In recent years, there has been much debate over the Australian Marriage Act. In particular, to whether the definition of marriage should be extended to include same-sex relationships. What has intrigued me in the debate, however, is not so much the issue of same-sex marriage. But rather that much of the debate in Christian circles has assumed the acceptance, and defence, of the status quo.
As a consequence one could easily conclude that the Marriage Act is consistent with a Christian theology of marriage. And that there is no problem with Christian clergy continuing to act as representatives of the State, in the conduct of wedding services.
But is the Marriage Act consistent with Christian theology?
Well, from an Old Testament perspective, we are told of the universal gift of marriage by God (Genesis 2:24). And at its very simplest, marriage is the coming together of two people (a man and a woman), consecrated by sexual union. Indeed, at that stage, no other requirements or limitations were required by God.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that in the case of Isaac, when the servant arrived home with his future wife,Isaac “took” Rebekah into his mother’s tent and “she became his wife” (Genesis 24:67).In other words by mutual agreement, they consecrated their decision to live in a permanent marriage relationship.
Of course, this example makes nonsense of the historical ideas of “living-in-sin”, the need for marriage ceremonies, the regulating of ceremonies, and even the idea of “de-facto” relationships. Marriage is simply God’s gift of a permanent intimate relationship between a man and a woman. And it exceeds any requirement that mankind would wish to impose on it, whether for legal or cultural reasons.
Now it didn’t take long for some sort of celebration to become part of the marriage process.And in Jacob’s case a community celebrationpreceded his intended union with Rachel (Genesis 29:21-30). However no details of any actual ceremony wererecorded. Indeed, throughout the bible there are many references to wedding celebrations, but it is strangely silent on any actual wedding ceremony.
We could easily conclude, then, that throughout the bible, there is a history of the growth of celebrations around the act of marriage. But no indication of any wedding ceremony itself. Indeed, a celebration may have simply been followed by the more private act of marriage itself.If this is true, then it would fit neatly with the experiences of Ignatius later in the first century AD. Because he knew much about the engagement of a couple (which could include pledges, rings, dowries, veils, the joining of hands and the kiss). However, he too remained remarkably silent on any actual wedding ceremony itself.
Of course, the basic theology of marriage is not the only thing that conflicts with the current marriage act. There is also the issue of who can marry who. Indeed, the description of prohibited relationships in the Marriage Act is very different to those detailed under the Law of Moses. As a consequence the Marriage Act allows for marriage relationships prohibited by God’s law, and it prohibits marriage relationships deemed acceptable by God’s law. As a consequence, the Marriage Act is clearly in conflict with the Judeo-Christian tradition.
One such example of that clash is the concept of polygamy – the marriage of a man to two or more wives. It is a practice not unknown in Australia, and indeed is part of the culture of many migrants to Australia, particularly from Africa and the Middle East. And the practice of Levirate Marriage can be a very important part of some people’s religious beliefs and practices. And yet, despite the practice being acceptableunder the Law of Moses, it is currently a prosecutable offence under Australian law.
Now I have often heard it said, “But that was in Old Testament days. In New Testament times things were quite different”. And yetwhilst monogamy had become more of the norm in New Testament times, polygamy was not unheard of. IndeedPaul’s only stated objection to polygamy was in the context of church leadership. He was a confirmed bachelor himself, and was very strong on the need to remain single (1 Corinthians 7:1, 32). As a consequence his concern was that multiple wives would be too big a distraction for a leader in the church (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6).
The list of prohibited relationships in the Marriage Act, then, reflect modern cultural values. And those values are very different to the values described in the pages of the Bible, irrespective of the same-sex marriage debate.
So the question remains: Should the church continue to defend the Marriage Act? Should it be complicit in maintaining an act that fails to meet God’s standards of marriage? Well, I believe the answer is no. And not only on theological grounds, but also on pastoral grounds too.
After all, as God’s church, we are supposed to reflect God’s values. And we are supposed to care for, promote, and support people based on God’s values – regardless of any inherited cultural beliefs or practices, whether they are enshrined in legislation or not.
The implication, of course, is that the church will need to withdraw its involvement in any marriage ceremony conducted under the current Australian Marriage Act. An action which, no doubt, will cause much pain. But a necessary one, if the church is to be true to God, and true to itself.
© 2015, Brian A Curtis