Further comments on churches withdrawing from solemnising marriages

My previous post on the question of whether Christian churches who see same sex marriage as contrary to God’s word, should withdraw from solemnising marriages under Australian law if that law changes to recognise such unions, was followed by a helpful response from Dr John McClean. In this post I want to offer my response to John’s remarks. (Readers who are interested in this area should also see the detailed response of another Presbyterian minister, Nathan Campbell, whose views are very similar to mine, in 8 Reasons Withdrawing From The Marriage Act Is A Bad Idea For The Presbyterian Church.) Following John’s lead on academic style I will refer to him by his last name. (Again, this post furthers an “in-house” debate, which may not be of interest to those not involved in Christianity, who should feel free to move on at this point!)

Areas of agreement

Perhaps it would first be helpful to clarify areas where McClean and I are in full agreement. As I see it, as fellow evangelical Christians, we agree that

  • The Bible makes it clear that homosexual behaviour is contrary to God’s purposes for humanity and wrong.
  • We are also convinced that God’s grace offers forgiveness and salvation to those who trust in Jesus Christ, his death for sins and resurrection. For both of us, I take it, those issues are the most important. But this debate is one that needs to be had because Australian society, formerly based on a consensus ethical view drawn from the Bible, is now moving further and further away.
  • The introduction of same sex marriage in Australia would have serious long-term impacts on the institution of marriage generally.

Institutional Change of Marriage

However, where McClean and I differ is in the short-term response of the Christian church to the proposed change. He argues that the institution in some sense will be “corrupted” immediately; I take it that the institution of marriage, while it will be impacted in some areas, will continue to reflect God’s purposes for humanity in most marriages that will continue to take place, and that in those areas the institution should be supported by the churches.

I previously offered as a summary two main reasons I had seen in the literature for the move that McClean suggests: an “institutional change” reason, and a “clergy religious freedom” reason. We seem to agree that the second is not a very strong one (and should any proposed legislation not include recognition of the freedom of ministers of religion not to undertake same sex marriages, I would probably need to rethink my opposition to churches withdrawing from the system.) So the rest of my comments will mostly be directed to the institutional change arguments.

Detriments of withdrawal

Partly the difference between us is due to the weight we give the detriments flowing from withdrawal. I suggest that withdrawal will lead to a reduction in opportunities for positive contact between churches and members of the non-church community who still (though I concede, as McClean points out, in decreasing numbers) come to churches for weddings. I see this as an important and serious detriment. I don’t see it as bad, though, simply because of this loss of contact with particular couples. I see it as a negative because it involves yet another area where Christians are being asked to accept being forced out of a role in the public life of the community.

Christian groups have been the founders of, and continue to be the providers of, many important social services in our community. The Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul continue to play important roles in caring for the most needy in our country. There are still many hospitals and schools run by Christians, with a specifically Christian ethos. The community benefits from these services, not simply because if they were not there then increased taxpayer funds would be needed to replace them, but because these organisations often attract people who see service of this sort as not simply a job, but as a vocation and a calling from God.

Yet there has been increased pressure in recent years from an “absolutist” form of secularism, which seems to be determined to drive Christians out of these forms of service. Overseas, a number of Catholic adoption agencies have been forced to shut their doors because they will not compromise their views on appropriate family structures in organising adoptive families. Pressure is mounting in some areas to revise the provisions of anti-discrimination laws, which allow Christian organisations to conduct their operations in accordance with their deeply held beliefs.

In this context, for a Christian denomination to withdraw from playing an important role in the public celebration of marriage in the community feels very much like a further “defeat,” and to send a message that Christianity is increasingly irrelevant to the lives of ordinary Australians. The public role of the church for many years has been to shepherd those who seek its services in the major life landmarks of “hatches, matches and dispatches”- baptising new born children, celebrating weddings, conducting funerals. Even if, as McClean suggests, churches would still offer ceremonies even to non-believers, following a civil service, the fact that what is offered could not, consistently with the Marriage Act 1961, be called a “marriage”, would I think deter many from bothering.

In my judgment, then, while I appreciate others may take a different view, the detriments of this move would in fact outweigh the detriments of continuing to be part of a changed institution, at least in the near future.

Models for withdrawal

I also noted my concerns about possible models for implementing the proposed withdrawal. McClean offers his view (as he says, no formal model has been adopted as part of the proposals at the moment). He describes one option as follows:

Given a covenantal view, the church should teach that couples are required to have a ‘wedding’ (a public exchange of vows) before they consider themselves married and live together and commence a sexual relationship. The wedding could take two forms: it could be conducted by a celebrant recognised under the Marriage Act (including a minister from a denomination which remains registered under the Act); or it could be one conducted by a Presbyterian minister following the rites of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, but which is not recognised under the Marriage Act. For matters of pastoral care or church discipline, the church would recognise either form of marriage.

He suggests that the church would “probably” favour the model where a civil ceremony was carried out first; but he leaves open the option that a couple may choose not to do this.

Here I have to say I see a major hurdle. In order to explain it clearly, however, I need to try my reader’s patience somewhat by an excursus.

Excursus: What does the Bible say about wedding ceremonies?

One would think that the issue of the Bible’s teaching about wedding ceremonies was something both McClean and I ought to have started with. We both agree on the nature of marriage as the Bible teaches it should be according to God’s purposes: heterosexual, monogamous, with each party entering the relationship undertaking to be sexually faithful and that the relationship will be for life, entered into by parties who are able to freely consent, and in the sight of the community. But what does God say about the wedding ceremony that initiates such a relationship?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is: not very much at all. I wrote about this a few years ago when responding to suggestions made by some Christians that we should regard a de facto couple, who had become believers and resolved now to stay together for life, as “married in God’s sight”. I disagree with that view. Let me repeat some of that earlier discussion (slightly edited).

As I see it, and I think this is the Bible’s view, a couple are married when they have made a public commitment to be husband and wife exclusively for life, and they have done so in accordance with the law of the community they live in. In Australia today (and for the last couple of centuries) that means a ceremony that complies with Australian law. To write this off as a “piece of paper”, as even some Christians occasionally do, is wrong. It is not simply a piece of paper; the ceremony is the way of expressing that life commitment which makes a marriage. If that has not happened, then the couple concerned, even if they are living and sleeping together, are not married. Whatever their private intentions, whatever their promises to each other within the privacy of the relationship, a marriage has not taken place until they have entered into that commitment in the sight of the community, in a way which engages all the rules that community has set up which apply to married people.

This view I think flows from the overall pattern of marriage in the Bible. In Gen 1:24 we see that a man leaves his previous membership of the family unit shared with his father and mother, and “holds fast” to his wife and they become “one flesh”. The change is from one family to another and this needs to be recognised in the community because a number of things flow from the status of marriage. (“One flesh” is about being “closest kin” now to the wife.)

Through the Bible there is never a suggestion that a couple are married by some private decision they make on their own. Marriage is seen to be celebrated in the face of the community (eg Gen 24:67, 29:23); indeed, Abraham nearly gets into trouble because Pharaoh in Gen 12:18 does not know Sarai is his wife.

This is just what the word “marriage” means. One obvious reason is that it would undermine the prohibition on adultery if we were never sure who was whose spouse. The forbidden degrees of marriage become impossible to sort out if we as a community don’t know who is married to whom. In light of this normally accepted meaning of the word, I think (if I can resort to a lawyer’s strategy!) that the onus lies on those who say that marriage between a man and a woman can take place other than in the face of the community and in public, to provide Biblical evidence for it. (1 Cor 6:15-16 does not mean that one act of intercourse makes a couple married, as I have occasionally heard said.)

To sum up- it seems to me that marriage is the status recognised in a particular society which leads to the creation of a new family and to an in-theory life long relationship between a man and a woman. (The “in-theory” bit is because most societies, and the Bible itself, recognise some possibility of divorce.) A man and a woman are not married under the law of Australia unless they have been through a legally recognised marriage ceremony.

Further, it seems likely that a man and a woman living under the Australian legal system are not married within the meaning of that term in the Bible until they are married for the purposes of Australian law. Otherwise, as noted previously, the Biblical commands about not committing adultery, etc, become impossible to sort out because we cannot know who is married to whom, until we assess intangibles like the depth of their commitment to God and to each other. To me this is impossibly subjective and not consistent with the fairly straightforward approach of the Biblical material, which all along assumes that it is quite obvious whether someone is married or not.

Support for this view can also be found in an excellent book on this area by Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God (IVP, 2003). He carries out a very careful review of the Biblical evidence and comes to the conclusion that marriage according to the Bible is “the voluntary sexual and public social union of one man and one woman from different families”. Chapter 11 of the book is where he reviews the evidence that supports the “public” aspect of the definition. I can’t do justice to his careful analysis here, but he notes for example that “consent” is a key aspect of marriage, and that

“in the matter of consent… the nature of marriage as a public commitment (a “sexual and public social union”) comes to the fore… Consent is not a private matter of the thought-life but a public affair of the spoken word and deed.” (p 220)

He points out that the Hebrew and Greek words that are used for “marriage” only rarely refer to the “status”, and most often refer to the “wedding feast”, which of course is a public community affair (p 234). He notes that a requirement that there be public recognition of marriage benefits (i) outsiders who need to know who is married to whom; (ii) the weaker party who may be pressured into giving a consent they do not mean; (iii) the parties, because “public commitment buttresses a private pledge” (p 238) and hence it is harder to back out of. He concludes the chapter by stating:

“The public dimension of marriage is not an ethical extra to make marriage better, but is of the essence of marriage as instituted by God.” (p 245)

I can see that there are possible, unusual, circumstances where a couple could be regarded as married who have not gone through a legal marriage ceremony- for example, on a desert island after a plane crash. But there seems no good reason why a man and woman living in Australia today wouldn’t enter marriage in the way our society has chosen to recognise marriage- i.e., by going through a legal marriage ceremony. Why would a couple who want to consent to a lifelong exclusive sexual commitment to each other in the service of God together, not want to use the mechanism our society provides for formalising this? Indeed, it seems that in Australia today if they choose not to do so, then they are saying by their actions that they are not willing to take on the relationship of marriage.

For the church to decide that it will set up its own rules as to when a couple can be regarded as “married in God’s eyes” is both unhelpful and unnecessary. Indeed, it is arguable that the view that there is a concept of being “married in God’s sight”, as distinct from married according to the prevailing social rules, is probably not there in the Bible. People are either married or they are not; the way you determine this is to see if they have complied with the relevant social rules, which will include some public commitment formally expressed in some way.

This does raise the possibility that a couple could enter a marriage in accordance with Australia law that might be prohibited by the Bible. Actually, given the development of Australian marriage law from Christian origins, it has up to now been a bit difficult to find a good example of this. Australia law on prohibited relationships, for example, tends to be pretty close to that in the Old Testament law (assuming for the purposes of discussion that the OT law on this point is still binding on Christians.) There is one difference, however- under Australian law at the moment it is not unlawful to marry one’s uncle or aunt; s 23B(2) of the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) forbids marriage with “ancestors” and “descendants” and “siblings” but does not catch, say, one’s father’s sister. Leviticus 18:12 is a direct prohibition of sexual relationship with such a person.

However, my inclination at the moment is to say that such a marriage, while it may be disobedient for the people concerned to enter, is indeed a “marriage” if lawful under Australian law. One might want to say to the couple- as a matter of obedience to God you ought not to sleep together. But in my view the couple would still be married. Again, I say this because in my view the Bible’s approach to marriage is to pick up the laws of the local society to determine the status.

Take another example. Suppose that someone comes to Australia from a country overseas that allows polygamy, along with his two wives. All parties would, it seems, be recognised as “married” for the purposes of Australian law so long as the parties concerned were married lawfully in an overseas country with which they were all appropriately connected. (This is different to someone who was Australian seeking to “evade” the law of Australia by marrying overseas. The difference lies in the rules of “private international law” which we can’t go into here.)

Should the church treat the parties as married? I think so. We would want to say, polygamy is not God’s ideal purpose for marriage. But it has happened, and so the status exists. In this case I think I have the support of the Bible, which in the OT of course records cases of polygamy with no indication that any of the wives were not “really” married, and even the NT, where in 1Tim 3:2 Paul requires that an elder be the “husband of one wife” (clearly implying that there were some in the church who did not satisfy this criterion).

(This does not, by the way, mean that polygamy is good. There are sound reasons why the Bible teaches monogamy as the right model, both from a theological perspective and for social reasons. But it means that a polygamous marriage may, in some circumstances, be a “marriage”.)

Back to the main question

So- if I am right to say that marriage according to the Bible is created under the laws of the community we live in- then the flaw in McClean’s proposal from my perspective become even clearer. If the Presbyterian church allowed couples to make promises in a “marriage” ceremony of some sort, in the absence of a prior civil ceremony recognised by the law of the land– the fact is, that couple would not be married. Their sleeping together would be an act of fornication, to use the old word.

I concede that I have not found my view on this matter shared in other sources. I welcome critique from a Biblical perspective. But the evidence suggests to me that a couple are only “married” when they are so regarded by their local community.

(In private discussions John has graciously drawn to my attention the fact that Calvin seems to have had a similar view, that the “magistrate”, the State authority, was an indispensable part of God’s means to constitute a valid marriage. See Witte, John and Nichols, Joel A., “More than a Mere Contract: Marriage as Contract and Covenant in Law and Theology” (2008), University of St. Thomas Law Journal, Vol. 5, p. 595, summarising Calvin’s views: “This involvement of parents, peers, ministers, and magistrates in the formation of marriage was not an idle or dispensable ceremony. These four parties represented different dimensions of God’s involvement in the marriage covenant, and they were thus essential to the legitimacy of the marriage itself.”)

One reason why this is the best model is the need to avoid confusion noted previously. If the private “covenantal” model is adopted, and if it involves an option for couples to be “married” in church but not in a prior civil ceremony, the potential for confusion and difficulty is quite high. (McClean correctly notes that my previous comments on “confusion” were intended to be directed to this situation.)

The confusion, I suggest, would arise even if every Presbyterian minister did the right thing by, say, handing the parties a letter beforehand saying that “this ceremony does not amount to a marriage under the law of Australia”, and a certificate afterwards with these words included. For how many starry-eyed brides and grooms read all the fine print of the documents they sign? There will always be a danger that, if the ceremony adopted by the church for “covenantal marriage” strongly resembles the traditional “white wedding” ceremony that has been conducted for years, the parties, and their families, will assume that they are actually “married”.

The scenarios that might follow are as varied as human relationships and human sinfulness. A “covenantal husband” leaves his “covenantal wife” 18 months later and then enters into a civil marriage ceremony with someone else. In the church’s eyes he will presumably be subject to ecclesiastical discipline. But how are the property relationships between the parties to be sorted out? As McClean points out, the jurisdiction of the Family Court to deal with property issues on break-up of what the law will regard as a de facto relationship does not usually arise until the parties have lived together for 2 years.

Suppose that the “husband” and his new “legal wife” now decide to go to another church. Does that church regard them as married, or not? Should it counsel them not to sleep together, as the husband is “really” still married to his “covenantal wife”?

With respect to McClean, it seems to me that these and a number of other nightmare scenarios are perfectly possible. Bifurcation of relationships into marriages “in God’s sight” and those which are “legal” is generally a bad idea. Of course it is possible to have such an arrangement. McClean is correct to point out that prior to 1753 or thereabouts in England, and after that date for some time in Scotland, “common law marriage” was not uncommon. But the sort of confusion and potential for abuse already noted were rife in this context, which is why we moved away from that system to the one we have operated under for hundreds of years, where we formally register and note marriages so that we are clear who is married to whom, and who is not.

Similarly, it is sometimes noted by proponents of withdrawal that France and some other European countries require a civil ceremony as well as a church ceremony. But one of the reasons that France does this is that it has a very strong streak of antipathy to Christianity, and religion in general, stretching all the way back to the French Revolution. Religion is almost completely excluded from the public sphere in France. Is this in fact a model we want to encourage? Or rather, while churches are able to play a role in the legal solemnisation of the good institution of marriage, should they not continue to do so as long as the society still allows?

Political Theology

Near the conclusion of his piece McClean sums up some views on “political theology” which he says support his approach. With respect, I think my views are perfectly consistent with the Bible’s views about the State from Romans 13, where in general Christians respect the State where it organises the community (although the overall context of the Bible, of course, means that there are some lines which we cannot cross in obedience to God’s word.) Since the Bible does not deal with the situation of State recognition of church wedding ceremonies, whether or not the point of disobedience has been reached is a matter of judgment where, as we see, believers may differ. In my judgment at the moment remaining within the system is the wisest course of action.

Readers who are more interested in discussion of the Westminster Confession on political theology may find Nathan Campbell’s post (noted previously) of some assistance.

Implied affirmation

I note from re-reading Nathan’s post that proposals similar to those put forward by the PC(NSW) people were canvassed by Tasmanian Campbell Markham not long ago (see the article here.) Perhaps the main additional point made by Markham, not stressed by McClean, is the fear that those who see a Christian minister continuing to solemnise marriages if same sex marriage were introduced would be led to believe that the minister supported same sex marriage. Again, this is a question of judgment, but in my view this is not so. The community recognises that marriages are solemnised by clergy with a very wide range of views. That a Presbyterian minister solemnises a marriage at his church, while a Muslim Imam solemnises a marriage at a mosque down the road, does not lead members of the public to think that Presbyterians and Muslims have identical beliefs, even on the topic of the principles governing marriage.

Interestingly similar suggestions to those made by the Presbyterians have been made in relation to the Roman Catholic church in the United States. For a Catholic canon lawyer’s comments on proposals by some Catholic clergy to “withdraw” from the marriage system, see this post, and for a full list of posts on the topic see here.


In conclusion, I am grateful for John’s response to my comments and the thoughtful and helpful manner in which they were presented. This debate may well be one that continues for some time, and I trust that Christians will continue together to commend God’s good purposes for humanity in creation and in the gospel of Jesus Christ, to seek the good of society, and to encourage God’s people to live lives that are worthy of that gospel.