This isn’t the final word

Rugby Australia and Israel Folau have come to an agreement. The terms of the settlement remain confidential but both parties have released a joint statement in which Folau affirms he never intended to offend anyone and where Rugby Australia apologise to Folau.

Israel Folau will be remembered as a greatly gifted player, who was nevertheless a disaster for rugby.

AAP

Not everyone is satisfied. Lawyers are expressing their preference to see the case played out in court, not necessarily because of prejudice against either party but for the sake of clarifying where Australian Law sits in regard to religious freedom. Other Aussies are disappointed because the case has ended in ex-communication for Folau rather than social execution. For 18 months, Peter FitzSimons has used his privileged place in the Australian media to call for and support the sacking of Israel Folau. He is far from the only voice, but Fitz has perhaps been the loudest and most consistent.  Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday, FitzSimons has expressed his disappointment over the final outcome and has tried to type out the final word on the Israel Folau saga.

“From the point of view of resolving the many issues raised, however – and more particularly holding Folau to account for his damaging actions – it is singularly dissatisfying.”

“As one who has followed the issues closely since Folau first disgraced himself by putting up a post endorsing the view that gays are destined for hell, and who has written and ranted about it extensively, I am more aware than most of the damage he has done, the hurt he has caused. In the 21st century, his homophobic gibberish – you heard me – simply has no place. And it is no excuse that the gibberish in question is sourced from the Bible. I was hoping the court would confirm that, hence the dissatisfaction.

It was for that reason my first reaction on hearing the news – and I write in the first few minutes thereafter – was the settlement was, firstly, a great pity. Secondly, my stronger reaction was I hoped RA kept the presumed payment to him to an absolute minimum.”

FitzSimons has been quick to call out rumours on social media that suggest the size of the settlement, and yet here he is, acting as a judicial speculator,

“have no inside knowledge of the terms, not even a hint, but my bet is it will be about $200,000 to $300,000…. Any sum more than that and I hope RA would have said, “bring it on, we’ll see you in court”.

Finally, he writes,

“Goodbye, Israel. You will be remembered as a greatly gifted player, who was nevertheless a disaster for rugby. The day you severed the final strands of your relationship with Rugby Australia was a good day for the game.

Good day to you, I said good day.”

FitzSimons may be posturing to give the final word, but this is far from over. The ‘Rugby Australia and Israel Folau’ chapter may have been signed off, but the issue of religious freedom in Australia is only just beginning.

Peter FitzSimons may not speak for all Australians, and probably not for mainstream Australia either, but he does represent a group of self-appointed moral arbiters who have significant public and influential voice. He has made it clear that believing and publicly affirming the Bible’s teaching on sexuality amounts to phobia and gibberish and it has no place in Australia today.

“In the 21st century, his homophobic gibberish – you heard me – simply has no place. And it is no excuse that the gibberish in question is sourced from the Bible.”

Back in July, Rugby Australia’s CEO, Raelene Castle, admitted that had Israel Folau only quoted Bible verses, that would be sufficient grounds to have him sacked. The Folau case was never really about contract law. This was always a case of cultural signalling, with Rugby Australia proving its wokeness to the world. Regardless of what one thinks about Folau’s post, he dared break the new moral code that is being pressed upon Australians, and that is, do not question the new sexual narrative. We are to fully subscribe to the new sexuality paradigm, and failure to do so requires a public cancelling and shaming. This forced social subscription may have found a high profile case in Australia but there are countless examples appearing all over the country, including Margaret Court, Coopers Beer, legislative moves by the Victorian Government, and more. Indeed, as Victoria pushes to ban conversion practices they have set the parameters so broadly that it may impact normal teaching and praying that occurs within church ministries.

Peter FitzSimons is an example of broad cultural ignorance toward the Christian Gospel. The entire premise of the Christian Gospel is that God disagrees with us, and yet he loves us. God’s disapproval of human attitudes and actions isn’t an example of phobia, and neither is Christian disagreement with the current sexual narrative. Peter FitzSimons is perpetuating the myth that the only good Christian is the Christian who embraces the atheistic ethic. Yes, it’s illogical and he is not entirely to blame.  It seems as though FitzSimons takes his theological education from the progressive Christian voices whom our culture hasn’t yet cancelled out. Of course, there is no need to silence the priest of Gosford and others. These are nice Christians who have signed up to the neo-Proletariat. They have given up the Gospel for a seat among our society’s culture club. Christians need to work harder at countering these fake Gospels and to do so in a manner that confirms the Gospel and not with the kind of behaviour that contradicts the message we claim to believe.

Like I said, the final word on religious freedom in Australia hasn’t been spoken.

The Federal Government’s religious discrimination Bill has recently returned to the drawing board, following criticisms from both religious and non-religious groups. As it stands, when it comes to religious freedom, Australian law remains unwritten.

Part of the reason behind this legal mess is because Australian law was not framed to deal with a culture that turns against the very belief system which provided its societal and legal foundations. Like a game of Jenga, you can only remove so many blocks before the entire structure comes crashing down. Of course, that hasn’t happened as yet, but that’s part of complexity facing many Western cultures today. How do we remove Christianity without destroying the very fabric upon which our culture depends?

Christians would be fools to bag their hopes in any future law. The law ought to function for the common good of all society (not only for Christians). The law should exist as a friend to its citizens by protecting freedoms. The difficulty of today’s Australia is that we have become the dog chasing its own tail. We allege freedom and toleration but by eating away at freedom and toleration.

More important than the law, will Australians learn to rediscover the art of civil disagreement? We are fast losing both the cognitive and moral ability to engage with opposing worldviews and to live together despite these differences. Social pluralism is being fast replaced by an ugly and authoritarian secularism that reigns with tackless hubris. Christians need to grow thicker skin and realise that the culture has set course. We need to stop that pointless dreaming about a ‘Christian Australia’ which by the way never existed, and we need to stop falling into modern trap of dumping our hope into the societal structures and systems. We must not give up on kindness, patience, or truth telling, on gentleness, love, or faithfulness. There is no need to play by the rules that Rugby Australia, Peter FitzSimons, and others insist upon. Hell is too awful and heaven too wonderful, and we want to serve our fellow Aussies well by offering a better story.

God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.” (Hebrews 6:10-12)

An Introduction to the Trinity

“In no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable.” (Augustine)

 “The study is arduous, for we are dealing with matters too great for us, which we must bow in worship, recognising, our utter inadequacy.” (Calvin) 

 

The Trinity is the most complex subject anyone can study and consider, and it is also the most trepidatious because we are talking about God.

 

Does it matter how we speak of God? *

 Does it matter how we conceive of God? Does it matter whether we think of God as Trinity or not? Can we agree to disagree?

For argument sake, let us take a snapshot of Mentone’s Associate Pastor, Mike Veith.

Mike is a particular person, with a certain appearance (although the length of hair varies considerably) and select characteristics. Mike has particular abilities, likes, and dislikes. For example, Mike is married to Camille and they have two daughters. Prior to the pastoral ministry, Mike studied to be an Engineer. He mistakingly supports the Melbourne Football Club and he also enjoys playing soccer. 

How do you think Mike would feel if we began talking about him and to him in ways that ignored what is real about him. For instance, instead of calling him Mike, we refer to him as Sigmund because we think Sigmund is a better name for him. And instead of acknowledging Mike, sorry Sigmund, to be the really nice bloke that he is, we talk about him as though he was a sadistic rugby-loving thug with the intelligence of a two-year-old infant. On his birthday we give him a container of Duplo and a plastic boat for the bathtub, alongside a DVD showing the highlights of the 1987 Rugby World Cup. Worse still, what if you decided to build a statue of Mike out of used cereal boxes and talk to it instead of the real Mike? Apart from the weirdness, if you persisted with such shenanigans for a period of years Mike, who is extraordinarily patient, would eventually respond in ways that remain to be witnessed!

 The point is, Mike Veith has a name and a personality with particular traits and strengths. I can’t call him anything I like, and I can’t attribute false characteristics to him. To misrepresent someone is one of the worst things we can do to a person. It is terrible. It is hurtful. It breaks relationships. It is slander. If we misrepresent a person’s character in a court of law you will find yourself in a great deal of trouble. Misrepresent your boss at work and you’ll be looking for a new job. Treat your wife with such insane behaviour and we’ll hold you down while your wife takes out the cricket bat!  

We are hurt when someone misrepresents us or twists the truth about us. We want to be represented fairly and with dignity. How much more, therefore, must we be careful how we think of God and speak of God. 

The doctrine of the Trinity is almost certainly the most important doctrine there is. We are speaking of matters too great to fully comprehend; to understand fully God would be to have a mind equal to God. Nonetheless, God has spoken in ways to help us know him truly, and so we turn to his word, the Bible.

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Does the Bible teach that God is Trinity?

 

In a search on biblegateway.com we will not find the word Trinity in any Bible translation. Trinity is not a Bible word. The word was first coined in the 2nd century AD by Tertullian, one of the early Church Fathers. Trinity means tri-unity (three in one), indicating that God is three persons in one: one God in three persons. Trinity may not be a Bible word but it is a Biblical concept. Some Christians are very wary about using words that are not found in the Bible, but we all do it – inerrancy and complementarian are two common examples. Extra-Biblical terminology can be helpful so long as the language is carefully defined and understood, and doesn’t move us beyond the logic of Scripture.

 What is the Scriptural support for God being Trinity? The weight of Biblical evidence for the Trinity is significantly greater than what I am about to outline, but what I have included should be sufficient to prove that Christians rightly believe in One God who is three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Trinity in the Old Testament

Let’s begin with the Old Testament. The doctrine of the Trinity is not fully revealed and explained until the New Testament, but we need to appreciate that the God of the New Testament is the God of the Old Testament. We are not Marcionites. Marcion was a second-century heretic who preached that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament, different not only in character but also being. The New Testament writers rejected such an idea and so did Jesus who referred to himself as the I AM, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. One implication of this is that when we read God’s name in the Old Testament, LORD (note the upper case lettering) we should refrain from thinking that it is only referring only to God the Father, as though the Son and Spirit are not included.  

The Old Testament insistently and consistently teaches that God is one:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”(Deuteronomy 6:4)

In Mark 12:29 Jesus himself quotes this verse in Mark 12:29, thus affirming that there is only one God. 

“There is no one like you, LORD, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears.” (1 Chronicles 17:20)

Not only is God one, there is only one God. The Scriptures don’t portray the God of Israel as one of many different gods existing in the ancient world. There were many gods, but they were all fake; human creations serving human desires.

 “This is what the LORD says— 

   Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: 

I am the first and I am the last; 

   apart from me there is no God. 

7 Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it. 

   Let him declare and lay out before me 

what has happened since I established my ancient people, 

   and what is yet to come— 

   yes, let them foretell what will come. 

8 Do not tremble, do not be afraid. 

   Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago? 

You are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me? 

   No, there is no other Rock; I know not one.” (Isaiah 44:6-8)

 God being one is declared page after page in the Old Testament, but there are also hints that God is Trinitarian, by which we mean He is not a monad, but three in one.

In Isaiah 6:8 the prophet meets with God in the temple and God asks,” ‘whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ “ When asking the question, ‘who will go for us?’ God is speaking to himself. Who is the “us”, a royal we? Or is it referring to God being three persons?

 Genesis ch.1 is incredibly helpful for aiding our understanding of the Trinity. It speaks about both the singularity of God and the plurality of God:

   “ 26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

 27 So God created mankind in his own image, 

   in the image of God he created them; 

   male and female he created them.”

 God’s being one is clear. ‘God said’ (verse 26). and ‘God created’ (verse 27). It is not gods (plural), it is God (singular). And yet this one God says, ‘let us make mankind in our image’. The most likely explanation of the ‘us’ is the Trinity.  Men and women are made in the image of God, his own image, and yet God says, let us. What we discover here is that there is plurality in unity. Earlier parts of Genesis ch1 add weight to this view that the Trinity is being portrayed – when God makes the universe he does so through his Word and in the presence of the Spirit. When we come to the New Testament we discover that God the Son is called ‘the word’ and the Spirit is God the Holy Spirit. 

  

Trinity in the New Testament 

 As with the Old Testament, the New Testament affirms that there is one God:

 ‘since there is only one God’ (Romans 3:30)

‘there is one God’ (1 Timothy 2:5) 

What does come to the fore in the New Testament is a much greater clarity given to the tri of the tri-unity, due to the Sovereign purposes of God to reveal and establish the new covenant.

The Gospel of Matthew begins and ends his account of Jesus’ earthly ministry with a theology of the Trinity.

“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”’ (Matthew 3:16-17)

At Jesus’ baptism Matthew makes the point that each member of the Godhead was present and participating: God the Father is speaking from heaven, Jesus is on earth and is identified by God as his ‘Son whom I love’, the Spirit of God is also present appearing a dove and affirming the Divinity of Christ. Each is described as being God, that is being God in their essence. There is no suggestion here, or anywhere else, of any member of the Trinity being less Divine or inferior to any of the others. The voice from heaven is God and is distinct from the Son, and the Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. All three are described as God, and yet they are distinct persons.

 At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus commissions his disciples saying, ‘“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”’ (Matthew 28:18-20)

 

One God in three persons

Notice that we are told, ‘in the name’. Matthew did not write ‘in the names, plural, but ‘name’ singular – in other words, there is one God, and yet this one God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This point is most important: Jesus understands that there is one God, and yet God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By insisting that One God is Father, Son and Spirit, Jesus has not suggested that these three are emanations of the one, as though sometimes God is Father, sometimes God is son, and sometimes God is Spirit (like an individual who dresses up in the three different ways – sometimes he has his work clothes on, sometimes he has his footy gear on, and other times we stays in his PJs). The belief that God shows himself in three different ways is called modalism, and it is a heresy. In trying to protect the oneness of God we fuse the persons of the Godhead together such that they lose their distinctiveness. 

 You may have heard some people try to explain the Trinity with the analogy of water: water is one substance, but it can appear as a solid (ice), as a liquid, and as a gas (steam) – don’t use it. It’s modalism. I know what it’s trying to do but it doesn’t work because the God of the Bible is not one God in three forms but he is simultaneously one God and three distinct persons, each person being fully and equally God. The three-leaf clover analogy is equally misleading, failing to do justice to the three persons of the Trinity, making God sound like a tri-polar God than the Triune God.

 The Father is God – eternally, fully, and distinct from the Son and Spirit. While not common, the OT does occasionally refer to God as Father. Come the New Testament, God the Father is revealed and worshiped on almost every page. For example, Jesus spoke frequently of God the Father, and most of Paul’s letters begin with the twin blessing of grace and peace from God the Father.

The Son is God – eternally and fully. One of the more common titles attributed to Jesus is Lord. This name, Lord, is used of Jesus in a way similar to the way that Lord is used in the OT and in the OT Lord is God’s most holy name. The NT attributes God’s name to Jesus.

In addition, Jesus understood himself to be God. Jesus took for himself the holy self-appointed name of God, I AM. And we know that the religious establishment in Jesus’ day got so miffed by Jesus’ insistence that they killed him. 

 Following Jesus’ resurrection, Thomas exclaimed of Jesus, ‘my Lord and my God.’ (John 20:28)

The Holy Spirit is God – eternally and fully. He is sometimes referred to as the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of Christ, as well as some other variations. If our knowledge was limited to these references we might be forgiven for thinking that the Bible is not referring to a person distinct from the Father and the Son but simply the spiritual aspect of the Father and the Son, just like when the Bible speaks about the human spirit. But Scripture insists that the Holy Spirit is not only fully God, he is distinct from the Father and the Son.

“then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4 Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”’ (Acts 5)

 “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

 The Holy Spirit is a person: he can be grieved, he convicts, he speaks, he intercedes, he explains to the Father what we are thinking. The Holy Spirit is God. 

From eternity and always God is, and God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Three persons who are each fully God, equal in substance, equal in status, but distinct. They have the same being but they are different persons. They are one in purpose, but they have different roles. It is this perfect community, where each person does their role in perfect love. The Son obeys the Father, the Father glorifies the Son. The Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son to do their work.

 Christians are right to defend belief in one true God, but we must take care that in guarding God’s oneness we avoid negating the three persons of the Godhead. It is both, together, always. It is as though the Bible’s teaching on this topic follows a narrow path with a dangerous precipice on either side – modalism and tritheism. 

Let’s synthesize this material into four basic propositions about God, the wording which I have borrowed from the ESV Study Bible:

1. There is one and only one true and living God.

2. This one God eternally exists in three persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

3. These three persons are completely equal in attributes, each with the same divine nature.

4. While each person is fully and completely God, the persons are not identical.

 

Is this hard to fully grasp? Yes, and that’s ok because we are speaking about God. We cannot expect to understand everything about God because God is greater than ourselves. There is mystery here. I am tempted to provide an analogy to help explain some of the things we’ve been talking about but the reality is, God is without analogy: he is unique, he is other, and the only way we can know him is for him to make himself known and for God on his own terms, to reveal what he chooses. As we grow as Christians, so long as we stick with Scripture, our understanding of the Trinity will grow and we will be able to put more pieces of the puzzle together, but we’ll only finish the puzzle in heaven. Again, that’s ok. 

What does believing in a Triune God mean for us today?

 

I want to finish with sharing some of the implications that come with the doctrine of the Trinity 

i. Knowing this God. The only true God is the Trinitarian God. To not believe this God, is to reject God and to believe a false God. That’s how important this is. 

 Trinity is a Christian doctrine: We are not like Muslims who believe in a monad (one God without three persons). We are not Hindu’s who believe in thousands of gods. We are not Mormons who separate the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit into separate beings. We are not Jehovah’s Witnesses who believe Jesus is an inferior god to the Father and who believe the Holy Spirit is not a person. We are not Unitarians who reject that God is Trinity and we are not Oneness Pentecostals (cf TD Jakes) who are modalists, believing that the One God manifests himself in three different ways (thus rejecting that God is 3 persons). We are not religious feminist deconstructionists who call God Mother. How dare we address God in ways that he has not permitted in Holy Scripture. It matters how we address God, because he is God. The God we know and serve and love is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is not mother, or angel, or cow, or star or the tree trunk in my backyard. The Trinity is the Christian God and there is no other God. 

ii. This doctrine affects worship. By worship I mean the whole of life. True worship of God involves acknowledging God as he is. In our lives of response to the Gospel we need to acknowledge that God is Father, Son, and Spirit, and rightly acknowledge their being and work amongst us. At Mentone Baptist we do not want to reduce God-talk to God or even to Jesus. We talk about all three members of the Godhead. We teach on all three, and we desire to give to each the weighting that Scripture gives them.

iii. Atonement is made possible. For our sins to be atoned God required someone without sin to bear our sins in our place. The problem is, we are all sinners. No one is without sin, except God. God is also the offended party and the judge. Only the Trinitarian God could become both the subject of salvation and the object, to be both judge and the saviour, to receive the punishment and give it. Only God the Trinity could save us.

 “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14).

 iv. All Christian theology is shaped by the Trinity. For example, we saw that earlier that the Father, Son and Spirit were involved in creation. The Apostle Paul tells us that the world was made by Christ and for Christ. The doctrine of revelation is also Trinitarian – the Father speaks words which are about his Son who is the word become flesh, and this Scripture is breathed out by his Spirit. Also, the Spirit points us to the Son through whom we know the Father.

The doctrine of salvation. Salvation is the Father’s, he predestined us before the beginning to be adopted as his Son through Jesus, God’s Son, whom the Father sent into the world to atone for our sins, and the Spirit brings to us the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection by uniting us to him and regenerating us.

All Christian theology is shaped by the Trinity. That’s why we have 3 point sermons!

 

v. We discover the meaning of life.

The Trinity evidences that life is not about us, it is about others. That is how the Trinity works. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, the Son obeys the Father and the Spirit does the work of the Father and the Son. 

God is love. It is only a Trinitarian God who can love. If God is irreducibly mono, a monad, like he is in Islam, he cannot be inherently loving. To love there must be someone to love. I’m not a husband unless I’m married, I’m not a father unless I have a child, I’m not a friend unless I have a friend. And if God’s love is dependent on us, then he is less than self-fulfilled. God is love is only true because in eternity he is Trinity, 3 persons living in perfect loving communion.  

And we are made in God’s image, to love as he loves, what that reveals is that point of life is to love God and to love others. Life is about God and others. So we organise life around, not filling myself up, but giving to glorify God and to serve others.

vi. The existence of unity and diversity. In a class at Moore College Graeme Goldsworthy once told us, students, that the greatest quandary for philosophers is this, how can there be both unity and diversity? How can we account the oneness and plurality?

 The best explanation we have is the Trinitarian God.

Our universe consists of almost infinite diversity – different elements, different planets, temperatures, climates, continents and islands, diverse flora and fauna, different peoples, languages, cultures, families, vocations, food, hobbies, ideologies. We live in an awe-inspiring diverse cosmos. And yet there is incredible unity; it is a uni-verse. There are basic molecular building blocks that make all life possible. Human beings may live in different places and have diverse cultures and languages, and yet we share a great commonality, we are all human.

 It is the great philosophical question, diversity and unity – can there be both? How can diversity derive from oneness, and vice versa. We ought to consider the Triune God. The Bible shouts at us that the heavens and the earth declare the glory of God. Just as a painting bears the marks of its painter, so does the universe. We look at the universe and see tremendous diversity and unity. How can these two seemingly polar categories co-exist?  The Christian doctrine of God as Trinity is the most substantive philosophical answer there is.

  

‘May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ (2 Corinthians 13:14)

 

 

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*I owe much to Robert Letham’s volume, The Holy Trinity 

This article was first put together for my congregation at Mentone Baptist Church back in 2015

Seven Statements about the Israel Folau Church revelations

An exclusive report has been published in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, providing ‘new’ information about Israel Folau and his church, suggesting their theology is extreme and out of touch with mainstream Christianity. The article seems to be aimed further pushing wedges between Israel Folau and those who have been supporting him (which is partly odd given there are many non-Christians supporting him)

 

FOLAU_PV3_1280x560-1

1. We mustn’t ignore credible information, even if it may be uncomfortable. Should it be accurate, Christians will be concerned.

2. Some of the reported information is yet to be confirmed. Given much of the SMH reporting on Israel Folau, it is unsurprising that readers receive this new article with some suspicion. An example would be John Tait’s attempt to deconstruct Folau’s use of the Bible in the offending post, Did Israel Folau actually misquote the Bible? Hell, yes (read my response to this inaccurate piece here  ).

3. Some of the information isn’t new and hasn’t been hidden by Christians. For example, Folau’s view on the Trinity. On April 11th, 2019 I wrote,

“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.”

4. Most Protestant Christians have serious concerns over some key Roman Catholic doctrines and many Christians also share concerns over the teaching and practices at Hillsong. There is nothing exceptional in this

5. Orthodox Christian doctrine matters more to Christians than politics and law.

6. Current Christian advocacy for religious freedom has not only been about Christians but about sustaining a positive social pluralism in Australia for all Australians.

7. Even if Israel Folau’s theology is heterodox, that does not diminish the issue of his wrongful sacking by Rugby Australia. Should only mainstream Christianity be protected by commonsense and law?

 


I will add an eighth: two things can be true at the same time: Folau’s post was close to the mark (in terms of reflecting classical Christian teaching) and his views on the Trinity and some other matters is wide of the mark (not reflecting classical Christian teaching). The latter doesn’t preclude the former from being accurate.

A response to John Tait’s critique of Izzy’s use of the Bible

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.

 

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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.

Bible Translations

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.

Taits argues,

“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)

Help Australians to understand the Bible

It has been reported today that Raelene Castle, the Chief Executive Officer of Rugby Australia, would still have sacked Israel Folau had he only posted Bible verses stated in the hearing against Israel Folau that she would have sacked him, even if the only thing he did was to post

Miranda Devine writes,

“Raelene ­Castle effectively damned the Bible as hate speech in astonishing unreported testimony at Israel Folau’s code of conduct hearing in May.

She declared it is the Bible itself which is offensive when she testified before a panel of three judges who went on to find Folau guilty of a “high level breach” for posting a biblical quote calling on “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters” to repent or face hell.

Castle told panel chairman John West, QC, that some biblical passages are unacceptable, and that even if Folau had posted a photocopy of a Bible page, he still would have been sacked.

West asked Castle: “What if Mr Folau had photocopied passages from the Bible and simply posted that on his ­social media pages, would that have caused a problem for you?”

Castle replied: “I think it depends on which ones — which pages he photocopied.”

West asked: “If he’d photocopied the passages that are referred to in the posts would that have caused a problem for you?”

Castle, “Yes it would have.” 

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Bible in the Victorian Parliamentary Library

The Bible itself is apparently offensive and to be defined as hate speech.  Today’s revelations are not the first instance of throwing the Bible onto the bonfire of popular opinion. Gregory Callaghan suggested in The Age yesterday that,

“If we continued to take every biblical injunction seriously, slavery, the subjugation of women, stoning, cutting off hands, and being barred from wearing clothes woven of two kinds of fabric would be still in force.”

We have an issue in Australia with widespread biblical illiteracy and ignorance. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the deliberate fashion in which we have turned our backs on Christianity over a period of decades.  Some people fear what they do not understand and others dislike what they do understand and cannot accept.

Is the Bible really to be considered hate speech? Are we really at the place in Australian society where quoting the Bible can be used as material evidence against an individual?

This isn’t the first in history where the broad society has misunderstood and misrepresented what Christians believe. This is an ancient problem.  Remember the good old days in the Roman Empire? Pliny the Younger, the Roman Governor of Bithynia et Pontus, assumed that the Christian practice of the Lord’s Supper consisted of Christians eating the flesh and drinking the blood of fellow human beings. He also believed that all that Christian talk about brothers and sisters involved some sexual appetite for incest. What happened to the Christians in Bithynia? Filled with a fountain of misinformation and insisting that they also adhere to the cult of the Emperor, he began to have them systematically imprisoned and executed.

Thank God that we don’t live in one of the many countries that still practice this kind of punishment on Christians (and other minorities). What is new today is that the West (including Australia) has had centuries of Christian teaching, access to the Bible, and freedom to read, study and explore the meaning of the Scriptures. We are not living in first century Rome. At yet basic Bible knowledge and grasping that the  Bible is to be understood in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ escapes the attention of many.

We have a Bible comprehension problem. Churches are not always helpful on this front, as many sell their soul for an esteemed role in the marketplace and for public congratulations. How can outsiders understand the Bible if Christian preachers carry a pair of scissors in their pocket, and cutting out any teaching that contravenes society’s dogma?  If Churches are not reading and teaching the Bible faithfully how can we expect anyone else to be getting it right?

Jesus documented a similar issue in his day,

“Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet:

“Lord, who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

 For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere:

“He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their hearts,
so they can neither see with their eyes,
nor understand with their hearts,
nor turn—and I would heal them.”

 Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.

 Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human praise more than praise from God.” (John 12)

 

My advice to Christians is this:

  1. Make sure that the public reading and preaching of the Bible is front and centre at all your Church services. Why wouldn’t it be?
  2. Make the reading and teaching of the Bible foundational to all your Church ministries. If it’s not, why not?
  3. Find ways to help your broader community engage with the Bible. Ask your friends, have they ever read the Bible and would they be interested to do so with you? Could you start up a group for interested people in a local school or community hall? Show people how to read and interpret the Bible. Share with people why the Bible informs and it transforms for good.

Raelene Castle has launched into a world familiar to many people of faith who have escaped oppressive nations, but this is unusual for Australia. To call out in a formal disciplinary tribunal that the Bible amounts to hate speech is extraordinary. This is an extraordinary step in the latest of a series of ridiculous cultural malpractice. Don’t be fooled,  she will find substantial support among our cultural elites. But is she on to something? Does the Bible never disagree with our moral inclinations? Do the Scriptures never cause discomfort? While the Bible is never hate speech, it is a dangerous book. Entire nations have changed on account of the Bible. Cultures have shifted toward enlightenment and progress on account of the Bible. Fairer societies have been built, slavery outlawed, fair working conditions for the poor, homes for orphans and the elderly, and in fact, much of the fruit we enjoy today finds its roots in ideas stemming from Biblical revelation.

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

Let’s not waste the season God gives

On Saturday, Greg Clarke (former CEO of the Bible Society, Australia) sent out the following tweet,

“I remember as a young Christian at University in the 80s when we felt we would have to work really hard in Australia to ‘keep the rumour of God alive’. At the moment, it’s wall to wall God stuff.”

Greg Clarke is right. I’m not aged well enough to remember university in the 1980s but we don’t have to peer so far. Even looking back a few short years, I remember Christians being frustrated and saddened by the fact that God was absent from most conversations and seemed to be rarely on people’s agendas. It was as though the culture was erasing God for the public conscience, and it was only a small number of persistent believers who could jump-start God into the conversation.

Australia is experiencing are the most unusual season at the moment. For three months social media has been filled with conversations about religion and God and Christianity, and every day there is more reporting and more opinion pieces published about Christianity. Who would have guessed that the topic of hell would become an election issue? For a nation that is supposedly post-Christian and secular, we are engaging in a significant national conversation where God features.

To be sure, some of the conversations are less than edifying. Not all, but some reporting is little more than crude and unoriginal Christian bashing. Some of the commentary that is passing for Christianity is nothing of the sort. There are also atheists defending Christians. Even Professor Peter Singer, who preaches some of the most repugnant ideas that can be heard anywhere in the world today, last week wrote a constructive and reasoned article in support of Israel Folau. Other remarks come from well-meaning Christians, who are nonetheless being unhelpful and take conversations down misguided paths. There is also much anger being vented from various quarters and doubling down on caricatures of different people and ideas.

To argue that there is no issue of religious freedom in Australia is to close your eyes and ears to the growing number of cases that are being disclosed in many areas of Australian life, from sport to business and to education. Sure, as human beings we are sometimes guilty of exaggerating the socio-political climate; we are not living in the Soviet Union and this isn’t 1984. But neither is the culture static and neutral. I find it ironic that the voices most ardently insisting that there is no agenda to limit religious freedoms, are those lauding Rugby Australia for sacking Israel Folau and those urging for Christians Schools to lose their funding if they don’t subscribe to the sexual revolution, and on and on the list continues. Religious freedom is one of the pivotal tests of this generation. Without it we lose the capacity to be a truly pluralistic society. This topic should matter to all Australians, whether we are Christian or Jewish or Hindu or atheist. Do we really want to live in a State where corporate business dictates religious doctrine and where Government defines theological values? I have detailed this case on other occasions, my aim here is to underline another matter that is even more close to my heart.

As I read and agreed with Greg’s tweet, I thought a little more and my attention turned to 2 Corinthians chapters 5 and 6 (which I am currently preaching through at Mentone). For example, in 6:2 God defines the age in which we are living. He does not say that this is a post-Christian or post-modern or post or pre anything age. Rather, the announcement is,

“I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”

Not was, not might be, and not maybe one future day, but today. The epoch of history in which we live is the day of salvation. That’s exciting!

Is the current Australian discourse on religion a final gasp before we venture into a new and intolerant and irrational era of religious restrictions, or will common sense prevail? We don’t know yet. What interests me is the fact that talk about God and Christ and the Bible is filling newspapers paragraphs and trending on social media every day at the moment. Have not Christians been praying for opportunities to give the reason for the hope we have? Do we not ask God for conversations where introducing Jesus is a natural progression?

That day is today.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we can let this season slip past our attention, or we can engage in loving and useful ways.

Australia_from_space

Here are 3 suggestions.

First, we can pray. Let us pray often, repeatedly, fervently for God to make known his Gospel love, just as he has shown us great mercy and kindness. Pray for our fellow Australians, regardless of their worldview and moral inclinations. If we are praying for them, we will have no time or desire to be spiteful or demeaning toward them.

We have the opportunity to break the cultural narrative and show Christ-like love to those who are vulnerable.  At Church this morning we prayed,

“Father in Heaven, help us to uphold your holiness and goodness. In an age of sexual confusion teach us clarity and to trust that your ways are good. May we present your Gospel with love and gentleness, patience and care. May Mentone Baptist Church be a safe place for people to investigate Christianity, to be welcomed and encouraged.”

Second, let us love

Be the best of friend, the most loyal work colleague, the gentle and helpful student, and be a kind voice on social media. Offer hospitality and ask permission to share the message that has changed our own lives.

Third, let us speak

In 2 Corinthian 5:11-18, the Apostle Paul employs 3 verbs to describe his intent in evangelising: persuasion, compulsion, and regard.

 “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 12 We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. 13 If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

First, Christian evangelism is not compulsion, it is clear and passionate persuasion, presenting the facts of Jesus Christ and leaving it for people to make their decision. Second, it is not bigotry or ignorance motivating Christian evangelism but love; we don’t want anyone missing out on the astonishing benefits that come from knowing Jesus Christ. As one reads through the above portion of the Bible we don’t see any picture of oppression or forced faith, but freedom that surpasses any temporary offerings. Third, we ought to regard people not through the grid of any current cultural paradigm but through the sense of God’s good news about Jesus. This means we may not affirm every belief, idea, and action but we fight for the dignity of every person.

When it comes to the art of persuasion most often this is best done away from sharing thoughts and articles of social media, but instead taking an interest in the lives of people around us, listening to the dreams and fears of work colleagues and friends, and sharing how we believe Jesus is the ultimate answer.

In my opinion, the most unhelpful and loudest critics that I’ve heard during the Folau controversy are not from gay and lesbian Australians, but from comfortable and secure North Shore Sydneysiders who take virtue signaling to a new level. I have also heard about other social media interactions that hurt and insult people, and where gay and lesbians feel denigrated. Christians need to stand alongside gay and lesbian Aussies against such vitriol. A case in point is Israel Folau today speaking against those who have abused Magda Szubanski online for her sharing an opinion about the Rugby player.

This is no time to be sticking our heads in Bondi’s sand or holidaying in New Zealand. The whole nation is talking about Christianity. If God is right, and “now is the time of salvation”, let us be praying and loving and speaking.

Is Big Brother listening to your sermons?

Ok, I’m reading George Orwell’s 1984 at the moment, as it seems many people are doing! Leaving aside the somewhat hyperbolic imagery, there are important observations to be made regarding the interactions between Churches and the public space.

Would you like the media to enter your home and report to the world what was spoken? Would you appreciate a journalist attending a local club meeting and sharing the juicy bits on social media? Are you ok for a reported to look around your Facebook page and to publish content on a newspaper?

This week Israel Folau has provided our media with a new installment of gossip, slander, and innuendo. He was preaching on Sunday at his church in Western Sydney and the sermon was uploaded to the church’s Facebook page. It’s not as though a journalist took the time to visit the church and to hear everything that was said and done that morning and to observe all of Izzy’s words and interactions that morning. Rather, they listened to the sermon (and quite possible only parts of it), and with the nuance of a tank the headlines in our newspapers were,

“Folau launches fresh attack on gay and transgender people”

“Israel Folau intensifies stance on homosexuals”

“Israel Folau launches new LGBT attacks in church sermon”

“Israel Folau launches fresh homophobic attacks in church sermon”

Rugby Australia, Qantas, and much of the media have already succeeded in their quest to have Folau sacked and publicly disgraced for comments he made earlier in the year on social media. It appears as though the wolves are still hungry for more.

folau

This isn’t the first time that journalists have taken the courageous step to digging up church sermons in order to publicly tar and feather Christians. Back in 2016, there was a media campaign to have churches banned from renting public buildings in schools on the Central Coast, NSW. These churches were accused of homophobia and inciting hatred against gays and lesbians. Of course, this wasn’t the case, but telling the whole truth doesn’t always fit the narrative that click-bait journalism is seeking to portray.

There is today a growing antagonism toward Christianity, at least much of the media and among the back slapping cultural dominants in Australia. We are to be suspicious of Christianity. Engaging with the Christian message on its own terms isn’t required anymore, but ignorance necessitates a flurry of rhetorical bashing against those who believe Jesus is Lord. Of course, recent scandals and sins among some Christian organisations have understandably dented public trust. It would be unhelpful to judge those who judge churches for the terrible things down by supposed ‘men of God’. Nonetheless, the Folau controversy has nothing to do with these issues.

There are States around the world where officials are sent to visit local churches, to check on what is being taught and said. Thank God that’s not happening here in Australia. Instead, we use the media and public opinion to manipulate and to scare.

The media’s trolling of Israel Folau’s church raises questions about the dynamics and interactions between Churches and outside entities. Consider these other recent inquisitions:

  • In Victoria, Religious Instruction classes have been driven out of public schools.
  • The attempt has been made (and temporarily thwarted) to install the Government as an Ecclesiastical figure to oversee Christian schools, with the purpose of influencing doctrine and determining what is and isn’t ‘inherent belief’.
  • Sporting codes (and allegedly major corporations who sponsor them) are pressured into preaching the new moral orthodoxy and to provide special education classes to players who are found to hold a heterodox sexual ethic.
  • Universities are cracking down on faculty and students who articulate theological views that are not in keeping with the slippery and ever-changing moral environment of these institutions.

Of course, the situation differs from State to State, and from school to school, and from club to club. Many Aussies are reasonable and fair and think that the ‘God’ police are ridiculous and overreaching their authority.  The situation before us is one where secularists are attempting to take religion out of the public area and they are also beginning to step into the religious and to make pronouncements about that space also. This is somewhat concerning.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the freedom to preach was taken away in England. Preachers and pastors who didn’t comply with the State’s oversight of religious affairs were imprisoned and congregations shut down. We may look back to that era and think how ridiculous and unnecessary it was. Of course, we don’t want Government intruding upon traditional religious beliefs and practices. Don’t we believe in a separation of Church and State? This distinction never meant that there is no overlap between religion and State, for that is an impossible and undesirable position to hold. To make the public square and the political arena void of religious ideas is to attempt the status quo of China. As China exemplifies, it is an impossible task because it necessitates the Government to introduce policies about religion and to intrude into the religious space as well.

I am not suggesting that journalists, skeptics, and the irreligious shouldn’t visit a local church or listen to their sermons online. This blog regularly has journalists, social commentators and politicians reading it. Hey, I’d love them to also listen to our sermons at Mentone Baptist Church, so long as they quote words in their real context! Better still, come and visit us on Sundays. But there is also an element of hypocrisy in the interest surrounding Folau’s sermon at his local church. At a time where the secular world is wanting to squeeze religion out of the public sphere, the same people are peering into the religious arena and wanting to interfere that in that space.

This is not all bad. It’s a good opportunity for churches to ask some important questions. Why do churches post sermons and messages on websites and social media.? Is it for public consumption and education? Is the aim to provide a service to church members who couldn’t be present for that Sunday? Who the intended audience is and who else may end up listening?

If a church isn’t prepared for ‘outsiders’ to listen and to critique, my advice is, don’t publish your sermons online. Do we however really want to create a culture in Australia whereby churches no longer feel free to publish sermons online or are pressured into leaving out bits of the Bible because of who might hear and report on it in a skewed fashion? At the same time, there is a positive lesson and opportunity here. Preachers ought to take care of what we say and how we speak these words. This is no reason for watering down the good news of Jesus Christ but it is a great incentive for us to teach with clarity and compassion, faithfully and thoughtfully.

John Bunyan lived at the time of the restoration and was imprisoned for his preaching and for organising a church gathering that wasn’t sanctioned by the Government. His initial term of imprisonment was extended from 3 months to 12 years because he refused to cease preaching upon release from jail.  He famously said,

“What God says is best, is best, though all the men in the world are against it.”

This isn’t an argument for blunt and insensitive preaching. Bunyan wasn’t suggesting that we teach the Bible without appreciating its nuances or ignoring the real lives of the real people who are listening. The conviction was that truth and goodness is not defined by a poll or by the academia or even by the Government, but by God himself as revealed in his written word about his Son Jesus Christ. It is a word that challenges our moral preferences and even our deepest heartfelt intentions, not to crucify us but to redeem us and to fill us with a life of immeasurable joy.

At the end of the day, what we are discovering is that Aussie society doesn’t know what to think of Christianity. And I suspect many Christians are also unclear and they are unsure about how to go about relating to the broader culture: to love, be kind, and to relay a message that many find unfit for human consumption.