On church leaders and Israel Folau

I’ve been intrigued by a number of aspects of the Israel Folau case, having written a bit about it here last year and on my economics and public policy blog more recently.

Of course, there are the attitudes of the baying (il)liberal mobs, apparently outraged that on his personal social media account a prominent person should openly repeat the warnings of Scripture that homosexual acts (along with a myriad of other acts and  attitudes) are sinful, and that repentance –  turning to accept God’s offer and resolving to turn 180 degrees from sin – is the path to salvation.     But mobs will do what mobs will do, especially when aided by large corporate or semi-corporate entities  (thinking Rugby Australia and Qantas in particular) scandalised at the very thought of lines between right and wrong drawn any differently from where the heads of those entities themselves might prefer (unless, of course, in the case of Qantas, it involves your own commercial partners and the laws and practices of their owners).   (As has been pointed out on this side of the Tasman, there has been no call for the Emirates sponsorship of Team New Zealand to be binned, despite the stiff punishments for homosexual practice in Dubai –  the government of Dubai owning the airline.)

There has also been the intense degree of interest in the issue on this side of the Tasman, even though Folau is Australian, and was playing for Australian rugby teams.  Perhaps it is because his wife plays for the New Zealand netball team, or just that it is rugby –  more important in New Zealand culture than in Australia.  Whatever the reason, there has been a great deal on Folau here –  on the sport pages, and to some extent among secular free speech/open society advocates.  And, of course, even our Prime Minister weighed in.

Remarkably too, this contretemps has probably seen more Scripture quoted in the New Zealand and Australian media in a few weeks than one might normally see, at least on this side of the Tasman, in a whole year.  Sometimes garbled, often out of context, but quoted and repeated nonetheless.

But what most interested me was the New Zealand churches.  A prominent Christian layperson witnessed to his faith, including in some specifics.  He was not only held up for public mocking, ridicule, and worse (the general tone being that these were hateful views that had no place in the public square in New Zealand or Australia), but he faced losing his job over it, potentially becoming unemployable in his chosen profession.

And what voices were heard from the churches on this side of the Tasman?  Almost none –  at least venturing into the public domain –  and those that were heard or seen were, at best, embarrassed by Folau, and at worst critical of him.  For citing Scripture and calling men and woman to repentance.

The only well-publicised comment I saw from a church leader on this side of the Tasman was in the Herald from the Catholic church in New Zealand, through their spokeswoman Lyndsay Freer.

The New Zealand Catholic Church has spoken out against controversial rugby star Israel Folau saying he has done a disservice to the church following his comments against homosexuals.

Following the fallout, New Zealand Catholic Church spokeswoman Dame Lyndsay Freer told the Herald she feels Folau’s words are damaging to the Christian faith and believes he portrays God’s messages in a negative light.

“I feel very sorry for what Israel Folau has done. I don’t think he’s done himself and I don’t think he’s done our Christian faith any great service by saying what he’s said and putting it the way he did,” she said in an exclusive interview with the Herald.

“Because that’s presenting God as a God of punishment and a God of vengeance, not a God of love, and mercy and compassion.

“It’s dangerous territory when you lump everyone together as sinners and damned because at the end of the day it’s God that makes that judgement, not us, and not Israel Folau.

And yet surely a key element of the message of the gospel is precisely that all are indeed sinners and all have fallen short of God’s glory.   And Folau’s message clearly wasn’t that all are “damned” but that God offers forgiveness to all who respond to his self-initiated offer of forgiveness and restoration.  Here was the original “offending” piece from Folau’s Instagram.

folau 2.png

Freer goes on

“There is such a thing as sin, we’re all sinners in some way. But at the end of the day it’s not for me or anyone else to condemn a person, we don’t know what goes in their life and what has bought them to where they are.

“That’s really what God’s forgiveness and compassion is all about. God is a God of love and compassion and that’s the God Jesus always points out.

“Pope Francis is big on God being a God of love, not a God of judgement.”

I guess the Pope is her ultimate boss, but the Scriptures speak clearly of the reality and pervasiveness of sin, of a judgement we all must face, and of the real prospect of eternal separation from God.  Herein is love, that God takes the initiative in opening the way back to him.

But the local Catholic church seems embarrassed to talk about sin, interested only (it appears) in maintaining their respectability, by distancing themselves from a Christian brother.  “Hasn’t done any great service to our faith” is the sort of line establishment (church) figures use when serious Christians act or speak in ways that discomforts them, or might make their next encounter with the secualar powers a bit awkward.  Many of the greatest saints –  in the Catholic tradition –  have been those sorts of awkward people.

Not only wouldn’t the local Catholics defend Folau specifically, but they showed no sign of recognising the potential threat to other serious Christian believers (ones more – financially vulnerable than Folau probably is).     When some devout Christian is ousted from  Microsoft or Westpac or Apple or the ANZ (or whoever) for refusing to affirm what Scriptures call sin, won’t the heads of such companies –  or our MPs –  be able to take comfort from the squirming appeasement of the New Zealand Catholic church?

I keep an eye on the blog of the Anglican bishop of Christchurch.  It doesn’t have anything like the reach of the Herald, but I presume now that he is bishop he has a bit more of a following than he used to (even if being less free in what he writes).    There was a post last week that touched on the Folau case.  The summary of his position was this

I think it reasonable to say that whatever Israel Folau thought he was doing, he didn’t think deeply enough about what helps the whole Christian cause Down Under in respect of preaching the gospel of grace.

Another embarrassed response, almost condescending in tone –  at best “he must have thought he was doing good, but being just a rugby player he didn’t have our superior ‘wisdom'”.

When, one wonders, does the learned bishop suppose would be a good occasion for a Christian voice to speak out, calling as sin what Scripture calls sin?   Grace –  surely the essential of the gospel –  presupposes a need.  A need which Scripture and the church have consistently taught arises from sin, and the uncrossable barrier otherwise set up between God and human beings.  “Sin” is something a bit different from individual sinful acts –  the latter in many ways the manifestation of the former.  But we might have  hoped that when a prominent Christian layperson names acts that are out of step with God’s way –  be it pride, murder, homosexual acts, abortion, idolatry, dispossessing the poor or whatever –  calling people to repentance and proclaiming the offer of salvation. a Christian church, a Christian bishop, might at very least stand alongside the witnessing layperson.  Perhaps the bishop and church mightn’t use social media to get their own message across –  it does have its disadvantages –  but isn’t there something in standing alongside fellow believers, even if (privately) you might have not have done it their way?   What message does it send to secular audiences when church leaders sit to one side (or worse)?  Surely, that they disown Folau and his message (taken directly from the New Testament though it might be).

What message in fact does it send to faithful Christians in the pews who see, in their own workplaces for example, the pressure to go along, to embrace what God calls sinful?  Hardly an inspiring lead that might encourage a believer to take up his or her cross and venture in the path of Christ, confident of the lead provided by pastors and bishops.  Sheep without a shephard springs to mind.

I’m sure that somewhere among the Christian community in New Zealand there will have been some church leaders who silently –  or perhaps even out loud in the privacy of their parish –  supported Folau.   But not one seems to have been prepared to go public – to, for example, reach out to the papers or radio stations or whatever and say that they admire Folau for his courage (perhaps even foolhardy courage – in some respects) and to declare that the message he proclaims is indeed the gospel –  sin is real, and yet Christ conquered sin and death and offers the way back to God, turning away from a life of sin.  Hard to believe major outlets wouldn’t have grabbed at the chance of such a statement from major evangelical leaders (Anglican bishops, Baptist national leaders, whoever heads the various charismatic denominations) –   they did after all give space to dissenting secular commentators (including Mark Reason and Karl du Fresne).

But, so far as ordinary Christians can see, nothing. And had the mainstream media not provided space to such views, well there are websites, pastoral messages and so on.  I checked my own Baptist denomination’s website, for example, and I found recent statements about the Christchurch shootings, and (remarkably) about sovereignty in West Papua, but nothing about Folau, about freedom for Christian proclamation in the public square. Nothing.

The situation does seem to have been a bit different in Australia.  I noticed this article in the leading newspaper The Australian.   The Catholic church there was rather more robust, criticising Rugby Australia

“It not only highlights the influence a major corporate sponsor can have on the decisions of sporting codes, but shows the pressure on businesses to take social and moral positions unrelated to their core business,” said Monica Doumit, director of public affairs at the Archdiocese of Sydney.

(Not sure which line the Pope would prefer)

An Anglican bishop was willing to speak out

“If a rugby player can be sacked by doing nothing more than posting on his social media page what is essentially a summary of the Bible then it’s a signal to the rest of us that we better keep our mouths shut,” Anglican Bishop Michael Stead, who leads the south Sydney diocese, told The Australian yesterday.

As were leaders of the local Muslim community.

Of course, the church in New Zealand is much weaker and more enfeebled than its counterparts in Australia.  The leaders don’t seem to help.  I’m sure this isn’t how they consciously think, but too many seem to act as if the worst thing they could do was upset anyone, and risk stepping away from mainstream community attitudes.  But the message of the gospel is  –  in Paul’s own terms –  scandalous.  Our leaders need to act as if they are unafraid of this, providing a clear lead –  inside and outside the church –  to the radically different life, aliens and strangers in this world, God calls us to.

I’m writing of the Scriptural advice to Timothy

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season

We too surely need to take the opportunities that present themselves to witness to our faith, our call, and the message of God to a fallen and rebellious world.  New Zealand and Australia are countries with plenty of material prosperity, and yet the Scripture that has impressed itself forcefully on me recently is that

Mark 8:36 King James Version (KJV)
36 For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

That was, or so it seems to me, more less Folau’s message.  But it was that of Jesus, our Lord, first.


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2 responses to “On church leaders and Israel Folau

  1. Brian Whitaker

    Thanks for this Mike.. A friend has just referred me to your many insightful observations …be encouraged .. they are so refreshing ….


    • THanks Brian. I had an exchange this week with the bishop of Christchurch who was quite critical of Folau for expressing his views in a way in which they could be found by the wider public.
      Quite sad really.


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