Over four years ago the Australian people voted in favour of same-sex marriage via a voluntary postal survey. The survey results were published on 15th November 2017. Those in favour of this change reported that an “overwhelming majority” of Australians voted to support changing the Marriage Act of 1961 to remove “man and woman” and replace it with “2 people.” In actual fact only 61.6% of those who completed the survey across our nation were in favour of this change. In our largest state, NSW, the support was only 57.8%. The support was not “overwhelming” at all. This was also not a plebiscite or a referendum where all voting aged residents were required to vote. This was a voluntary survey and over three million eligible adults did not participate. So our nation was seriously divided over this issue and remains so even after the dust has settled. In spite of that division, our Prime Minister at that time, Malcolm Turnbull, rushed legislation through Parliament in just a few weeks and changed the Commonwealth Marriage Act so that the right to marry in Australia was no longer determined by sex or gender.
Many Australians were in shock. A lot of us didn’t really believe this would happen. Even some of the strongest supporters for this change confessed their surprise at the survey results and the Government’s swift action – and yet here we are – the deed is done and it’s highly unlikely it will ever be undone now. It would be a very brave government that tried to reverse a change which has swept across the world over the past decade or two. Australia was actually one of the last developed nations to allow same-sex marriage and a sense of inevitability was one of the driving factors behind this change. Do you remember as a child being taught by your parents that just because lots of people around you are doing something, it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do? Well it would seem that such wisdom didn’t accompany many people into their adult years.
The good news is that our Government recognised the dilemma facing the Christian Church in our nation where a large number of people were very disappointed with the change in legislation. Many Churches and Ministers feared that they may be forced to support this new concept of marriage. Exceptions were written into the legislation which allowed individual Ministers and whole Churches to refrain from allowing same-sex marriages to take place in their buildings. At the time of this legislation change, all the mainline Christian Churches in Australia still officially supported the traditional view that marriage was between a man and woman. So the new legislation stood opposed to the position held by all Christian Churches in our nation.
All that changed seven months later. On Friday 13th July 2018 the National Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia voted to change their position on marriage to bring it in line with the new law. From that day forward, the door was opened for same-sex marriages to take place within the Uniting Church. Ministers and Congregations could still choose to not support this change locally, but many of them embraced the change enthusiastically. This decision, and the way in which it was made, brought incredible pain and division to that part of God’s Kingdom and triggered shockwaves across the whole Christian Church in Australia. Thousands of Church members and many Ministers left the Uniting Church over this decision. Groups within other mainline Churches decided to ride the wave and are now advocating to follow UCA and also change their definition of marriage.
Contending for the faith in an increasingly indifferent, anti-Christian world is a real challenge. However, contending for the faith within a seriously flawed institution we call ‘the Church’ can be absolutely soul-destroying. When the Apostle Paul warned Timothy all those years ago that in the last days we would battle false teaching and even doctrines taught by demons, he was not joking. Following this unprecedented departure from the orthodox Christian position on marriage by the Uniting Church, I engaged with thousands of people across the country about this issue. Two questions continued to emerge in all my discussions. From those who could not accept this change in doctrine, I heard: “How did we even get to this point?” Then from those who didn’t see what the big problem was, I was hearing: ‘Why all the fuss about same-sex marriage?’
I want to attempt to answer those questions here. I know my words will resonate strongly with thousands of Christian brothers and sisters – but for others, this will be a hard word which some of you may judge harshly or reject outright. That’s because you may come to this issue from a different perspective and the views expressed here will directly challenge that perspective. I acknowledge this tension, I respect those who disagree with me and I affirm their right to argue their position in an equally respectful way. Diversity is a wonderful thing in the Church, but that diversity must always make room for rigorous, honest, respectful debate and discussion. I also must acknowledge that expressing what I believe to be God’s truth has and will put enormous pressure on relationships which I value. That saddens me, but I cannot control the way others respond, I can only ensure that my words are offered with love and respect, but always with an uncompromising commitment to the Biblical foundations which have served the Church and advanced the Kingdom of God for over 2,000 years.
So how did we get to this place of tension and division? What some people see as a brave, pioneering move by one section of the Church as they ‘lead the way’ into this new age of ’inclusion’ – many others regard as a divisive, ill-timed, ill-informed decision, predicated on false teaching and supported by a minority of the whole membership and a much smaller minority of the whole Church in this nation. If the Uniting Church is truly ‘leading the way’ they will have followers. When nobody is following, they are actually ‘breaking away.’ Many thousands of Uniting Church members did not want their Church to break away in this way and so this decision brought incredible division into the Church in Australia.
To understand how we can have two clearly opposed positions on marriage, we need to examine the different starting points of those positions. Like any journey, where you end up is first and foremost determined by where you start out. For those who strongly support the long-established Christian doctrine that marriage is between a man and a woman, their starting point is the Bible and over 2,000 years of established Christian teaching. I know its popular today to not let the truth get in the way of a good story (or a militant campaign), but here are some irrefutable facts:
There is not one sentence in the Bible which normalises homosexuality and it is certainly never affirmed as God’s creative purpose or intent for anyone. There is also not one sentence in the Bible which supports the concept of same-sex marriage.
All references in the Bible to marriage refer to a relationship between a man and a woman. This has therefore been the established position of the Christian Church throughout its entire history and this is the starting point for those who oppose same-sex marriage within the Church.
By contrast, those passionate advocates for same-sex marriage must start at a different place. They begin, not with the Bible and all of Church history as their foundation, they begin within the 21st century social context of western society where the sexual revolution which started in the 1960’s has evolved to the point where everything about sexuality, gender and marriage is now regarded as negotiable. Against that very different backdrop, orthodox Christian doctrine is seen as antiquated, culturally irrelevant and in need of revision, based on ‘what we know now.’ The result is that those who still embrace the truths of Scripture and the words of Jesus Himself are increasingly being labelled as ‘fundamentalists’ or ‘conservatives’ and seen as those who are out of touch with the modern, ‘enlightened’ understanding of God, the Church and humanity. Revisionist Theology has now become the norm in many places – and the fact that most Christians don’t even know what Revisionist Theology is – only serves to highlight the problem!
This alternate view of marriage gained momentum some years ago when the narrative around was homosexuality changed significantly and, I believe, deliberately. What used to be a discussion about behaviour, personal choice, lifestyle and morality – became a discussion about personal identity and freedom of choice. This new way of talking about homosexuality suggested that people are ‘born homosexual’ and have no control over their sexual orientation or its accompanying lifestyle. Therefore we are told that if you do not accept homosexuality as being normal, you do not accept those people who identify as homosexual. The term ‘homophobia’ then began to be thrown around whenever anyone even so much as raised a question about this issue. This view very quickly led to the conclusion that ‘God made me this way.’ The moment people effectively shifted the responsibility for their homosexuality to God, the whole debate changed. It is really important we know why this happened, so let me unpack this some more.
Firstly, if someone’s homosexuality is part of a person’s innate identity – then the discussion becomes very personal and it’s difficult for anyone to offer a contrary view without that person feeling judged or condemned personally. This effectively silenced the majority of our population and skewed every poll and survey done from that point on. None of us want to be seen as condemning someone or being personally judgemental. So in spite of our personal convictions about homosexuality or same-sex marriage, too many of us have just remained silent as this tsunami of new-age thinking has crashed across our society and now into the Church.
Secondly, as the ‘God made me this way’ narrative took hold, its supporters worked backwards in their deceived logic and reasoned that if God made people this way then God must be ok with same-sex marriage. They then found all the references in the Bible which speak about God’s unconditional love, inclusion, grace, not judging each other etc. and offered that up as ‘Scriptural support’ for same-sex marriage. In a growing number of places in the Church now this new position is accepted as truth, taught in many congregations and even taught in some Bible Colleges – in spite of what is clearly articulated in the Bible and by many experts in science, sociology and psychology.
This whole shift in the sexuality narrative over recent decades has occurred in spite of the fact that there is no credible scientific support, no Biblical support and no sociological data which would lead us to change the long-established view of marriage being between a man and a woman. There have been many scientific studies done on sexuality and gender and one of the most widely respected institutions in this field is Johns Hopkins University in America. A few years ago they published a report entitled, “Sexuality and Gender: Findings from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences.” It was co-authored by Dr. Lawrence Mayer and Dr. Paul McHugh. Here is one really important statement from that lengthy report:
“The belief that sexual orientation is an innate, biologically fixed human property – that people are ‘born that way’ – is not supported by scientific evidence. Likewise, the belief that gender identity is an innate, fixed human property independent of biological sex – so that a person might be ‘a man trapped in a woman’s body’ or ‘a woman trapped in a man’s body’ – is not supported by scientific evidence.”
There are many leading psychologists, sociologists and theologians who agree with those findings. Even some prominent homosexuals, who are experts in their field, agree that homosexuality is not an immutable human trait from birth. Here are just two quotes which leave little room for doubt: From Dr Lisa Diamond. Lesbian Professor of Developmental Psychology, University of Utah :
“The various sexual categories currently in use (LGBTIQ, etc.) are useful mental shortcuts, educated guesses or stereotypes, but though they have meaning in our culture, … we have to be careful in presuming that they represent any kind of natural phenomena. It is tricky to use these categories for advocating rights based on the concept of immutability, now that we know it is not true. As a community, homosexuals have to stop saying: ‘Please help us, we were born this way and we can’t change’ as an argument for legal standing.”
From lesbian Activist, Camille Pagalia, Professor at the University of the Arts in Pennsylvania:
“Homosexuality is not normal. On the contrary, it is a challenge to the norm. Nature exists whether academics like it or not and in nature, procreation is the single relentless rule. That is the norm. Our sexual bodies were designed for reproduction. No one is born gay. The idea is ridiculous. Homosexuality is an adaptation, not an inborn trait.”
At the same time in 2018 when the Uniting Church National Assembly was re-defining marriage because of an erroneous view of sexuality and gender, there was a conference taking place in the United States. The annual Revoice Conference states its purpose as, “Supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.” The keynote speaker at that year’s conference was Wesley Hill, associate professor of New Testament at the Trinity School for Ministry. In his speech to the conference Hill declared very strongly that Jesus did not support “trimming God’s standard down to fit whatever chaos is true in our lives. Jesus was not out to undermine God’s holy will for our lives. If anything, Jesus ratcheted up the standard of sexual purity and sexual holiness.” He was addressing a conference full of people who identified somewhere on the LGBTIQ spectrum and yet he flatly rejected the idea that Jesus wants the Church to accept same-sex marriage. During his speech, Hill focused on John 8:1-11, the story of where Jesus saved a woman from being stoned to death for adultery but then warned her to “go and sin no more.” Hill then said the following:
“Jesus does not combat the shame of this woman by rewriting the rule book. He does not discard what Moses said about adultery, nor erase any of the commandments. He’s going to redeem her but not at the expense of His law, or changing the standard of morality to fit her life.”
So when you study the biological, psychological, sociological and theological understanding of sexuality, gender and marriage, you cannot arrive at a place of support for same-sex marriage – especially not within the Church, which is my primary area of concern here. In 1 Corinthians 5 the Apostle Paul reminds us that it’s not the job of Christians to judge the world, God will do that. However, we are to judge the Church and keep the Church true to the Word of God and the call of Christ. I know of many respected Christian leaders who have remained largely silent on the decision of our Government to change the Marriage Act and legalise same-sex marriage. They have an opinion on that decision as a citizen, but as a Church leader, they know their responsibility is to the Church and it’s within the bounds of the Church they need to speak up. I only wish many more would.
We are warned so often in the Bible to not let the priorities and views of the world infiltrate and dictate what we believe and do in the Church. We are called by God to be salt and light in the midst of a broken and dysfunctional world – not to let that brokenness and dysfunction re-shape the Church’s doctrine. When our Government changed the law and redefined marriage across our great nation, the pressure on the Church to conform increased. There was an assumption by some people that the decision of our Government to change the law would simply be acknowledged by the Church in changing their doctrine to suit. However, every example in the Bible of where God’s people took their cues from the world, rather than God, ended very badly! The Church is called to show the way to the world – not the other way around. From God’s perspective, the Church is not peripheral to the world – the world is peripheral to the Church!
I want to now address the toughest part of this whole issue and the place where so many of us stumble because it’s just so hard. Many of us have family members, friends or colleagues who identify as homosexual. Some of them are keen to embrace this new day which has dawned and get married – some of them, within the Church if possible. When our love and support for them as people is confronted by our desire to be true to God’s Word and God’s plan for creation, it can result in a gut-wrenching struggle. This is not an easy space to be in but the most important thing we all have to learn, regardless of where we sit with this whole issue, is this: saying to someone, “I don’t agree with you,” does not equate to, “I don’t love you, respect you and accept you as a person.” When we are confused about this, we see relationships destroyed or we see people silenced and prevented from speaking the truth in love, for fear they will offend or upset someone they love. When people don’t understand that it’s possible to disagree with someone and still love them as a person, the consequences can be devastating.
Sadly, this is where many in the Church find themselves today and it’s really hard for them to step back from their personal situation and look at the bigger picture of what is right for the whole Church. If ever there was a time when we needed the wisdom and love of God to grip our hearts, it’s now. We need grace and truth to rise above our personal stories and pain. Grace without truth will lead to apostasy. Truth without grace will lead to hard-hearted legalism. We need the grace of God and the truth of God in equal measure and that can only be found in Jesus Christ, Who is the full embodiment of both.
Of course this is not the first time the Church has had to wrestle with doctrinal differences to determine if a certain teaching is true or false. In the early days of the Church there were many councils convened for that very purpose. From those councils came statements which made it clear what the whole Church believed and some creeds were written which are still in place today. Sadly, that kind of council doesn’t exist today. The Church has become so fragmented and divided that we have multiple councils across multiple denominations – all determining on their own what is true and what is false.
Having served God in four different denominations during my long ministry, I cannot describe the grief I have felt in recent years for the whole Church in this nation. Redefining marriage should never have been a decision made in isolation by one part of the Christian Church – it should have been a decision of the whole Church, or at least a large part of the whole Church. The Church faces many challenges in this ‘post-Christian’ era. Learning how to love someone unconditionally and accept them as a person when they hold a very different view about an issue which is deeply personal for them – is something we cannot do without God’s help. It also something we desperately need to learn.
Yes it is true that for too many years the Church’s dominant response to homosexuality was one of judgement against sin and condemnation of those who embraced same-sex attraction. It’s God’s job to deal with sin and lead people into the light and teach them His ways, our job is to love them and introduce them to a God Who loves them as they are; a God Who is committed to transforming them into the image of His Son, our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ the One who was the full embodiment of grace and truth. My prayer is that we too will allow grace and truth to be embodied in us as we deal with the challenges of our time. We need to learn how to love people unconditionally and accept them as people, without re-writing the Bible and changing God’s creative purposes for men and women.