Today, Thursday 7 December 2017, the Australian House of Representatives passed unamended the Marriage Amendment (Definitions and Religious Freedoms) Bill, which the Senate passed just over a week ago. The Governor-General will soon ratify the law and marriage between ‘two people’ will then become legal in the Commonwealth of Australia. This significant change will create a new situation for our society and for the church – that is, for you and for me.
We believe that God has given us the good gift of marriage to unite a man and a woman and they become ‘one flesh’ (Matthew 18:5). Marriage provides the basis of human society through forming families and raising children. As it is part of the created social order, ‘so society, through custom or legislation, decides when a man and a woman are in fact married.’ In Australia, therefore, Lutherans have recognised those relationships that society – through the government – recognises as marriages.
Until now we have not needed to differentiate our understanding of marriage from marriage as the State recognises it under law. Both agreed that marriage is between a man and a woman, a mutual covenantal relationship entered into for life. This agreement between church and state existed for centuries, despite the many ways that marriages have fractured and broken down in our imperfect world.
The new legislation will change that situation for all of us. This year’s postal vote made it clear that society no longer agrees with the Church’s teaching on marriage. The change in view includes many Christians, including many in the LCA who count committed gay couples among their family and friends.
We had plenty of notice that this change was coming. Approximately 25 other countries (mainly European) already marry same sex couples. In our own neighbourhood New Zealand changed its definition of marriage in 2013. LCANZ congregations and pastors there tell me that it has so far caused no disturbance to the faith of members or the life of the church.
In Australia the government authorises religious celebrants (in our case pastors) to conduct marriages. Therefore, when our pastors conduct a wedding they carry both a legal and a religious responsibility. They must obey the law and confess the faith of the church. The new law in Australia will not force our pastors to marry people. It specifically provides for ‘ministers of religion to solemnise marriage, respecting the doctrines, tenets and beliefs of their religion, the views of their religious community or their own religious beliefs.’ In other words, they are legally permitted to say ‘no’. Neither are our congregations being forced to open their facilities for a wedding. Provisions in the new law will allow ‘a body established for religious purposes’ to ‘refuse to make a facility available, or to provide goods and services for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage, or for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage.’
So how are we to work through this new situation, and how will the LCA remain faithful to the gospel in its understanding and practice of the rite and the covenant of marriage? While our understanding of marriage remains clear, what pastoral, practical, and legal implications will we face? How will we show love to one another when we differ? Can we learn to embrace each other with genuine understanding, compassion and love, so that Christ’s love may shine and the whole world may know Him and believe?
It is too early to know many of these things, but it is my intention, and that of the Bishops and the Commission on Social and Bioethical Questions to give some thought to them. What follows is a sample of some preliminary responses to a few of the questions that have already been asked. There will evidently be more to come.
Sample Questions and Answers on Same Sex Marriage
- Should my congregation allow the church building to be used for a same sex marriage, even if conducted by a civil celebrant? Can we hire out the hall for the reception?
This is a question that your pastor and leadership should sit down and carefully discuss with your congregation/parish/ministry to formulate a policy everyone can accept. Most congregations already have written or unwritten policies and practices for the use of church facilities and this may be a good time to review them and ask how these are meeting the needs of the congregation’s mission in the gospel.
The LCA doesn’t normally ‘legislate’ on this kind of matter but it will produce a set of guidelines if the need is demonstrated. Generally Lutheran congregations are rarely asked for the use of their sanctuary for a civil marriage. Sometimes we are asked for hall hire if we have a good facility in a sought after location. It could well happen that congregational members ask for an SSM wedding reception for themselves or their son or daughter. This is why your congregation should develop a policy ahead of time, and do so mindful of the congregation’s mission in the name of Christ. The law does permit religious bodies to refuse the use of facilities ‘if the refusal: (a) conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the body; or (b) is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.
Whatever action you take, remember that the facilities you have, even though you have worked hard for them, are a gift of God and we are to use them for his purposes, to proclaim the death and resurrection of Christ and show his love in service to others.
- I run a small business and I do not want to discriminate against my clients on the basis of their sexual orientation or any other feature of their being. But I use my God given creativity to develop the products I supply and feel quite conflicted at the idea of preparing them for a same sex wedding.
Christians in small business, or any business, witness to Christ by being honest and without deceit in all their dealings. The Small Catechism challenges us by teaching that ‘we should not rob our neighbour of his money or property, nor bring them into our possession by dishonest trade or by dealing in shoddy wares, but help him to improve and protect his income and property.’ (Luther’s Small Catechism, 7th Commandment) So you need to ask, ‘What is the honest thing to do, and how do I serve my client while protecting the integrity of my business?’
Whatever our employment or profession, Christians are called to proclaim God’s gospel of grace, and must speak against oppression and discrimination and certainly not perpetuate it.
The conflict you feel might prevent the full expression of your creativity and so you may choose to respectfully indicate this to your potential clients, while not refusing to serve them.
St Paul writes in Romans 12:14-18, ‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.’
- I am in a committed gay relationship and I worship in a Lutheran congregation. My partner and I don’t want to hide our relationship and we are considering getting married. I know the pastor cannot marry us, but if we go ahead with a civil marriage, will we be able to receive Holy Communion in our home congregation?
These days the world encourages us to find our identity in a range of things – age, race, religion, wealth, etc. In Australia right now gender/sexuality seems to be at the top of that list. Our society has become so obsessed with sexuality that it often fails to see beyond it to witness the fragile, resilient, flawed, wonderful human person within.
Christians receive their primary identity in baptism. In baptism each of us is united with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection, and we share that identity in common. We are the body of Christ, and each is a valued part of the body. We are called to bear one another’s burdens, and in this way fulfil the law of Christ. We are called to pray for one another, to practice hospitality and to accept one another, just as Christ has accepted us, in order to bring praise to God.  We will, therefore, not exclude anyone from worship based on his or her sexual orientation. Luther urged all Christians to receive Christ’s gift of the sacrament of Holy Communion regularly with the blessings that it brings of forgiveness, life and salvation.
The LCA statement ‘Some Pastoral Guidelines for Responsible Communion Practice’ says ‘people who do not repent of their sin and do not seek to live in accordance with the confession of faith in Christ are in danger of receiving the supper in an unworthy manner and so bring God’s judgement on themselves.’ None of us goes to communion without needing God’s deep forgiveness. When, after a debate about marriage, a lawyer asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment in the law, Jesus answered, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’ (Matthew 22:37-39)
In the practice of communion not all LCA congregations and pastors are identical. Some will freely welcome all, and others might believe they are not acting in your interests, or the interests of the church, in offering you communion. If you are uncertain about the practice of your congregation you should first talk with the pastor before coming to the communion table.
- Should we baptise the children of married same sex couples?
Baptism is a gift of our loving and gracious God. The Lutheran doctrine of baptism gives us clear direction on this question: no child is to be excluded from the blessings of baptism. Our doctrine urges that children be brought to God through this sacrament (Large Catechism IV, 47-51; DSTO 1E). Pastoral and congregational practice and responsibility impel us to offer support to parents so that they might nurture their child in faith and prayer, bring their child to worship and join in the ministry of reconciliation to which we have been called (2 Corinthians 5:18).
Despite our clear belief that marriage as the union of a man and a woman and the family that results from that union are gifts from a loving God foundational to the human community, changes in our society may cause us confusion about how best to respond. That’s to be expected, and it’s not a reason to lose hope or to doubt the goodness and love of God. God is with us in all this to guide us in all our thoughts and actions. Despite the tension and paradox we feel, particularly on this issue, Christ continues to call us together as members of his body. ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.’ (Ephesians 2:8–10 NRSV)
Your brother in Christ,
Lutheran Church of Australia
Adelaide South Australia
7th December 2017
- LCA Doctrinal Statements and Theological Opinions – see lca.org.au/dsto
- Volume 1 H. – Marriage, divorce and re-marriage
- Volume 1 H. – Marriage and de facto relationships
- Volume 3 H. – Human sexuality: three key issues
- Volume 3 H. – Human sexuality: three key issues (background paper)
- LCA marriage rite – in volume LCA Rites (ask your pastor to see a copy)
- LCA Bishop messages:
28 May 2015 http://www.lca.org.au/statement-on-marriage/
21 August 2017 http://www.lca.org.au/message-same-sex-marriage/
15 November 2017 http://www.lca.org.au/same-sex-marriage-postal-vote-announcement/
- Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017
 Marriage, divorce and remarriage – see resource 1a below. This is consistent with the Lutheran teaching on the ‘Two Kingdoms’ in which the left hand (society/state) and right hand (faith/church) of God work together for the welfare and ultimately salvation of humanity.
 Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 2A (b)
 Marriage Amendment Bill 2017 47B (1)
 Marriage Amendment Bill 2017 47B (1)
 Galatians 2:19-20; I Corinthians 12:12-26; Galatians 6:2; Romans 12:13; Romans 15:7