Like many other people, I reached peak Izzy some weeks ago. While Israel Folau isn’t making headlines every day now, different aspects of the story are still being discussed in the media. The Sydney Morning Herald has today published an opinion piece which aims to shed light on Folau’s use of the Bible (or should that be misuse?). However, some of the arguments are misleading, even grossly incorrect, and therefore a response is required.
The author of the article, John Tait, describes himself as, “an agnostic, lapsed Catholic, Master of Theology, former Charismatic Christian”. He feels a compulsion to bring truth and clarity to the question of Israel Folau and the Bible. How successful is Tait? Not so good. He gets a couple of things right, and he fudges a few facts and he completely ignores the most obvious and relevant fact.
John Tait opens by sending out a somewhat disparaging remark toward Australian theologians, “I have been waiting for a theologian or biblical scholar to come forward and address Folau’s misuse of scripture in his controversial post”. I can think of several Christian leaders who have offered commentary about Folau’s use of the Bible. Perhaps what Tait means is that he hasn’t yet found a theologian who entirely agrees with his exegesis.
He also asks why no one is investigating Folau’s Church. Perhaps he doesn’t remember those journalists who have been trolling the church’s facebook group and then cutting and pasting excerpts from Folau’s preaching. Tait attempts to offer a description,
“All that I can gather is that he is a member of an evangelical congregation somewhere in Sydney’s north-western suburbs.”
Perhaps we should assume that Tait is using ‘evangelical’ in its original and positive sense, rather than the derogative way it is most often applied in the media today.
First of all, when Tait dismisses the King James Version of the Bible, he is partially correct when he suggests that modern versions better reflect the original text. Textual criticism is an informed science which involves the study of early Bible manuscripts, and it is incredibly fruitful for Bible translating. Scholars conclude with great confidence that the Bible translations we have today are incredibly reliable and can be said to be true versions of the original. The King James Version is still considered by biblical experts as a faithful translation, even though there are few small places where it appears that the KJV translators made a wrong judgment call. If we take the example at hand, Galatians 5:9-11, the similarities between the KJV and newer translations are striking. The only notable difference is that the KJV includes murder in the list. This was done because some ancient manuscripts mention murder, while modern translations leave it out on account that the earliest and best manuscripts do not include it.
“19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery;20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (NIV)
“19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,21 envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” (KJV)
These are not Jesus’ words. So what?
Second, Tait says of Galatians 5:19-21, “They are not the words of Jesus. They are the words of Saint Paul”. So what? Tait seems to be implying that these bible verses are less ‘divine’ or less important because they are uttered by Paul and not by Jesus. That’s not how the Bible works. All Scripture is God-breathed, meaning that it is all authored by God whether those words are the Old Testament, the Gospels, or the New Testament letters. Indeed, Jesus himself identifies all of Scripture as being about him, and he directly gave the Apostles authority to speak and teach his Gospel to others. The Apostolic testimony is the reliable and Christ given word about Jesus to the Church and the world. Tait denigrating the place of Paul’s words is not a Christian explanation of how the Bible works or of how to read the Bible. Galatians 5:19-21 is as authoritative to Christians as is Matthew ch.5.
Nothing about hell
Third, the Kingdom of God is related to the theme of heaven and hell.
“You will also notice that there is nothing in the passage from Galatians about these sinners going to hell. The early Christians were expecting the imminent arrival of the resurrected Jesus to usher in the Kingdom of God. To be part of that you needed to repent and believe. This was urgent business. They believed that the world as they knew it was coming to an end. Many evangelical Christians still cling on to the same vain hope.
…This expectation of the Kingdom of God has nothing to do with going to heaven or hell when you die. It is about the end of the world. The concept of ‘hell’ that Folau is talking about was developed later in church history.”
With an air of intellectual snobbery over those dumb and intellectually prosaic Christians, Tait can’t resist throwing out another snide remark, “Many evangelical Christians still cling on to the same vain hope”. We’ll let the keeper take that one while I instead respond to his argument about hell.
1. He is correct when saying that the Galatians passage does not mention hell (not explicitly anyway).
2. He is right in suggesting that we shouldn’t view the kingdom of God as a synonym for heaven and hell. He is however misleading readers into thinking that the two concepts are poles apart; that is not the case. Kingdom of God is a broader concept than heaven and hell, but it is one that includes the idea of eternity and of a new heaven and new earth. Even hell is not outside the rule of God, but it is a place of punishment in contrast to the place of life.
3. He is incorrect to insist there is no relationship between Kingdom of God and hell. Galatians 5:21 speaks directly of exclusion from the kingdom of God on account of living in unrepentant sin. What does it mean to be excluded from the Kingdom? Where do these people exist if they are not part of God’s Kingdom? Exclusion is not without location.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of the character of life among those who belong to God’s Kingdom, and he contrasts this with the character of those who are in danger of hell. Jesus depicts two very different lifestyles which represent two very different allegiances and domains, the Kingdom of Heaven and a place which Jesus calls hell. Folau speaking of hell is entirely consistent with the meaning of Galatians ch.5 and 1 Corinthians ch.6.
4. He is incorrect to say that Folau’s view of hell was developed later in church history. A quick survey of the Bible testifies against Tait’s theory. Jesus’ own words demonstrate that Tait is mistaken:
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt 10:28)
“And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.” (Matt 18:9)
The Bible describes heaven and hell as places created by and belonging to God, as much as this universe is made by the same God. Biblical authors may at times borrow language from other places to help readers understand what heaven and hell are about (of much greater influence on the New Testament is a heavy dependence on the Old Testament), but to imply that the Biblical teaching should be traced to another religious milieu is both unnecessary and counters the Scriptures themselves (i.e. Acts 17:16-31).
Is homosexuality absent?
Fourth, Tait’s most glaring sin is the fact that he completely overlooks 1 Corinthians 6 in relation to Folau’s mention of homosexuality. Tait wants us to believe that Folau has included homosexuality for ‘bias’ reasons, over and against what the Bible says.
“Note however, that Galatians 5:19-21 does not, in any translation, mention homosexuals. Folau and whoever wrote the original post have projected homosexuality into the promiscuous category. That is their bias.”
Tait is right to say Galatians 5:19-21 doesn’t mention homosexuality, but the graphic displayed on Folau’s post isn’t summarising Galatians 5:19-21 but another Bible passage, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. In the 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 list, homosexuality is mentioned explicitly.
To be sure, the paraphrase is not entirely reflective of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, for atheists, are not mentioned by Paul here, while the greedy and revilers are in the biblical text and missing from the graphic. However, does this mean that the graphic misrepresents Bible messaging? Atheists may not be included in 1 Corinthians but they are referred to elsewhere in the Bible and I’m pretty sure no atheist wants to be included in the Kingdom of God; it would be kinda awkward for them!
If there is a due criticism, it is this, the post says ‘homosexuality’, rather than the more accurate ‘those who practice homosexuality’. It is not a sin to be same-sex attracted. Christians and Churches do not believe that men and women who are attracted to the same sex are condemned to hell. Our churches have many wonderful men and women who love Jesus and accept the Bible’s teaching on sexuality and who are living whole and meaningful lives without entering into sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage, even though they admit to having same-sex attraction. The text in Corinthians refers to those who practice or engage in homosexual activity, just as though two heterosexual people engage in a sexual relationship that is not within the covenant of marriage. The whys and meaning of all this is important, but the discussion point here concerns Tait’s indefensible omission regarding Folau’s use of 1 Corinthians 6 which explicitly mentions homosexuality.
We don’t require a Bible Scholar to comment on Folau’s use of the Bible, for the Scriptures are available for any and all to read. Perhaps we should read this book which has done more to shape human thinking and our culture than any other. Even from the standpoint of curiosity and wanting to understand Australian culture, we would do well to open the pages of the Bible, and in doing so we might be surprised by what we find. John Tait has made some attempt, but he has made numerous basic errors and one glaring omission which I still cannot fathom.
The biggest shame about Izzy’s post is that he didn’t say more and point his followers to verse 11 of Corinthians ch.6 and to the contrast Paul makes in Galatians 5:22-23. While the Bible is deeply concerned about what is wrong in the world, the wonder of Christianity is that God sees us and yet lovingly offers an alternative, one that we don’t deserve.
“9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-11)
“22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:22-24)