Same sex marriage - Is it a big deal?
Ben Underwood is an Associate Minister at St Matthew’s, Shenton Park, WA
This paper was written for Christians, to help them grasp the viewpoint of many of the supporters of the change to the Marriage Act, as well as to grasp the Christian point of view more deeply.
This paper is about the proposal to change the Marriage Act so that it permits a man to marry a man or a woman to marry a woman. Just prior to the writing of this essay, legislation for the holding of a plebiscite on this issue failed to pass the Senate, but this will not be the end of this matter. The push for same-sex marriage is part of a long movement towards the normalisation of homosexual relationships that is not by any means spent or flagging. The debate will continue and evolve.
More and more the subject of religious freedom has become a major component of the debate, because in the event of a change to the Marriage Act, decisions would have to be made about how to accommodate those who continue to hold moral objections to endorsing same-sex marriage (objections which are usually religious in origin). Will principled objections—in particular, religious objections—to same-sex marriage be respected, or will any objection to same-sex marriage come to be regarded as sheer bigotry? Will religiously founded and directed institutions such as schools or hospitals be able to reflect their moral cultures within their staffs and practices, or will they be denied public support if they do not embrace same-sex marriages as they do marriages between a man and a woman? To what degree will the moral reservations religious providers of commercial services may have about their involvement in events which normalise or celebrate homosexual relationships allow them to decline service? These are important, contested issues, and a lot is at stake for Christians, as well as for LGBTQI people.
This paper was written for Christians, to help them grasp the viewpoint of many of the supporters of the change to the Marriage Act, as well as to grasp the Christian point of view more deeply. I first look at what all sides of the debate might agree on. Next, I turn to the way supporters of the change see where we are in history, as well as what supporters fear may go wrong. Then I turn to how Christians see where we are in history and how they view the debate, and what they fear may go wrong.
Proponents and opponents of changing the Marriage Act: what we might agree upon about how to participate in this debate.
I hope all sides can agree on a few things. First, that we are fellow human beings: we ‘are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ and ‘should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’.1 Secondly, we are fellow Australians: we are citizens with a democratically elected representative parliament bound by a constitution and body of law. We believe in a fair go for all, and space to live and let live. We believe in getting on, not throwing our weight around.
So, we should be able to say our piece. We should say it civilly, and kindly. We should listen when others say their piece, and take what they say in good faith, unless there is good reason to do otherwise. We should exercise compassion towards others, and try to go on together as best we can.
So too, we respect the law and the processes of government. We want to resolve things through a proper process, not through name-calling, abuse, sulking, slander, and certainly not through force, rebellion, overthrow or revolution. We will do our best at persuasion, due process, or, if absolutely necessary, for very important issues, we may use non-violent, non-destructive protest. We might get het up, but we respect the outcomes that governments or courts deliver. We might try to wear our opponents down, but we don’t try to lock them up.
Further, we are for freedom and tolerant of diversity. This means we are not insistent on unanimity when it comes even to emotive moral issues. We allow people to hold, defend and promote different views about capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, divorce, immigration policy, the situation of Indigenous people, our involvement in wars etc. We allow opposition, debate and peaceful protest and we value free speech. Neo-Nazis, jihadist terrorists and some other groups might provide an uncomfortable challenge to our commitment to freedom of speech, but only because of their association with the justification of real violence against others. But absent a real incitement to hatred and violence, we should be free to say what we think without being silenced or abused. Conversely, we should be free to decline to endorse or participate in the speech and views of others with whom we disagree, subject to the requirements of the law (which we hope is wise and not repressive).
Christians, for their part, are committed to truth-telling and constructive conversation (Eph 4:25, 29) and are commanded to ‘Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another.’ (Eph 4:31-2) We hope that we honour these standards.
Is the change a big deal? Supporters of the change to the Marriage Act say YES.
How supporters of the change may see things:
Proponents of the change to the Marriage Act often tell the story of what is happening the way Michael Kirby does here:
“With the advent of substantial scientific research revealing that variations in sexual orientation and gender identity are not wilful antisocial “lifestyles” but an unremarkable variation in nature (probably in most cases genetic), moves arose in Britain, Australia and other jurisdictions, to repeal the criminal sanctions and otherwise to delete the legal discrimination against same-sex attracted individuals.
Once it became evident that legal disadvantages against people in the sexual minorities should be repealed, the question was starkly presented as to whether their stable sexual and personal relationships, akin to marriage, should receive official and legal recognition. Whatever objections might exist to legal equality in this regard, on the part of many religious institutions and some religious believers, the question was posed whether a secular society could justify such a differentiation. Was it not also a form of discrimination that should be repealed and replaced by equality, as had happened in relation to the criminal law and other laws concerning the rights and obligations of member of the sexual minorities?”2
So, our recent history is that science has shown that homosexuality is not immoral, but a harmless and naturally-arising orientation of sexual desire. So first we decriminalised homosexual acts, then removed (some) discrimination against homosexuals, and provided some legal recognition of their committed relationships (which are ‘akin to marriage’). But there is still this inconsistency, this lack of equal opportunity, this point of discrimination: homosexual partnerships are only ever de facto relationships. We do not celebrate, dignify, register and treat homosexual partnerships in the way we celebrate, dignify and register heterosexual partnerships.
Weddings concentrate the affirmation of family, friends, church and state upon the marrying couple’s commitment to each other. Unregistered commitment ceremonies for homosexuals might concentrate the affirmation of friends and family upon the couple’s commitment. If in addition to that the government throws in an opportunity for a registered civil union to homosexuals, then that brings some affirmation from the state as well. But still, it puts homosexual relationships in a different category to heterosexual ones, and since they are minority relationships, this sends a signal that they are abnormal, even second class. The premier relational status is ‘married’. At the moment, only heterosexuals can be married, but this is not fair. For homosexuals fall in love, commit to one another, want others to recognise and affirm their relationship, want to settle down, buy a house, maybe have some kids and a 4WD, just like everyone else. Why should they be treated differently? It’s like banning inter-racial marriage: it’s got no foundation or legitimacy. Michael Kirby writes,
‘As in the case of reforms to the laws sought by women, the longer one reflects upon the refusal of equality in the matter of marriage to same-sex couples, the more one is inclined to the opinion that opponents are simply prejudiced, discriminatory, formalistic and unkind. They have realised that there are gays and lesbians out there. But they approach their claims to legal equality with misgiving, dogmatic reluctance and distaste. They think that fellow citizens in the sexual minorities should be permanently treated as second class citizens and that equality for them is not really appropriate or, as I was told in the matter of my pension rights at an earlier stage of the journey, “not a priority”.
‘Anyone with familiarity of the struggle for legal equality in relation to women’s rights will be familiar with these attitudes. Many of them today are felt and voiced by the opponents of change.’ 3
And he concludes:
‘Change will come, including in the matter of marriage equality in Australia. And when it does, we will look back on the current state of the law that expressly enshrines inequality in the Australian federal statute book (as we now do on the old criminal laws against sexual minorities) with embarrassment, shame and ultimately astonishment.’ 4
It’s a story we have lived through before; a civil-rights-movement story. Just as feminism is winning long overdue rights and recognition for women, and African-Americans or Indigenous Australians are fighting prejudice and discrimination to win equal treatment, inclusion and respect, so homosexuals are hammering on the last doors of exclusion and stigmatisation. The way the story should go is clear. The Marriage Act must change.
But of course, there are things proponents of the change fear, especially those with a personal stake in it. Like all of us, they fear rejection. When you are knocking on the door asking to be let in, what if the people inside say, ‘No, we will not let you in.’? What if they say to one another, ‘Those people aren’t the right sort of people to let in here? Their relationships are second class, second rate, wrong even.’? What if they say, ‘Those people will wreck everything if they get in here’? Or, ‘Those people are disordered, damaged, perverted, wicked’? Or, ‘We hate you, you are disgusting’? All of that is a kick in the guts. ‘Stay outside’, is what many people will hear and feel if the push to change the Marriage Act falls short. We should add to this the fact that the health advice given to the LGBTQI community these days is quick to say that the poorer mental health statistics and higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse and suicide that LGBTQI people experience are largely due to the discrimination and fear of abuse or violence that they experience living as a sexual minority in a heterosexist, homophobic mainstream. It is therefore a short step to the conclusion that to oppose same sex marriage is cruelly to prolong a tragic situation likely to produce more suicide and misery amongst the LGBTQI minorities. When it seems so obvious why the change is urgent and necessary, who would oppose opening the door, except someone who hates or fears homosexuals? So, yes, same sex marriage is a big deal.
Is the change a big deal? Opponents of the change to the Marriage Act say YES.
How opponents of the change may see things:
Opponents of the change to the Marriage Act tell a different story to explain where we are and what is happening. Some of them at least see the push for committed same-sex relationships to be recognised as marriages as part of a larger story of our society losing its way when it comes to gender and marriage. There are religious and secular versions of this story, Christian and non-Christian versions, but here I will give a Christian version of the story.5
Firstly, for a long time in what we now call the West, we have taken our understanding of ourselves largely from the Christian faith, whose central text is the Bible. And that tradition has been a great gift to the cultures it has formed. It has been in deep ways a humanising, pacifying influence on our cultural institutions, despite many departures from its best ideals by those who claimed to uphold them. This tradition is a primary source of the moral impulses towards recognition of the equal dignity and value of all individuals, and the duty to love and treat with justice all our fellow human beings that underlie the human rights we assert. In this way, it is Christian ideals of charity, humility, mutual acceptance, repentance and reform that create many of the conditions for our self-critical Western cultures ready to widen our spheres of recognition and inclusion.
However, for the last couple of centuries our inherited Christian outlook has been critiqued (at times vigorously), and modifications (some rather drastic) have been advocated. Lately in the West it is getting to the point where we wish to shed (and even disown) our Christianity, because many influential people have become convinced it is actually dehumanising. This has played itself out in our conceptions of maleness and femaleness, marriage and sexuality, and never more furiously than in the last 50 years. The meanings of all these things are being revised, sometimes radically, and this is no mere neutral process of empirical discovery, but is the purposeful forging of a new and quite different moral vision. This sexual revolution yields mixed results at best, and at worst we are defacing the humanising gift that God has given us, to our peril.
Maleness, Femaleness and Marriage in Creation
To dive in more deeply, here is a Christian account of maleness, femaleness, and marriage. To begin, we are created by God male and female. In Genesis 1:27 that differentiation of human beings is associated with us being made in the image of God. Maleness and femaleness are intrinsic to what God intended for us when he made us in his own image.
‘So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.’
The differentiation of male and female is also associated here with God’s intention that human beings reproduce. The next verse says,
‘God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number”’.
In Genesis 2, the woman is the long-sought ‘suitable helper’6 for the man – bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh. He could not fulfil the task that God set him of working, caring for (and extending) the Garden alone. He needed a suitable partner for the human vocation, and that partner could not be an animal, but had to be his peer, his kin, his equal. When the woman is brought to the man, he recognises her as the one whom he belongs to and who belongs to him;
‘The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman’,
for she was taken out of man.”’
At this point the narrator makes a connection to marriage. Verse 24 says, ‘That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.’ When the man says, ‘This is now bone of my bones’, he’s not just recognising a truth, he’s making a personal commitment to this woman: ‘You are flesh of my flesh, and hence I will treat you as my own flesh, my very self, protecting and prospering you as I do these things for myself.’
This is definitely a dual and heteronormal vision of gender. Genesis 1-2 names two original states for human beings: ‘male and female he created them’. It does not envisage original bare genderless persons, or a diversity of many idiosyncratic and individual sexual types. Further, the Bible does not here or elsewhere distinguish a distinct gender identity that may diverge from the sex of a person’s body, as modern gender theory often does.7 It is also a heteronormal vision of gender, in that it makes heterosexuality the norm; i.e. the proper, radical orientation of the sexes. In the intention of God maleness is for femaleness, and femaleness is for maleness.
This is not to say that gender theory is all bunk, because Gen 1-2 is not all there is to say. Genesis 3 qualifies what we read in Genesis 1-2 in profound ways, and we human beings are not what we were in the Garden. Verses 6-7 say,
‘When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.’
Our nakedness has become a problem to us. More specifically, the man is ashamed to be naked before the woman, and the woman is ashamed to be naked before the man. The coverings indicate an alienation between the man and the woman, a kind of terror of the other that has entered their relations, and distorted what the man was originally to be in relation to the woman, and what the woman was originally to be in relation to the man. This alienation is exacerbated when before God the man sets forth the woman as the reason for his disobedience (v12), and God later warns the woman, ‘Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you’ (v16).
If all sorts of divergence from a joyful heteronormativity emerges in our self-conception and sexual desiring, that is not at all inconsistent with the story the Bible tells us about who we are. But these will be considered divergences from the original norm, rather than original differences which can be self-norming, rather than subject to some other norm—an increasingly unpopular conclusion (see further below).
Despite the alienation of the man and the woman, in the aftermath of God’s curses upon the serpent and the ground, there is some reconciliation between them. In naming his wife Eve, Adam turns again towards her in hope. God has not struck them down despite their transgression. Indeed, there is hope of life yet: ‘Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living’ (v20). And God makes a gesture too; ‘The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them’ (v21). In this gesture, God indicates that a modest distancing of the sexes is an appropriate way to manage our fallen maleness and femaleness, and the danger male might present to female, or female to male, without certain screens in place. But for all that, the man and the woman still belong together as husband and wife (Gen 4:1). There is still a place for some nakedness.
Which is a fitting moment to move on from gender to marriage. Given Genesis 2:23-24, on a Christian view, marriage is not a civil or legal institution fundamentally, but an institution that is prior to any state or human culture. It is given to human beings by God, to bind men and women together, that they together might fulfil the vocation God has given us to ‘work and take care of’ the world he has set us in.
Marriage done well is a gift to those who are married, to the children of the marriage and to the community that does marriage well. But marriage is a pretty stern discipline. When a man commits to a woman as bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, both of them understanding that they are ‘what God has joined together’ (as Jesus put it in Mark 10:9), then plenty of self-renunciation is required of them as each faithfully protects and cares for the other (and any children of their marriage) over a lifetime. It may not feel natural or be easy to give yourself to one spouse entirely, but this marital discipline will bless you, your spouse, your children and the wider society in the long run, even as it requires husbands and wives to deny themselves in many ways. Human cultures may do marriage well or badly through their customary attitudes, practices and laws regarding marriage, and to the extent that we neglect the true meaning and end of marriage, we wound ourselves and our society.
Christians have misgivings about recent changes in attitude to marriage in the West, notably the far more relaxed attitudes to divorce, cohabitation and children out of wedlock that have become widespread. Whatever benefits have come with easier divorce, there are also undeniable and rather large downsides, especially for many children (and grandparents) of parents who divorce, or many children whose fathers never commit to their mothers. These unanticipated downsides have caused some to question the relaxed attitude to divorce that many embraced.8 Hence, when a new change to the civil institution of marriage is proposed, (one that is not supported by the Bible’s vision of marriage) Christians are apprehensive about what unforeseen consequences might follow after a generation or two.
Maleness, Femaleness and Marriage in Redemption
The burden of the Bible’s message is not about creation, but about redemption. The Christian life is not a life focussed on the way things are now, but regards the current situation as a very temporary arrangement. This leads to counsel such as the following (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)
‘From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.’
This paradoxical exhortation derives from Jesus, who said such things as (Mark 8:34-36),
‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?’
The great redeeming act of God is in the sacrificial death and victorious resurrection of his beloved Son, very God incarnate. The future that Christ has won for his people is that we will be made like him and share in his glory (Rom 8:17, 1 Cor 15:47-49, 1 Jn 3:2-3). Where is gender and marriage in this coming age? And what about gender and marriage now, as we wait for our promised inheritance, sharing the sufferings of Christ?
It must be said that human maleness and femaleness are rather de-emphasised, if not entirely eclipsed, in the Bible’s talk of the world to come. Jesus taught that, ‘At the resurrection people will neither marry (as men do) nor be given in marriage (as women are); they will be like the angels in heaven.’ (Matt 22:30) It would be great to have from Jesus a fuller exposition of the ways people will be like (and unlike) the angels at the resurrection. Since we don’t have more now, we shall have to receive with gratitude whatever we have here. Perhaps being like the angels means transcending earthly conditions such as the need to reproduce, and hence transcending marriage. More radically, perhaps it means transcending sexual differentiation altogether. Revelation takes up the imagery of sexual differentiation and marriage to speak of the age to come, but does not apply it to human beings as such, but rather to the union of Christ and his church (Rev 19:6-9, 21:1-5). The New Testament previews of the resurrection life could have brought back imagery of the man and the woman, naked and unashamed before one another in the new creation, but doesn’t. Instead, it presents the wedding of Christ and his bride, the church. This is not to say that gender will be transcended in the end, but it does suggest that the belonging we experience in marriage and family will ultimately be outdone by the belonging we experience in Christ and the church.
As for gender now, between Christ’s ascension and his return, we see the following: Marriage continues, and is to be honoured by all (Heb 13:4) and husbands and wives should model the relationship of self-sacrifice and submission that is between Christ and his church, caring for one another and sharing themselves with one another sexually (Eph 5:22-33, 1 Cor 7:1-5). The usual course of life is expected to be the course of marriage and child-rearing (1 Cor 7:1-5 again, 1 Tim 5:14).
However, marriage is relativised in the Christian life. That is, because ‘the world in its present form is passing away’, and ‘those who marry will face many troubles in this life’; and because the unmarried can live ‘in undivided devotion to the Lord’, while the married must please a spouse as well as the Lord, Paul judges that to marry is to do right, but not to marry is to do better (1 Cor 7:25-40), and he wishes all Christians were able to make same choice not to marry that he makes (1 Cor 7:6-8).
When it comes to issues of gender beyond the question of marriage, Paul still regards gender differentiation as important. His concern for covering the head—or not—in prayer (1 Cor 11:2-16) and his concern that women not exercise pastoral authority over men (1 Tim 2:11-15), mean that Christian churches are not gender-blind. Rather, our maleness or femaleness is an integral part of how we participate in relationship and community, and while there are not endless detailed prescriptions about what that looks like, there are some.
There is much in the Bible that affirms and encourages us to embrace maleness and femaleness as distinct, equal and complementary modes of being human, given to us by God, given to nearly all of us in our bodies,9 and which we live out as gendered persons, in marriage, family, church and everywhere. But there is also much—especially as the New Testament looks to the new creation—that de-emphasises our maleness and femaleness, and prioritises our belonging to Christ and to one another over our belonging to spouse or family (and perhaps even our gender, if that is what Jesus’ comment about us becoming like the angels signifies). This does suggest that our sense of belonging to our fellow Christians should be no loose or casual bond, but should often be a substantial bond capable of sustaining real intimacy between us.
Continued next issue: What about homosexual relationships? What do Christians fear in all this?
UN Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1
2 “The Case for Marriage Equality” by Michael Kirby. http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2012/09/08/3585826.htm accessed 27 October 2016.
5 You can compare a secular‘secular’ version of the story by reading ‘Marriage equality or the destruction of difference?’ by Roger Scruton and Phillip Blond. http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/02/04/3682721.htm accessed 28 October 2016.
6 A ‘helper’ is not a servant or aide, but one who lends you their strength to allow you to do what you otherwise could not, for instance; someone who comes and gets you out of a jam. The word is used many times to describe what God does in helping human beings, e.g Deuteronomy 33:26, 29.
7 See the recent Essentials articles, ‘The End of Gender’ by Rob and Claire Smith, pp4-6 in Essentials Spring 2015, and ‘A Brief History of Gender’ by Daniel Patterson, pp6-10 in Essentials Spring 2016.
8 E.g. Bettina Arndt – www.bettinaarndt.com.au/resources/articles/unhappily-ever-after/
9 Some intersex people might have legitimate questions about whether maleness or femaleness has been given to them in their bodies. This essay won’t go into their particular situation.