|Certain issues of justice: same sex relationships and the law|
by Andrew Landsown
The Australian Evangelical Alliance has followed the lead of the Australian Christian Lobby to argue that Christians should support changes to Australian laws in order to give homosexual “couples” formal recognition and rights. In a paper titled “Same-Sex Relationships and the Law”, the Australian Evangelical Alliance’s Director of Public Theology, Dr Brian Edgar, argues that the creation of an official relationships register is “an appropriate way of handling certain issues of justice” for homosexual couples. His paper is posted on the official website of the Australian Evangelical Alliance.1
To his credit, Dr Edgar does not support same-sex marriage, nor does he support same-sex civil unions, which he views as being too close to marriage for comfort. However, he insists that there is a need to give legal recognition to homosexual relationships in order to give legal rights to homosexuals in those relationships, and he feels that the best way to do this is via a formal relationships register.
All in all, Brian Edgar’s position is identical to Jim Wallace’s, which I opposed recently in an article titled “Serious misjudgment: the Australian Christian Lobby advocates a relationships register for homosexual couples”.2 However, Edgar’s paper is more than an illustration of the influence of Wallace and his organisation: it is a serious attempt to give a theological and logical gloss to the Wallace/ACL position. And as such it requires a reply. The issue itself and the flow-on implications are too serious to ignore. So, with even greater reluctance this time than last time, I have tried to uncover the errors of sentiment and logic that underlie this campaign to convince Christians that they ought to support the registration of homosexual relationships.
I am not concerned here with Edgar’s claim that same-sex relationships registration is substantially different from same-sex civil unions. He is wrong to think that registration is less like marriage than civil union,3 but that is beside the point. The matter of chief concern is his insistence that homosexual couples as such should be given recognition and rights in law. By exposing the falsity of Edgar’s assumptions and arguments, I hope not only to inform my fellow Christians on this particular issue, but also to alert them to the fact that these same false assumptions and arguments are being applied with devastating effect to other issues, too.
But first let me address the matter of style, for the manner in which a writer expresses his ideas can give us an insight into the quality of his thinking.
Style of writing
Edgar’s writing style is roundabout and ingratiating. It is a style typical of academics who dread the possibility that they might be branded dogmatic and bigoted. This fear influences not only the positions they adopt, but also the language they employ.
Edgar appears anxious to portray himself as sophisticated and moderate. Hence, he avoids such fundamentalist-sounding words as “right/good” and “wrong/bad”. He defines things as either “appropriate” or “inappropriate”. Sometimes he seems reluctant to use even these feeble terms, and so he resorts to double negatives: “Some would not be uncomfortable with” such-and-such; and, such-and-such a view is “not an inappropriate one”.
Furthermore, Edgar seems reluctant to state his own position. He gives the impression that he is essentially a disinterested reporter of the positions of others. Hence, he writes: “it is possible for some Christians to argue that” and “it can be argued that” and “it is argued that”. He seems to want us to believe that he himself is not arguing for any particular position: it is just that “Some would argue that –” while “Others will say that –”. The closest he gets to plain speaking concerning his own position is when he states, “This paper will argue that …”
One thing the paper does not argue is that homosexual behaviour, along with any relationship arising from that behaviour, is as wrong as wrong can be. It is true that at one point Edgar almost dares to express disapproval of homosexual relationships, but he speaks so circumspectly and shifts focus so hastily that a reader could be forgiven for missing it. Noting the need for married Christians to model the Christian lifestyle, he states, “This will involve positive teaching and a healthy demonstration of marriage based on a relationship between a man and a woman. It will also include reference to the inappropriate nature of homosexual relationships and will also note that there is perhaps an even greater cause for concern about social, family relationships in terms of the many breakdowns in relationships between married, heterosexual couples” (his italics).
This is as bold as Edgar gets: our living out of the biblical marriage model will “include reference to the inappropriate nature of homosexual relationships” (my italics). For Edgar, homosexual relationships are not (as described in God’s word) sinful, abominable and unnatural, but are merely “inappropriate”; and while we should make “reference” to this inappropriateness, we should immediately divert attention from it by drawing attention to matters that are “an even greater cause for concern”, such as “the many breakdowns in relationships between married, heterosexual couples”.
Yet despite all his dithering and dodging, Edgar’s position is clear, and it is clearly wrong. By any biblical or logical standard, his paper is seriously flawed. Most of his assumptions, assertions and arguments simply do not stand up to scrutiny, as I hope to demonstrate in the following analysis.
The nature of justice
Like Jim Wallace and the Australian Christian Lobby, Edgar strongly supports the establishment of a relationships register for homosexual couples, so that these couples can enjoy most of the legal rights of married couples, excepting the title and the ceremonial trappings of marriage itself.* Like Wallace and ACL, he views this as a matter of justice.
Justice is Edgar’s overriding concern. He speaks of “issues of justice” and of “achieving justice” and of “the necessity to act justly for all” and wants a situation “where justice is done for all”. I would have no argument with Edgar on this matter if it were not for the fact that he misrepresents and/or misunderstands what justice is.
He claims, for example, that “Scriptural justice … means very practical, down-to-earth actions which take place to ensure that the weak are protected from abuse, that the poor have what they need, the stranger in the land is shown hospitality and that the socially disadvantaged are cared for.” Unfortunately, this is only half of what the scriptures mean by justice. And it is the easy half, the half that even the left-controlled media, academia and arts agree on, the half that anyone can advocate without fear of being labelled narrow-minded and uncompassionate.
The other half of “scriptural justice” is distinctly less appealing and more costly. It is the part that requires individuals to be honest and truthful and faithful. It is the part that requires righteousness and holiness in every aspect of life. It is the part that involves a personal responsibility to be honest with my employer, faithful to my spouse, patient with my children, truthful in my accounts of others and humble in my walk with God. It is the part that speaks against, among other things, lust and adultery and prostitution and pornography and homosexuality. It is the part that liberal and left-leaning Christians label and dismiss as “personal morality”.
In an article supportive of Edgar’s views and critical of mine, David Palmer** states, “The dimension he [Brian Edgar] adds [in his paper] that is missing from contributions of Andrew Lansdown and Peter Stokes is the social justice view …” But Palmer is mistaken. It is true that I do not bandy about the word “justice” like Edgar, but every part of my article is concerned with justice. In opposing the Jim Wallace/ACL view that we should grant a range of rights to homosexuals in committed homosexual relationships, I was opposing the injustice inherent in homosexual behaviour itself and in relationships based on that behaviour.
Consider the case of a young man from a Christian family who is enticed into a homosexual relationship. How is this just to the parents whose teaching and tears he spurns? How is it just to his brothers and sisters who for love of him make excuses for him and compromise or abandon the Christian view of homosexuality as both wilful and sinful? How is it just to other young men who might be tempted to follow his example? How is it just even to the young man himself, to be closed off to life-giving intimacy with a woman by the indulgence of a dead-end perversion with a man?
Consider another case: If a man deserts his wife and children for a homosexual “lover”, how is that just to his wife and children? If he divorces his wife and replaces her in his will, how is that just to her? If he seeks custody of their children and parental rights for his lover, how is that just to either his wife or his children? If he influences his children to believe that homosexual sex is merely one of many natural and good sexual options, how is that just to his children? If he contracts AIDS (not to mention any of the other diseases transmitted by his unhygienic sexual activity) and requires expensive medications and prolonged medical treatment, how is that just to the nation’s taxpayers?
And this is only to look at the matter in terms of human cost. But the matter of justice goes deeper. If a man forsakes the natural use of a woman for the unnatural use of another man, how is that just to the God who made us male and female? If he rebels against God’s moral law, how does that do justice to the holiness of God? If he spurns God’s offer of salvation in pursuit of perverse sexual pleasure, how does that do justice to the Son of God and his atoning sacrifice on the cross? If he fails to come under conviction of sin (being comforted by Christians who tell him that he and his sexual partner deserve legal recognition and rights as a “couple”) and goes into a lost eternity, how is that just even to his own soul?
Edgar (like Wallace and Palmer) makes the typical mistake of separating personal morality from social justice. He talks about the need to provide justice to homosexual couples but never once considers the injustice of homosexual behaviour and of relationships based on that behaviour. Yes, he uses the terminology of justice, but he does so unjustly. For his view of justice is sadly truncated, and owes more to left wing ideology than to biblical theology.
More misconceptions about justice
Edgar claims that “It is necessary to avoid two very different problems” in our understanding of justice: “The first suggests that ‘justice’ means allowing people to do anything that they want. The second suggests that ‘justice’ means preventing, and perhaps punishing, people for doing anything and everything of which God disapproves” (his italics). Edgar opposes both these views, as do I.
In opposing the first view, Edgar argues that it is legitimate for legislators to give preference to certain states and behaviours that are good for society. He states: “There is a real need to discern what is socially helpful and what is not, and then, as far as possible, to socially and sometimes legislatively differentiate between them” (his italics). Well said! Yet when those who oppose the registration of homosexual relationships make this very point, when they say such relationships should not enjoy legal sanction because they are not beneficial to society, Edgar considers that they are being unjust to homosexual couples. Why is this? Is it because he believes that homosexual relationships are, in their own ways, “socially helpful”? Or is it because he is simply too timid to acknowledge that they are socially unhelpful? We can but conjecture.
Edgar goes on to state: “There is a legitimate and ‘just’ discrimination in terms of certain social structures and relationships. The idea that ‘justice’ prevents a society from ‘differentiating’ in terms of relationships is thus a general mistake, and so making the specific judgment that marriage should remain as a relationship between a man and a woman is not an inappropriate one. It is a judgment that can be made on the basis of the corporate good of society.” Although Edgar’s argument here is sound, he does not follow it through. Like Jim Wallace and ACL, he is concerned primarily with the definition of marriage: he wants marriage to continue to be defined as heterosexual. And so long as it is, he is satisfied. Otherwise, he appears to be happy to give homosexuals “couples”most of the legal and social rights traditionally reserved for married heterosexual couples. Indeed, he insists that these rights must be given to them as a matter of justice.
Edgar’s position raises a number of questions. What is the point of insisting that “marriage” must be heterosexual in nature if it is emptied of just about every distinction other than the title and of every benefit other than the wedding ceremony and “intercountry adoption” rights? If it is just to deny homosexual couples the status of marriage, why is it unjust to deny those same couples the benefits of marriage? Or to put it another way, if the principle of different treatment of homosexual and heterosexual couples is valid concerning the legal definition of marriage, may it not also be valid concerning the legal entitlements of marriage? And if heterosexual relationships formalised in marriage are beneficial to society, isn’t it possible that homosexual relationships formalised by registration could be harmful for society? Sadly, Edgar does not address these questions. Indeed, he does not seem to appreciate that such questions could even exist.
The second view of justice that Edgar posits and rejects is the view that “‘justice’ means preventing, and perhaps punishing, people for doing anything and everything of which God disapproves.” Edgar would be right to reject such a view, if only such a view existed among his opponents in this same-sex registration debate. But it does not exist. It is entirely a product of Edgar’s imagination. And he goes on to give his imagination free reign, claiming that this (second) view of justice “assumes that it is the responsibility of Christians to persuade the state, as far as possible, to only enact legislation which is in line with behaviours appropriate for Christians, which non-Christians should live by. Justice means passing a negative judgment on non-Christian behaviours including the practice of homosexuality. There is no biblical justification, it is argued, for homosexual behaviour and therefore no need to protect the rights of those who engage in that behaviour” (his italics).
Where did Edgar discover this wrongheaded view of justice? Who among his Christian opponents actually believes this notion that justice means getting the government to enact laws to oppress and punish anyone who does anything that displeases God? Perhaps he has confused devout Christians with devout Muslims, who want to subject everyone to Sharia law. Or perhaps he has in mind Jim Wallace’s shadowy “theocrats”. As he does not cite any person, organisation or publication, I cannot say. But what I can say is that this notion of “justice” is not held by those who disagree with him on the matter of giving rights to same-sex couples. He has put forward a caricature of his opponents’ views.
Let me scotch completely Edgar’s suggestion that Christians who oppose his stance on same-sex registration want the government to enact legislation to punish “people for doing anything and everything of which God disapproves”. All Christians know, for example, that God disapproves of gossip and envy, yet no Christian that I know of has lobbied the government to enact legislation against gossiping and envy. All Christians know that God desires them to display the Christlike virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, but no Christian has tried to get the government to enact legislation to enforce these virtues. All Christians know that God is displeased with those who ridicule the Christian faith and vilify Christian people, yet no Christian has urged the government to enact laws to prevent people from, and to punish people for, doing this. All Christians*** understand that there are many evils that cannot be addressed by government legislation, but must be left to God for the Day of Judgment.
However, while I reject Edgar’s caricature itself, I do not reject the truths from which the caricature was drawn. The view of justice he describes is extreme mainly because of his overstatements and misstatements. Consider his expression of his opponents’ supposed extreme view in the following sentence: “Justice means passing a negative judgment on non-Christian behaviours including the practice of homosexuality.” By the way he contrives this statement Edgar compels us to agree that it represents a wrong view of justice. But it is in fact only wrong because of his shrewd wording. It is the term “non-Christian” that makes the view unpalatable and extreme, for that term could be applied to any innocuous behaviour, such as bricklaying or lawn mowing. However, homosexual behaviour is not non-Christian: it is anti-Christian. It stands in opposition to the sort of sexual behaviour that the Christian Faith understands to be good and beneficial for couples and societies. Indeed, it is the sort of behaviour that ruins individual lives and harms the social good. If we replace “non-Christian” with a more fitting word, such as “corrupt” or “detrimental”, we get quite a different effect: “Justice means passing a negative judgment on detrimental behaviours including the practice of homosexuality.” Suddenly we see that Edgar’s term “non-Christian”, especially as he has applied it to “behaviours” such as “the practice of homosexuality”, is quite mischievous, creating a caricature of an otherwise reasonable position. If, thanks in part to the enlightenment of our Faith, we understand homosexual behaviour to be harmful behaviour, why shouldn’t we pass a negative judgment on it and encourage governments to do likewise?
So then, there is in fact some truth to the view that there should be a correspondence between God’s law and the state’s laws. There is in fact some truth to the view that Christians should attempt to persuade governments to enact laws that coincide with God’s law. It is false to think that God’s laws are only for Christians, as if there were other laws more suited to non-Christians and more likely to advance the social good. It is wrong to think that God has set moral standards for Christians that he has not set non-Christians.
Furthermore, it is false to think that Christians are the only citizens in this democracy who should not seek to influence the government according to their standards. And it is false to think that the nation’s laws will be somehow morally neutral and beneficial to all if Christian morality is kept out of them.
Individual vs “couple” rights
Edgar also confuses individual rights with “couple” rights. He fails to distinguish between the actual rights that belong to a homosexual as an individual and the alleged rights that belong to a homosexual as the sexual partner of another homosexual.
Edgar states: “It should be obvious that individuals do not lose all rights by virtue of taking a stand contrary to that of the Christian faith.” Is Edgar caricaturing his opponents here or is he revealing a genuine ignorance? No one that I am aware of is arguing that homosexuals, by virtue of their “stand contrary to that of the Christian faith”, ought to “lose all rights”. Certainly, I have not argued, and do not argue, that homosexuals should lose the rights that they have in common with every other citizen of Australia.
Homosexuals, like all Australians, are protected by law from bashing or blackmail or defamation or fraud or whatever. Homosexuals, like all Australians, have the right to Medicare cover and unemployment benefits and old age pensions and so on. Homosexuals, like all Australians, have a right to purchase property in joint names and to name each other as beneficiaries in their wills and the rest. Homosexuals, like all Australians, have freedom of speech and freedom of association and freedom of movement, et cetera. And all this is as it should be. Homosexuals, by virtue of their shared humanity, ought to share all the rights of every other human being. And in this country they do.
Consider the matter of domestic violence, for example (a matter that Edgar himself raises): Two homosexuals do not need to be legally registered as a “couple” before they can get legal protection from each other in the home. In this country, no one is allowed to do physical violence to anyone else. Violence cannot be committed legally against anyone—homosexual or heterosexual, male or female, black or white, Christian or atheist, inside a relationship or outside a relationship, in private or in public. And I agree with this.
So then, I am not arguing for the withdrawal of rights from homosexuals as human beings, I am arguing against the bestowal of rights on homosexuals as “couples”. My argument is that a relationship that is founded on homosexual sex is not a relationship that deserves protection, let alone encouragement, under law. There is a profound difference between granting rights to a person in spite of his sexual perversity and granting him rights because of his sexual perversity.
Let me try to illustrate the point by shifting from homosexuality to paedophilia. A paedophile (whether a homosexual paedophile who targets boys or a heterosexual paedophile who targets girls) has certain rights on the basis of his nature as a human being, but he has no rights on the basis of his behaviour as a paedophile. As a human, certain rights attach to him; as a paedophile, no rights attach to him. Not only is his sexual behaviour itself depraved, but so too is any relationship he might establish with a child victim on the basis of that behaviour. And even if it could be established that his sexual relationship with a child has become consenting, exclusive and long-lasting, it would not follow that the relationship itself deserved legal recognition and rights. On the contrary, the fact that there have been repeated sexual encounters over a prolonged period makes the relationship all the more wicked and the paedophile’s guilt all the more ghastly.
The debate currently underway in Christian circles for or against relationships registers for homosexual couples has nothing to do with granting or denying rights to homosexuals as individuals. The debate is about granting or denying rights to homosexuals on the basis of their sexual relationships. I contend that it offends social justice, scriptural justice, and any other conceivable permutation of justice, to confer rights on a “couple” who have maintained a long-term “monogamous” relationship based on the repeated indulgence of an unnatural sexual appetite.
Attached to Edgar’s “Same-sex Relationships and the Law” paper is a second paper, titled “Statement on Marriage and Family”. This second paper (except for its three concluding paragraphs) is actually quite sound in its overall view of marriage and family. However, it seems Edgar can take little credit for this soundness because this paper is not primarily his work. As he acknowledges: “This paper has used extensively, with permission, material prepared by a sister organisation—the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada: When Two Become One: the unique nature and benefits of marriage”. It is when Edgar is responsible for his own thinking, as in the first paper, that he goes astray.
For, truly, there are very few paragraphs in “Same-sex Relationships and the Law” that are without serious errors in assumption and/or logic. Indeed, there are many more errors in Edgar’s paper that I could have dealt with, if time and space had permitted. For a man who begins and ends his paper by declaring his credentials as the Director of Public Theology for the Australian Evangelical Alliance, this paper is a very poor effort indeed.
It is distressing that the Australian Evangelical Alliance—not to mention the Australian Christian Lobby and the Presbyterian Church of Victoria—could so shift from the biblical, evangelical position on justice and holiness that they actually try to persuade their fellow Christians to support legislative changes to give homosexual “couples” marriage-like recognition and rights. Who could have believed that evangelicals would ever come to such a pass?
The writing of this essay has been a great burden and I dearly hope that I will not have to write in this vein again. I pray that God in his grace will use my arguments—along with those advanced by Peter Stokes4, Jenny Stokes,3-4 David Phillips,5 Bill Muehlenberg6 and Roger Birch7—to protect his people from the specious arguments currently being circulated in support of the registration of same-sex relationships.
* Edgar also expresses opposition to "intercountry adoption by same sex couples". Wallace likewise wants to "ban same sex couples from adopting children from overseas". ("Removing discrimination against same sex couples: What is appropriate and what is inappropriate?", 7 July 2006. This paper was posted on the ACL website, but, as of the end of August 2006, it appears to have been removed.) Both Edgar and Wallace want to reserve adoption rights for married heterosexual couples, which is commendable. However, I am not aware that they want to reserve anything else especially for marriage, other than (as I have said) the title "marriage" and the ceremony attached to it.
** Rev David J Palmer’s paper is titled "Civil Unions and Relationships Register: Review of Literature and Comments" and is posted on the websites of the Australian Christian Lobby (www.acl.org.au/pdfs/load_pdf_public.pdf?pdf_id=632&from=NATIONAL) and the Australian Evangelical Alliance (http://www.ea.org.au/default.php). As Rev Palmer makes a point of placing "Presbyterian Church of Victoria" under his name at the start and finish of his paper, it seems he is expressing not only his own but also his denomination’s position. The fact that his paper is posted on the ACL website reveals where his sympathies lie, while the fact that he praises Edgar reveals the quality of his thinking. Much of what I say about Edgar’s reasoning in this essay also applies to Palmer’s reasoning.
*** Well, perhaps not all Christians. Some who are liberal theologically and left politically tend to want governments to deal with matters that ought to be left to God. Hence, they support attempts both to suppress free speech and to criminalise personal opinions. They not only endorse things like religious vilification laws, but also express approval when those laws are used against their fellow Christians. These Christians use the language of "social justice" as they urge the government to act unjustly towards anyone who does not express politically correct views about, say, homosexuality, Islam and multiculturalism.
1. Dr Brian Edgar, “Same-Sex Relationships and the Law”, http://www.evangelicalalliance.org.au/pdf/Same-sex%20Relationships%20and%20the%20law%20-June%2006.pdf
2. Life News, No. 93, June/July 2006. This article is posted on the Life Ministries website at: lifeministries.org.au/internal.php?content_id=158
3. For a sound examination of relationships registration versus civil unions, see “Same-sex Relationship Registration” by Jenny Stokes, Research Director for Salt Shakers, on the Salt Shakers website at: www.saltshakers.org.au/html/P/9/B/342/
4. Peter and Jenny Stokes are the co-authors of “Concerning the introduction of civil unions: the Christian biblical response” and “Salt Shakers’ response to the Evangelical Alliance paper”, both of which can be reade on the Life Ministries website at: lifeministries.org.au/index.php?content_id=84 and lifeministries.org.au/index.php?content_id=87 respectively.
5. Dr David Phillips is National President of the Festival of Light. His article, “The Status of Marital Status”, and be found on the Australian Evangelical Alliance website at: www.evangelicalalliance.org.au/pdf/TheStatusOfMaritalStatus2006.pdf
6. Bill Muehlenberg heads his own ministry, CultureWatch. His article, “An Assessment of the EA Paper on Homosexuality”, can be found on the CultureWatch website at: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2006/07/13/an-assessment-of-the-ea-paper-on-homosexuality/
7. Roger Birch’s article, “Same-sex relationships and the law: a response to Edgar”, can be read on the Life Ministries website at lifeministries.org.au/index.php?content_id=85