Post Plebiscite Reflections…

Posted by on Nov 16, 2017 in Blog | 18 comments

Well, the results from the Australian Plebiscite on same sex marriage are in, and are very much as predicted with 61.6% in favour and 38.4% against, the only surprise being the astonishingly high participation rate of close to 80%. Clearly this was not an issue over which most Australians yawned in disinterest, grunting a dismissive “whatever”. I’ve written about the plebiscite before so have no intention of rehashing what I said here. What I’d rather do is ask if there is anything we can learn from the plebiscite, and ask how it might shape some of our interactions in the future.

Shortly after the plebiscite result was announced, I walked around Curtin University, which is directly across the road from Vose Seminary where I work. Posters everywhere were celebrating the plebiscite result, most with the words “love wins”. The “yes” campaign was largely framed around the idea that voting “yes” was saying yes to love, while a “no” vote affirmed fear and intolerance – perhaps even hate. If you view “yes” as being a vote for love, it’s clear why it carried the day. After all, who can say “no” to love? The campaign successfully implied that there was a moral imperative to vote “yes” – ironically working from the Christian teaching found in 1 Cor 13:13 that love is the greatest good, one of three things (faith, hope and love) which will always endure. Now you may or may not believe that affirming gay marriage is a loving thing to do, but the simple fact is that the majority who voted “yes” believe that it represents a loving choice (“love wins” – it says it all). And we should take heart from that.

If society believes it should opt for loving pathways, why should Christians be alarmed by that? Of course we might need to think a lot more deeply about what we mean by love. Not everything that first appears to be loving is so, and we should always be ready to ask hard questions about what genuinely represents the most loving pathway ahead. But that we should make decisions on the basis of love, rather than fear, uncertainty or intolerance, seems to me to be a sound starting point.

The question begging to be asked is why the path advocated by most Christians was not seen to be loving. At its best it was portrayed as being supportive of traditional views – but never far from the surface was the implication that a “no” vote originated from fear, hatred and intolerance. While many Christians voted “yes”, it appears that large numbers voted “no”, and certainly the “no” vote received its most vocal support from religious groups. Bottom line – the missiological stumbling block we now face is that in the minds of the average Australian, Christianity is seen to be associated with those who are fearful, hateful and intolerant. That makes evangelism a really tough gig…

We should not underestimate the significance of this. We are often told that with the demise of Christendom, the church now finds itself in a position similar to that faced by the early church – a beleaguered minority in a society opposed to its teaching. And there is some truth in the comparison. The striking difference is that the pendulum swung for the early church because it convinced the pagan society in which it was embedded that it represented a morally superior path. Whereas the Roman world embraced the cruelty of gladiator fighting, infanticide, the sexual abuse of children, the oppression of woman and slaves, the early Christian church modelled something radically different – a path where love wins. And this is where the dilemma sets in. The church is no longer seen to be offering a loving alternative. Worse, it is assumed that if you genuinely want to follow a loving and moral path, you will need to ignore the teaching of the church and decide on the basis of some inner moral compass that guides you towards authentically loving options.

What is the way forward?

Rather than loud proclamations, we need to surprise and delight a skeptical world with unexpected acts of kindness, understanding and compassion. We have lost the media war. Portrayals of faith in the public space are at best patronizing, but more commonly are biting, cynical and disillusioned. We therefore need to win trust again at the grass roots – as ordinary Christians become extraordinary neighbours, work colleagues, friends. Each Christian represents Jesus – we are Christ followers. We need to help each other to follow Jesus in ways which are visibly generous, compassionate and winsome. And we need to follow Jesus aware that the default drive has swung, and people now expect not the best from those who follow Jesus, but the worst. Let’s help each other to shatter that false assumption. And let’s do so in a way which is respectful towards those who do not believe. After all, they want love to win, and that is always commendable.

A second question to ask is why this issue resonated with people so deeply. Given that the LGBTI community is a relatively small percentage of the Australian population, why have people come out so strongly in their support? A few answers spring to mind. Some have an uneasy conscience for the way in which they belittled same sex attracted people in the past. Voting “yes” was a small way to make amends.

Probably a larger number know that life can be remarkably messy. I listened to a woman on talk back explain why she voted yes. She spoke about her failed marriage – about how nothing went to plan for her. She spoke about having to change her mind about how to find happiness, and how she had to make the most of a blended family and shared custody. No part of her story was about same sex attraction – she made it clear that such attraction had no part to play in any part of the pain she had endured. But she made it equally clear that her story alerted her that life is messy and that things often don’t go to plan, and that you’ve got to make the best with whatever hand you are dealt. Her main point was clear and poignant, “I know from my own experience that life can be tough and pretty untidy. If your untidy is same sex attraction – well so be it – I know what messy is, and I’m willing to support you to the extent that I can.”

I think that those of us who are Christ followers need to hear this very clearly. I think the strong “yes” vote was a cry of “life is tough for people. Let’s not make it any more difficult than it already is.” It reflects a sensitivity to hurt… and a desire to protect others from hurt. This is to be celebrated – and heard.

Linked to our hurt is a desire to be free to tread our own path. So many have followed conventional pathways and then been let down by them. The “yes” vote was seen as affirming freedom of choice. An appeal to hold on to traditional views of marriage has remarkably little appeal to those who feel that their pain originates from failed traditional marriages.

Having said that, in its own way the “yes” vote can be seen as a strong endorsement for marriage. True, it changes its definition – but people clearly feel marriage is so important that it must be accessible to all. Perhaps some traditional views will come floating back. Like the idea that marriage is a covenantal commitment for life – a covenant broken only in extreme circumstances. For years the wider society has spoken negatively about marriage. Perhaps now our language will change, and we will value it again.

I realise that some who read this will feel that I am whistling in the dark – trying to spot some positives from a result that advocates a view of marriage at odds with that found in Scripture. No, I am not naive and have more than a few concerns over this outcome (and I’d refer you to my original paper on the topic). But I do believe that God reigns and works in every situation – including this one.

As a result of this plebiscite, many are gearing up for a fight about religious freedom – and it is an important one (I will be posting on the topic fairly soon). One little comment though. Even if you are a baker, and the law gives you the right to decline making a wedding cake for a gay couple, can I strongly urge you to renounce that right. In fact, why not go a little further, and bake them the best possible wedding cake that you can. It is through a multitude of generous and loving acts that we will again win a hearing in a hurting world – one which pretty genuinely wants love to win…

As always, nice chatting…


  1. Enjoyed listening to your reflections Brian

  2. Great article Brian – love your work!

  3. Thanks Brian, Your words this morning lifted me up. Always good to read what you are thinking

  4. As always your views are deeply thought provoking

  5. Always food (and cake) for thought!

  6. Very good thoughts Brian. The church suffers so much damage in these arenas by clinging to positions that are so hard to understand out there in the real world. Our own lack
    Of unity speaks volumes to the world. One of the reasons I enjoy chaplaincy so much is that I can just do my best to reflect Jesus love and not get tangled up in turf wars! Blessings Barry

  7. You asked the right question, Brian: “How should I understand those who answered differently than I did in the recent survey?” I love your understanding.

  8. Good sensible paper Brian, thank you

  9. I really liked this Brian. Well written. People need to read this. I’ll share this on a few forums.

    • Thanks Rudy. I appreciate your help.

  10. Thanks for that. Wish I could have chatted with you. I met the lovely Mr Vose at Spurgeons College some 20 years ago,and subsequently had dinner at his home a year or so later. Lost touch with him, and an annoyed with myself that I did not see he had died last year (a month later my husband died, so hopefully they have caught up and filled the missing years gaps.). He was a very gracious, humble man and it seems that he has left a legacy of such to the institution which carries his name. Thanks Brian for a good sensible thinking following this vote It is such a shame that those who felt they wanted to vote ‘no’ have been branded all kinds of negative things in their positive need to follow their understanding of scriptures. (No easy task, that!). One does however wonder which ‘love’ is being spoken of. Agape, or erotica or ….?????? I have shared with others how interesting that one of my longest standing friends who spent much time in Australia, and who ha s known he was ‘gay’ since childhood, is fiercely opposed to marriage , . He has no Christian convictions, (condemned by his Christian sister to hell everlasting because of who he is!) but feels strongly that civil partnership is the right course for ‘gays’ but marriage is for a man and a woman. So on what grounds is he condemned as being unloving, and I wonder how many others thinks as he does. Or is he just old fashioned. So now 38% of the population are now unhappy – I do hope they are shown love and understanding by the ‘yes’ voters as they come to terms with the changes that will follow.

    • Thanks Marion. Good to hear from you. Noel Vose has left a wonderful legacy. We all miss him greatly. He was always an enormous encouragement.

  11. Your post and the comments reached me through a Christian friend. I enjoyed and appreciated your thoughts and insights on the challenges that Christianity and ‘the Church’ face. One of your commenters notes that slightly less than 40 per cent of those who expressed an opinion will be ‘unhappy’. It occurs to me that this outcome – electoral unhappiness – is not dissimilar to most recent election outcomes in Australia, except that the proportion ‘unhappy’ has been closer to 50 per cent. I have been a Christian for the most recent one-third of my life (for the previous two-thirds, I was arrogantly ignorant), and I have survived, and moved on from, four ‘churches’ – of people who gathered in the name of Christ and did some things that I think He would have approved of and a lot of other things that would have made Him weep. I have never sacked any member of the Trinity, but I have sacked the regular, organised gatherings known as ‘church’, mostly because of the judgement, lack of acceptance and intolerance (might we call it lack of love?) that many non-Christians have spoken about, not just with regard to marriage equality but a range of issues facing our society. As followers of Christ, as distinct from churchgoers or club members, we can have a much greater impact on the lives of others by understanding and emulating Christ’s compassion in our daily interactions with people than by telling them what to do.

  12. Brian, another great blogg, thankyou for speaking into this space, a lot of wisdom in your words!!

  13. Brian
    I love this so very much
    I think you have a genuine understanding of why people voted yes and I feel that is rare coming from a No case person.
    This article speaks of love in the truest sense. It’s obvious that you have a desire to embrace and love others rather than Tighten the hatches and keep these divisions entrenched.
    Thanks for sharing. It’s been the most refreshing and encouraging perspective I have read about the plebiscite coming from a no perspective
    Hardly any yes people seem to understand why someone would vote no and likewise no people don’t understand why someone would vote yes. Thanks for the reminder that life. Full of being kinder and kinder and kinder

  14. Thanks for this gentle and powerful reflection. I keep thinking about the older brother of the prodigal son and how his leagalism made him resent loves generousity and prevented him from attending the banquet.

  15. We live in such a tolerant society. We value the freedom of man’s conscience. We feel for the suffering of people when we hear their stories. We desire to be loving to the lost. I think if the apostle Paul said in our churches now what he said in Romans 1 (about God’s wrath on unrighteousness and lust and shameless acts) he would be swiftly condemned by many.

  16. I’m finding it difficult to think of a parallel in Scripture where the people of God, under any covenant, were to follow similar lines of thinking.

    Would you encourage a pastor to conduct a same sex wedding to demonstrate love? Would you encourage a Christian counselor to support a same sex marriage? A Christian adoption agency to provide same sex couples with children?

    More to the point, can any act of love, met by a world hostile to the things of Christ, purchase the respect needed to foster a positive attitude to Christianity?

    For every passage one may use to support this article’s premise, four clearer imperatives may be forward which warn the church not to take part in detestable practises.

    It’s the Holy Spirit who warms the heart to the things of God. Not the virtue signaling of guilt-ridden Christians.

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