Same Sex Marriages Position of South African Council of Churches

Same Sex Marriages Position of South African Council of Churches

The General Secretary has sent the following open letter to the Chairs of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committees on Home Affairs and Justice & Constitutional Development:

The General Secretary has sent the following open letter to the Chairs of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committees on Home Affairs and Justice & Constitutional Development:

The South African Council of Churches affirms the equal dignity and worth of each individual. As South Africans, we are proud that our society is founded on a Constitution that respects the fundamental human rights of all people and promises everyone equal protection before the law. We feel called by our faith and our convictions to articulate a religious motivation for marriage equality as a contribution to the public discussion of the reform of the Marriage Act, as required by the Constitutional Court.

The moral imperative for a review of the Marriage Act, 1961

We recognise the need for a comprehensive review and transformation of all apartheid-era legislation, including the Marriage Act, in the light of our democratic Constitution if we are to live together as a united society amidst our differences and diversity. We recall with shame the role that legislation such as the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act played in the social engineering of racial domination. We are equally saddened that marriages conducted according to Muslim, Hindu and customary African rites have not enjoyed equal legal status with Christian marriages. As a part of this long overdue review, we must also consider how our society recognises and protects committed same-sex partnerships.

Christians hold diverse views on marriage and homosexuality

We do not presume to speak on behalf of all Christians. There is not a single “Christian” perspective on marriage. We are alarmed by the widespread misapprehension that those who oppose equal marriage rights speak on behalf of a monolithic “Christian Church”. Different denominations have different understandings of and policies governing marriage and divorce, and these have evolved over time. The Roman Catholic view, for example, is predicated on the belief that marriage is a sacrament that cannot be undone. Divorce in this tradition is therefore wholly unacceptable and never recognised. The Protestant and Reformed traditions hold marriage in equally high esteem, but in some situations reluctantly permit divorce as the lesser of two evils. Some churches see men and women as equally responsible for household decisions, while others uphold a tradition in which the male is the head of the household and women are encouraged to play a supportive, and ultimately subservient, role. In both cases, the churches concerned would see their positions as grounded in scriptural principles.

Currently, most churches uphold the union of one man and one woman as the only valid model for Christian marriage. At the same time, there is a growing number of dissenting voices in all denominations — people who see equal validation of homosexual and heterosexual unions as consistent with their understanding of the inclusiveness expressed through the unconditional love referred to as God’s grace.

Christians hold equally diverse views on homosexuality. Today, most churches accept the overwhelming evidence that sexual orientation (as distinct from sexual behaviour) is a component of identity over which individuals exercise little or no conscious choice. Typically, they oppose discrimination against homosexuals. However, this acceptance is sometimes conditional on celibacy. Some Christians have difficulty reconciling such conditionality with an understanding of sexuality as a gift from God that has the potential to strengthen and enrich intimate human relationships.

Scripture speaks afresh to each generation

Just as there is not one view on marriage, there is also no single authoritative interpretation of scripture. We view the Bible as God’s living word. As such, it is capable of speaking afresh to humanity at different times and in different places and circumstances. The handful of passages most commonly read as condemnations of homosexuality were informed by the dominant understanding of human nature at the time they were written. They must be read and interpreted in their historical and cultural context. They should not be simplistically applied to contemporary society any more than ancient ways of explaining the natural world, also evident in scripture, should be used to dismiss the conclusions of centuries of scientific inquiry.

More importantly, our interpretations of these texts must be “checked” against the central messages that emerge clearly and powerfully from the Gospel: Christ’s admonition to love God and to love one’s neighbours, as well as his particular compassion for the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed.

Church and State have different responsibilities

The Church must continue to wrestle with scripture to discern God’s will with regard to the moral and theological questions associated with same-sex relationships, particularly as they affect questions of ordination and religious marriage. But the fact that most Christian denominations are not currently prepared to bless same-sex unions should not necessarily be a rationale for inaction by government. Government’s responsibility, in a secular democracy, is not to interpret the Bible but the Constitution. It has a duty to test legislation against Constitutional principles and to protect the rights of all citizens equally. At the same time, the state must defend religious freedom by ensuring that churches retain control over decisions regarding religious rites and sacraments, including the religious aspects of marriage.

Ethical principles for equal marriage

This is not to say that Christians (and other people of faith) have no role to play in building a national consensus on marriage. Our faith traditions provide us with moral insights on the role and significance of marriage that remain relevant to legislative reform.

We understand religious marriage as a covenant that two people make publicly with God, a commitment to mutual sharing, caring, faithfulness and support. Good marriages benefit the community by creating stable and durable families that nurture both the partners and their children. They facilitate human development and social and economic participation, increasing individuals’ capacity to contribute to the common good. We value these characteristics of religious marriage, regardless of the procreative capacity of the two individuals involved; we believe that the national interest is also served by enshrining these values in public policy governing civil unions.

Furthermore, we see our theological understanding of the equal dignity of all human beings being given secular expression in the equality clause of the Constitution and the principle of equal protection of human rights in terms of laws of general application. In the case of the revision of the Marriage Act, the challenge will be to keep an appropriate balance between the constitutional principles of freedom of religious expression and voluntary association on the one hand, while promoting a healthy coexistence with the equality clauses on the other.

This calls for creative thought and an appreciation of the benefits of protecting difference and diversity. Our national history illustrates all too painfully the folly and injustice of creating multiple legal and administrative mechanisms to perform essentially the same functions for different categories of people. Separate institutions are rarely, if ever, equal. Their chances of achieving equal impact are further reduced if they are embedded in a society that remains afflicted by prejudice and discrimination. Consequently, we believe that the State should craft a single legal framework capable of recognising and protecting the legal rights of all partners who wish to declare their commitment to each other, irrespective of their gender or the faith or cultural tradition in which their partnership is recognised or validated.


In the light of these principles, we urge Parliament to act expeditiously to reconcile existing marriage legislation with the provisions of Section 9 of the Constitution within the timeframe designated by the Constitutional Court. We trust that, in so doing, Parliament will refrain from imposing any duty on faith communities that would inhibit them from celebrating and blessing partnerships in ways consistent with their respective beliefs. We stand ready to contribute constructively to this process by offering our own assessments of proposed legislation.