With everything that’s been posted online I’ve held off adding my take on things until now. As a Christian and a pastor of a church I’ve tried to capture some of the challenges people in my position face when confronted with polarising social issues. Do we address them or ignore them? Unfortunately often when we ignore them others speak for us instead and say things we’d never say ourselves. And then when we do say something it gets taken out of context. This is a message I recently shared at church to help my congregation think more clearly about the issues. It’s aimed at Christians so if you’re not a believer you might be interested in what actually gets said by church leadership here in Australia. If you are a Christian hopefully it will help you engage more compassionately and with a little bit more thought. I’m really not aiming to convince anyone that I’m right, but I do hope it helps us all think a little bit better on a very difficult subject.

A message to Grace Church Hobart by Ps Dermot Cottuli – June 21 2015

Today I want to discuss one of the most contentious issues facing the church in our day. It’s not the most important but it’s an issue that requires our best thinking and engagement as it has serious ramifications on how the church is perceived by the world we’re endeavouring to reach and how we as Jesus followers view ourselves, our faith and the God we serve. It’s also a topic that’s caused much confusion and heartache for compassionate Christians trying to reconcile the difference between what the Bible says and what a vocal part of our society considers acceptable and loving behaviour. For many in the church, being cast by certain elements of society, the media in particular, as the oppressors of a minority group, has caused some to question whether they can fully trust Jesus to help them navigate an increasingly rocky and hostile world. My goal today is to help you think more clearly about Same Sex Marriage and Homosexuality and present an approach to this topic that will hopefully help you stay true to God’s thoughts on this issue whilst at the same time help you to engage in a sensitive, compassionate and thoughtful way with those who hold an opposing viewpoint.

On Monday the 1st of June this year the leader of the Labor Party Bill Shorten put forward a private members bill in parliament looking to legalise same-sex marriage by changing the definition of marriage as found in the Marriage Act.

For those of us who’ve lived in Tasmania these past few years this is our third time round the dance floor on this particular issue. Federally it’s the second time this type of bill has been put up.

When it first came up at a Federal level a number of years back it was defeated 98 to 42 with Labor numbers sitting at 73 members. The coalition at the time were instructed to vote no whilst Labor politicians were allowed a conscience vote. Some said that by awarding a conscience vote the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard was able to appear to be supporting the gay community without running the personal risk of defending a vote that most predicted would see the bill defeated.

Shorten’s bill seeks to change the definition of marriage as stated in the Marriage Act from “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life” to “the union of two people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”.

As a Christian I’ve battled with this issue as I’m sure many of you have, trying to work through the very human side of the debate whilst endeavouring to work out what my response should be as a follower of Jesus and what it is that God says about same sex marriage and homosexuality. As the senior minister of Grace I’ve had the added burden of sorting through whether this is something I need to make a public statement about or whether I should avoid it because it’s so controversial. And I’m not just talking about outside of the church. It’s a very confusing and controversial issue for many within the church as well because many of us are personally involved with people on both sides of the fence.

After speaking with our team I’ve decided to go public and state Grace’s stance and in doing so I hope to help us collectively arrive at a position that will demonstrate the love and grace of Jesus to our world but also at the same time, hold true to God’s revealed word to us.

Surely God has an answer to our dilemma, after all He’s omniscient and He loves those we’re endeavouring to engage with. The challenge before us is to discern what His answer is. He’s the one who created the human brain and logic and therefore knows how best to communicate with us. Now that doesn’t mean that we’ll always agree on or appreciate His way at first but it gives me hope that if we do the hard yards and ask the right questions we can have confidence that He’ll lead us into all truth.

Matthew 7:7, 8

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Now at the risk of sounding a bit pedantic can I just say that this bill should never have been called The Equality Bill because marriage is already equal given its’ current definition. This is not about marriage equality.

If you’re a Korean you can marry an Australian,

if you’re rich you can marry someone who’s poor,

if you’re 18 you can marry someone who’s older than you,

if you’re a Muslim you can marry a buddhist

the law doesn’t discriminate – all it states is that marriage is between a man and a woman.

In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, titled “About time we all cared more about marriage”, Patrick Parkinson Professor of Law at the Sydney University writes,

“One of the most heartening aspects of the otherwise divisive debate on same-sex marriage has been the recognition on all sides of politics that marriage matters. That is a real turnaround.”

For the past 20 years or so, left-of-centre governments in particular have acted on the premise that marriage does not matter. Family law reform in that period has been characterised by the removal of all differences between marriage and de facto relationships. It is now very difficult to point to any state, territory or federal law where getting legally married makes a difference compared with a same-sex or opposite-sex couple who have lived together in a de facto relationship for two years or more, or who have registered their relationship. As a consequence, the right to marry carries little significance in law other than imposing a need to get a formal divorce before marrying someone else.

Professor Parkinson then goes on to say

“In Australia, the same-sex marriage debate is therefore really not about equality in law; that already exists. Now same-sex and heterosexual de facto unions have been elevated to the point where they equal marriage or, looking at it a different way, marriage has been reduced in significance to the point where it is equal to a de facto relationship.”

“Marriage is a mere shadow of what it used to be, legally and culturally, so the new progressive recognition of marriage as an important and cherished institution is a welcome development.”

This bill is about redefining our cultural definition of marriage and not about equality. It makes for a catchy slogan but it’s intellectually dishonest. Unfortunately when you ask an Australian do they agree with marriage equality they’ll say of course they do, not realising that it’s already equal and fearing that if they don’t say yes then they’ll be labelled a bigot; someone lacking in compassion. The last time the bill was tabled in Federal Parliament Get-up Australia was quoted as saying that anyone who opposed gay marriage was a bigot and a hater, a sentiment that the anti-discrimination commissioner here in Tasmania told me personally, would have been grounds for prosecution as hate speech if anyone had decided to file a complaint. None were filed, even from those who were supposedly haters and bigots.

You can understand why many Christians have had such a hard time working through their own personal response to this issue when a value judgement is made of them if they’re seen to be disagreeing with current public sentiment. And it’s the reason that polls have said that 70% of Australians agree with same-sex marriage because the actual question was, do they support marriage equality.

“Some people’s idea of free speech is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.”

Sir Winston Churchill

Another slogan that’s been used has been the slogan “Equal love”. And once again you and I and every compassionate Australian would totally agree with it. We all believe in equal love. However this bill isn’t about love. It’s not about who’s allowed to love who. The funny thing is the Marriage Act in its description of marriage doesn’t mention love at all. People should be free to love whoever they want to. The Bible fully endorses equal love. In fact the teachings of Jesus were revolutionary in his day as they cut through the prejudicial caste system of the ancient world and promoted love of all, the slave, the free, the poor, the rich and even those in government. We’re commanded to love each other and not just those who love us in return. We’re to love even our enemies. Why? Because God loves the entire world and sent Jesus to the entire world. I’m free to love men, women, children, sinners, and even parents, politicians and pastors.

So if the issue isn’t about love, what’s the church’s problem with same sex marriage?

Now I want to make a distinction here – my personal issue as a Christian with same sex marriage is different to my political issue with same sex marriage.

The issue for a follower of Jesus which same sex marriage seeks to legitimise, is the stigma that society historically has felt against homosexual sex. The Bible doesn’t mention same sex marriage, it does however talk about homosexual sex. This bill doesn’t talk about homosexual sex however there would be no bill if we were just talking about two men or two women who wanted to live together because they had a deep love for the other.

It’s never been a question of love, the problem has always been about sex and the pattern that God said he created it for. Now remember, God invented sex, so he’s its greatest proponent. He’s not some puritanical Victorian era style spoil sport when it comes to sex. But he makes it clear in the Bible that sex according to his blueprint takes place between a man and a woman in the safety of the marriage covenant. It’s not just for reproduction, it’s far more than that. It joins two people together in a profound and spiritual way. The two become one flesh. Is marriage the only place that sex occurs? No it isn’t. Does that make it ok? A fire burning in a fireplace brings warmth to the whole house but if it breaks out of the fireplace it can burn the whole house down.

As a male I’m free to love other men, I’m free to love women other than my wife, I’m free to love children, I can love my pets, I can even love my football team, and let me tell you they could do with a bit more love at the moment. But I can’t have sex with all of them, only my wife. The bible clearly states that a man shouldn’t have sex with another man and a woman shouldn’t have sex with another woman. The only place that God endorses sex is within the safe confines of marriage – a marriage between a man and a woman. There is no wiggle room here. Now if your identity is bound to your sexual expression and it doesn’t fall in line with God’s blueprint you’re in a bind but you’re most certainly not alone. Men and women have struggled with sexual desire that wants to express itself outside of God’s blueprint from the beginning of time. The choice to not satisfy every sexual urge you have doesn’t mean you’re somehow limiting your growth and personal fulfilment as a human being. It simply means you’re exercising your God given ability to rise above your desires and choose to align yourself with His morality.

Jesus, when speaking of marriage, referenced Genesis 2 as his model where it says a man would leave his parents and be united with his wife and the two would become one flesh. That was the model the Old testament taught and the same model that Jesus held up as true.

Some people struggle with the fact that Jesus never mentioned homosexual sex in his teaching therefore maybe He wasn’t as concerned about it as the conservative religious right are. I need to point out that it’s very dangerous to make an argument out of silence. The writers of the gospels were writing to their society not ours and there were a multitude of cultural norms and practices that never get mentioned because it was assumed that the readers were well aware of them. Jesus never mentioned incest, he didn’t talk about paedophilia, neither did he describe pornography as we know it today and yet no-one would argue that any of these are acceptable table talk in current Australian society.

I mentioned earlier that my personal issue with same sex marriage was different to my political issue, or maybe I should say my humanitarian issue.

I want to make something very clear. The church is not the moral watchdog of the world. We’re not here to force God’s morals on non-believers and make them obey God’s laws. We’re not Muslims seeking to set up Sharia Law in all the nations of the earth, and we have no intention or scriptural injunction to follow their model because as we saw in the Old Testament it doesn’t work. Law doesn’t change people it just highlights their inability to live according to God’s standard. The Apostle Paul is all over that in the book of Romans. That said I believe that a society where God’s laws form the basis of their judicial system will be a just and fair society. History proves that to be a fact. But that’s not our mandate. I don’t expect anyone to live according to Jesus’ commandments unless they’ve had an encounter with Him where they’ve made Him Lord of their lives and He now lives within them changing them from the inside out giving them the ability and desire to follow his ways.

When Pontius Pilate asked Jesus if he was the King of the Jews, Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

The early church had no hope of changing Roman law as they were considered non-entities by the state. They simply went about living their lives according to Jesus’ commands and introducing Him to as many as who were open. We live in a very different society and due to our political process we have the right as citizens to express our opinion on all sorts of policy decisions that our elected representatives are voting on. What you do as a private citizen is a matter for your own conscience and I’m not about to say you should engage with the political process or remove yourself from it. That’s your choice. You’re not a member of a militant lobby group, neither are you a part of a cult that tells you what you should and shouldn’t do in your private life. The freedom we have to participate in our democratic system does however have an impact on whether the church gets involved or abstains when society as a whole is asked to contribute to the decision making process of government.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the church corporately should only get involved in politics when there’s injustice or potential injustice perpetrated against those who can’t defend themselves. This isn’t a moral crusade that we’re on. I am not and will not fight against those who engage in homosexual sex acts. I will love them and invite them to meet Jesus. It’s the same approach that I use for anyone regardless of their sin. Because I too am a sinner. Jesus told us to go into all the world and introduce him to everyone, and anyone who chooses to believe in him will be saved. He didn’t say go and make everyone behave just like you and those who do will be saved.

When talking to my non-believing friends about social issues I never talk to them from the bible (in quotation marks) unless they first of all ask me to. Andrew Bolt, journalist and social commentator, said recently in an interview with Ps James McPherson at his Think Again Conference that, 

“If you want to reach out and speak to issues within society its important that you don’t reference as your ultimate authority, God and the Bible.”

He went on to say that the world needed the wisdom of the bible but it needed to be presented wisely and without the tag as too many people today write off anything they think has a Christian tagline. Jesus called it being as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.

When speaking to social issues I’ve learned to ask questions rather than to just give my opinion in the hope that my questions help trigger deeper thinking around the issue. During the abortion debate here in Tasmania I only posed one question in all of my interaction with the government and on social media and that was “When is a baby a baby?” Answer that question and you answer the abortion debate once and for all. Do you know where I got that question from? I prayed and asked Jesus to help me pose a question that would go to the very heart of the matter for everyone regardless of their belief system.

The issue that I have with same sex marriage at a political level is a potential social injustice issue – what will this mean for children and their right to have access to their parents. Two people of the same sex can never have children, they need help from the outside, however children born into a same sex relationship will never have the chance to grow up with both a mum and a dad and it won’t be because of tragedy or any of the events that currently occur in our world after a child is born. Instead it will come about because a government made a decision before they were even born to deny them their right to a mum and a dad.

With same sex marriage the question I’ve asked is “Do you think it’s the governments place to legislate that children will be born without either a dad or a mum?”  Understand, I’m not talking about those who have lost one of their parents since birth or those who are currently in a same-sex household, I’m talking about purposefully bringing into the world children who will never have the opportunity of both a mum and a dad. To answer that question you have to be absolutely certain that growing up with a mum and a mum or a dad and a dad is just as good as having a mum AND a dad.

I want to wrap by talking about the church’s response to those who are same sex attracted.

I really wish our world had gone down a different path and hadn’t decided to label people who engaged in homosexual sex acts as homosexuals or gay. Why? Because every person on the planet has been created in the image of God and we are so much more than our sexual preferences or practices.

I believe that we’re facing today a group in our society that is crying out for identify, acceptance and affirmation. Why else would they want to be married when they already have all the rights under law that are accorded to those who are married. The tragedy is that their identity has been consumed by their sexual orientation. To accept them we’re asked to accept their sexual behaviour as well. But as Rick Warren so succinctly puts it,

“Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.”

I find myself being drawn back to the story of the woman caught in adultery who was brought to Jesus by a bunch of men who were trying to trap him and destroy his reputation. In the story we see a wonderful example of what it is we’re meant to do.

John 8:4-11

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”

6 They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. 7 They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” 8 Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.

9 When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. 10 Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”

11 “No, Lord,” she said.

And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”

Here’s the rub. Who was it who said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” It was Jesus. Our responsibility is to bring people to Him and let him do what only He can do, convict of sin and set a person free. Until that happens we’re to love them, encourage them and support them just as we already do for so many of our friends and all of our church members who continue to struggle with sin to this very day.