Parliament or Plebiscite: Does it Matter for Christians?

While it seems a sure bet that same sex marriage will be recognised in Australia some time in the near future, I believe that “the how” will have as much ramifications as “the when” (I take it “the if” was never in doubt, except perhaps for those who thought that not only was Tony Abbott going to be Prime Minister, but that he would be so in to perpetuity).

Whilst some of those opposed to SSM believe that the result of a plebiscite would be favourable to their cause, I am not sure that it will, whether they win it or not.

West Australian State Premier, Colin Barnett, has called for the Federal Parliament to make the decision rather than it go to a national plebiscite. He believes that the debate will get “ugly” if the decision is not made by parliamentarians.  I fear that he is right.  I would hate to be involved in such an ugly debate, and hope that all evangelical Christians who love the gospel would conduct themselves with humility, clarity and self-deference if it comes to a plebiscite. If the lesser referendum issue of whether Australia becomes a republic became a “too hot to handle” topic for some time, how much more a plebiscite on same sex marriage.  It could well be our chance to show ourselves gracious losers, who yet offer a far better vision of the good life than any sexual permutation, hetero/homo/otherwise could ever offer to the culture.

Of course many of those who want a plebiscite on the matter are confident that it will be voted down.  At the same time they accuse those who want a parliamentary decision of wishing to circumvent the will of the people.  The idea seems to be that parliamentarians can be publicly pressured and exposed by vested interest groups to vote in favour, hence a decision by parliament would skew the decision.  Of course if that is the case then the people can have their own virtual plebiscite at the next election and vote out any parliamentarian who has failed to represent the wishes of their electorate on this one.  That’s how parliamentary democracy works.

But as someone who believes that the only sexual relationship that God sanctions (and that is a big statement in itself) is heterosexual life-long monogamous marriage, I tend to side with Colin Barnett on this one. The reason is simple enough – 80 per cent of the population doesn’t care. They just want to get on with things, and assume that changing the definition of marriage for a minority of people won’t change their own lives, their own hopes, their own relationships, their own dreams.  In other words, marriage in how Christians understand it isn’t an important enough issue for them to fight over. That’s why people live together, get divorced, get remarried, have sneaky affairs. Sure, believe what you want, sleep with whom you will, just don’t get me involved (aka, just let me live my life my own way).

And what will 80 per cent of the population see from the sidelines if the issue goes to a plebiscite?  Hand-bags at 20 paces from two equally shrill groups, who both constitute minority positions in the eyes of most Australians.  And what will most Australians do?  Turn off and let that 20 per cent get on with it.  And with the mainstream media a liberal institution, Christians who want to fight this one are going to have to pour a lot of time and resources and energy (and lose a lot of goodwill in the community when their angry brethren go toe-to-toe with those in the pro-SSM crowd who are angry and bitter about it).

Christians need to face up to this and get real.  Would they rather win the hearts and minds of people through the gospel or through law?  More to the point, CAN we win the hearts and minds of people through law?  No, of course we cannot.

The problem we face is not SSM per se, but the deeply ingrained belief in Western culture that our satisfied self is our best hope.  That is our idol.  That is our ideal.  To step on the toes of someone’s idol is going to raise hell – literally.  We realise what our idols are when they are threatened.

Which should make angry Christians question their own anger at this point.  What idol of ours is being threatened by a pagan culture expressing its own idolatry through a desire to join together what Christians believe God has not?  My concern is that the idol under threat is not marriage (which is a poor idol anyway, as it has the most propensity to let you down through a good dose of sinful reality), but the desire to control the cultural narrative that Christians have long felt they have had, and which is now under perceived threat.  Could it be that many Australian Christians are angry because their own idol is now under threat in a way they could never have envisaged thirty years ago?

 As someone who has grown up with a marginalised understanding of the gospel in a non-conformist background, I would say gently to my establishment brothers and sisters who are used to having a seat at the table, it’s not that hard to make the mind shift, and it’s incredibly liberating! Besides, the true table we are awaiting is the table at the marriage feast of the Lamb. That’s our hope, right?

As I have said before, I think Christians are in for a tougher three or four decades as our ethical and communal framework is put under the microscope and subjected to all sorts of fallacious and mischievous legal challenges.  There will be a concerted effort to silence the church from offering a traditional Christian ethic in the public square. And that may well happen.

Hence I firmly believe that the battle that does need to be fought is that for freedom of religious expression.  And for what it’s worth I think that 80 per cent of Australians who don’t want this SSM fight would be keen for religious expression to be free – not because they are particularly religious, but because they don’t like the idea of another Australian not being allowed to speak their mind.

I believe that Christians should let zealous SSM proponents run their course, and then, as they inevitably will, let them over-reach themselves in the courts, and find that whilst they may technically have their law on their side, and hence be able to silence other perspectives on anti-discrimination grounds, that will never win the hearts of the vast majority of Australians that the Christian gospel needs to reach.    In fact that is one of the issues coming up before the Tasmanian courts as we speak – an anti discrimination case being brought against the Catholic Church for promulgating, – shock, horror, – Catholic Church teaching among Catholic Church schools.  The trans-gender Greens candidate Martine Delaney in bringing the case to court, may well win the battle, but something tells me that her approach won’t win her the war for peoples’ hearts.

Because, let’s face it, it’s not in the public square that we as God’s people will win the hearts and minds of our neighbours and friends, it’s in the private circles: the backyard barbecues, the sports clubs, the shared commutes, the catch ups with school mums and dads. That’s where the gospel can drip-filter down into the nook-and-cranny lives of those that the elite cultural floodlights can never shine into with all of their brilliant group-think zeal. Besides, in true Big Brother style, people pay lip service to that stuff, but silently resent it.  The public square melodrama has ebbed and flowed for Christians for centuries, but the idol-smashing reality of the gospel message has ploughed on regardless. It doesn’t need cultural sanction to do so.

So, Parliament or Plebiscite, does it matter?  I don’t think so. I firmly believe SSM is going to come in regardless, but I am not too worried about it. Why? because ultimately whilst I believe marriage is an important thing, I don’t believe it is an ultimate thing – no human to human relationship can be – and that’s something our culture doesn’t seem to get. Marriage is not ultimate, it simply points to what is ultimate – the ultimate reality that one day the True Bridegroom is going to return and that it is our role as his Bride to prepare ourselves for his appearing.  And I am not sure a bun fight with the pagan culture on this issue will do anything more than distract us from that task.

(Feel free to disagree strongly!)


  1. Thoughtful, compassionate, politically astute, and committed to integrity. Very useful contribution to the role and place of Christians in the publuc square in general – and with particular reference to this issue.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Beautifully written and great food for thought. I think you are spot on about our idol being the control of the cultural narrative. Often the gospel flourishes more when Christians don’t have control of the cultural narrative, it seems anyway. So yes, maybe we need to be preparing ourselves for that.

  3. Some times when reading your articles it seems as though the net effect/agenda is to dampen down, reduce or discourage the Christian voice in society on certain issues.

    1. no disrespect Warwick, but that sounds churlish. But what do you mean by “the Christian voice in society”? I believe we should have the freedom to talk about the issues and to demonstrate through the living witness of the church an alternative community to a watching world. Beyond that? give me a framework for what you think is the best way forward.

      1. Sorry Steve, not intending to sound churlish – but I definitely could take lessons in being more diplomatic. I’m intending to highlight the effect this article can have (is intended to have?) on readers- and to ask why? And to challenge it. There is an effect where those who speak up against SSM in your writings are subtly portrayed as shrill, time wasters, angry brethren, people trying to win hearts and minds through law, having their culture as their idol. yes?

        Is there no place for those to speak up who could simply be concerned for the well being of their culture, their society, and their family? In the same way they would speak up about legislation around gambling, restrictions on sales of alcohol, abortion laws, wage rights, refugees, environmental concerns etc etc. Why not encourage Christians in a democratic society to take their democratic responsibility seriously and contribute to and engage with law creation etc? Do you prefer Christians avoid the SSM law debate because it’s too politically dangerous or unpopular? Is SSM marriage different from other social issues? Do we give up on issues where there is kickback? Or simply because we are a minority?

        Should Christian engage in social justice – but ignore laws creation that impacts social justice? That doesn’t make sense to me.

        I agree with you that the goal of the Christian isn’t a Christian state. Or even a Christian world – but rather it’s to be in the business of reconciling people to God through Jesus Christ. However, it’s not either or. This binary thinking of this or that. Our primary mission is to preach the Gospel – but as people who love our neighbours, and as people who love God, this will naturally flow over to desiring good laws to govern our nation, that identify right from wrong, and truth from lie. That uphold righteousness, justice, equality etc. I agree with the sentiment that Christians shouldn’t panic, if things don’t go their way – but I don’t agree with the implication that Christians should disengage, and that those who don’t are painted as ‘shrill, idolators, angry etc.’

    2. Hi mate – you make a good case for that. I do think we can put our point of view clearly and I am in no way worried about kick-back. I am just not sure we can put our point coherently and with enough commonality without the need to make a pitch from special revelation. What do you think the chances are of the debate being well handled should it go to a plebiscite? Could we still argue the case well even if we decide that it should be handled by Parliament? Got a lot of questions about this, and I do believe that we need to speak out on matters in our culture. But it’s such a white hot issue that I think the long term post-decision conversation is going to shed more light on it, than anything that can happen in the immediate.

      1. Absolutely it should go to plebiscite. Why? Because the debate needs to be held. The consequences are significant- and it’s through debate that ideas and thoughts are crystalised. Sure it may be ugly. But I’d rather ugly and thought through than an understanding of marriage that has been held for a millennium but discarded in ignorance and without serious thought. And we have a role in helping society think it through. Not only that, a plebiscite forces Australians to take responsibility for their decision. So what that we will be required to make pitch from special revelation. Everyone needs to find an authority. Will the opposition’s authority stand up as well as special revelation stands up when under scrutiny? I doubt it.

  4. Steve,

    It is sad that a likely conclusion of a plebiscite is a drawn out bitter argument. The inability to engage people in reasoned argument is a real threat to free speech, and with it freedom of religion. However I am not sure that this is a sound reason for avoiding a public vote on the matter.

    Going to a plebiscite offers an opportunity for the church to speak united, with clarity, reason, and with peace. An opportunity we will almost certainly meet with clear failure, once again a sign that it is only by grace that we are saved. However in the darkness and confusion their will be those that publicly announce the gospel, and in the discussion around the BBQ about the upcoming vote there will be those that privately announce the gospel. There will be Christians opening their bibles to see what is said about relationships under God. Maybe we should go into the fray with shields instead of swords.

    From a secular position our governmental system has the recourse to use a plebiscite when an issue may not be well served by people voting along party/representative lines. A fundamental change in our nations social structure is such an issue. It is an issue that clearly divides politicians in their own parties. There are implications beyond the definition of marriage in the marriage act, that has both social and economic implications. Up until now nearly all of the public discourse on this matter has been on the issue of should we / shouldn’t we rather than the details of how it will affect our current laws and support services.

    Furthermore, one of the great blessings of the church is its diversity. Left to our own devices we will often surround ourselves with like-minded people, of similar age, sex and background. This skews our opinion of the values held by a society. While public discourse brings conflict, it also clearly shows us that people hold different views.

    From the last time WA held a referendum:

    “Surely everyone wants daylight savings, all my facebook male-30 something friends are loving their extra evening time with their kids after their stressful professional job.”

    Found out then that the morning people definitely outnumbered the night-owls.

    Somewhat selfishly I am more than a little curious as to whether something like 70% of the public is in favour of the change as the oft quoted polls suggest. Lets not get to far down the line of changing our current house-codes before we are sure that society is actually behind the moves.

    I say bring on the plebiscite, bring forward the discussion, and in the midst let us speak with respect and love for our fellow man/woman/transgender. When the church is likely defeated on this issue let us still speak with respect and love, and pray that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.


  5. G’day Steve.

    Thanks for your article. I have a theory; perhaps you can give me your thoughts.

    It’s interesting at this point to see people on different sides of a couple of arguments applying same rationale to different issues. I’m thinking specifically of climate change on one hand, same-sex marriage on the other.

    On one side, some christians see CC as a serious threat to the world, and combatting it is a godly response and good stewardship. Some of these same Christians may take a more lassiez faire approach to the politics of SSM – the kingdom is what matters, they say, a little like you’ve said above.

    On the other side, other Christians feel that SSM is the moral watershed of our age and must be resisted, not necessarily because hetero marriage is the be all and end all, but because it’s about promoting the good for society and individuals. These same Christians may not be too concerned with climate change – it’s all going to burn/be recreated anew anyway, right?

    So we’ve got evangelicals on both sides of this, opposed to each other at points, but, perhaps, using exactly the same kingdom-priority or promoting-the-good methodology.

    Whaddya reckon?

  6. Hi Stephen, from the Gong over the other side of Oz.

    I find your stuff always very stimulating to read.

    I get your idea about not wanting an angry bitter fight.

    I feel some force to what you say about hearts and minds being won and where that might happen.

    I’m not sure about your guesstimate on the 80% that don’t care (by which I think you mean don’t care enough for it to be a single issue vote-changer in the next parliamentary election).

    I quite liked Mr Turnbull’s idea floated when still just a Minister, of having Parliament consider, and if a majority convinced, pass, a bill which had a provision that the bill does not get enacted into law, unless a plebiscite of the Australian people also subsequently pass it. This would mean the Bill – to have a better chance of passing both in parliament and the the people – would probably have to address the specific concerns about protections of freedom of religion and conscience (not just for ministers, but for cake-bakers, and public servant registrars, and so on).

    But the thing I feel was pretty much completely absent from your article, and is a weakness, is the concern that marriage is inherently oriented towards child-bearing and rearing. The current longstanding definition models and institutionalises the understanding that every child deserves to, maybe even has a right to be raised by its own mother and father in an intact relationship wherever possible.

    Of course, I realise that not every child is blessed to be raised that way, and not every heterosexual marriage is great for the kids born into it, and that kids in other circumstances can do well too. But we are talking about marriage as an institution here.

    And if we are giving guesstimates about what Aussies think, I reckon it would be much, much higher than 20% of them who strongly agree that kids should have a fair chance to be raised by their own mother and father.

    But same-sex marriage institutionalises the denial of either their father or mother.

    I don’t think this has much to do with my hankering after christendom.

    But I do think the welfare and protection of the vulnerable – and few are more dependent on others than little kids – is something Christian citizens should be willing to speak up strongly for.

    1. That’s a good comment about the percentages. And good thoughts in general about the protection of freedoms of religion and conscience too. Look I am with you on the marriage as an institution aspect of it, and I think we need to take this seriously as the church. My guess is, however, that the narrative of marriage has gone way beyond that in our culture. The reason we are having the SSM debate at all is because the general understanding of marriage in our culture is that it is a way for me to self-actualise or be fulfilled, and when it no longer does that, then we can change who we are married to if we wish. That’s a bigger question and one that, unless we can even address that baseline cultural narrative, we have little hope of presenting a convincing argument about our opposition to SSM. The problem is that with no-fault divorce – and the idea that somehow kids can still see both parents if they are divorced, our culture has shifted the goalposts on how children are raised. My overall concern is that we are going to fight this one bitterly when we didn’t fight the other ways at all. And with a media that is adversarial in nature, the way the argument will be presented will be strongly polemic. Do we keep our powder dry? That’s my question. But I appreciate your wise observations and I will need to think more about this.

      1. Stephen, I am not quite sure about the history of where and when Christians did fight about such things as family law reform and same-sex adoption.

        It’s commonly said people didn’t fight. I notice this comment is mainly made by people younger than myself. And I myself was not old enough to notice who was saying what about divorce law reform back in 1975 and prior.

        I am led to believe Christians and the churches weren’t altogether silent.

        Likewise, on same-sex parental adoption and recognition of non-biological same-sex partners as second mothers etc., this was rushed through parliament, at least in NSW. People didn’t protest much because they weren’t given much time for any kind of mature debate to emerge.


        Details: Soon after the re-election of an ALP Government in March 2008, it introduced the Miscellaneous Acts Amendment (Same Sex Relationships) Bill 2008.

        It was based on the work of the NSW Law Reform Commission (NSWLRC) in its Report 113 Relationships. Although completed in June 2006, for some reason, the Iemma Government sat on it until releasing it in April 2008!

        The Government thus gave no notice of its position on the recommendations contained within the Report, when it went to the election earlier in 2008. This robbed the electorate of the possibility of considering policy in this area as part of the decision-making process in that election.

        Then after sitting on the Report, the Government rushed to introduce legislation almost as soon as the Report was released This is also a telling failure to allow time for proper reflection and consultation upon the NSWLRC recommendations, all the more so, since the report ran to over 450 pages.

        I struggled to digest the Report in the brief time allowed. But I did note flaws at the time, and wrote to my local MP.

        In addition, a further specific flaw of the NSWLRC’s Report was the complete failure to consider the views of children conceived via artificial insemination over how their births might be registered.

        The parallel work of the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s Assisted Reproductive Technology & Adoption: Final Report (March 2007) at least bothered to investigate the views of children conceived via assisted reproductive technologies. This revealed that many such children have very deep concerns about being denied the biological truth about their parentage.

        I note this here, because it seems to me that such changes – unlike the current one – were engineered – deliberately – to go through with the minimum of scrutiny.


        I think the welfare of children is worth speaking about.

        I do not think fighting bitterly is the only way to do it.

      2. Hi Sandy
        Yeah I think that we need to be clear to our parliaments about these issues. But the fact that we have “won” none of the major arguments, whilst not being a case for saying nothing, is at the very least a case of asking ourselves if we are tackling symptoms or the underlying issue that is presenting in the symptoms. I’m putting up a few references from a great book (and a drawing I have done representing it) that highlight the subterranean strength of all of the sexual ethics arguments today, and why the seem so inexorable. I don’t want that to sound defeatist, and I do think we should speak out, but the defeater beliefs of the culture are simply not being addressed by the church in any of these situations. In short,we’re probably not radical enough in our assessment of what the problem is.

    2. Further to Sandy’s comments, I wonder if there are people in Australia who basically believe a child should have a mother and a father, but can’t really think of a reason why homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed to marry one another either.

      Perhaps in some people the instinct about fairness and what ought-to-be does not often have the rationality test applied to it.

      Maybe I’m selling people short, but I wonder if many Australians realise (in the face of all the “love wins” rhetoric) that legislating for SSM will, as Sandy says, institutionalise the denial of mother and father to children.

      1. Yep that’s a good comment. I think it’s the only argument we would have. But I also think that IVF with a third person donor currently does that as well. We haven’t jumped up and down about that to be honest. And part of the reason we haven’t is that the idol of having children or else (barrenness is not acceptable) is because it is more about us than it is about the children. We haven’t laid the groundwork in the past twenty or thirty years to have the conversations meaningfully because we have not argued these other points well at all.

    3. A great article as usual, Mr. McAlpine.

      As an American, I envy your having the choice to actually vote on the subject. Of course, we had many plebiscites within our individual states that rejected SSM, but our high court set those to one side.

      My anger on the issue isn’t so much about the idol of marriage, or any Christian cultural hegemony. If there’s an idol I’m defending, it’s that of a political process where one must at least make a show of arguing from a basis of reason, fact, precedent; anything but whole-cloth fabrications. I’m also angry on behalf of those who’ve spent their whole lives adhering to age-old, universal ideas about gender and marriage, only to find that the rules have been changed overnight, w/o their say-so. They are now “hateful” and “bigots,” truly through no fault of their own.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.