The Gospel and Culture and the current debate on Marriage in Australia


By Peter Corney

Can Christians influence the current debate in Australia on marriage and, if so, how should they approach their involvement?

“The gospel does not become public truth for a society by being propagated as a theory or as a world view and certainly not as a religion. It can become public truth only as it is embodied in a society (the Church) which is both ‘abiding’ in Christ and engaged in the life of the world”        (Leslie Newbigin)

The Churches relationship with culture, society and the state has varied greatly over its history:

1. The church under the state – persecution as in the first three centuries under the Roman Empire,  under communism in the 20th C and under Islamic states at various periods in the past and  now again in the 21st C.

2. The Church over the state as in the mediaeval period and the Holy Roman Empire.

3. The Church in ‘partnership’ with the state as the ‘Established Church’ in England till recent times.

4. The Church withdrawn from and set up against the culture as in the Anna Baptist and Amish communities and Exclusive Brethren, creating separate worlds and exclusive communities.

5. The Church seduced and absorbed by the culture so that it conforms to it and radically adapts its beliefs and values to the culture and or the state . The Church under Hitler, parts of the Church in the prosperous liberal west.

6. The Church as a transforming agent in culture and the state by becoming salt and light such as in the 18th and 19th C revival in England with the social impact of Methodism and the Evangelical Anglicans of the Clapham group – The union movement, the factory acts, prison reform, abolition of slavery, education for the poor, etc.

Newbigin’s statement seems to fit into the last category.

In a pluralist liberal democratic state like Australia Christians can legitimately approach issues like the current debate about marriage in the following ways:

(a)    Insist on maintaining our own beliefs, standards and values for our members and institution’s as is our right under a democratic system.

(b)   As Australia’s history, institutions and values have been formed within a culture strongly influenced by Christian ideas and values we can argue that to reject these too radically is to go against the grain of our cultural DNA. We should remind our fellow citizens that many of the liberal democratic values they cherish were the result of Christian ideas and influence.

E.g.: The woman involved in the Woman’s Suffrage movement in South Australia, among the first in the world to obtain the vote, were almost all Christian activists as they were in NewZealand and  the UK. The idea of the equal value of every individual person and their intrinsic worth is a Christian idea, based on the belief that we are all made in the image of God, it is not a pagan one. This is the origin of our ‘Human Rights ‘charters, etc. Therefore they should be deeply respectful and grateful of their Christian heritage and cautious about rejecting its values even if they no longer have a Christian faith.

(c)     We should do the research well and be prepared to argue the case for the general social good of the support of institutions like stable traditional marriages, e.g. their positive effect on children, and the serious and long term negative effects of divorce and solo parenting on children. (See the research by Judith S Wallerstein.[1])

(d)   We should also argue our case that as a significant percentage of the population (61% @ 2011 census) our views should receive significant weight in any debate and be respected in public policy and any legislation. But we cannot expect to impose all our values and beliefs on everyone.

(e)   We should work hard at encouraging Christians to enter the media so that a more balanced view of issues and values is presented to people.

(f)     But our most powerful argument will be the quality of our own individual lives, families and Christian communities – modelling Kingdom values, this is Newbigins point.

(g)    We should also be active in creating Christian institutions for education, welfare, caring and justice initiatives that minister particularly to those whose lives are broken by the increasingly dysfunctional nature of contemporary Western society.(See the research listed below[2])

(h)   We should also be active in respectful and intelligent evangelism because every person who embraces Christ will be drawn to live by Kingdom values.

The last three actions have the potential to be socially transformative over time, especially as society becomes more relationally dysfunctional as it turns away from the practices and beliefs that gave it a greater degree of stability in the recent past.

Peter Corney (9/7/12)

[1] “The unexpected legacy of Divorce”, J S Wallerstein, LM Lewis, S Blakeslee. Hyperion NY 2000. (The first longitudinal study (25years) of the children of divorced parents. It dispels many of the myths about children and divorce and blended and solo parent families. Children are not as resilient as we thought and are deeply affected by divorce  and the negative effects carry through well into adult life. This has great implications for our society as we now have for the first time at least a quarter of our adult population effected by divorce. The introduction of ‘no fault divorce’ took place in the mid 70’s.)

[2] See The Cummins Report 2011/12  on Child welfare in the State of Victoria. Notifications of child abuse have gone from30,000 in 1995when mandatory reporting was introduced to 55,000 in 2011.See also “For Kids’ Sake” the report by Professor Patrick Parkinson Uni. Sydney 2010. The number of children in out of home and State care across Australia doubled in the 12 year period to 2009. The number of 12 – 14 yr. olds admitted to hospital as a result of self-harm increased by 66% between 1996 and 2006.

These statistics are the ‘Canary in the mine shaft’ test of a culture developing in our society that is toxic to marriage and the family.