On 7 August 2017, the Turnbull Government announced it would conduct a postal vote to survey the Australian population for their view on same-sex marriage. Specifically, Australians were asked: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?”
The results of that postal vote have now been processed. To the surprise of many, they have returned a closer vote than most pundits were predicting. A smaller than expected majority of Australians are in favour of the proposed change. In fact, 4.87 million Australian voters are against redefining marriage. It is worth reflecting on what this result does and does not mean.
There are several important things it does not mean.
It does not mean those who have voted to uphold traditional marriage are themselves motivated by a distinctly Christian perspective. The no-voters represent a wide coalition of people: non-Christian religious voters, nominally Christian voters, committed Christian voters, secular people with conservative social views, people with an intuitive understanding of marriage, protest voters against political correctness and, yes, some with bigoted attitudes unworthy of any follower of Jesus.
Neither is this vote in any way a referendum on the spiritual health of the nation. Almost every indicator that would matter to us as evangelical Christians—church attendance, personal belief and Christian behaviour—are moving in the wrong direction. We long for a revival of gospel proclamation and gospel responsiveness in this nation. There is no reason to believe this result is part of what we have longed for. Indeed, as our Lord Jesus saw in his day, many of the hardest hearts to the gospel were precisely those whose opinions on personal morality where entirely orthodox.
Neither the ballot-box nor the political process are the God-ordained means by which the gospel of the Lord Jesus will go forward. Even a resounding vote in favour of classical marriage would have meant very little for that which matters most to us—that people come to a joyful, saving knowledge of God in Christ.
However, the result is significant in some important ways.
It was common in the lead up to the vote for both press and pundits to assume that a “yes” vote was inevitable. As several recent referenda and elections have reminded us, polls are not always correct, nor are the loudest voices always the most representative.
The result also means that, for large numbers of people, God’s original purpose for marriage retains an intuitive plausibility. Such a large “no” vote cannot be accounted for entirely by bigotry. Amongst them are large groups of people who feel no ill-will toward those advocating the “yes” vote, but who nonetheless see marriage as in some sense unique, or at least something we should not tamper with lightly.
This closer-than-expected result is in some senses the most painful possible outcome for us as a nation. It leaves open a question that an emphatic result might have laid to rest. It means a debate many people on both sides have found painful and difficult may continue into the foreseeable future.
How should we as Christians operate in this context?
First, we should operate confident that Jesus is still Lord. Because he is. No result, however emphatic or however ambiguous can change the thrilling fact that God is bringing all things in heaven and on earth and under the earth together in the mighty name of the death-conquering Jesus. God’s great work of reconciliation goes on. His purposes are unstoppable. This result means a topic we might want to move on from will be with us for a long time yet. At times it will seem like it is all anyone ever talks about. It must not be all we ever talk about. Indeed, it must not even be what we mostly talk about. We should be talking mostly about Jesus.
Second, we will need to continue to be able to articulate and (more importantly) live out a Christian sexual morality in a context where it is highly contested. We want to win people, not win postal votes. If we want to commend our understanding of marriage, we will need to present it in the most faithful, intelligent and attractive way possible. We will need to live it out in our communities in a way that points to its beauty and power. And, if we want to commend a Christian view of marriage, it will be a view that holds marriage to be good but not ultimate. We ought not be snookered into idolising marriage, for ‘this world in its present form is passing away.’ (1 Corinthians 7:31) Part of our witness will be in holding marriage lightly. One of the greatest challenges for our churches is to be places where singleness—whether chosen or unchosen—is a possible, plausible and cherished state of life.
As Russell Moore said in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in the United States on same-sex marriage, our churches need to be places that can receive the refugees of the sexual revolution. The same-sex marriage debate is part of a wider sexual revolution in our culture—a revolution with many hurting victims. We will not be those places of refuge if we compromise on God’s word for human sexuality. We won’t help our neighbour if we are shouting at them. We can’t be those places of refuge if we ourselves are compromised sexually. We won’t be like Jesus if we become self-righteous and judgemental.
And we won’t bear witness to the unshakable, unstoppable, saving Lordship of Jesus if we give the impression that his Lordship is threatened by the ambiguous results of a postal vote. It’s not. It never has been. And it never will be.