There's no question that issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (or ‘First Peoples’) are currently in the forefront of Australia’s political and social thinking. Since the 1999 referendum in which Australians voted no to a change in our Constitutions’ preamble which included a recognition of First Peoples, there has been a growing movement pushing for a revisiting of this idea, culminating in the 2017 Uluru Statement which called for reform through a Voice, a Treaty and Truth Telling, and now the upcoming referendum in which Australians will vote on the principle of the first of these.
If you're an Australian citizen, you will be legally required to cast your ballot. If you're not a citizen, but still call Australia your home, you still have a responsibility to be informed about the issues, and to ask yourself, ‘How would I vote if I were a citizen?’
In any plebiscite or referendum we are faced with three choices: vote Yes, vote No, or vote informally (so that our ballot doesn’t count). In some cases the way a Christian should vote might be clear cut, if it deals with an issue on which the Bible is unequivocal, such as mandating the celebration of same-sex marriage by churches, prescribing idolatrous worship for all citizens, or legalising murder. In these cases (which are not actually as extreme or hypothetical as they may first sound) we can draw a straight line between the Bible’s specific teaching and the issue being debated.
The referendum on the Voice is not like this. The Bible says nothing about the idea of representative or advisory voices to governments (indigenous or otherwise), and any attempt to claim that it does will necessarily involve serious anachronisms. And so the question of whether it is right or wrong, good or bad, wise or foolish, from a Biblical perspective is not as simple as ‘yes’ or ‘no’. As Jonathan Leeman and Andrew Naselli helpfully put it (quoted in a helpful article on this issue by Akos Balogh):
“Most political issues are not straight-line issues. Most are jagged-line issues. Think of everything from trade policy to healthcare reform to monetary policy to carbon dioxide emission caps. These are important, and Christians should bring biblical principles to bear when thinking about them. But the path from biblical text to policy application is not simple. It is complex. For such issues, none of us should presume to possess “the” Christian position, as if we were apostles revealing true doctrine once and for all time.”
What this means is that as Christians we have a freedom to take into account two things in making a decision on this matter:
The Biblical principles that should shape our thinking. In doing so we need to make sure we have a clear conscience before God in the decision we make. This is what Paul teaches Christians when debating whether or not to eat meat bought at the market (See 1 Corinthians 8&9 and Romans 14)
Other non-Biblical factors, including listening to different political perspectives, speaking with indigenous people and hearing their views, thinking of the possible impacts on your family, church and community, etc. and weighing them against Biblical wisdom.
This means that whether we like it or not, Christians will differ in their views and values on this matter. And just as first century meat-eating Christians were not to force their practice on their non-meat-eating brothers and sisters, so too we need to avoid imposing our views about the Voice on one another in way that makes someone feel they are being coerced to go along with us, guilty for having a different view, or unable to share their differing view without ridicule or condemnation.
‘Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.’ (Romans 14:23). This means that what makes a decision right or wrong in these matters is whether or not it flows from a conscience that has been cleansed and renewed through faith in the justifying work of Christ in his cross and resurrection. The moment we act out of guilt, fear or self-justification, it become sin. Only when our eyes are set on the cross will we be able to think and act with a clear conscience before God.
As Aunty Jean Phillips, an Aboriginal Christian leader and former AIM missionary says,
“To me all of these issues need to be based on prayer and asking God to guide us and to help us. We need to be coming together at the foot of the cross and acknowledge the history of this nation, which has not been a very good history, and it’s only as we come to the cross and meet with our saviour that things could change.”
As Christians we know that no political system is ever going to solve human problems or create a perfect society. It is only when Christ returns to bring his reign over all things to its consummation that we will know a perfected human community as we live and reign with him in the new heavens and earth. This does not prohibit us from being involved in society and working for the good of all, but we need to do so knowing that one day we will see that the kingdoms of the world become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ (Revelation 11:15)
Christians who take the Bible seriously, believe in its inspiration and divine authority in shaping faith and life, will be able to come up with good Biblically-based arguments for all three options of voting in this referendum. Here are just a few examples:
“Human beings should be committed to ‘do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8). So, because the Voice is all about justice for Australia’s First People, as a Christian I will vote Yes.”
“Christians are called to love their neighbours in very practical, generous and sacrificial ways (James 2:8). Because the Voice risks being a token, and not a guarantee that the real crises in First Peoples communities will be dealt with, government resources would be better used in on the ground initiatives. Therefore as a Christian I will vote No.”
“The true path to reconciliation between people is in speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) and confession of sin and forgiveness (Luke 17:3). Therefore the priority should be truth telling and reconciliation (‘Makarrata’), not a voice to parliament, so as a Christian I will abstain or vote informally.”
“God created, loves, and is redeeming those from every people, nation tribe and tongue, all of whom will have a place in the new humanity (Revelation 5:9). Because the Voice is a recognition of the peoples, nations, tribes and tongues who lived in this land before colonisation, as a Christian I will vote Yes.”
“In Christ there is no distinction of status between people because of their race or ethnicity (Colossians 3:11). Because the Voice will draw a distinction in our Constitution between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, as a Christian I will vote No.”
“Christians are not citizens of this world, but rather ambassadors of their true country, the Kingdom of God and the age to come (Philippians 3:20). So Christians should avoid being overly entangled in politics, and focus on preaching the Gospel. Therefore as a Christian I will abstain or vote informally.”
I hope you can see that this is both a matter of theology (how we understand Biblical doctrine and principles) and practice (how we apply our theology to our decisions and lifestyle). In each case above, Bible believing Christians most likely will agree on the truth of the opening line (because they are Biblically based), but may not agree on the conclusion for our practice, or may place them on different levels in terms of what they feel is most important.
I hope also that you noticed the personal way in which I worded the conclusions. Because this is a matter that ultimately comes down to my personal conscience before God, I must know both my freedom in making my decision without being coerced or shamed into it, and my moral responsibility for my decision (if it turns out to be a wrong one) before God who alone is my judge.
Notice also that I said ‘I will vote…’ not ‘I should vote…’ ‘Should’ is a word that comes from the Law, and when we live under the Law it becomes binding on everyone. So saying ‘I should’ can be a way of justifying myself before God or others, and could also be a sneaky way of asserting ‘You should.’ Because we live under grace, our motivation for acting and decision making comes not primarily from legalistic moral obligation or fear of judgement, but from the freedom we know in the Spirit to choose what is ‘true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise.’ (Philippians 4:8). That means we can make decisions with confidence that our hearts and minds have been washed and renewed by the Spirit and He will be leading us to think and act in the way he is calling us to. If we do end up making a decision that we later regret or turns out to seem foolish or even sinful, we can also trust that God in his grace is big enough to deal with and bring good out of our errors. This is the wonderful confidence that we may have in Christ, and should motivate us to act in confidence, instead of being paralysed by fear or anxiety that comes from trying to sort out all the ‘what ifs’.
A key passage for thinking about voting or for that matter any engagement with government and politics is 1 Timothy 2:1-6:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.
Our ‘first of all’ responsibility is to pray. This is not a cop-out, because genuine prayer in line with God’s will, will always lead to corresponding thinking and action; prayer is generally the first gift the Father gives us as he draws us in to participate in his work in his world. So praying for our government leaders with Bible-informed prayer will bring our thinking more into line with God’s, and will also help us in how we live and relate to our leaders.
Note that it is good and pleasing to God when we pray for the wellbeing of our community. Even though we know this world is not ultimately our true home, we nevertheless are called to pray and work for the good of those around us, even if they are not Christian. Note also that God’s desire is not merely for the temporal wellbeing of people, but that they come to a knowledge of the truth, which will only happen through the preaching and hearing of the Gospel.
This then gives us two key questions to ask and diligently seek answers to when we vote:
Do I believe that this change to Australia’s constitution will be a step forward in terms of promoting peaceful, quiet, godly and dignified living for both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians?
Might this change help, or hinder, the advance of the Gospel in Australia - and particularly because this matter concerns them, the proclamation of the Gospel to and by our indigenous peoples?
Clearly we cannot know the details of the future. We will not know the outcome - short and long term - of this referendum and its results until it happens. We may only make guesses based on Godly wisdom and lessons learned from the past, and then step forward in faith that our Father is the sovereign king of the universe, and that the one to who he has entrusted the administration of His kingdom on earth is his Son, the one who died and rose so that the world may be saved through him.
So how should a Christian vote in the Voice Referendum? With a clear conscience before God, carefully and prayerfully considering what God’s Word says, and with a genuine desire to see God glorified through the preaching of the Gospel and our neighbours loved as He commanded us.
A Plebiscite, such as the 2017 postal vote on same-sex marriage, gives the government an idea of what the population think, but its results are not binding; in a referendum the Government is legally obligated to put into action the wished of the people. A referendum requires a double majority (majority of states and majority of total voters) in order to pass. Out of Australia’s 44 referenda, only 8 have passed.
Jonathan Leeman and Andrew David Naselli, “Politics, Conscience and the Church: Why Christians Passionately Disagree with One Another over Politics, Why They Must Agree to Disagree over Jagged-Line Political Issues, and How”, Themelios 45.1 (2020): 13-31. 20. Quoted in “A Christian Perspective on the Voice Debate: 4 Key Takeaways” https://www.akosbalogh.com/blog/hy4jdl6sstn8cajku2kes0kfc5hiid
From Listen to the Heart website.
I recognise that these statements may come across as simplistic, however for the sake of space I can only give a summary; understand that behind each statement will stand a longer, more thought out and prayerful Biblical argument.