Flat White

Vote yes: why religious tolerance means Christians should tolerate same-sex marriage

6 September 2017

8:50 PM

6 September 2017

8:50 PM

If the High Court allows the government’s decision to have a postal vote on the issue of same sex marriage to stand, Christians around Australia will be faced with a choice: vote yes or no. Most commentary on the issue from Christian thinkers in the public sphere is firmly against the legalisation of same sex marriage. However, I wish to make the case for why faithful, orthodox conservative Christians should vote yes. The case is two-fold: we tolerate heresy, which is far worse than same sex marriage; and toleration of something bad doesn’t mean endorsing that which you disagree with.

If I were to ask an orthodox conservative Christian what is the worst possible thing that could befall any person, there is nothing worse than being sent to hell for all eternity. Humanity’s problem is that we have rejected God as our ruler (Romans 3:23), and have rightly and justly come under the wrath of God, and our fate is eternal condemnation (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9). It is only the death of God’s Son in our place that can spare and reconcile us to God (Ephesians 2:1-5), which gives us an idea of how terrible it is to be under God’s wrath. So awful it is to be sent to hell that Jesus calls on people to maim themselves than allow their body to send them to hell (Matt 18:8-9). And for those who teach things that lead people to hell? Peter says that blackest darkness is reserved for false teachers who lead people away from the truth that is in Christ (2 Peter 2), Jesus describes them as ferocious wolves (Matt 7:15-20), and God saw false teachers as so dangerous, they were to be put to death, even if they were family (Deuteronomy 13). It could be difficult to overstate how seriously God takes false teaching, or how fearful we should be of being sent to hell.

It is curious then, that out of all the things that Christians tolerate, false teaching is something that Christians not only bear but defend the right to be freely practised. If your goal is to have the state forbid doing that which is harmful to society, surely ensuring Jesus is portrayed properly would be your highest priority? If you want to stop important ideas being redefined, surely how Christ is defined would the most important definition of all? And yet, Christians don’t call for the state to end the redefinition of Christ that sends people to hell but in fact defend the right of organisations that do so to exist.

It would not be unusual in Protestant churches to pray for persecuted Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox people, even though all of them would disagree in critical ways about how one can be a Christian, in ways that mean that they really don’t all believe the other groups are truly Christian. It is so completely uncontroversial that prominent leaders in the evangelical Protestant community (for example), such as John Piper or Russell Moore, would call for religious freedom for all, despite heresy being the worst possible thing that could ever exist. And that is before you get onto the topic of Christians defending the right to the free exercise of religion to those who wouldn’t even say Jesus is God, like Muslims or Jews.

Christians of all stripes have long since come to accept that the state has no place in deciding who is correctly following Jesus. If we were being consistent in our arguments, though, if the state should forbid that which is harmful to families or that which redefines long standing ideas, Protestants would call for the elimination of the Roman Catholic Church, every synagogue, every mosque and all atheistic organisations, as they are leading people onto the path of that which is the worst possible fate for any humans, and vice versa. Such a sentiment would not be unfamiliar with our various theological forebears, who had no compunction in calling for the state to put heretics to death, but we have rightly come to understand that we can tolerate heresy; despite the dire consequences it has for people.

As much as Protestants disagree with Roman Catholics or Muslims or Jews, we recognize that the best way to deal with those important, eternity-involving disagreements is by debate and persuasion, and not by bringing the sword of the state. Religious toleration (the non-intervention of the state on matters of religious doctrine) is just the accepted norm, and I suspect that if a pastor within the evangelical community were to call for the elimination of false doctrine by force, they would find themselves on the fringes very quickly indeed.

If it is possible for Christians to tolerate the kinds of ideas and practices that condemn people to hell for all eternity, we should be able to, therefore, tolerate same sex marriage. It would be entirely inconsistent to tolerate the worst thing but find a lesser evil intolerable, if the both the lesser and greater evil are rejected on the same basis, and yet, that is the position that the evangelical community has taken. We can accept a society where the worst thing imaginable is legal and its defence is widespread, but something far less worse is beyond the pale.

It could be that someone might object to this assessment on the grounds that it would be impracticable to eliminate false religion, whereas it is somewhat practicable to stop same sex marriage. In that situation, you would have to accept that the state putting people to death and silencing speech to promote good doctrine is a good idea in the first place – impracticability is usually a feature, not a bug, of an idea that you reject.


In the 20 years, I have been in conservative evangelical Protestant churches, I have yet to hear anyone put forward the idea that the state should execute or suppress heretics, however. I’ve heard plenty of impracticable ideas put forward in those decades – the most obvious being that despite the reality that not all people will repent and trust Jesus, it is a staple of evangelical churches to talk about how God calls all to repent. If you were to poll evangelical pastors about the likelihood of that happening, I suspect it would be close to zero and yet, this impracticable notion is put forward all the time. Not so with eliminating false religion – I have never heard it once put forward by anyone, even amongst the lunatics at Westboro Baptist, that the state should execute heretics. If there is anyone who thinks putting heretics to death is morally justifiable, they are keeping their cards very close to the chest – in all other cases, I think the excuse of impracticability is more of a smoke screen for inconsistency.

One might also ask, why does being consistent matter? Why can’t Christians believe that heretics should be free from state intervention but that the state should stop homosexual couples from being married? It is a great question to ask, for if consistency doesn’t matter then my whole argument falls apart – a lack of consistency is what I am criticising Christians for failing to keep on this issue. However, consistency matters because humans are purposeful beings, where actions are derived from belief, and inconsistency shows up where your stated beliefs and your actual beliefs matter. You can lie to yourself about your motives and ideas but your actions will always show up what you truly believe.

A good example from the Anglican context is the gap between the profession of belief in their foundational document, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, that theologically liberal clergy swear to have while at the same time rejecting such critically important ideas such the physical resurrection of Jesus or the authority of scripture, which are unambiguous and central parts of the Thirty-Nine Articles. In that circumstance, we would rightly say that the latter invalidates the possibility of the former, for if you truly upheld the Thirty-Nine Articles you wouldn’t then deny the resurrection or the authority of the Bible. The motivating principle for theological liberals in how they form their theology is not the stated fidelity to historic Christianity but their allegiance to other philosophical principles.

Likewise, if you say that same sex marriage should be banned on the basis of it being harmful to society or that we shouldn’t redefine historic truths, but you aren’t willing to extend that to other logically similar situations, it reveals that what is motivating you is not your stated principles but actually a deeper set of ideas that aren’t being explained openly.

The cheap and lazy conclusion, if it is true that Christians aren’t being consistent when they should be, would be that it is pure animus towards homosexual people that drives Christians but I think it is more complex than that. It is probably beyond the scope of my ability to write here exactly what it is that drives Christians across the spectrum in this fight but for what it is worth, I think it is something along the lines of a combination of it being easy to attribute impure motives to homosexuals as Christians broadly have little contact with them in their communities, plus the culture wars, plus a shift in the prestige of the church, plus a really poor grasp of political economy.

It isn’t strictly important to know exactly why Christians are being inconsistent on this issue, only if they are, and on that count; it is hard to argue they are being consistent. Consistency is important to the pursuit of truth, and it arguably forms the entire basis of how we minister to other Christians. The Christian life is not about a continual unfolding of new mysteries – It is about growing in a deeper and more profound knowledge of a single great truth already clear to us, that Christ is Lord and Saviour through his death and resurrection, and about bringing our lives into consistency with that great and wonderful message.

Consistency matters for growing as a Christian, and it also matters when it comes to how we should understand the relationship between us and the state. It matters that what we demand of the state is consistent with our other beliefs, and if we are unwilling to use the power of the state to punish that which is the worst, we shouldn’t be willing to see people punish that which is less-than-the-worst.

This all leads to the second point: toleration does not imply agreement. Despite all our vociferous disagreement, few within the broad Christian community would suggest that support for religious toleration and freedom means that we have become ambivalent towards the truth of Christ or that we think that all truths are relative. Religious toleration doesn’t stop pastors and priests across Australia and the Western would from getting up and calling out what they believe to be false religion, in whatever form that takes.

It is my observation that few would discount the sincerity of those who do so on account that they don’t call for unbelievers to be put to death. We, along with everyone else to a large degree, have come to adopt a ‘live and let live’ attitude on matters of religion – we’ll do our thing and they can do their thing, and we’ll resolve our differences with our words instead of with our fists.

In the case of same sex marriage, this would look much like how the church deals with other sexual relationships that don’t conform to what the Bible calls God’s people to live like. Right now, few would think that conservative Christians accept premarital sex or unmarried cohabitation as a good norm, even though there is no push that I am aware of to have the state stop either from happening.

If a couple were to seek the blessing of a church to live like that, no one would be surprised to hear that church say no. The church could do similarly with same sex marriage: those who want to marry those couples, like liberal Anglican or Uniting churches, would be free to do so; otherwise, we marry those who conform to the beliefs that we hold about marriage (I’ll put the implications of having anti-discrimination aside for the moment, as that is a related but separate issues that deserves an article all on its own). We remain free to call people to repentance in Christ and call Christians to live in conformity with following Jesus when it comes to marriage.

The same sex marriage plebiscite provides us with an important opportunity to think more about something I find Christians rarely seriously study comprehensively: political philosophy. While much is written about political developments by evangelical pastors and leaders, I find very little of it gets into fundamental questions of what should be the relationship that we as Christian individuals should have with the state and its institutions, and by and large, that is fine.

Our leaders should focus on what makes up the important part of their job, which is understanding how we are supposed to live as Christians in this world and to encourage Christians to persevere in it. The ebb and flow in the fates of political parties are of little consequence in eternity, and there is no reason for Christians to be overly concerned with the daily political cycle. Of more consequence is ensuring that our thinking is clear and consistent.

To that end, recognizing the value of religious freedom and pluralism, I would call on my fellow Christians to vote yes in the plebiscite.

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