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Social Media and the SSM Plebiscite: a how-to guide

Thursday, 10 August 2017  | Megan Powell du Toit

This is how I knew the plebiscite was definitely on: a post in a Facebook group from someone worried about having to deal with all the social media campaigning from Christian friends. I would have liked to say ‘oh no that won’t happen’, except that I had already seen a couple of examples from Christian friends in my newsfeed on Facebook. I know how the person worried about the posts feels. I am already concerned about the campaigning I will be subjected to as a Christian minister: the emails, the posts, the tweets, the messages, all applying some form of spiritual and emotional pressure.

How you handle this public debate will affect your relationships inside and outside the church. It will affect your ability to be heard when you talk about your faith. It will affect how people view the church as a whole. It will affect people in the community for whom this is personal. Many in the public health area have been concerned that a plebiscite will be devastating for young people who are working through their sexuality.[1] Suicide rates are significantly higher among LGBTIQ people. Whatever your opinion about that argument, now that there is a plebiscite it behoves all of us to proceed with the utmost concern for the welfare of those young people. We have a God who shows particular concern for the vulnerable, listening to their cries (Exod. 22:20-22).

I’m not saying we go radio silent. Obviously, this is an important decision, and it will be the topic of public and private conversation for the next month or so. What I am saying, though, is to be thoughtful about what you say, especially publicly. Your friends are watching. Your friends’ friends often see what you post as well. I’ve been reticent about talking about the issue in a public forum, but my silence may not suffice when it is so clearly front and centre on the public agenda. I’m also not advocating that free discussion be repressed. However, most of us will concede that it is wise to think through the best way to communicate. Freedom doesn’t give us licence for foolish or unloving behaviour.

What follows are some of my reflections on how we should conduct ourselves on social media during this time.

Your audience

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

- Romans 12:14-15

I don’t know about you, but my Facebook friend list has people in it who will be directly affected by this decision. There are loving same-sex couples, some with children, who will be hoping to formalise their relationship with marriage. Then add to that the many people who have family members and close friends whom this will affect. For them, this is personal. I can’t put posts up as if this is an abstract argument, detached from the emotions, relationships and lives of people I know.

My Facebook friend list also has Christian friends with widely differing views on this matter. Some are themselves LGBTIQ Christians. Some see no barrier to same sex marriage for Christians. Others may have a personal view that such a marriage isn’t in line with their understanding of scripture, but think that civil same-sex marriage is a different case. Others believe that a traditional view of marriage as between a man and a woman should be upheld in the civil sphere as well. Therefore, I can’t assume that my view is the only Christian one. I am hardly likely to be heard if I suggest that anyone who doesn’t share my view isn’t a ‘true’ Christian.

What about if there isn’t anyone among your social media friends who fits any of the categories I have listed above? You still need to be aware that your posts may be shared without your knowledge. Also, Jesus kept company with all sorts of different people, as He was sent to bring good news to all. So you may need to expand your relationships, if you don’t seem to be connecting with people who are different from yourself.

If you really do want to have a no-holds-barred discussion with trusted people, which sometimes is helpful as we work out our minds on something, social media is not the place. If it feels like an in-house discussion, then keep it in house. If it feels like it should be face-to-face so you can do your utmost to prevent misunderstanding, then do that.

Try this imaginative exercise in empathy: every time you think about posting or commenting on the issue, imagine that one of your readers is someone you love who is hoping to get married to someone of the same gender. You are going to see them tomorrow, and look them in the eye after they have read what you have written. Let this guide both whether you post and what you post.

Your intent

            Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.

            - Psalm 139:23

Why are you posting or commenting? Are you seeking just to be validated in your own views, or are you genuinely seeking to engage with those who differ from you to both listen to them and be heard by them?

A lot of what we see on social media is preaching to the choir. It might make you feel good, but it often isn’t a constructive contribution to the discussion. One key way to determine your intent is to examine your feelings as you post. If you are experiencing any degree of victorious ‘well take that!’, let me suggest that that post won’t be helpful. Don’t seek to score points, but instead seek to converse. If you are unable to discuss this issue without getting caught up in point scoring, then refrain from public discussion.

Think about the long-term effect of what you say. What do you most want to do? Do you want to win this particular argument, or would you rather ensure you have continuing relationships with people so that you can speak the love of Christ into their lives? Many suggest that same-sex marriage is inevitable. If this is the case, we need to think through how best to respond now. Our actions now will determine how much voice we have in the future.

As a final action before posting or commenting, please pray. Not the quick prayer of someone wanting God to rubber stamp what they do, but a humble prayer asking God to speak to you about what you are doing, and to lead you into the best course of action.

Your content

Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

- Colossians 4:6

If you are taking this seriously enough to bother commenting on the issue, then be serious about what you post. Treat this as if it is an academic assignment in which you will need to be able to support what you say, and show a balanced consideration.

This should go without saying, but avoid cheap shots. Memes are probably not a good idea. Pictures are open to misinterpretation. Check your sources. Stick to reputable, balanced articles. Don’t use any words that insult or demonise those who think differently from you. Don’t share anything that does this. Be careful not to act as a mind-reader, imputing bad motives to others.

Read other points of view, not to fuel your outrage, but to seek to understand. Consider posting content from someone who differs from you if you think they have made some good points. You can state that you don’t agree with everything, but point out what you found helpful.

Your manner        

Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.

- Proverbs 16:24

Some people are naturally gentle communicators. Others are more blunt or forceful. You probably already have some clue as to where you fall on the spectrum. If you aren’t sure, ask some friends you know will be honest with you. Proverbs has good advice in this area, urging us to have gentle tongues, soft answers, judicious speech and gracious words (Proverbs 15-16).

If you have any issues with how you communicate, tread carefully. Re-read posts and comments before posting. Give yourself thinking time. Ask someone who is more gentle than yourself to check your wording. Be ready with an apology if you have misspoken, or been misunderstood. Be patient with clarifying your meaning.

Take responsibility for comments and discussion on your own posts. Delete aggressive or offensive comments. Mediate between people. Don’t just ‘like’ comments you agree with: ‘like’ comments that are helpful additions to the discussion. If there seems to be a disagreement between yourself and another person that is starting to get out of hand, sort it out privately in some manner, as per the advice in Matthew 18.

Your vote

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
 and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
 and to walk humbly with your God?

- Micah 6:8

I haven’t discussed how you should vote, as that wasn’t my purpose with this piece. But here are some brief comments. You should vote with good conscience, according to your conviction about what will most honour God. For me, good conscience always involves humbly informing myself about the different issues and principles involved. I’m thinking through how a just and merciful God would have me vote. And, when the outcome is known, whether it went your way or not, let your response be gracious. For whatever the outcome, we will all need to negotiate that as a society, together.

Go in grace. I’m praying for us.

Megan Powell du Toit is an ordained Baptist minister, Publications and Policies Administrator for the Australian College of Theology and editor of the academic journal Colloquium. She is currently writing a doctoral thesis on how we respond to tensions within evangelicalism.


David Sampson
August 11, 2017, 8:18PM
Hi, thanks for a helpful and comprehensive answer to the issue of how we as christians ought to engage in this conversation. We must not use the same manner or tactics as those who don't know God. The truth of God's word matters, and the way we treat people matters so much too. Thanks!
Gene Howell
August 12, 2017, 8:45AM
What a fantastically balanced article, one which espouses love above all things. It is so true that some us want to be so theologically correct (our viewpoint and understanding of Scripture must be right!!) that we become the modern Pharissee Jesus sharply addressed at times. They also put theology before love.

I love Paul's admonition to 'speak the truth...', which is where some of us stop. But he then adds the two moderating words: '...in love'. If we took his comment seriously, we would say a lot less than what we do.
Gregg Thorn
August 13, 2017, 8:27PM
Liked your whole article, especially the quote:

'This should go without saying, but avoid cheap shots. Memes are probably not a good idea. Pictures are open to misinterpretation. Check your sources. Stick to reputable, balanced articles. Don’t use any words that insult or demonise those who think differently from you. Don’t share anything that does this. Be careful not to act as a mind-reader, imputing bad motives to others.'

The 'demonising' of people happens an awful lot within debates/rants on different theo-logical opinion!

If Australia does go with the 'redefinition of marriage' to include same-sex, it won't be the end of the world. BUT, it will certainly open up Pandora's box of hidden agendas waiting in the wings. However, I personally believe that God is more powerful than the governments  of the world, and He will, at some stage, execute a strategy of love, His love, that will 'res=store all things' to the way they should be. Not that I actually know what all those things are.

Cheers :)
Pamela McLay-Henderson
August 14, 2017, 12:09AM
BRAVO!! And thank you SO MUCH!!

Thank you for a really well written - and so refreshingly written - article (if a little drawn out), that gives Our Precious Lord Jesus' and Our Dear Heavenly Father's true perspective of having and demonstrating LOVE.... a fair hearing, and a way into this debate!

Our God - who is the only author of love, offers a loving personal relationship with Himself, through His Son, Jesus, to EVERYONE who would accept Him, regardless of who they are and including LGBTIQ persons. God is so much BIGGER than all our narrowness and self-righteousness, and all our personal interpretations and assumptions of what WE think God MUST think. And,  in His special way, He is always working towards making all things that are wrong, right, and towards giving us a way to experience personally His great love for us!

Not even the prospect of an agonising death kept His Son Jesus from doing His Father's will and opening the way for everyone to know complete forgiveness, profound love, peace and new life with and in Him. THIS is what REALLY matters to God!

And, if God matters to us, then being like Him and having and demonstrating LOVE, and a loving response, to everyone, in every situation, including this one, and in the outcome of this one too, is what should really matter most to us. So many people, including Christians, are forgetting that - on so many levels - LOVE, REAL LOVE, is what the marriage equality debate is REALLY all about!
David Townes
August 14, 2017, 9:57AM
Hi guys,

Thanks for the constructive input.

I have spent the greater deal of my free time researching climate change issues and so remain poorly informed on the marriage equality debate. Could someone kindly direct me to some credible resources pertaining to the debate. Thanks in advance.
Bruce Wearne
August 14, 2017, 10:25AM
Thank you. Yes, I think that these principles as outlined are vitally apt for how we Christians should form any conversation we have about any issue, and particularly this one.

But now the term 'plebiscite' - and I'm not calling for the title of the post to be changed - is producing political confusion. We are confronted by a 'device' concocted in the Liberal-National party-room. It is actually a survey devised for party political purposes parading as as a public legal necessity.

What, in fact, is necessary is what the Liberal-National coalition (and their opponents on the 'other side') have failed dismally to do for decades, and especially since 2004, namely to outline a comprehensive legislative agenda for marriage, family and household, to put to the Australian people as their party's platform commitment, i.e. as their public policy proposals to voters, so that we will know where they stand when they run their candidates for election. Their political problem is that they don't want to have such a political view about marriage - and that seems to be because it will lose them votes. And they are now seeking, by a back-door route, to impose their lack of vision for marriage on the nation writ large.

My response when asked (I'm assuming Messrs Dutton et al. are asking me to vote) is say: 'Thank you but no thanks. I am not participating in this survey which by rights and by justice should be paid for not by public funds but by the political parties that wish to gain advice via this ambiguous route'. This device is implicitly simply seeking to gain a measure of popular consent to 'both sides' to continue their ambiguous and manipulative approaches to public policy when it comes to marriage, family and household.

So my response to Megan's sound advice is this: heed her careful analysis for all your discussions. I say this because I believe that Christians should encourage each other to abide by Jesus' clear teaching about what marriage is and to avoid all distractions that would keep us from a daily and comprehensive love of all our neighbours - whoever they are - as we search for the path of Christian political obedience.

Thank you, Megan - sorry about going on so long.
Armen Gakavian
August 14, 2017, 11:36AM
Hi David, thanks for your inquiry.

As a start, you may find our book on the topic helpful - see http://www.ethos.org.au/publications/books-resources/Beyond-Stereotypes--Christians-and-Homosexuality.

But I will get back to you ASAP with some suggested online and other resources.
Bruce Wearne
August 14, 2017, 2:29PM
A very helpful discussion of the legal context of this political debate is from Patrick Parkinson and Nicholas Aroney, two law professors: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract-id=2435016
Megan Powell du Toit
August 16, 2017, 1:15PM
Thanks everyone. I've been encouraged by how many Christians have commented or contacted me to say that they are committed to gracious conversation on this issue.
Helen Henderson
August 26, 2017, 1:19PM
Thank you Megan for an interesting article.

I just have a few questions.

When Jesus mixed with all sorts of people, did He condone their sin or did He point out that He had not come to lead the righteous to repentance but the sinner?

Does God change His mind about what is sin?

Does God call same sex relationships an abomination?

Did Jesus have a view about marriage?

I choose to trust what God says:
'If we confess our sin He is faithful and just to forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.'

Speaking from a purely personal perspective and as a committed Christian, the idea of being cruel or judging someone because of their life choices is not what I consider to be right. However, if I believe in all conscience that their choice is wrong or sinful and they ask me to comment, I cannot lie about my view.

For me it is like placing a bet both ways or serving two masters. The outcome will be that I love one or hate the other; I cannot sit on the fence.

The Micah 6:8 reference is interesting:

'He has shown thee O man what is good, but what does the Lord require of me, but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.'

Is the justice spoken of here the disregard for what God says about certain issues and full steam ahead for what we think is just? I am not sure about this. I worship and serve a merciful and just God but, because of my human state, I fail to understand and often struggle with accepting His decisions. The only fallback I have is to trust Him with my life and believe He wants the very best for me.

So here we come to a dilemma: do I trust what God says or do I trust what the world says about difficult issues?
I have chosen to follow God; so then it is my responsibility to respond appropriately to God's truth and instruction.
In loving my neighbour as myself I am expressing God's love, but loving my neighbour does not mean that I agree with what they think or believe. I am a sinner saved by the grace of God: no different to my neighbour who is given the same opportunity as me to choose God's forgiveness and redemption.
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