Israel Folau decision may set a course for the future

Christians across Australia have been given a message, “don’t commit social blasphemy” and “be careful if you choose to use the Bible”.

After three days of deliberations, a three person panel has found Israel Folau guilty of a “high level breach” of Rugby Australia’s player code of conduct.  Not that the outcome was much in doubt, given that Rugby Australia and the Waratah’s had bypassed due process and instead announced to the nation that Folau’s contract was terminated and that he would never be selected again to play for his country or club. Last night’s verdict was little more than a formality.

 

FOLAU_PV3_1280x560-1

Whatever Izzy’s motives may have been for posting on social media, he has forced onto the national stage an issue that has been pulled and tugged and tested in quieter situations from the East Coast to the West; can a pure form of Christian beliefs be permitted in the public space?

What was his offence? It is believed that Israel Folau declined to sign a document in addition to the standard players’ contract, which would have placed greater restrictions on his use of social media. He did, however, sign his contract, which presumably includes a clause about adhering to the players Code of Conduct. He has been found guilty of a “high level breach” of the Rugby Code of Conduct. This breach hangs on a subjective interpretation of Part 2 Article 1.3, “Treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural or religious background, age or disability. Any form of bullying, harassment or discrimination has no place in Rugby.”  Interpretation of this clause depends on one’s a priori beliefs and moral framework, and in this case the panel have deemed that summarising 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is a “high” form or harassment, even though the point of that passage is quite the opposite, and so too the meaning of Folau’s post.

Legal experts are expressing concerns over the handling of the issue. Professor Nicholas Aroney has interpreted the allegations against Folau with reference to International law. He explains that

“ [What] Folau has said is not an example of hate speech, and he should not lose his rugby career as a result.” Indeed, he reminds us of the broader framework in which Folau has posted comments, “In addition to repeatedly expressing his love and acceptance of all people, Folau has confessed to having committed many of the sins about which he now warns his readers. This makes it difficult to attribute any intention on his part to advocate hatred against these classes of people, for he numbers himself amongst them”

Setting aside legal questions (which I will certainly leave to those who legal expertise) what is clear is that Rugby Australia and the social commentators who’ve joined the scrum have defined ‘orthodox’ religion. Whether Rugby Australia realise it or not, they have taken a theological stand on Israel Folau and have determined to define what is and isn’t acceptable religious belief and speech. Remember, Folau was quoting the Bible and summarising basic Christian teaching.

Yes, as I and others have said a thousand times, Folau’s comments were not seasoned with grace and kindness. They appeared blunt and insensitive, much like a Rugby footballer. Was his manner lacking? Probably, yes. Were his words untrue to 2000 years of Christian belief? No.

Footballers have been forgiven for all manner of social and even criminal offences over the last few years; have we forgotten what some NRL and AFL players have been embroiled in the last few years. But Israel Folau isn’t to be forgiven.

And what of the teammates who have spoken out in support of Folau and have even agreed with his post? Surely Rugby Australia can’t afford to lose any more players before the World Cup? Is Folau to be a sacrificial lamb, served up to warn others of what might happen should they transgress again?

Let’s not be fools, Christians and non-Christians alike are praised for quoting the Bible when they squeeze it to fit with progressive social agendas. Kristina Keneally wasn’t removed from the Labor Party after quoting the Bible against Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and Peter FitzSimons hasn’t been sacked by Fairfax for repeatedly speaking of Jesus Christ? Why not? Because their speech falls into the rut of the cultural narrative, no matter how poor their handling of Christian texts may be.

Lest we conclude that this story will soon be forgotten as a blip on the cultural radar, Rugby Australia’s stance may well soon find legislative legs. The Australian Labor Party (as the Greens have already done) have announced that they are considering expanding “anti-discrimination legislation to shield gay and transgender ­people from harmful speech if elected, in a move that has alarmed lawyers and free-speech advocates.”

“When prejudice against LGBTIQ people contributes to harassment by the written or ­spoken word, such harassment causes actual harm, not simply mere offence, to people who have suffered discrimination and prejudice, and causes particular harm to young same-sex-attracted, gender-questioning or intersex people.

“Labor considers such harmful harassment is an unacceptable abuse of the responsibilities that come with freedom of speech and must be subject to effective sanctions. Labor will ensure that anti-discrimination law provides such effective sanction.”

Depending on how the language of ‘harm’ is understood, all manner of reasonable speech may be found on the wrong side of the law. For example, former rugby league player, Ian Roberts, last week alleged that comments like those of Israel Folau play a role in teenage kids committing suicide as they come to terms with their sexuality

“There are literally kids in the suburbs killing themselves — and I say that with the greatest sense of respect — I’m not implying that Israel’s responsible solely for that, please don’t take it that way.

“But it’s these types of comments and these off the cuff remarks, when you have young people and vulnerable people, kids in the suburbs who are dealing with their sexuality, confused, not knowing how to deal with it, these types of remarks can and do push people over the edge.”

If explaining the Christian view of sexuality is deemed to be a trigger for teenage suicide, we can anticipate further public outrage and potential legislation that will restrict and prohibit words that conform to and explain the Christian message. One might respond by pointing out that thousands of Christians are killed every year simply because they are Christian, therefore we must not limit or silence Christians freedom to speak their beliefs. If we are to be morally and logically consistent, Robert’s argument works in different directions. Leaving that aside, Roberts’ comments could be taken offensively by some Christians because we too are concerned for the wellbeing of teenagers. It is good to be reminded that these conversations are not merely academic or theoretical but they relate to real people who matte. We can thank Ian Roberts for this reminder.  No one wants teenagers despairing of their worth and believing they are unloved. I am reminded of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, a woman who’s sexual past was complicated, to say the least. Jesus didn’t affirm or applaud her but he did love her and speak a powerful word of compassion and hope to her.

“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life….The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”… Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” (John 4:13-14, 25-26)

In the midst of all the myriad of questions and issues relating to the Folau case, it is important to repeat an observation that was made last month: while Folau’s offending posts are in line with orthodox Christian teaching, he has on other occasions suggested a troubling view of the Trinity. He appears to advocate Oneness theology, which contradicts the Creeds and the very Scriptures themselves. This matters because it would be unwise to use Folau as a poster for Australian Christianity should he not subscribe to one of the most basic of Christian doctrines. It would be unwise and unChristian for Christians to pedestal Israel Folau while knowing he may well reject an even more foundational belief. As I suggested at the time, it may well be the case that Folau is like many Christians who are confused about and fuzzy on the Trinity. At the very least, this is a reminder as to why it is incumbent upon Pastors to teach the Bible clearly and faithfully in order to aid their congregations to understand such crucial doctrines.

The controversy over Israel Folau was not the first case and it is far from being the last. School children in Victoria are force-fed gender theories which are often unsupported by science and best medical practice, and many families have already felt pressured to leaving the public system and forced to pay the expense of independent schooling because of this Governmental pressure in Victoria. We can expect more corporations and organisations falling for the kinds of pressures that have been exposed by the Folau situation. Australia is moving toward introducing limitations on religious freedom that we see in parts of Europe and in Canada. We are heading closer toward the situation found in China, whereby Christians cannot join a political party and they cannot speak openly about Christianity and churches must be approved of by the State. This isn’t hyperbole, this is the natural progression of authoritarian secularism who will use the sexual revolution and identity politics to push all but their sanitised version of religion out of the public square.

A culturally palatable Christianity will entail deleting most Bible verses, any references to hell and to judgment, removing the core of the faith which is the atonement, and of course, we must let go of any teaching about marriage and sex and the roles of women and men. We will be left with a very tiny Bible and one that makes little sense, and one that has no power to give life and hope to this world.

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That saying of Jesus will need to go. So too will Jesus’ introductory summary of his ministry, ““The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Anything that challenges personal autonomy and freedom to define self realisation cannot be tolerated.

I have said it before, Christians need to start taking Jesus’ words seriously, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” We cannot afford to give up gentleness and compassion, grace and kindness, for these are indispensable attributes of the Gospel we claim to believe. We cannot respond to cultural shifts with hate but with enduring love because God has loved us. However, we have to accept the fact that loving others will not always be read as love because today’s secularist police will not permit views that transgress their narrow understanding of righteousness. Don’t give up on love, and don’t sacrifice truth and goodness for doing so means that we have also evacuated love from the picture.

If Christianity’s demise in Australia has been party due to Christianity’s seducement by the culture, then perhaps the clarifying disjunction between Church and culture will aid believers to regain Gospel convictions, compassion, and expectations. After all, it was communist China that created a moral and epistemic environment which catalyzed the explosion of Christianity and the conversion of 10s of millions of Chinese.  We may be disappointed by indicative direction Australian public life may be taking and the ramification this may have for our job security, education, and financial stability, but we are hopeful and joyful because Jesus Christ remains true and good today as ever. And by the grace of God, over time some our Aussie neighbours may come to realise that we are not against them but for them and have a message of hope that we alter their lives in the most satisfying and liberating fashion.

The Politico-Religious Tug Of War

The Gospel Coalition (USA) is under fire again, this time for apparently being too anti-Trump.

A notable American theologian has exclaimed with a tone of frustration, “Are all the vocal gatekeepers of The Gospel Coalition “Never- Trumpers”?”

I am staying away from the particulars of this conversation as it seems to be unfolding and there is perhaps misunderstanding on both sides. To be clear though, the issue does not relate to TGC, it concerns a comment made by a TGC writer on his own personal twitter account.  What I am interested in noting is criticisms aimed at  The Gospel Coalition’s positioning and contributions on a range of politico-ethical issues, which I think in fact reflects a healthy and constructive place.

metaphor-3694454__340.jpg

Over the last couple of years, there has been consternation over TGC being too ‘leftist’ and too social gospel orientated. This is quite different from the more regular criticism that is found in some Christian quarters and in the media whereby The Gospel Coalition is caricatured as overly conservative and exclusive.  In Australia, despite TGCA now being one of the major Christian websites in the country, with significant reach and influence across the nation and internationally, TGCA remains outside the radar of most Australian media and political attention; and that’s fine because they are not our audience. Nonetheless, within the smallish Christian circles that do exist in Australia, TGCA has been similarly attacked both left and right alike. 

First of all, we shouldn’t conflate every statement made on a personal social media account as representing The Gospel Coalition. I’m pretty sure that my fellow TGCA Council members wouldn’t agree with some of my personal tweets about football,  Melbourne, and food, let alone on every single theological comment I have uttered. Surely we can differentiate between what a person says under their own name and what is written under the umbrella of an organisation.

Second, the Gospel Coalition, both in the United States and in Australia (and its other chapters), does not identify with any given political spectrum. TGC(A) is not a political entity, representing any single political party or position. It is a coalition of Christian men and women who are gathered around the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and who affirm a set of theological convictions that are grounded in and are concerned for the fidelity of, the proclamation of, and living out of this Gospel of God. This coalition is made up of folk with clear theological convictions and from a wide range of ethnic groups, demographics, denominations and churches, and from many parts of the globe.

Third, it is quite possible, and indeed preferable, to critique positions on moral issues without suggesting whom we should vote for or which political party a Christian ought to support. TGC and TGCA contribute articles on a wide range of ethical and social issues, including abortion, racism, same-sex marriage, and these are argued Biblically and pastorally without taking that further step which is beyond the jurisdiction of pastors, namely to indicate how fellow Christians should vote or which party they should support.

As Australians go to the polls later this month to elect a Federal Government, I’ve heard once again the unhelpful (although probably well-meaning) voices of a few Christians encouraging fellow believers to vote for particular candidates and parties.  The problem is, sometimes their pleas become so impassioned that we are left with the impression that Christians must vote in a singular way and for only certain political parties and not others. Of course, there are very important issues for Christians that are better reflected in some party politics than others, but our cause is not Liberal or Labor, or Republican or Democrat. It is also possible that a time may come when it becomes impossible for Christians to support a particular party, given their policies are so anti-God and so anti-human, but we must be reticent to make such pronouncements, in contrast to some religious folk who seem to have this route locked on autopilot every election.

Our Gospel does not belong to and is not defined by progressive politics and morality nor by conservative politics and morality. The fact that TGC is regularly attacked by progressive branches of the media and by liberal Christians and that it is also sometimes accused of being too progressive and embracing of social issues, probably indicates that they are sitting in a wise place. It is even more important that our churches are wise when addressing social and political issues.

I don’t believe we should avoid talking about the political and social issues from the Scriptures, but we should not bind the consciences of our congregation beyond what Scripture allows. We must allow room for wisdom. In my view, unwise conscience binding includes promoting a given political party or politician (even those who purport to be overtly Christian) whether in our literature or from the Sunday church platform. I know of one church where a member of Parliament attends and is an active member. Both he and the church leadership are on the same page, making the conscious decision to refrain from presenting him or his party’s platform in the church context, lest people confuse Christianity and the Church with a particular political expression. Even on social media, Christians leaders need to be careful about aligning too closely with one candidate or another. Instead, teach our congregations well from the Scriptures, pray for them and pray for those in political authority over us (regardless of the party they represent), and trust that the Holy Spirit is working in lives of believers and giving them wisdom to discern how to vote.

God is not embarrassed by Christians

It shouldn’t be difficult to say the word, after all, people can’t wait to use it when there’s an opportunity to deride those who adhere to this worldview. And when representatives of their ranks are caught in a scandal or in an evil and immoral act, the social outrage queue is long and eager.  Sometimes though, in fact, more often than not, the unnameable populace doesn’t fit with the subscribed narrative that Western playwrights are busily writing on their twitter feeds, political speeches, and op-ed pieces. On these occasions, which again is the normal state of affairs, our progressive friends are left rhetorically naked and yet bound by their own scripts.

 

bfcbbe8a-d72e-4dda-a6b3-eba667e7209f-AP_Sri_Lanka_Church_Blasts.6.jpg

CNN photo

Among the cast of notables who struggled to articulate what happened in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday were Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama.

President Obama tweeted,

“The attacks on tourists and Easter worshippers in Sri Lanka are an attack on humanity. On a day devoted to love, redemption, and renewal, we pray for the victims and stand with the people of Sri Lanka.”

Clinton released this statement,

“On this holy weekend for many faiths, we must stand united against hatred and violence. I’m praying for everyone affected by today’s horrific attacks on Easter worshippers and travelers in Sri Lanka.”

 

The death toll currently sits at 359 people, with 500 injured. This is one of worse human-made atrocities committed anywhere in the world in the past decade, and possibly the largest terrorist attack since 9/11, and yet world leaders are stumbling over their words in order to avoid noting important facts

Who or what is an “Easter worshipper”? And since when have many faiths celebrated Easter? Our Jewish friends celebrate Passover during the same period, but who other than Christians worship Jesus Christ as God and accept his death and resurrection as the payment for sins and hope for eternal life?

I realise that the West is super keen to attach ‘Christian’ with everything that is wrong with the identity of the 21st Century world. Australians have been watching our own latest melodrama with Rugby and AFL players losing the socially mandated script and instead of inserting a few Bible verses here and there. We have since been reminded that such things are outdated and unacceptable, so much so that Israel Folau may lose his contract to play Rugby for Australia.

The media don’t seem to have an issue in ascribing ‘Christian’ to moral apostates (whether real or perceived) and they are quick to Christianise heretics like Father Rod Bower. Why? Because his own version of Christianity is a perfect fit with the sexualised authoritarian secularism that is published from our universities to our schools, from our television shows to our halls of Parliament. And most genuine Christians don’t shirk at the fact that sometimes other Christians behave in ways that are wicked or unwise or insensitive; we call it out. But when Christians are believing and behaving like Christians, as in, trusting Jesus Christ and growing in obedience to God of the Bible, watch the public edifice of our culture either move toward caricature, slander, or silence.

We could respond by being a little angry or disappointed, disillusioned even; I think it’s sad.

It is ok to use the word ‘Christian’. It is not a sin to mention by name the religion of the victims in Sri Lanka, nor is it immoral to mention the religious motivations of those who perpetrated this great evil.

Christians ought to grieve with those who grieve, whether they are Christian or atheist or Muslim or Hindu. Every human being is an image bearer of God and their life is precious and their dignity, great. The world is lessened when a life is taken, and we weep. Christchurch remains fresh on our minds. Christians mourned for Christchurch, and we prayed for the many Muslims people who were injured and for the families affected by that evil attack on their Mosques. 

We may long for justice in this world, and we are not amiss for expecting such, and yet we also understand that the world is fighting against the very notions of righteousness and goodness, because of a persistent antipathy toward God.

It is sad to hear that as hundreds of funerals take place throughout Sri Lanka today and this week, national leaders and notable commentators are unable to utter basic truths about what took place. This is not uncommon either, but a surge of whitewashing facts that don’t fit with preset views about the world.

We will not serve the honour of those who died by denying who they are, and neither can society confront and address the issues facing us while our leaders play the dangerous game of avoidance. Regardless of how Governments and societies respond to those who are the most persecuted group in the world today, namely Christians, we have a higher and truer authority who is perfect in love and justice, in mercy and righteousness, and it is to him whom we ultimately place our hope and find our comfort,

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  Therefore,

“they are before the throne of God
    and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
    will shelter them with his presence.

‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.

For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes

(Revelation 7:13-17)

A game more fierce than Rugby

The Israel Folau controversy is highlighting a battleground more fierce than any game of rugby.

folau

Peter FitzSimons is leading the tackle count again Izzy Folau. In his latest burst, Fitzy attempts to make the point that the only issue here is one of Israel Folau breaking his contract.

“If you cock your ear to the west, you can right now hear the thundering of keyboards, as columnist after columnist, shock jock after shock jock form up thundering rants about how this whole thing is a matter of freedom of speech, and religious freedom.

Oh yes. Despite the demonstrable damage done by Folau last year by putting up homophobic posts – and if saying gays are going to burn in hell isn’t homophobic, pray tell, what does it take? – their genuine position is he should be able to do exactly the same, ad infinitum, until the game and its finances are a smoking ruin.

Because it is about freedom of speech, and freedom of religion!

I repeat, it is no such thing.”

There are some flaws in Fitzy’s game plan, as well one strong mode of attack. Let me explain.

First, Fitz is espousing the same illogic that has come to pass as irrefutable truth in modern Australia.

“Folau can believe whatever he damn well pleases, including the illogical and offensive absurdity that the same omnipotent Lord who made some of his creations attracted to their own gender will also have them burn in the pits of hell for all eternity, for their trouble.

Yes, he can believe that. But when he proselytises those views and puts it in the public domain, despite knowing the hurt it engenders, the damage it does to his employers, and the fact that he is specifically breaching commitments he has made not to do any such thing, then he does not have a legal leg to stand on.”

Fitz is saying that Australians like Israel Folau have the right to hold religious views but they must not proselytise (evangelise) or express them in public. The first reason Fitz gives for this is, “it hurts”. Folau’s message isn’t one that embraces the current sexual milieu but is likely to offend people, and therefore it is immoral for him to share his views. Isn’t that precisely what Fitz is doing? Peter FitzSimons is attempting more than outlining an opinion to his readership, he is trying to persuade us of a point of view, one which many Aussies don’t subscribe to. Fitz is proselytising as much any religious preacher, as is Rugby Australia with its current definition of inclusion.

This is part of the complexity and shortcoming with much public discourse in Australia today. There is a dishonest bent that is postured and now often assumed by those wielding influence in the public square. Peter FitzSimons is a classic example of this, but he is by no means alone in playing this game. The public battleground is not neutral and objective Peter FitzSimons and co. over and against the biased religious.  As Jonathan Leeman was argued,

The “public square” isn’t neutral, but a battleground of gods.”

“Secular liberalism isn’t neutral, it steps into the public space with a ‘covert religion’, perhaps even as liberal authoritarianism. it depends on beliefs without conclusive evidence.”

Until those who speak in the public domain admit their own religious and moral presuppositions and agendas, whether they are social commentators, politicians, or sporting associations, it is near impossible to have an honest and constructive conversation.

Second, if Folau has breached his contract, even if his contract is unjust, he is nonetheless answerable for his actions. On this point, I share partial agreement with  FitzSimons.

This question is yet to have a conclusive answer. There is reasonable doubt as to whether Folau has breached his contract. If by breaking his contract, it is alleged that Folau contravened the code of conduct, this is far from certain. The code of conduct language is subjective and depends more on one’s pre-set worldview rather than with objective facts.

Rugby officials allege that Israel Folau shared material on social media that “condemns, vilifies or discriminates against people on the basis of their sexuality.”

Is that the case? If you believe that anything other than a complete affirmation of LGBT rights is bigotry and phobic, then Folau is guilty. If however, you believe that it’s possible to disagree with some sexual lifestyles for good reasons, then the answer is no. Jesus is a famous example of someone who certainly didn’t support every sexual lifestyle in First Century Judea, and yet would we argue that he was a hate-filled preacher (Ironically, that is precisely what the Pharisees thought and we know what their game plan turned out to be)?

Was Israel Folau insensitive and lacking grace in his comments? Probably. Is that vilifying? No, again unless you think that sportsmen must fully embrace every aspect of LGBT identity discourse.

The problem is, many of Australia’s cultural powerbrokers are not prepared to admit that disagreement on sexuality issues is not necessarily hateful. Disagreement does not always equate with bigotry. But admitting this concession opens the door for conversation and persuasion and alternate views and that’s not a road which many our notable and influential secularists wish to travel.

Third, while Fitz is attempting to make the issue solely one of Folau breaking his contract, I remember only two years ago, the same Peter FitzSimons insisting that a part of  Australian Law was immoral and wrong and needed to be amended. Was he (and others) content to say, well, the Australian Marriage Act is what it is, and we need to respect that? Far from it. The Marriage Act didn’t fit with Fitz’s worldview and so he joined with others to decry the ‘code of conduct’ and demand its change.

You see, despite Fitz’s protestations, this issue is about religious freedom. It is about the gods of this age vying for influence. It is about a national sporting code (and its chief sponsor) dictating to its players what religious speech is and isn’t permissible. Whether they understand this or not, their code of conduct is a religious manual; there is written intent to influence and control the type of religious beliefs they want to see proclaimed.

Perhaps Izzy did break his word to Rugby Australia, and if so, he ought to apologise. This remains to be seen. But let’s not fool ourselves into accepting the spin that this story has nothing to do with the toleration and intoleration of Christian beliefs. Underlying the presenting case is the broader and deeper questions of whether it is right for a football code to restrict its associates from expressing their personal religious views.

One thing I do know, and it is this,  neither Rugby Australia or an SMH op-ed writer can silence or break the good news message that is about Jesus Christ. Christians will always find a way to share the most astonishing news that can convert the hardest atheist and the most committed activist for sexual progressivism. Indeed, the paradox of Easter is that it is for the very people who oppose its message.

Tomorrow is Good Friday. It is a day when we remember the One who said he is God and who came into a world that was breaking all his rules; he loved them and he laid down his life for them. Jesus’ code of conduct is more difficult, more beautiful, more imposing and more extravagant,

“at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8)

When talking about hell…

When I went to sleep last Thursday I didn’t expect to wake and find that the topic of hell had become a national conversation piece. While we cannot control the public conversation with all its warts, snidery, and well-meaning contributions, we can take responsibility for how we speak about what is a grave issue; the eternal state of people.

With a sense of humour reminiscent of Nero plucking his harp while Rome burned, columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald, Greg Growden, wrote,

“Folau’s version of hell, surrounded by drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters, actually sounds like good fun – especially if it excludes narrow-minded sporting identities.”

I don’t know anyone who enjoys talking about hell. It is a truly horrific subject. This doesn’t mean that we avoid or downplay what the Bible teaches, it does, however, necessitate that approach the topic of hell with great care and earnestness.

Unbelievers are poking fun at Israel Folau’s comments on hell with hackneyed jokes and Memes. There are Christians squirming uncomfortably as though a cactus needle were stuck erect in their chair. Hell makes people angry and dismissive, generating a range of negative reactions. So, how should Christians approach the subject of hell?

 

Screen Shot 2019-04-11 at 9.30.10 am

Here are 4 words of advice for talking about hell

1. Be biblical

Hell is a Christian doctrine. Hell (or Gehenna) is taught and affirmed in the Bible as a real place of eternal judgment. This notion of a final judgment is included in the historical Christian Creeds and Catechisms, as well as in doctrinal statements for Christian churches throughout the ages. Such as …

He will come to judge the living and the dead. (Apostles Creed)

What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell? A. All mankind by their fall lost communion with God are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all the miseries of this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 19)

The resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment of all people by the Lord Jesus Christ. (article 8, Baptist Union of Victoria Doctrinal Basis)

Jesus taught about hell frequently, and as others have observed, the topic was on Jesus’ lips more than anyone else in the Bible. In his own words …

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt 10:38)

“But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 8:12)

 “‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…  “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41,46)

While Bible writers, Jesus in particular, use various metaphors and analogies to convey the awfulness of hell, they do so, not to obscure its reality, but to communicate the finality and dreadful realism of what hell signifies. There is no benefit in Christians downplaying the Bible’s teaching on hell or concentrating on speculations and theories of what hell may or may not be: the Christian’s responsibility is to be biblical. By that I mean, read, understand, and communicate what the Bible teaches about hell. In talking about hell, use the range of words and reasoning that is offered to us in the Scriptures—not ignoring the contexts and arguments in which the concept appears. Such diligence will aid us in speaking of hell accurately and helpfully.

Indeed, it is difficult to explain the Christian Gospel without reference to judgment, given that the Gospel is about redemption from Divine judgment. Whereas we tend to view the Gospel through the lens on anthropological needs and problems, the Bible also views salvation in light of Divine categories (justice and the right satisfaction of God’s righteousness). We obscure God’s glory and we diminish the human condition when we ignore or downplay this doctrine, like a Doctor talking of a patient’s terminal cancer as though it was a bruised knee.

2. Be loving and earnest

Speak about hell with soberness and with tears. Talking about hell isn’t judgmental; it is an act of love. Of course, people can speak about hell in a judgmental and unhelpful way, but people can also explain the Bible’s teaching on hell with sincerity and clarity because they love their friends and neighbours.

 

3. Appeal to notions of ultimate justice

The Bible doesn’t present hell as a Russian gulag; unjust, mean, cruel, and unnecessary. It is, rather, a just outcome and the place where people prefer to be. The natural consequence of life lived for self. While Greg Growden and others might joke about Folau’s list of transgressions and how many they have broken, the reality of such things is far from funny. Marital unfaithfulness destroys lives and families. Lying breaks the bond of friendship. Theft is a betrayal of trust and leaves victims frightened, and at times, financially destitute.

Our nation, for all its blessings, is filled with extraordinary pain and sorrow caused by the greed and hate of its citizens. We are governed by thousands of laws because we don’t trust one another and because we feel the necessity to guard ourselves against each other. Our judicial system, for which we should be thankful, is not beyond making mistakes and many who perpetrate crimes escape justice, and many of the deepest wounds are not the result of criminal activity but moral and personal assault. Where is the justice for such?

Our nation, for all its blessings, is filled with extraordinary pain and sorrow caused by the greed and hate of its citizens. We are governed by thousands of laws because we don’t trust one another and because we feel the necessity to guard ourselves against each other

Do we not long for a justice that is altogether right and comprehensive? Do Australians not hope that no evil will escape the attention of justice? I suspect that there are very few Australians (no matter what their religious beliefs) who do not (at least on some scale) believe or wish they could believe that hell exists for some people. One of the things the Bible does is to show us that the problem is not only external and persistent in society, but it derives from hearts that seek to define life without God: the problem lies within each of us. In other words, we may desire justice when others are guilty, but we long for mercy we realise our own guilt.

The point is, God offers justice, the kind of justice the world is ultimately looking for, and yet paradoxically does not wish to be true.

4. Don’t forget the gospel

Our message isn’t merely hell, our message is the good news of Jesus Christ, which includes salvation from hell, and the forgiveness of sins and the gift of justification, regeneration, adoption, and eternal life. The Gospel is good news because what is deserved is taken from us and what is undeserved is given to us by God as his gracious and loving gift

We will never turn to God and seek his mercy unless we first appreciate our personal culpability and accountability before a holy God. There is no genuine turning to Christ without a manifest awareness of guilt. The gospel tells us both the bad news of our sin and judgment; and the glorious antidote to that judgment in Christ. As the writer of Hebrews summarises things:

Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:27-28)

Or, as Luther puts it in his earthy and practical way:

When the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!” (Martin Luther)

Was Israel Folau guilt of hate speech, as many are arguing? He may be guilty of breaking his word by continuing to post such comments. But are his comments bigoted? If connecting a list of sins with hell is akin to hate speech, it doesn’t take much imagination to work out how our society would view Jesus Christ. Connecting sex outside of heterosexual marriage with the language of sin and hell is not inherently anti-social and anti-people; it comes from the conviction that not every action and not every attitude is good or right. Australia’s problem is that we’re suffering from Judges syndrome, everyone wants to “do what’s right in their own eyes.” Such attitudes have become mainstream platitudes. And now we want to send Izzy into the eternal Rugby exclusion zone for daring to suggest that it might lead to disaster.

The danger for most Christians today isn’t that we make too much of hell, but that we think too little of the Bible’s teaching on hell. We may not have a conversation about hell every week, but if we never talk about it, our friends would be right to wonder, do these Christians even believe what Jesus says?

Israel Folau Charged with Social Blasphemy

Israel Folau is in trouble once again for espousing views that are in line with 2,000 years of orthodox Christianity. This is not the first time that he garnered the fury of the cultural watchdogs and has found himself reported to the governing authorities of Rugby Australia.

Yesterday, Folau posted 2 comments on Instagram which garnered immediate anger and disappointment, such that it is the subject of newspaper articles and television reporting today.

 

Israel Folau is one of the great rugby players that Australia has produced in the past 20 years. His reputation on the field has excited spectators, and off the field, he has defied cultural messaging and created national consternation: what to do with a national sporting star when he won’t conform to the moral narrative of today’s Australia?

Here are 5 thoughts:

1. Social media is a problematic medium.

I am increasingly convinced that social media is not a particularly constructive medium for conveying important messages. Pithy statements are too often misunderstood and taken out of context. On this occasion, the issue isn’t that people are misreading Folau, but that he hasn’t said enough. A photo on Instagram or a 240 character tweet often doesn’t suffice. I don’t offer an answer for resolving this perpetual problem with social media, but I am observing that it does exist, and it is a problem not only for people we agree with but also among those with whom we disagree.

Perhaps one forward step would be to ask for clarification; what do you mean by that tweet? Can you elaborate and tell me more so that I can understand where you are coming from?

2. Both content and manner matter

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone”. (Colossians 4:6)

“in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” (1 Peter 3:15)

I am not about to lambast Israel Folau for not being as irenic as perhaps we might prefer. He certainly has more courage to speak Bible truths than do many of our Bishops and Christian leaders across the country.

What we say matters enormously. The content of our speech either reflects our deeply held beliefs or it betrays them. How we speak also communicates volumes to those who are listening. I don’t know Israel Folau nor his heart and motivation. I appreciate why some people might read his comments as coming from a frustrated or even angry man. Of course, he may well be expressing heartfelt concern and earnestness for his fellow Australians. If Israel reads this blog post, I would gently suggest that his comments could be improved if they reminded his followers of his own need and thankfulness for God’s mercy to him; Christians don’t want to give the impression that we are somehow morally or intellectually superior to anyone else. While quoting Galatians 5:19-21 Folau could also have mentioned some of the wonders and goodness that comes from knowing the transformative power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as Paul describes in Galatians 5. For example,

13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The good news of Jesus Christ is salvation from hell and it is salvation to a new and better life. The Gospel is the greatest story ever told and it is one that can become my own as I accept God’s assessment of me and trust God’s answer for me.

FOLAU_PV3_1280x560-1

3. Don’t expect the culture to endorse the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This shouldn’t surprise because it is, after all, the Bible’s own presentation of humanity. People don’t accept God on God’s terms. Instead, humanity has a very long history of showing intent to redefine and deconstruct God’s righteousness in order to justify their own moral proclivities. The Apostle Paul’s words remain true today,

“To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?” (2 Corinthians 2:16)

The Christian message is both compelling and repellent, attractive and offensive. We should present the good news of Jesus Christ with clarity and kindness and with unction, and still, there will be people who object and are even angered. Remember the greatest Christian preacher and apologist of all time, Jesus Christ. No one spoke a more compelling story than Jesus and yet the social elite could not tolerate him, not least because he would not abide by the sexual ethics of the day.

The media are particularly upset by Folau including homosexuality in his list of sins. Had he limited his list to adultery, lying, and stealing, people might have laughed but we wouldn’t see the kind of reaction that we’re observing today. Folau’s heresy is that he doesn’t fully and without qualification, affirm LGBTIQ lifestyles. He contravened the moral law of the land and no one, not even a sporting great, is allowed to get away with such blasphemy.

The response in the media and by Rugby Australia’s need to have the matter investigated once again highlights our society’s view of Christianity. Effectively what Israel Folau has done is quote the Bible and summarise part of the Gospel message. Are we really at the stage in Australian society where Australians are to be publicly castigated for quoting the Bible? Are we prepared to enter that ominous space where nations like North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and China, already belong, namely to prohibit Bible verses and Christian messaging? Are beliefs consistent with 2000 years of Christian faith now to be defined as hate speech?

The reality is, the only version of Christianity our society is willing to accept is a Christianity that has all its edges cut and its heart and skeleton removed. The only acceptable Christianity is a dead Christianity, where Jesus is no longer Lord and where he doesn’t need to save because we are without sin. Jesus is nothing more than the candyman, handing out spiritual tips to people who haven’t yet grown up and realised that the world is without ultimate meaning and design.

 

4. Society wants to control religious speech

The word on the street today is less about Israel Folau holding his beliefs or not everyone is saying that he shouldn’t have freedom to speak his views. The message being proclaimed by commentators including Peter FitzSimons is  that Folau’s contract must be terminated,

“His contract will be suspended or terminated on the grounds of having breached either rugby’s social media policy or his contract.

Rugby Australia simply has no choice.”

In other words, you have the freedom to speak but should your words fail the test of modern secularist orthodoxy, your words will cost you.

The headline in today’s Fairfax newspapers is telling,

“Until Folau repents, Australia has no choice but to let him go”.

This is only the latest of a growing number of examples of Aussie Christians facing job loss and financial cost for choosing Jesus. There is no tolerance, no accepting of religious opinion that deviates from the proscribed agenda. There is only space for the dogmatic preaching of conformity to the storyline of authoritarian secularists.

 

5. Jesus was serious when he spoke about taking up a cross and following him

Notice the deathly silence from Christian leaders once again, as we squirm with the uncomfortable knowledge that we agree with Izzy even if we would say things a little differently. This is another awkward day for Aussie Christians because one of our own has let the cat out of the bag, and if we’re being honest, we’d prefer if he hadn’t. I wonder, what does this say about us?

At the time when Israel Folau was the subject of similar controversy last year, I wrote

“As a nation we are struggling to cope with societal pluralism. Sexuality has now been defined in such strong terms, that alternative views, as reasonable and loving as they may be expressed, are now perceived as evil and unacceptable. It’s reached the point that sporting codes are now making theological commentary, and assuming a position on hell. Unfolding before us is another test for Australian society. Are we serious about religious freedoms and freedom of speech, or does the rhetoric only apply when beliefs fall into line with the new sexual morality? Do we accept that millions of Australians don’t subscribe to the now popular view on marriage and sexuality, and that these Australians have a right to express their opinions? While politicians and company CEOS and sporting organisations wrangle over a position on religious freedom, it is even more important for Australian Christians to be thinking through these issues. What do we really believe? How can we best communicated what we believe? What are prepared to lose for the sake of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord?”

Even though Folau’s sporting future remains uncertain, his testimony presents a challenge to the rest of us Aussies who profess faith in Jesus Christ. Would we be prepared to walk away from job security? Would we be willing to give up a lucrative income? Are we ready to embrace public abuse?

Our Bible text for this Sunday at Mentone Baptist Church is Matthew 16:13-28. Following Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus began to explain that he must suffer and die. When Peter rebuffed Jesus for suggesting such a crazy idea, Jesus then explained,

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.”

Do we love our sport more than we love Jesus? Is our pursuit for social acceptance more important to us than loving our neighbours as Christ has loved us? 

When Jesus spoke about taking up a cross and giving up the world’s offerings, he wasn’t speaking rhetorically. Perhaps it is time for Christians in Australia to begin pondering his words and examine our own hearts and ambitions.

 


Update: Rugby Australia have announced that they are terminating their contract with Israel Folau (April 11th, 6:30pm)

 


Update April 14th

It’s important to relay important information when it comes to light so that I’m not misrepresenting the facts

  • Rugby Australia remain intent to sack Folau, however, the argument is being made by legal experts that this may not be possible as RA haven’t followed their own code of conduct when it comes to disciplining players
  • More important, someone has brought to my attention that Folau seems, at the very least, to be confused by the Christian teaching of the Trinity. His comments on the Trinity that have been shared with me are troubling, to say the least. This doesn’t negate the 5 points made in this post, but it may cause us to reevaluate Folau’s understanding of Christianity.  I suspect that many Christians, in explaining God, fall into one Trinitarian heresy or another, simply because they haven’t been taught the Scriptures well. Perhaps he needs a Christian brother to get alongside him and disciple him with a Bible in hand (don’t we all?). The doctrine of the Trinity, however, is too important, too central to the Christian faith, for us to ignore.
  • A few voices are now suggesting that Folau made a verbal agreement with Rugby Australia not to post such comments again on social media (I don’t know whether this is accurate or not). If that is true, then he has acted dishonestly and it is appropriate for Rugby Australia to sanction him. It also remains the case that it is inappropriate for RA to make such religious demands of its players, especially given there are examples where other players have publicly commented on similar issues, albeit for a different point of view to Izzy. 

Australians turning to the USA to find the ideal baby

Australian couples are turning to the United States to help them find the ideal child.

Among all the questions that Susan and I talked about and thought over as we considered having children, not once did we ask, ‘what coloured eyes would we prefer our children to have?’  Such contemplation would not find entry into the top 1000 questions that we asked ourselves about the children we hoped to have the privilege of raising and loving.

kelly-sikkema-692353-unsplash

An article published by the Herald Sun over the weekend revealed that hundreds of Australian couples are paying up to $20,000 for ‘designer babies’.   Australian couples are utilising the services made available at Fertility Clinics across the United States, to siphon out babies who don’t fit with their dream baby. Most common, parents are screening for gender, deciding whether they wish to have a girl or boy. There are also cases where parents are selecting their child’s eye colour; in fact, there is now an 18-month waiting list for this screening test.

Journalist Natasha Bita reported that “Controversially, it claims that Australian medicos are co-operating with the offshore clinic…The NHMRC yesterday warned it would be illegal for Australian doctors to co-­operate with foreign clinics offering selection for gender or eye colour.”

Brisbane geneticist Professor David Coman is right when he said, this is a case of “eugenics” and it is “grossly inappropriate in the Australian culture”.

The Oxford Dictionary defines eugenics as, “the science of improving a population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.”

What these “desirable heritable characteristics” are, will vary depending on the culture and the dominant moral narrative of the day. Eugenics has been advocated and practiced in many cultures, perhaps most infamously in Nazi Germany during the 1930s-40s. One difference today is the greater wealth of scientific knowledge made available to medical experts for identifying all kinds of details pertaining to an individual human being from its earliest moments of life in the womb (or petrie dish as it may be). Technology is a useful servant, and it can create greater destruction than the hammer of Thor. Too often, what is discerned as possible through science, soon afterward becomes a moral commitment; we can therefore let us do.

Thank God that many forms of eugenics are currently banned in Australia, and yet the door has already swung wide open as doctors test for all manner of ailments and give parents permission to keep or to kill, based on whether they wish to have a child with a potential illness. No doubt some parents use this information to help prepare them for parenthood, while others use diagnoses to determine whether they will keep the pregnancy or not.

What happens to those embryos who don’t fit the parents’ requirements, whether it is the ‘right’ gender or even the ‘right’ coloured eyes? Are these little ones given another chance or are they discarded into a rubbish bin, like we would with a piece of fruit that is past is best used by date?

Are children to be loved unconditionally or should they be viewed as a valuable commodity, selected and loved like the family pet. Should a parent’s love for their children be measured by gender or by disability or by how many fingers or toes are counted? Is a child to be more or less valued because of their DNA or potential chromosomal abnormality? Should we really take into account the colour of a baby’s eyes? Australian culture is drifting far from the worldview of Psalm 139.

“For you created my inmost being;

    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

    your works are wonderful,

    I know that full well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you

    when I was made in the secret place,

    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;

    all the days ordained for me were written in your book

    before one of them came to be.”

Our society has moved a long way from holding fast to these ancient words, words which delight in the life of every image-bearer of God. It is liberating Psalm, for the dignity of each person is not contingent upon the value attributed by another person or social opinion, but by the fact of ontology.

Popular threads on social media and in the news will downplay the wonder of Psalm 139 and instead elevate the freedom of others to choose life or death. The practice is revealing uncomfortable truths that can’t be denied, despite clamorous noises trying to ignore and/or downplay:

  • The majority of babies aborted are girls
  • Babies diagnosed with possible physical abnormalities are many times more likely to be aborted than those without
  • In parts of America, such as New York State, the number of African-American babies being aborted is greater than those who are born.
  • Most late-term abortions are not performed because the baby’s or mother’s life is at risk.

Most of these examples are forms of eugenics. We may avoid the language due to its historical associations, but it is nonetheless the practice of controlling breeding in order to increase desired social outcomes.

Psalm 139  reveals a complex anthropology. For while the Psalmist glorifies God for the wonder of life in the womb, he also calls for God to intervene against those who shed blood. It is as though those who destroy human life are hypocrites, denying their own humanity as they refuse it in others.

“If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!

They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.

Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?

I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.” (verses 19-22)

The Psalmist, however, does not end with this view of retribution but turns to his own situation and asks God to make known to him things that are unacceptable and unbecoming in his own life.

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

See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting”. (verses 23-23)

The point is this, we are quick to judge nations around us for their discrimination and violence, but we are slow to acknowledge our own participation in the dehumanisation project. Instead, we have resolved to justifying ourselves in manipulating and even taking life. We allege that “it’s an act of mercy…the cost would be too great…the parents may not cope”.

Even we Christians who speak to the dignity of every human life, ever for us, especially us, we must ask of God, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting”. When this process of Divine examination begins, we remember that our own faults and offences are great, so hideous that they demanded a bloody cross to bring redemption and peace. In other words, the Psalmist’s anger, although justified, leads to personal reflection and repentance; not only damning culture but offering a better paradigm. With this in mind, Christians have something worth offering. Just as Christians once challenged the Roman practice of infanticide by quietly loving and saving the unwanted, let us consider how we can counter the growing and dreadful practice of eugenics.