Like many Australians I appreciated Philip Freier’s letter, and there is much to like about his message and the tone in which it was written. There is little with which I disagree.
In relation to the potential fallout from altering the Marriage Act , I suspect Freier’s optimism is misplaced; not that I want to dampen his hope, but there is substantial evidence pointing to the likelihood of decreased religious freedoms in event of the law changing. One only has to look at Canada and the UK to see the growing mountain of legal, political, and social disarray created by legalising same-sex marriage. Indeed, look at the State of Victoria, my own home state, to see a Government using sexuality issues to restrict public conscience and religious freedom.
My attention here, however, is to point out the way this letter is being interpreted by some folk. For example, the headline for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age reads, “Religious shift on same-sex marriage.” The underpinning logic is, Archbishop says follow your conscience, rather than the Bible.
The Archbishop is following a long tradition in esteeming the human conscience. *Evangelical Christians have long held that the conscience is an important part of the human psyche, and it should not be easily ignored and contravened.
Perhaps the most famous example from history is that of Martin Luther. As he stood before the council at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther is reputed to have said,
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen”
This conviction about the importance of the conscience goes back to the Scriptures itself:
Speaking of people who had not been raised with the Mosaic Law, the Apostle Paul writes,
‘They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.’ (Romans 2:5)
Elsewhere Paul says, ‘My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.’ (1 Corinthians 4:4)
‘One of the requirements for Church leaders is that they, ‘must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.’ (Titus 3:9)
It can be sinful and dishonest to act against the conscience, but this doesn’t mean that the conscience is morally neutral or always right. The conscience is corruptible as is every part of the human being:
“let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” (Hebrews 10:22)
In the volume, Conscience in the New Testament, C.A Pierce notes that the conscience does not provide a set of moral norms for the person, as much as it functions as an alarm, alerting a person to their moral oversteps.
All this together means that the conscience is a subjective guide but not the ultimate guide for determining moral and spiritual truth. Of course I don’t expect my non Christian friends to agree with this point, but rather I am explaining a Christian perspective of the conscience. This is important, because while Christians affirm the the role of the conscience, we do not place it above or on par with the Scriptures.
To place the conscience on par with Scripture is to subvert the authority of the Bible and inevitably place the human mind over the Bible. Throughout life there are decisions to make where one must decide, do I accept what the Bible says or what my conscience is saying? Neither is it the case of having two equal but different axiomatic authorities, but when the conscience contradicts Scripture, it ought to be corrected and reshaped according to those words of God.
Philip Freier is right to encourage people not to act against their conscience, but it would be misleading to therefore conclude there are multiple valid Christian positions on the issue of same-sex marriage. The Archbishop’s words are being celebrated today as a shift in Christian thinking about homosexuality. That is not the case, even as Philip Freier indicated, the Anglican Church is holding to its understanding of marriage; this is true of all major Christian denominations in Australia.
In other words, no Australian should ignore their conscience when deciding their view on marriage, but as far as Christians are concerned, it is the Bible not our subjective consciences, that defines the Christian view of marriage.
Finally, I agree with the Archbishop in that Australian Christians ought to respect the decision made by the Australian public. It may well be that the majority decide to retain the current definition of marriage, but in the event of change, we should respect the democratic process. One question remains, however, will dissenters be permitted freedom of conscience to continue teaching, officiating, and practicing the Christian view of marriage, without fear of litigation?
* Evangelicalism has nothing to do with right wing American politics. That is a recent sociological phemenemon, which has stripped the word of its theological and historical roots. The word means, euangelion, the Gospel. Evangelicals are Christians who believe & live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ (which of course, by definition is foundational for all genuine Christianity)