The same-sex marriage debate in Ireland is starting to crank up ahead of the Referendum in May. How should we, as Christians, respond?
The Bible tells us that the Law came through Moses, but that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). This means, if we are to act as representatives of Jesus, that it is not enough to try to balance grace and truth. 50% grace balanced with 50% truth won’t cut it! We have to be 100% grace-filled and 100% truthful!
If our attempts at conveying biblical truth are not filled with grace, then the ‘truth’ we present will be our strident opinions rather than God’s truth. Equally, if our ‘grace’ is not truthful and faithful to Scripture, then it will be vague sentimentality rather than the grace of God.
As Evangelical Christians, therefore, we need to affirm a biblical view of marriage. But we also need to recognise that, as a minority in a secular society, we cannot expect the law of the land to enforce our doctrines onto the majority of the population who do not share our faith. We have to learn how to affiirm biblical truth, including the truth about marriage, without becoming the Taliban!
Biblically, the issue is not complicated. For Christians, ‘marriage’ is a union between one man and one woman, in the sight of one God, by which two people become one flesh, and then remain together and faithful to each other for one lifetime. This provides the context in which we believe sexual intimacy should be enjoyed and families are formed.
The problems occur when we assume that ‘marriage’ means something similar in law and in a secular society. That is why religious organisations in Ireland act as solemnisers for the State – conducting weddings in our churches that are legally recognised and binding. However, this cosy arrangement has blinded us to the fact that there is a massive redefinition of marriage taking place – or, more accurately, a ‘hollowing out’ of marriage.
‘Marriage,’ in the context of a civil wedding, is not a union by which two people become one (making two people into one flesh is a miracle, and only God does miracles – not the State). It is rather a partnership, by which two people make a commitment to each other, not in the sight of God, and in all probability not for an entire lifetime. Indeed, it is quite acceptable, in a civil wedding, for the partners to have signed a prenuptial agreement agreeing who gets to keep what when the inevitable divorce occurs down the line! Now, apparently, marriage is not at all about forming families either.
As soon as it became obvious that the issue of raising children might be an issue in the same-sex marriage Referendum debate, the Government hastily announced that legislation would be passed dealing separately with children and same-sex couples. The intention of this move was clear – to reduce the definition of ‘marriage’ to its most minimal form in order to get the Referendum to pass.
So, in order to make sure the Referendum passes, the Irish Government has, in effect, decreed that civil marriage is nothing more than a partnership. Not necessarily a religious partnership, of course, but a civil partnership ….. But hang on, don’t we already have legal provision for Civil Partnerships in Irish law?
Here is a rich irony. The whole point of the Referendum is that Civil Partnerships are not enough, and that marriage must be accessible to all. Then, in order to make marriage accessible to all, our Government has so gutted the concept of marriage that it becomes indistinguishable from Civil Partnerships anyway.
The solution is clear. It’s time for the Government to get out of the marriage business. In fact, for most of human history, marriage was something practiced by communities (both religious and non-religious) and the State kept its nose out of it. That is why Henry VIII, who was an autocratic despot, got himself in such trouble over his divorce. Even a tyrant realised that the regulation of marriages was not his responsibility!
Yes, the State does have a legitimate interest in matters of taxation and inheritance – but those are most suitably dealt with by the Civil Partnership legislation. And yes, the State also has a responsibility to protect children – but our Government has already decreed that is an entirely separate issue from marriage.
The most sensible arrangement would be for the Government to stop trying to regulate marriage at all (since it obviously doesn’t understand marriage anyway) and to return marriage back to the community. Civil Partnerships would continue as a legal status to be available to all couples, irrespective of sexual orientation. Then religious groups, and non-religious groups also, could practice marriage in whatever way we see fit. No-one would be discriminated against, since churches and LGBT groups would be equally free to practice marriage according to their respective beliefs. And all such arrangements would have exactly the same standing under the law – which is none whatsoever.
This should pose no problems to churches. We already practice many ceremonies (eg baptisms and baby dedications) without needing them to be approved or recognised by the Government. We could easily conduct marriages on a similar footing.
I will be voting ‘No’ in the Referendum in May. This is certainly not because of homophobia or discrimination, because what I am proposing is a truer equality of marriage than anything contained in the Referendum. I will be voting ‘No’ on the basis that the Government of Ireland does not understand marriage, does not have the rightful authority to redefine marriage, and has reduced marriage to a point where it is now indistinguishable from civil partnership anyway.