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A topic too hot to touch?

The discussion about same sex marriage has created tension across our community and within the church. Much of the Christian community and especially the evangelical church has sought to take a stand which seeks to maintain marriage as it is presently practised and legislated. And parts of the church have been significantly criticised for their position.

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marriage equality logoWhat is surprising is that there are many in the evangelical wing of the church in Australia who are taking the view that they should be silent on this issue and even to affirm and support the push to legalise same sex marriage. It is helpful to ask… why has this occurred? Why go silent? Why not take a biblical view of marriage? What is the problem here? This is a complex question and seeking to respond to it has the possibility of generalisations which are unhelpful. Yet there seem to be at least three themes that have created this tension.

The first is the focus of the church over the past 25 years on the love of God. This has morphed into a general focus on love as the highest and supreme virtue of the church and theology. The popularity and content of Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace? is illustrative of this movement. 

For many, the focus on love and grace seems in conflict to the judgment of God, a focus of the past generation. God is love and extends grace and acceptance to all people. Into this new theological focus came the gay lobby, talking of the love of their relationships. They refuse to accept any redefinition of love. Those sectors of the church who have focused on love have been caught out. They feel like they are denying love, the very heart of their theology and message. If they were to reject someone’s “love”, it would be a greater sin than the physical expression of same sex attraction. 

Secondly, for a generation the church has grown in its commitment to, and focus on, justice. This has been a strong, positive and affirming move. This is the heart of God for the poor and powerless in our local and global community. The key activity of the church, in following the teachings of Jesus, is to stand for justice. The greatest sin would be to condone injustice.

The gay lobby uses the term “marriage equality” for its push for recognition of same sex marriage. The lobby makes it clear it believes anyone seeking to stand against it is being unjust and discriminatory. Supporters believe justice is being denied to them and, as with the problem of love above all else, the church is caught out yet again. To be charged with lacking justice is the worst accusation that can be made. When sexual ethics are reframed as a justice issue rather than a moral issue, we are in trouble.

Finally, there is the problem of seeking to be contemporary. Church leaders are very aware of being referred to as out of date or out of touch. In music, communication, arts and style, the church is striving to be contemporary. Into this set of values is the accusation of “being on the wrong side of history”. 

This concern about being out of touch and unpopular is a little more nuanced. It seems that it’s actually about which issues you are unpopular on. This year, Christian leaders have been holding “pray-ins” at the offices of federal politicians to draw the community’s attention to children held in detention and decisions made by the Abbott government on asylum seekers.

The last election and opinion polls have demonstrated that the majority of Australians are, rightly or wrongly, comfortable with the government’s position and approach.

This doesn’t mean that these leaders should not protest as is their right. But it is instructive that they are comfortable with being unpopular with the Abbott government and perhaps the majority of the community on the asylum seeker debate but are not willing to be unpopular in the debate on same sex marriage. It can only be concluded then that being unpopular is not the problem. It is which section of the community you are unpopular with.

Church leaders have supported the pray-ins, believing their actions are positive, yet many criticise a stance against same sex marriage. How would  they respond to a group of Christians holding a pray-in at the offices of a gay marriage lobbyist? Would they be congratulated there as well?

These issues won’t go away quickly and church leaders have to decide if they are willing to stand up for clear biblical values that enable and enhance people flourishing in public debate.

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