Not Your Usual Breakfast
I arrived back from my time in Scotland on August 23, which meant that I entered the discussion late. Turning up late has its advantages.
The first thing I noticed was that the terms of the discussion were set for us as a question: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” This didn’t seem to faze too many Christians engaged in the discussion.
The second thing that came to my attention was the curious range of perspectives that Christians held despite their common theological sensibilities.
Some read the Bible and saw that God did not ordain marriage as constituted by two people of the same sex, and surmised that one ought to vote no.
Others read the Bible, realised that marriage ought to be constituted by one man and one woman, but concluded that such a claim is a Christian one and, as such, should not be imposed on those who are not Christian. These people tended not to vote.
Some Christians responded to these people by claiming that as a Christian citizen of Australia one ought not take for granted the privilege to vote or shirk one’s civic duty to vote. This view sought to press the citizen/Christian into voting no by virtue of their theological conviction that marriage ought to be constituted by one man and one woman.
Others identified that the principle issue did not concern a theological view of marriage, but a political concept of equality. These people desired for all what the law only afforded some. The person who held this view concluded that voting yes was the appropriate Christian response even though they believed that God ordains marriage for one man and one woman.
Another position required one to contemplate other issues. Most prominent was the question of whether it is right or good to raise children in same-sex marriages. Others foresaw a yes vote resulting in Christian ministers being forced to marry two people of the same sex, or service providers, like cake makers, being forced into doing things that contravened their conscience like “taking part” in a gay wedding by supplying the cake. Such people voted no to the question in the postal survey, but according to secondary or associated issues.
Still others voted no by reflecting upon nature. They saw bodies containing a law which same sex sex contravened by virtue of the fact that they could not reproduce. Obviously, two men or two woman can’t make children, which indicates a contravention of nature and therefore God’s will.
Of course, there were many more views.
One does not need to get off a plane from Scotland late in the piece to see that we had a dog’s breakfast on our hands. Despite the fact that all of these people held the view that Scripture teaches that God created marriage for one man and one woman, there was little continuity in how they thought this should play out in the postal vote. That we have a dog’s breakfast on the plate before us provides adequate grounds to resist simply chowing down. Indeed, such a mess could indicate a more concerning possibility that we did not get to the bottom of things. Could it be the case that despite being in a post-vote era, we are yet to understand what was going on theologically before the vote happened? It appears we are none the wiser about the question on which we have already cast our vote.
I’m setting this up as if I’m coming on the clouds of glory with an answer to it all, but fear not, my goal is much more modest. I simply want to raise an underrepresented theological possibility that has potential implications for a properly Christian response to the topic… even at this late stage.
The post-vote moment that we live in is living up to the hype. Take the other day’s front-page news, for example, in which a private Christian school was outed for sacking a male relief teacher who was living in a long-term relationship with a man. It is hard to refute the claim that the school is discriminating against this man.
But we should be clear; discrimination is part and parcel of employment. Every school and workplace discriminates when it comes to identifying appropriate candidates for any given role. We hope a school does not employ a teacher who does not have the appropriate qualifications, for example. So the question does not concern discrimination per se, but the terms by which schools and churches discriminate in their assessment of candidates for job vacancies and one’s suitability for continuing in an existing role.
The question, therefore, is not can Christian schools, service providers, and churches discriminate, but can they discriminate between people based upon particular notions of gender and sexuality?
In relation to this incident, a former senator made the interesting statement: “The loophole allows private and church schools to sack gay teachers for no reason.” But is this the case? It is inadequate to argue that there is “no reason” for the man’s sacking from the school. The school sacked the teacher for the reason that he is living in a same-sex relationship, which contravenes the school’s Christian ethos. What the former senator means is that the apparent loophole allows private and church schools to discriminate on the grounds of sexuality.
I am not raising this incident to argue which grounds Christian schools, service providers, and churches should or should not be allowed to discriminate. Rather, I am pressing us to be clear to ourselves and society about what we desire: we desire to discriminate on issues of sexuality.
This point must be pressed because the yes vote consummates a definitive social reinterpretation of what is good and legitimate desire. The law will now be recalibrated to reflect the desires that society will desire. So the question now confronting society that concerns the church is whether society will continue to desire the Christian desire to discriminate on grounds of sexuality?
Once upon a time—pre-vote—same sex marriage proponents desired the Christian to desire to create a social space that allowed people to act on their same sex desires: those desires that transgressed what was normal and good. Now the tables are turned. Post-vote, the Christian desires the desire of those with power to create a social space for the Christian and Christian entities to act on their desires. That is, Christians are demanding now that they be afforded legally protected social spaces that tolerate their desire to discriminate on the grounds of sexuality. Here is the point: in this post-vote age in which same sex marriages are now to be considered legally valid and therefore socially normative and therefore right and good, Christians and Christian institutions are in dire need of a fully realised thick concept of a plural society.
But why would society contravene what it now considers normative and good? One understands the point of view of the same advocate when he notes the absurdity of the situation whereby “LGBTI staff in private schools will soon be able to legally get married under federal law and then legally able to be sacked the next day under state law.” It is absurd, but only because he is observing the incommensurability of two social frames. Why would society desire the Christian’s desire to enshrine in law a right to discriminate against those lives that society and soon the law has sought to normativise as good and valid? We must understand that with the yes vote the Christian desire is no longer a legally protected quirk in the corner, but is reframed as a deviant and transgressive desire because it violates what society deems is good and right.
Evacuated of content, this moment is splendidly ironic. Understood in time and place, the moment is tragic. We might consider this moment of irony as tragic because it diagnoses a severe case of political short-sightedness on the part of the church and Christian who voted no. Pre-vote, why were we not leading discussions in working towards a robust plural social… if that is what we desire now? I’m not convinced that that was the answer to the pre-vote conundrum, but if the church is going to confuse theology and politics then surely it should gets its political duckies in a row before it gets done over by the political machine itself.
In short, if you are going to play by the terms set by the vote in the first place, then don’t be surprised when we are subjected to those same terms post-vote.
It therefore remains difficult to see how discrimination laws can avoid being changed to thoroughly reflect the fundamental social reframing that has occurred by virtue of the yes vote.
Here we finally come to the crux of the issue. By discussing the issue of marriage pre-vote according to the terms of the debate given to us by the voting ballot, we have constrained post-vote discussions to those same terms—a dog-eat-dog wrestle for control of the social narrative via law. We have a dog’s breakfast because we played a zero-sum game of dog-eat-dog. The loser is eaten by the other for breakfast.
What the church requires from society is grace—a gift that we do not deserve based on the form of engagement we have pursued due to the very terms that now determine what is good. We are asking society to acknowledge our desire to discriminate on issues of sexuality even though such discrimination transgresses what they deem is right and good.
The post-vote predicament that the church will continue to find itself in is in part a result of engaging in the discussion with the terms that were set for it. The terms that framed the discussion back then are the terms that constrain the parameters of the discussion now. By embracing the terms of the ballot, the church's voice was condemned to those terms that framed the ballot, and its voice has not recovered from that framing—a zero sum game of dog-eat-dog.
Was there another register in which the church could have spoken besides those of law and politics?
Bread and Butter for Breakfast
When the parameters of the vote are set for us as a legal issue to be settled with a yes or no vote the church finds itself in sticky territory. The given terms of the discussion conflate church and state issues that one cannot easily disentangle. I want to suggest, however, that this entangling is in fact the most distracting part of the discussion. This is a church/state issue no doubt, but not before it is a theological issue.
Before one can consider if marriage as man and woman should be enshrined in law, one must first identify what marriage is, and then having established this, one can then discuss whether such a concept of marriage should be enshrined in law. I’m pressing on methodological concerns.
What is marriage? And is there a theological reason inherent in that view of marriage that prevents it from being enshrined in law?
Marriage, I want to argue, is a gift from God that one accepts or rejects. Having become like God and knowing good and evil, the human (and by extension society) is not only well disposed to reject God’s gift of marriage, but in Romans 1 we learn that God is not going to stand in the way of the one (individual or society) who rejects God’s gift. In fact, God is going to hand them over to their desires. The options are simple: one can desire God’s desire or one’s own desire.
Marriage is a gift to be received with thanksgiving, but equally it is a gift that can be rejected.
The issue confronting the Christian as they stare at the ballot paper does not concern what Scripture teaches about same sex marriage, homosexuality, or even human flourishing. Confronting us is what Scripture teaches about the nature of marriage and how that nature sets the terms for our participation in social discussions about marriage.
If the nature of marriage is understood by virtue of it being a gift from God then the church should take up the concept of marriage with society according to those terms. Marriage, then, is not something that the church should be seeking to enshrine in law—a gift loses its “gift-ness” when it becomes law—but, as God’s gift to the world, is something one proclaims (in word and deed) to the world.
One proclaims God’s gift, firstly, by taking up marriage as man and woman, and living it out before the world. Secondly, one proclaims God’s gift of marriage to the world by speaking with words about it. This means that God’s giving of marriage to his creatures as a gift does not stymie social participation in discussions about same sex marriage, but reframes the terms by which we enter and carry out that discussion and thus how the world comes to see and hear about, and so understand, who is God and how God desires for his creatures to live.
The terms of such a discussion are not set by the state which tend to result in reducing Christians and the church to theologising the co-option of political processes for engineering Christian societal moral outcomes. Herein lies a new “apologetic” for which the church so desperately longs. Far from being the thing that orders society via state law through enshrining proofs and truths, the church takes up a prophetic role that seeks to proclaim God and God’s good gifts. It is to be expected that the world may desire its desires and reject God’s desire for men and woman to marry, and we may respond genuinely by mourning such loss. But such a rejection is not a call to impose the gift via the law, but a call to continued and faithful proclamation of the gift in word and deed.
I hope that another hearty breakfast is becoming visible; one of which we are well familiar, and one that we love to scoff—grace. The bread and butter of the Christian faith is grace or gift. What a shame that instead of enjoying the taste of having received a gift and so proclaiming the gift, we have taken a liking to the taste of wrangling with politics and law.
Now we must raise the possibility of the temptation of running down a rabbit hole to justify Christian engagement in politics and law. If we do so, we may well miss the point that we are feasting on a dog’s breakfast. The issue presently before us is precise and not a principle of engagement: we are speaking specifically about the gift of marriage. Euthanasia, the privatisation of Telstra, and the logging of old growth forests are important issues, but they are important issues in their own right. They must be met with equal scrutiny with regard to the precise theological nature of the issue.
Presently, we are thinking about a gift from God called marriage and its theological implications for engaging society on the topic of marriage. A Christian concept of marriage should have driven the Christians to its bread and butter—grace; instead we followed the world to a dog’s breakfast—of dog.
Finally, in terms of our bread and butter, the analogy between the gospel and marriage is at stake when one turns marriage from being a gift of God into a law to be obeyed. Of course God desires for each person to be united to Jesus by trusting in his completed cross-work, and to receive a full life, but we know and treasure the fact that the gospel is a gift to be received or rejected. It is an absurd idea to enshrine the gospel in the state law for society’s good as though the benefits of the gospel could be transferred to society in such a way. No, the gospel is, in the same way as marriage, to be proclaimed in word (our words) and deed (our life that imitates Jesus).
Our bread and butter is the stuff made of God’s gifts. When it comes to the issue of marriage, God’s M-O is gift, not law. We would do well to follow God's lead.