In February 2015 I wrote an article called “Is the Marriage Act Worth Saving?” Its basic thrust was that regardless of the same-sex marriage debate, the Marriage Act, in Australia at least, did not meet biblical standards. And if that was the case, why was the church being so protective of the act? Indeed, why was the church participating in the execution of the Marriage Act at all? At the time I had it in mind to do a comparison of the positions (that should be) held by the State and the Church. So now I hope to make explicit the differences between the two.
Of course, the first major difference is that the State requires certain paperwork and an approved ceremony of some description before a couple can be considered “married.” The bible, however, makes no such requirement. Indeed, the bible tells us that marriage is a gift from God for all mankind, and provides no comment whatsoever on the need for a ceremony—it only comments on the (typically) prior celebrations.
The second major difference is that the State limits marriage to a union between one man and one woman. But again the Bible makes no such limitation. Yes, the bible agrees that marriage is between a male and a female, but it doesn’t limit the number of spouses to one. Polygamy is excluded under the Marriage Act, and in western societies is not commonly practiced. However, the Bible does not exclude any such relationships. Indeed it provides some regulations regarding the practice.
And the third major difference between the Marriage Act and the Bible is in regard to prohibited relationships. In the case of the Marriage Act there is only a short list of prohibited relationships. It excludes relationships between ancestors and descendants, and brothers and sisters. Similarly it excludes relationships with adopted children, which for the purpose of the act are considered to have the same relationship as those more naturally born. But that is as far as the exclusions go.
In contrast, the Bible’s list of excluded relationships is far more detailed. Yes it includes relationships between parents and children, and brothers and sisters. In other words it picks up the same blood relationships as excluded by the Marriage Act. But then it goes further to include any family relative. Furthermore it excludes certain non-blood relationships, like father’s wife (who is not your mother), aunt by marriage, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, and wife’s sister.
Of course one could easily ask, “Why is there such a difference in the list of prohibited relationships? Why does the State principally exclude immediate blood-relationships, yet the bible’s list is much more comprehensive?” Well, the answer depends on your understanding of the purpose of the lists. The Marriage Act has as its primary focus blood-relationships. As a consequence it suggests that the main focus of society is to avoid the problems associated with in-breeding. On the other hand, the Bible’s lists tend to suggest a greater concern for the functioning of families. And that is confirmed by the fact that the biblical rules were given by God within the context of laws intended to maintain a healthy community.
When it comes to the Church and marriage, then, there are many questions that the church needs to ask regarding its involvement with the State concerning the Marriage Act. After all:
1. Should the church be limiting marriage to only those people who have made verbal commitments to each other in a ceremony approved by the State?
2. Should the church be rejecting those who choose to live in polygamous relationships? And
3. Should the church be limiting its understanding of marriage—to exclude blood relatives only—so that it misses God’s concern about healthy families and healthy communities?
Now the answers to those three questions should be: No, No, and No. But in which case, the question still stands: “Why is the church participating in the execution of the Marriage Act? And why is the church seen to be defending the current act, rather than actively pointing to its deficiencies?”
Furthermore, if the church is turning a blind eye (or giving tacit approval) to some of God’s excluded relationships, then how can it be expected to be taken seriously when it chooses to uphold others? Indeed the whole situation leaves the church open to accusations of hypocrisy.
At the heart of the matter, then, is that God has given us principles for healthy families, and healthy communities. Now some of us might not understand the reasoning behind God’s rules. Others might like to change the rules to suit ourselves. Nevertheless if God is to be taken seriously, then we need to accept that he may well know things that we don’t. And as a consequence, it’s not what you or I want that’s important, it’s what God wants that counts. Indeed, deviate from God’s path, and we leave ourselves open to dire consequences. But stick to God’s plans, and we have the recipe for a healthy community.
So where does this leave the church? Well many churches are waiting to see what happens in the same-sex marriage debate, before considering any action in regards to the Marriage Act. However it seems to me that there is no need to wait. In a sense, the same-sex debate is irrelevant to how the church should be thinking in terms of the Marriage Act.
Because if the current Marriage Act falls well short of God’s standards—which it does—the church should be speaking out about the current act, not supporting or defending it. Indeed any church that is participating in the execution of the Marriage Act, should be abandoning their practice right now. They should not be waiting until the State decides one way or another on the same-sex marriage debate.
For excluded relationships see: Exodus 22:16-17, 19, Leviticus 18:6-23; 20:10-21; Deuteronomy 22:30
For the Marriage Act see: Marriage Act 1961, including amendments up to Act No. 61, 2016
Posted: 29th October 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis