Cringe communication #2: same-sex marriage “a failure of democracy”

3 April, 2014 — 12 Comments

In 2012 a private members bill was put forward in New Zealand called the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill. This was passed in April 2013 allowing same-sex marriage. I believe the dominant church response to this bill in the public sphere was an example of bad communication.


This is another post in a series where I give some real-life true stories of what I call cringe communication from the church. The first one was called Cringe communication #1: Student survey tricksters where I introduce this series and basically say I believe we can improve the communication of the church by eliminating cringe communication.

I want your feedback: do you agree that my example in this post about same-sex marriage is bad communication? Or communicates the church in a bad way to those outside the church. If not why not? Vote in the poll below and feel free to comment.

The purpose of the bill:

This bill seeks to amend the Marriage Act 1955 to ensure that its provisions are not applied in a discriminatory manner. The bill aims to ensure that all people, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity will have the opportunity to marry if they so choose. [From the New Zealand Parliament website]

Who was actually against the bill?

There was a noticeable Christian voice in the media against the support of same-sex marriage, but it turned out that only 14.57% of a population sample opposed both same-sex marriage and also claimed to be religious or spiritual. This data comes from a ONE News Colmar Brunton Poll that interviewed 1,005 eligible New Zealand voters. Of the 31% who did not support same-sex marriage, 47% of them identified with a religious or spiritual group.  47% of the 31% is 14.57% meaning 14.57% of the total sample were religious or spiritual and did not support same-sex marriage. This shows 31% of people did not support the change, with approximately half of those people being religious or spiritual.

Interestingly, if you look at the ONE News Colmar Brunton Poll and compare the response of different age-groups, you will see the largest group against same-sex marriage will all be dead in 40 years. If society were to stay static, same-sex marriage will become a non-issue in a few decades by default simply due to the death of the largest opposing group. The result of the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Bill was inevitable.

A failure of democracy?

The bill passed in April 2013, and was followed by comments such as that of Conservative Party leader, and Christian, Colin Craig saying the gay marriage vote is:

…a failure of democracy when those paid to represent the people end up making decisions the public oppose.

With the regular church attendance in New Zealand being approximately 10% of the adult population, in a post-secularised social context, the church voice is a minority of New Zealanders.  I personally feel democracy has been well and fairly played with this new bill passing because in a representative democracy like New Zealand, I would expect approximately 10% of politicians to be church going Christians, with the potential of sharing some of the strong feelings expressed by some of the church on the topic of same-sex marriage.

Also considering the ONE News Colmar Brunton Poll, with 31% of the sample not supporting same-sex marriage, a more than two-thirds majority is a healthy affirmation for representative democracy to follow.

My point is that Colin Craig and any Christian/church that suggests there was a failure of democracy is wrong. Saying such in the public square is cringe because it shows a lack of understanding of the context and supporting data.

Through the eyes of the majority of New Zealanders

When viewing the dominant communication of or from the church on this Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill – from the public square, as opposed to viewing it from inside the church, my conclusion is that much of the public church voice on this matter has been out of touch with reality. In an earlier post called ‘One way to think of communication‘, I suggest successful communication occurs when there is shared understanding and common ground.

Much of the communication from the church around this issue ignored any attempt to find a place of common ground to even begin the sharing of feelings and ideas.

Comments like that of Colin Craig’s make me cringe

Notwithstanding my criticisms here, I do not necessarily doubt the sincerity of the Christian beliefs underpinning the communication I am taking issue with: I am sure that if I were to have an open conversation with Colin Craig he would have well-intentioned reasons backed with passionate commitment to the cause of his interpretation of the Christian church and tradition.

However, the nature of this cringe communication is, in my opinion, through my own observation and understanding, at odds with the kind of communication that could be successful with people outside of the church, or at least done in a way that shares common ground and understanding.

How to find common ground in this situation

One way to form common ground in this situation would be for the church voice to acknowledge a few realities:

  • Within the wider Christian community there are a variety of ideals formed about marriage from different interpretations, traditions, and ethics. There is not a single Christian/church voice.
  • In a post-secualirsied (post-Christendom) societal context, if there is a place for traditional Christian ideals of marriage, it is within the Christian faith community.
  • People who do not sign up to Christianity (regardless of its form) should not be expected to follow Christian ideals.

Could anyone seriously disagree with any of these points?

I believe acknowledging and engaging with these points is a good starting place for Christians to begin dialogue around this subject beyond the church context.

Same-sex marriage and the church

Notice that in this post I am highlighting the communication issues of the church around the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill – how some of the church was seen at the time by those outside the church. I am aware that within the Christian faith community there are different opinions on how marriage could be defined, and how this has created tension within ‘the family’. This post is not about that, but rather what people outside the church see when they notice the ‘church’ point it’s seemingly collective finger.

Do you agree?

I’m interested in your feedback, please take a second to anonymously vote in the poll below, or leave a comment sharing your own stories or experiences:

Other posts in this series

Cringe communication #1: Student survey tricksters.
Cringe communication #3: Cult of personality?
Cringe communication #4: Billboard bashers.

Image “Same sex wedding” courtesy of Krista Guenin, CoCo Boardman/Krista Photography Creative Commons License on

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  • Chris

    This is interesting Mike: I look forward to your defamation case when Colin reads what you’ve said about him, and gets all upset, and sues you, as appears to be his approach! I chose not to vote because what he does I find unhelpful, but as you noted, this is a democracy, and so I cannot stop him from being an idiot. I needed another option to vote for: ‘Unhelpful, let them be’ or something like it.

    • Nice touch Chris, connecting my poll with ideas of democracy!

      My point isn’t to say Colin is an idiot (as you have done), but to say he was wrong and might come across better if he sought to begin from a point of common ground and shared understanding. I fear you might be the one facing the defamation case, while he approaches me to be a communication consultant… :)

      • Chris

        As long as you come along as my support person it will all be ok! In general terms, I agree, and get nervous when a Church leader is being lined up for comment in the media… “what are they going to say ‘on my behalf’ this time…?”

        • I’ve added an “other” option in the poll…

  • Glyn

    Hi Mike – Greetings.
    Because I want to raise some questions about this latest blog post, I’m feeling a bit guilty that I haven’t written on a number of previous occasions to say how much I’ve enjoyed many of the other posts you’ve put out. Please forgive me for this, and try to accept these comments in the context of huge support for your ministry.

    You seem to have some major issues with Colin Craig’s comments (although for the most part it would be more accurate to say ‘the way Colin Craig’s comments have been reported by the media’). But it also seems you haven’t spoken with Colin Craig. If that’s the case, would it not have been proper to have done so (Matt 18) before criticising him so strongly and so publicly?

    I am not expressing here a view any which way on Colin Craig or his Conservative Party. But he certainly is not the voice of the Church which seems to be the main focus of your blog, nor does he claim to be. You say the “dominant church response … was an example of bad communication”. I disagree. I think you’ve confused the church’s response with the way the church’s response was portrayed by the media.

    There’s no doubt that the way that the church’s response was portrayed through the media made the church’s response look bad. E.g. the headline in the link you provide “Gay marriage opponents gear up to fight Wall’s bill”. “Gear up”? “Fight”? Whose words are these? They are certainly not the church’s words. In fact, the actual comments reported by the only two churches mentioned in the article (Catholics and Anglicans) could not be further from those sentiments.

    Our (NZ Christian Network’s) own first media release on the issue (calling for ‘grace-filled’ dialogue) was quoted in Parliament. Our final media release on the issue (on the essence of marriage) was reported favorably on the GayNZ website. But the mainstream media insisted on trying to cast not only our comments, but also comments from national church leaders, in the context of ‘battling’, ‘fighting’, and so on. They presented a letter by 50 clergy representing very small congregations, and a letter from over 100 national church leaders who represented well over 90% of the church as a ‘major split’.

    What is the church supposed to do? Not have a voice in the discussion because the media may spin it against us? Should church leaders not speak out because there are some in the church who disagree?

    The church does not control the media, and church leaders try very hard in my opinion to communicate in ways which convey truth and grace. For the most part, I think they/we do pretty well, in spite of a media which is often not sympathetic to church comment.

    As I said at the beginning I’ve really appreciated reading everything else you’ve put out Mike, but I don’t think this one hits the mark. It seems to me that you’ve bought into the spin painted by the media and unscientific opinion polls – (as an aside I couldn’t cast a vote on your online poll because I don’t agree with any of the three options provided) – and ended up taking a swipe at the church which in my view is unbalanced. And if you haven’t communicated in person to Colin Craig, I’d suggest that the blog should be removed until you do.

    Blessings and prayers for your ministry,
    Glyn Carpenter
    New Zealand Christian Network

    • Hi Glyn, and thank you for taking the time to respond so thoroughly! I appreciate the engagement, as well as the way you are modelling grace. I have a few comments in response:

      In my own research that looked at how some people outside the church perceive the church, I attempted to see how people outside the church see the church – to stand in their shoes for a bit. This is because I see the ‘mission’ of the church as a form of communication, and having an understanding of the ‘receiver’ can help the communication process, and therefore the ‘mission’ process. I came up with a list of perceptions, and while I don’t claim them to be true or false, they are a truth to those holding them. It was clear that as “outsiders” these people don’t have the same or even the correct knowledge or appreciation of the church that “insiders” have. One of the ways they learn or gain their knowledge and understanding about the church is through the media.

      In this series of blog posts on Cringe Communication from the church I’m trying to highlight some examples of communication as people outside the church might see it – people who don’t see the positive “insider” knowledge that you have mentioned – or even the positive societal engagement that you mention.

      For people outside the church, “the church” is often a whole lot of things all merged together, and “Christians” are all the same! This is unfair and incorrect, but it is part of their perception. I suspect most New Zealanders would see Colin Craig as a Christian because of his public views on some things. Due to his public presence (which is increasing due to his politcal asparations), he can’t help but be a representative of “the church”. The quote of his that I have used in this blog post has been plucked straight from a news website – a medium available for anyone to consume. I have trusted the 3news report to be correctly quoting, and if it is incorrect then my argument in this post falls apart! In this example I am also relying on the work of Colmar Brunton – which I believe to be more helpful than some other polls (such as TV viewer pay-to-vote text messaging).

      This is what I think people outside the church see in this example: a public figure who is a Christian thinks a majority view winning a political process is a failure of democracy because it didn’t go his way. This is unhelpful in terms of positive communication from the church.

      I simply can’t see how the passing of the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill is a failure of democracy – that is my issue with the Colin Craig quote, which is public, and since my point is to do with how people outside the church perceive communication from Christian people and the church, I saw no need to contact Colin about this public bit of data. I am not questioning the sincerity of his Christian beliefs, but his public communication in this instance.

      I agree that the realm of the media and that of politics can be harsh and unfair, and that these are very challenging places for Christian people to be engaging within. We need to be working hard at creating common ground and shared understanding – that is what I think the church is to do, and around this topic the 3 bullet-points above could be a good place to start. We “the church” have a lot of catch-up to do.

      You aren’t the first one to question the options in my poll at the end of the post, so I have added an “other” option.
      Thanks again!

      • vikingqueen

        You mention that positive “insider” knowledge of opinions in the church, as someone inside the church I thought that communication within the church was a bit shit as well even without the media spin you could hear the differing and unhelpful opinions shared everywhere in such a way that it impinged on communication with each other. This was not a topic that promoted good communication. Just a thought.

  • Loren

    I was a little surprised to see Colin in the spot light of this discussion, after so much reading from Family First on the subject. I thought Bob McCoskrie had done surveys and come up with a majority on NZrs against gay marriage….. Anyway, I am not surprised by the differing results of the polls, people will respond differently to differing people with differently posed questions. Call this peer pressure. I would rather read the results of a survey asking good leading questions, than surveys asking bad ones,or posed badly, or promoting unhealthy decisions. I guess the latter is kind of how I feel the secular media goes about polling, and reporting public opinion on matters of Christian morality. Sure we can’t expect them to adhere to it, but are we not called to still promote it? I think so, the question is how, but there is a question for another day.

    • Hi Loren! Yeah, I agree that there are vastly different “polls” and that a lot of this type of research is hard to build a case around. For example, I was surprised to hear some Baptist leaders relying on a poll that happened on a TV programme that required people to pay-to-vote through a cell phone text message during a 30-minute period of time – I never vote in those things because I don’t think the cell phone telco should be rewarded by my participation, and it’s not a great cross section when it’s at a certain time of the day for such a small window…

      Of the polls I have seen I feel happy that the Colmar Brunton one I refer to in this post has some integrity. As a matter of interest, here is the question they asked a cross-section of New Zealanders:

      “Question: In New Zealand same-sex couples can enter into a Civil Union, but they are not able to get married. Do you think same-sex couples should be able to get married?”

  • dave

    Hi Mike. Great post, I definitely agree with you that this debate has resulted in much bad communication. However I would like to question your last line which stated that “This post is about […] what people outside the church
    see when they notice the ‘church’ point it’s seemingly collective
    finger”. My question is who is inside and who is outside? I would contend that there is a continuum, rather than an either ‘in’ or ‘out’, and the bad communication in this debate has simply pushed people further to either end of the continuum. Your three points of common ground are clearly not being communicated well, and although I agree that “There is not a single Christian/church voice”, it seems there are many who believe that there should be a single Christian/church voice on this issue. Unfortunately this ideal of a ‘single voice’ seems to be driving those who are in middle of the continuum further towards the out as they clearly do not identify with ‘that single voice’ and it has not been communicated to them that there are other voices within the Christian tradition, maybe?
    Thanks Mike

    P.S. I’m sure you read this but just in case here’s a link:

    • Hi Dave (sorry for the late reply!)
      I like the first line of that link you include:
      “It’s widely accepted that young people tend to be less religious than their elders.”

      I reckon this could have a lot to do with the future of ‘church’ and your point about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ – the church/Christians need to be less ‘religious’ (and perhaps we have something to learn from the Pharisees?,..).

      You’ve probably heard of the idea of an “open set” faith community that identifies people on a journey towards the centre (the centre being Jesus) as opposed to a “closed set” one that defines a line or boundary that people have to cross to be part of the group (Australian Dave Andrews writes about this stuff).

      Imagine a Christian-faith-community that was spacious enough to enable people to be part of it while not all agreeing on all of the current ‘hot’ topics – that could be transformative, and be seen/communicated as something positive (that, for example, American Millennials would appreciate?…)