timid and tired advocating for His justice cause in this world.

  3. Hi Andy
    I wrote recently, and perhaps a little more provocatively than normally, on matters that, whilst not arrowing in on this, pertain to it. I view the divide that is coming between the Xn context and the secular as increasing, and becoming, if we are not careful, increasingly more strident. Yet I agree with your conclusions here about the manner in which we deal with this issue. I think Bill Shorten is right in his desire, but have no confidence in the outcome being a more loving community.
    For me, Christianity should have been more determined over the last forty years of the sexual revolution to maintain within its own community “What God hath joined together let man not tear asunder”, rather than worrying now about “What God hath torn asunder let man not join together”. We gave up any marked difference to the culture a long time back on this one.
    Whist it is true, however, that you will not be forced by law to conduct weddings you do not recognise as marriages, the real test will be whether the level of public discourse is mature enough to allow you to flourish with that viewpoint without having to be fenced in for your own good by laws. The level of mutual respect for difference in our culture is at an all time low. Thanks for your thoughts

    • Hi Stephen,

      On your comment about us as the church not being distinctive enough on the divorce issue. I think the church royally stuffed up, in abdicating our responsibility to the government on that issue, and we will be in boiling hot water if we abdicate our responsibility for this issue to the government as well. Yes, churches should encourage and think through the issues of the day to help citizens and politicians exercise their power to vote and contribute to social change with wisdom. But the focus of the church needs to be on how we as the church shape our own lives and communities to respond these issues at a pastoral level. For example post the no-fault divorce decision, churches derided the law (which in my opinion is a great piece of law) instead of learning how to pastor couples who find themselves having marriage difficulties especially marriages that are abusive. Now in today’s issue, if we do not address at a pastoral level the issues faced by same-sex attracted people and I mean the issues, plural, faced by these people, and creatively work towards genuine alternatives for them, other than leaving christian communities, or being branded as sinners, then people will continue to look elsewhere for hope. Because the church mistakenly looks to the government for hope and for someone to blame.

  4. Hi Andy,

    Great article. Nice to have that clarification between goals and method. I agree that we have the same goals and we are all debating about what is the best way to achieve them.

    However I am not quite sure why you are thankful for someone to protect one of your rights after they have taken a whole bunch away! (It’s akin to thanking a bully when he stops hitting you – the bully deserves judgment not congratulations). It is not well known but in NSW, we already have two systems of marriages with equal rights – one traditional and another one non-traditional (civil union). Over a short time, this non-traditional marriage has been granted all the rights and privileges as traditional marriage (for a NSW resident) and over a little more time it will be exactly what ssm proponents want (in terms of international recognition or title change etc). So, let’s make civil unions better. Yet, ssm proponents are not content with this but want to remove the rights of those wanting a traditional marriage. Why can’t two different groups of people believe and act in two different ways – is this not what our plural society is all about?

    Further, I think you might be giving the bill too much credit when it comes to religious rights. In the ssm proponents’ eyes, freedom of religion usually extends only to church and private property – and then only just.

    There is no freedom in the public sphere. E.g. feel free to teach the Bible at your churches but not in public schools, run your religious organisation along your principles but not your business, feel free to speak in your bible study group but outside it will be hate speech and considered oppression, write what you want in your church newsletter but don’t print the same in a book or newspaper. And that’s the best case scenario – we will be praying the police don’t come inside private property to remove our children because they are being “abused” with hate speech.

    Hope that makes sense. Thanks for writing. Please keep up the good work.

    Kenny Liew

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