The hot topic of conversation in the various groups I met with last week was the coming postal plebiscite on redefining marriage in Australian law. For some people, this is as issue with a clear-cut, right and wrong answer. For others, though, the question of how to respond as Christians is more complicated for a range of reasons. As I wrestled with Paul’s words in Romans 11, it seems to me that they can help us in our struggle with the question of same sex marriage.
As followers of Jesus, we need to begin any discussion on marriage with what God word. When I perform a wedding on behalf of the Commonwealth Government, the approved service order uses three Bible texts as the Foundation and Purpose of Christian Marriage:
The first is Genesis 1:27 which states that, in the beginning, God created people male and female. Genesis then goes on to state that ‘this explains why a man leave his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one’ (2:24).
The second text used is from Matthew 19. When Jesus was asked about divorce, he referred back to Genesis 1 and 2, and added that ‘since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together’ (Matt 19:6). There can be a strong argument made, then, that God’s intention for marriage is that it is for life.
The third text is Ephesians 5:21-33 where Paul again refers back to the Genesis texts (v31) but describes Christian marriage as a relationship based on mutual submission (v21) and self-sacrificing, Christ-like love (vv 25-30).
I believe that before we start asking if same-sex marriage fulfils God’s purpose for marriage, we need to ask ourselves if our own marriages fulfil God’s purpose for marriage. From these Bible texts, we could argue that God intends marriage to be a reflection of his relationship with humanity as we live in unity through self-sacrificing love for each other. If we are honest with ourselves, how well do we do that?
This is where Romans 11 can help us. Paul has just spent the last 3 chapters of Romans struggling with the question of whether his own people, the Jewish nation, are still included in God’s plan of salvation. In this last section, he writes that God showed mercy to the Gentiles (non-Jewish people) because the Jewish people had rejected his grace to them in Jesus (v30). However, he also states that the Jewish people will share in God’s mercy through the mercy he has shown to the Gentile Christians (v31). His conclusion to the whole discussion of the last three chapters is that ‘God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all’ (v32 NIV).
These words can sound offensive to us because we like to think we are free to make our own choices (see John 8:31-36). However, if we take Jesus’ words at face value, there are a couple of things that can help us as we think through the question of same-sex marriage.
The first is that we shouldn’t be surprised when we or others fail to live up to God’s purpose for marriage. If we are bound to disobedience, the we won’t get it right. In any of our relationships, our natural tendency is to think more about what we can get from the other person than showing the self-giving love of Christ. We can’t just focus on one aspect of marriage and forget about God’s bigger plan for marriage to be a life-long commitment through which we model Jesus’ sacrificial love. If we want to fulfil God’s whole intention for marriage, then we will all fail because of our natural, human condition.
It is really easy for us to focus on Paul’s words that we are ‘imprisoned in disobedience’ but that misses the main point of the verse. Paul argues that God does that so he can have mercy on all of us. God’s plan is not to criticise or condemn, to politicize or judge people. Throughout the story of Scripture, God’s intention is always to show mercy to people so that they can know him as the God of mercy. Mercy can be understood as undeserved kindness, treating people better that they deserve, especially those who need it the most but deserve it the least. Paul is saying that this is God’s plan for all people. We see God’s mercy in the way Jesus treated people in the gospel stories and especially in the cross. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the fullest extent of God’s mercy as he takes our rebellion and disobedience on himself, and sets us free from our prisons by dying as a slave in our place. Paul tells us that God’s plan is that every person encounters this mercy so we can know and trust God as the One who is merciful to all.
God has given us government who are called to make good laws and who are responsible to him for the way they govern. As God’s people living in the world, he calls us to play our part in our governing processes. We need to take that responsibility seriously in the faith that God gives us. However, we always need to remember that the fundamental purpose of Christ’s Church is not to impose a rule of law on society, but to bring the message of God’s liberating mercy to our families, our communities, and our nation. If we’re not doing that, then who will?
So I commit the coming plebiscite on the definition of marriage to you, trusting that God’s will be done. Whether the question is clear for you, one way or the other, or if it is a muddy mess and you are finding it hard to discern the best way forward for our nation, I want to ask you to remember one thing: none of us really God’s intentions for our relationships with each other, so, as people who have received mercy for Christ’s sake, how can we best extend God’s mercy to others?
More to think about:
- What does ‘mercy’ mean to you? Can you give an example of a time when you received mercy from someone?
- Paul says that ‘God has imprisoned everyone in disobedience so he could have mercy on everyone’ (Romans 11:32 NLT). In this verse, do you tend to focus more on God imprisoning people? Or is your focus more on God having mercy on everyone? Why do you think you do that? What might it say about how you see God?
- Would you agree that the main purpose of the Christian Church is to extend God’s mercy to people? How does showing mercy to others become an act of faith?
- How might Paul’s words help us as we prepare for the postal plebiscite on redefining the legal understanding of marriage in Australia?
- Who is someone you can show mercy to today? This week?