As a regular preacher in churches across Australia I was once considered a leader within the Pentecostal, Charismatic and Evangelical worlds. Many of you were my peers, some sat under my ministry, I taught some of you in Bible college, some were my friends and thankfully some still are.

And for years now I have been a leader within the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) community.

Being so intimately involved in these two worlds gives me a rather unique perspective on the long standing debate about marriage equality and the upcoming postal survey. I sincerely hope that you take the time to consider what I am sharing with you.

I can’t recall a time when Christian churches have been given the opportunity to be so visible in Australia. That increased visibility also brings with it an unsolicited evaluation by Australian society. Possibly the next couple of months are destined to have a more extensive impact on your witness than realised.

I know you will be pressured by certain political groups to speak out, stand together, rally the troops, etc., etc., but I’d like you to consider a few things first.

Thankfully Australia, along with the western world, has progressed in its understanding of sexual orientation. We are more informed today. My earliest recollections as teenager, coming to an awareness of my homosexuality in the 1960’s, was frightening. Realising I was gay meant possible imprisonment or treatments to cure me which were even more horrifying. Secrecy, closets and ghettos were once the gay persons’ only means of safety and survival.

Fast forward to 2017, and most Australians have an openly gay son, daughter, aunt, uncle, cousin, friend, work colleague or even Mum or Dad.  LGBTI  people make their contributions in our society openly. Like straight people, we teach your children, nurse your dying, heal your sick, police your communities, prepare your meals and even serve in the military.

Yep…..we’re everywhere. In the 1970’s preachers predicted this. ‘Homosexuality is on the increase’ they constantly warned alarmingly. Their concern was misplaced. Homosexuality was not on the increase.  It was just that gay and lesbian, people are years of oppression and discrimination, found the courage to overcome fear and step out of the closet. I know that some still wish we’d stayed there but the closet is an unhealthy existence psychologically, emotionally and spiritually. Honestly, having lived half my life there, I wouldn’t wish the closeted life on my worst enemy.

In 2017, members of your churches have children, relatives, friends and work colleagues who are LGBTI, so when they are spoken against it has far more reaching consequences than speaking directly against a minority: you speak against and condemn the people they know and love.

Sadly, there has been a great deal of fear mongering from the staunch and vocal opponents of same sex marriage. This is not new. There are numerous examples of this happening in the past; the Anita Bryant, ‘Save our Children’ campaign in the 1970’s, being just one. I’m currently researching this era and looking back on this historically demonstrates how misplaced and out of touch this approach was.

I have no problem with people having a different opinion or belief to me but sensationalising or fear mongering to put a case across is not only unethical but also breaks the OT commandment to ‘not bear false witness against our neighbour.’ Lies and fabrications about our community, our lives and our relationships abound within religious conservatism. These are cruel and hurtful.

The most common arguments put forward have been:

  1. The fabric of society will be torn apart

Sounds frightening? But will it really? Let’s face it, gay and lesbian couples have existed for decades and seem to live their lives with little impact on their neighbours and communities; except people realising how ‘normal’ they are. All that is being asked is that these relationships be legally recognised. I doubt there’ll be ‘wide-reaching ramifications’ as has been suggested. It hasn’t happened in other countries where same sex marriage has been legalised.

  1. Ministers will be forced to marry gay and lesbian couples.

Ministers have always had the freedom to choose who they marry. It is in the Australian Marriage Act and there has never been any intention to change that. And if you stop and think about, what gay couple would ask someone philosophically opposed to their relationship to perform such a personal and important ceremony. It’s a completely unfounded and irrational belief.

  1. We’ll lose our religious freedoms

Freedom of speech is a foundation of our democracy and is protected under the law.  Marriage equality is not going to change that. As Pastor Brian Houston said recently ‘Hillsong Church already functions well and without impediment in other parts of the world where same sex marriage is legal, and as long as we are not forced through legislation to compromise our biblical convictions, we can quite comfortably continue to function whatever the outcome of this plebiscite.’ I wrote a piece a couple of years ago about religious freedom  and  if you’d like to read it, you can do so HERE.

  1. What next after gay marriage? Incest? Bestiality?

This slippery slope argument really doesn’t warrant a response. It’s ridiculous and offensive and probably the worst example of scare tactics.

Not engaging in fear mongering or sensationalising will be better for us all. Remember that we will have to live with the consequences for years to come.

Things best not to say.

In Australia, the marriage equality discussion has existed for over a decade now. Previously, the average Australian might not have been aware of what the Bible contains, but the discussions and quoting bible verses have made people more informed. Memes about this have gone viral. Simplistic statements about marriage have been eroded by people’s increased knowledge of the bible. Christians opposed to same sex marriage have often used two arguments.

  1. I believe God’s word is clear about marriage – one man, one woman.

When a person says “I believe God’s word is clear about marriage” it makes them look silly. Most people these days are aware of the numerous forms of clearly defined marriages spoken of in scripture. Marrying slaves, a relatives widow, having many wives, a rapist marrying his virgin victim are all mentioned. Christians in the New Testament church had more than one wife.

  1. Traditional marriage has been the bedrock of our society.

Once again, most people are educated enough to know this is not  true. For many years interracial, interfaith marriages were illegal. In Australia, a white Australian had to get permission to marry an indigineous Australian.  Christians at one stage were not allowed to remarry after divorce. Going back further, marriage was essentially about property and ownership (the man owned the woman). Thankfully our understanding of the term ‘marriage’ has evolved over the years and to use the term ‘traditional marriage’ undermines credibility.

So back to my point my friends. At the moment, possibley more than ever, Australia’s eyes are upon you; the church. How will you respond?

If you stand publicly against marriage equality as a church or denomination I think you are making a grave mistake that will impact your witness for years to come.  Essentially you are saying to every gay and lesbian person you are not welcome in our church. ‘Hold on’ you might say, ‘we are not saying that’. Of course it is not being said in those words but this is the way it will undoubtedly be perceived. Not just by every LGBTI person but by every relative, friend or work colleague as well.

You don’t have to be pressured to direct your congregations on how to vote. They are intelligent enough to make up their own minds. And it’s okay to not vote at all.

Personally, I think the vote will come out in favour of same sex marriage, as all the polls seem to indicate, but if churches mishandle this situation they could be paying a high price for years to come.

I am reminded of the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John after He so beautifully gave us an example of servanthood by washing the disciples feet ‘they will know you are my disciples by your love’.

I pray that at this time, Christian pastors and leaders will rise to the occasion and show love, compassion and wisdom.

As always, I am willing to engage in a respectful dialogue and if I can answer any questions you may have I’m more than happy to do that.

Anthony Venn-Brown

Founder and CEO of Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International

Author of A Life of Unlearning

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