One glimpse at Facebook will tell you that this is an issue that is dividing the country, dividing friends and even dividing families.
The reason this debate here in Australia has been so intense is that on both sides people feel as though they are fighting a battle that goes to the very heart of their beliefs about themselves and the world.
For many Gay and Lesbian people, the question of whether they are able to marry seems like the final battle in the war to be accepted as full members of the society.
Things have come a long way in a short period of time. It is only 20 years ago that homosexuality was decriminalised in Tasmania. It is important for the whole community to acknowledge that same sex attracted people have been treated in ways that have been blatantly dehumanizing.
We have heard a lot about “homophobia” in this debate. The word means “dislike of or prejudice against homosexual people.” While the term has been inappropriately extended to anyone who might want to vote “no” in the postal plebiscite, we need to acknowledge that there has been real homophobia in the Australian society and also in the Christian church.
For Christians particularly, who proclaim a gospel of love and grace, there simply is no excuse for dislike or prejudice against any category of people.
It is true though that questioning the nature of marriage goes to the heart of how Christians interpret the bible and understand their role in society.
The question of the Bible’s guidance for Christians who want to take their faith seriously is not a small thing, particularly for those of us who see the Bible as something more than a collection of historical manuscripts.
One widely shared article on the ABC news website a few days ago, “Same-sex marriage: What does the Bible really have to say?“, purported to show how the bible really wasn’t that clear on the issue.
The author of the article, Robyn J Whitaker, appears to have been deliberately misleading. She talks about the importance of critical biblical scholarship and names one author, William Loader , who is at the forefront of the field of academic work on sexuality and the Bible. After setting the scene she touches on most of the verses that mention homosexuality in the Bible in a way that completely ignores the majority of critical biblical scholarship that she has just been talking about.
Although it is inconvenient for the author’s argument, there really is very little doubt about the Bible’s teaching about this question. William Loader is definitely one of the world’s leading experts on the biblical text, and he too is affirming of same-sex marriage. However, his biblical exegesis couldn’t be more different from Whitaker’s. Loader himself says:
Where biblical writers address the issues of same-sex relations, the message is relatively clear. Leviticus prohibits the acts, which Jews read as equally applicable to female homosexual acts. Paul sees both the action and the attitude, homosexual passion, as sin.
And herein lies the problem. The bulk of the critical scholarship that Whitaker espouses and then ignores, actually reinforces what any casual reader would understand the bible to say… that same-sex sexual relationships are not part of God’s design for humanity.
Here too though we need to have the integrity to be open both to the whole counsel of scripture and also to the reality of the many ways we all fall short of what the Bible teaches.
We Christians are not coming to this moment from a high moral ground. At the same time LGBTI people are fighting for the ability to marry, more and more of us are getting divorced or sleeping with our partners without getting married at all. Pornography is a massive issue for Christians and it seems like every day there is another tragic story about a Christian leader who abused his position of trust.
It is from this place of hypocrisy and brokenness that we find ourselves telling our brothers and sisters who are attracted to people of the same sex that they should live by a much higher standard than many of us are modelling.
We also have to face the fact that while sexuality is a very important issue in the bible, the bible itself spends a lot more energy talking about things like how we manage our finances or the way we respond to poverty. Whitaker rightly points out that the bible mentions homosexuality only a handful of times and yet
contains more than 2,000 verses about money (and related issues of greed, wealth, loans, and property), and more than 100 specifically on one’s obligation to care for widows.
We are in danger of acting a lot like the Pharisees that Jesus was so hard on because, as he said:
They do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:3-4)
I have a sense that what is happening in this plebiscite particularly is that we in the church are being confronted with the fact that we no longer have the same influence in our liberal democracy that we once did. We are having to come to a new understanding of our role in society.
We find ourselves in this place as a result of watering down the gospel throughout the last century. At the heart of Christianity is the understanding that Jesus is the only path who a whole and fulfilled life here and now as well as in eternity. We forgot that and just focussed on the eternity bit.
The result has been that we don’t have a vision for a Jesus centred, whole and healthy political dialogue, family life or sex life so we focus on what we shouldn’t do rather than what we should. We’ve forgotten how to communicate the good news in a way that actually sounds, in any way, good.
The plebiscite campaign is helping us see just how far the church has to go if we are truly to do what Dallas Willard challenges us to do:
Putting Jesus Christ into a worldwide competition with all known alternatives is the only way we can give our faith a chance to prove his power over the whole of life.
We have to rediscover the whole of life kind of faith that means when people engage with the church they encounter Jesus and not hate and prejudice.
As a Christian, I understand that heterosexuality is not the goal we should be aspiring to. In a biblical worldview we recognise that we are all broken, as author Stephen Holmes writes:
the erotic desires of every fallen human person are misdirected, warped, and broken. This is true indifferently of straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual and indeed asexual desires.
As a Christian, I believe that many of the underlying assumptions behind the same sex marriage debate, on both sides, are faulty. As author Preston Sprinkle writes:
I don’t buy the unchristian notion that denying gay people a same-sex spouse is tantamount to denying them a fulfilled life. I reject the myth that true love and intimacy are only found in a partner you can have sex with. And I despise the modern American evangelical lie that a marital spouse is the quintessential form of happiness, without which no one—unless she “feels called”—can experience true fulfillment as a human being. None of this is based on a Christian worldview, which finds its meaning in a single Savior who was spat upon, mocked, tortured, and killed, yet “for the joy set before him” endured the misery of the cross in order to taste the delights of resurrection life.
As a Christian, I also understand that in a liberal democracy my views will not always be the majority view and that I am called to love people who think and act differently to me.
I don’t believe that widening the definition of marriage is what is best for our country but I am proud to be an Australian citizen with the right to participate in the debate.
I also don’t think the world will end if the outcome is not the one I will vote for. My experience in Canada tells me that life goes on after a national moment like this.
I do think though that this is an important moment for the church to have a long hard look at itself and how it relates to same sex attracted people. We need to look for appropriate ways to recognise, repent and apologise for the real pain and damage we have caused by our prejudice and fear.
I have found Preston Sprinkle’s book “People to be loved” very helpful in thinking through my own prejudices and misunderstandings and long to be part of a church that is a reflection of his words:
The Christian church needs to get past the “us” (straight people) versus “them” (gay people) mindset and start cherishing the lives of the beautiful people that experience same-sex attraction. We need to create and cultivate a safe and honest environment where people who experience same-sex attraction don’t feel gross or ashamed; where they can talk openly about their struggles in their small group and the room is not filled with cold silence and terrified stares.
Last week my daughter wrote on her Facebook wall something I think most of us would wholeheartedly agree with:
So looking forward to a time when “I’m a Christian” means to people more that I love my neighbours, rather than I have certain political views.