How the church failed Israel (and modern Australia is too)

Izzy is in hot water again with calls growing for the Australian Rugby Union and the New South Wales Waratahs to tear up his contract because of his (admittedly clumsy) public expression of reasonably orthodox, mainstream, Christian views about sin and salvation.

The ‘Australian church’ and by that I mean, those who belong, visibly, to the kingdom of God, in both its ‘institutional’ forms and those who gather on Sundays claiming to follow Jesus and to belong to communities of people who gather around certain beliefs (as expressed in statements like creeds or doctrinal statements), has contributed to the mess Israel Folau now seems destined to face alone. I’m defining ‘church’ up front, because many Christians might feel like we, as individuals, simultaneously belong to or represent the church while not being complicit for, or responsible to, Israel Folau… and I’m going to make the case that those of us who share similar orthodox, mainstream, Christian views (and even where we’d quibble) bear some responsibility for the tonne of hate and anger that will now be poured out on Izzy, and that we shouldn’t abandon him even if we profoundly disagree with the way he has expressed himself, in form, content, or forum.

And I’m going to paint with a broader brush and say that an entity, Australia, via its institutions — such as the press (and our ‘social media’), a Rugby fraternity including a governing body and a national representative team, and the ‘market’ — and the way this entity ‘Australia’ responds, to this (and other) expressions of religious belief is also failing its citizen, Israel Folau, rather than him failing us (even if there are ways his expressions of his beliefs, publicly, hurt others and are clumsy or even uncivil). The way we collectively respond to incivility expresses something about our ‘civilisation’.

How the church is failing Israel (Folau)

Our current cultural milieu believes that religious belief is a private matter that shouldn’t be expressed publicly — so Israel is transgressing on this front, and while we might want to point the finger at ‘society’ or ‘Australia’ for this problem, it’s a problem that begins with us; it’s a problem because on one hand we Christians, ‘the church’ have bought into and promoted an individualistic understanding both of what it means to be a human and of what it means to be a Christian; the Gospel Israel preaches is a Gospel of personal salvation, with personal, individual, implications (salvation), and little corporate or communal impact. Israel is a preacher of this Gospel it would seem appointed by nobody except our celebrity driven culture (that cares far too much about what celebrities say or think on instagram), and a church that wants its celebrity members to operate as public champions of Christian belief simply because they are Christians with a platform. If Israel was a Christian whose approach to promoting the Gospel I found more personally compelling (and my take on Israel’s public Christianity hasn’t changed since last time), wouldn’t I be encouraging him to use his platform to promote the Gospel? Of course I would; but is it his responsibility? Is this actually his calling (or the way we view how Christians should operate in the world?).

We fail Israel when we want him to be a solo point-scoring champion for Jesus off the field, rather than freeing him to be point-scoring champion on the field, and part of a bigger team, the church, off it.

I don’t want to be a broken record banging out quotes from James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World, but he makes a point towards the back end of his book about our particular corner of the church (evangelicals) and our view of work being not super different to an anabaptist view of work (which he takes umbrage with) even while we have a more robust doctrine of creation in the reformed theological tradition. In identifying a certain sort of Christian posture with regards to the physical world, to culture and politics (basically to what we would see as ‘secular’ rather than ‘sacred’) that he labels ‘defensive against,’ he writes:

“In the “defensive against” paradigm, it is the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists who have fashioned a somewhat unique approach to these issues. The backdrop for their approach is the dualism created by the division between public (and secular) and private (and religious) life inherent to the modern world. As we know, this dualism is both embedded within social institutions and legitimated by political philosophy and they mutually reinforce each other in powerful ways. Though in theory Evangelicals and Fundamentalists believe God is sovereign in all of life, in practice their traditions of pietism actually reinforce this dualism. All of this has resulted in a peculiar approach to faith and vocation. For generations of faithful Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, vocation in the secular world was at best a necessary evil. To the extent that work had “kingdom significance,” it was as a platform for evangelism. The mark of true piety for a committed believer whether in skilled or manual labor or in the realms of business, law, education, public policy, and social welfare, was to lead a Bible study and evangelize their associates in their place of work. In this paradigm, work was instrumentalized—it was regarded as simply a means to spiritual ends. Thus, if one achieved some distinction for the quality of one’s work in any field or for reason of an accomplishment, its significance was primarily because celebrity brought attention and credibility to the gospel. As Eric Liddell’s father says to him in the film Chariots of Fire, “What the world needs right now is a muscular Christian—to make them sit up and take notice!” “Run in God’s name and let the world stand back in wonder!” Likewise, if one achieved any disproportionate influence in a sphere of life or work, this had significance primarily as a bulwark against the tide of secularism or liberalism.” — To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World

In sum, for Israel to feel like a full participant in the life of the church — as a good ‘religious’ person participating in a ‘sacred calling’ — we’ve set up the game in such a way that he must necessarily use his platform to evangelise (or to give generously to evangelism), because pursuing excellence of character and performance, and loving the people around him is not enough. Or not all it could be. What sort of pressure does this place on those Christians who happen to be able to make an income in fields that produce ‘celebrity’ and a ‘platform’ — how would my tweets, or blog posts, or social media presence stack up with the sort of audience Israel gets? Is it fair to expect him to champion orthodox Christianity or to ‘evangelise’ simply because he has a platform that most of us do not? Is that what ‘faithful presence’ requires of him; if so, how have we, the church, equipped him for this task?

On the ‘individual’ Gospel front; I wonder if this is precisely both how Israel has been equipped — in terms of how he has been evangelised, and discipled, but also a product of the bifurcation between secular and sacred Hunter (and others like Charles Taylor) observe; the ‘secular age’ we live in makes religion a private matter and ‘salvation’ not a call to belong to some new public order, or kingdom, with an accompanying account for human behaviour and morality that comes from a spiritual commitment or something transcendent that we connect to and belong to (that Christians would typically say comes, literally, from the Holy Spirit and a real encounter with God as a reality not just an abstract concept). We feed that by how we talk about and understand both the Gospel of Jesus and conversion; this failure is one Scot McKnight unpacks in The King Jesus Gospel, a book I might have some quibbles with in terms of the ‘bigness’ of the alternative Gospel he offers (whether the Gospel is ‘Israel’s story’ that began in the Old Testament or God’s cosmic story of redemption that began before the creation of the world). In Dallas Willard’s forward to McKnight’s book he describes McKnight’s work as addressing ‘contemporary misunderstandings that produce gospels that do not naturally produce disciples, but only consumers of religious goods and services’ — that’s not far off the problem the church must bear some responsibility for here (fascinatingly, Folau devotes much more Twitter air time to rebuking prosperity theology than he does to calling out homosexuality as a sin that leads to Hell). McKnight identifies a phenomenon that you might recognise at play in Folau’s own presentation of the Gospel where he says:

“Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples.”

This Gospel, or this approach to evangelism, also makes ‘repentance’ the act of ‘making a decision’ not the life of turning to Jesus from alternative kingdoms, visions of the good, or ultimate loves. It makes repentance what Folau proclaims it to be — a rejection of sin — without the expulsive power of not just a new object of love, Jesus, but a new way of loving life. An instagram post can’t possibly capture or convey the bigness of what this looks like, or what’s at stake in repentance or following Jesus; but instagram is all the faithful champion athlete has in a world where his religious views won’t otherwise be heard, but he’s told that faithfulness for him looks like using his platform to share his faith.

This is dangerous when coupled with a broader social trend that sees religion simply as a consumer choice in pursuit of the ‘authentic you’ — part of your constructed ‘identity’ or story you tell about yourself — rather than as a fundamental conviction about a bigger story you belong to, that shapes the way you engage with the world as a person, while also seeing religious practice as a ‘private matter’ not something you take with you into the public. If identity construction via consumer choice is where we think ‘it’s at’ and identity is performed and constructed via social media (which it is, when identity is so thin a concept and is about authenticity), then where else should Folau perform his faith publicly? It’s either instagram or the Rugby field with painted on (or tattooed) Bible verses… A ‘decision’ to be religious then is about a personal preference, evangelism about ‘the expression’ of such preference, and we, the church reinforces this in extra-bad ways when we make religious belief — the Gospel message — about personal salvation alone (rather than seeing discipleship as forming persons who participate in public together as members of the church, an alternative kingdom — ie, where I think McKnight is spot on is that the Gospel is not just about Jesus as personal saviour, but Jesus as king of a kingdom).

We’ve also, simultaneously, both had a low view of the ‘church’ so that to even speak of the church being responsible for an individuals actions feels like ‘over stating’ what church is, and we’ve contributed to a view of religious belief that sees the very nature of religion as ‘private’ not public in how we’ve, as an institution, participated in public debate. On the first, point, we’ve arrived at a moment where “church” is either an ‘institution’ that doesn’t speak for its members (because we want to distance ourselves from the worst expressions of institutional church — like the Royal Commission or the way institutions behave in public), or we see ‘church’ as an event that is only constituted in the gathering of people to worship together on a Sunday, not a community of interdependent ‘belonging’ to one another. This latter point would mean that when Israel, or anybody, speaks, he speaks for ‘us’ not ‘him’… but my first response to his instagram post this week was to seek to distance myself from him, rather than recognising the things we have in common as religious believers, and possibly as members of a universal church (though, I believe there are certain heretical beliefs he holds, and beliefs I hold, that would see both of us excluding one another — in that from what I understand he denies, and I affirm, the Trinity). I do wonder what accountability Israel Folau believes he has, as a Christian, to any particular community, tradition, or institution — because in an age of consumer Christianity and individual, personal, salvation that sort of accountability is not a thing we do any more, we don’t belong to a church we choose a church, and we leave if it challenges our ‘personal’ authentic expression of faith in ways we don’t feel comfortable with to find places where we feel a better ‘fit’. On the second point, the privatisation of religious belief, when it comes to not the moral standing of homosexual behaviour in modern Australia, but the spiritual standing of such behaviour — and those other Folau calls out as sinful — we don’t participate in public debates in good faith; ie we didn’t argue against the legislation of same sex marriage on a spiritual basis, or even for a pluralist accommodation of our spiritual position on homosexual relationships; we (the institutional church) argued on secular terms that same sex marriage was ‘unnatural’ and not a civic good (because parenting and gender are ‘naturally ordered’); once the public at large dismissed that view we couldn’t (and can’t) fall back on the spiritual account of such behaviours and expect to be understood or welcomed in society (or its institutions, such as the national football team).

If this comes close to describing how the church conceives of itself — or if it describes a complicated mess of contradictions — which is does — then what else can Israel do as a Christian? There’s no real institution behind him, articulating his views in public or shaping his sense of how to engage in public as a Christian; nobody offering a view of being part of the church that is not ‘being an individual who must save individuals using his individual platform,’ then how else is he meant to act? If there’s no ‘good news’ except ‘repent or go to hell,’ then what else should he proclaim?

It’s one thing to deconstruct how the church has failed Israel, and so, how Israel is failing to articulate the Gospel; both in content — even if what he says is totally true, it is incomplete in a way that is unhelpful and distorting (when it comes to repentance, and conversion, and the relationship between sin and Jesus), and in form, even if what he said was complete, saying it on instagram, as a celebrity, is unlikely to ultimately be helpfully geared towards actual repentance (the sort of turning to Jesus that is about discipleship — the shaping of a life around the Lordship of Jesus), not simply a decision (the realisation that one is a sinner in need of a saviour), it’s another thing to deconstruct the way Australian society is failing Israel and other religious people because of how it has replaced ‘thick’ or substantial religious belief and institutions with ‘thin’ alternatives.

How Australia is failing Israel

When I read people like Peter Fitzsimons go to town on Israel Folau I feel like I’m reading a post-religious zealot attacking a heretic. The church used to burn heretics at the stake because we realised how important orthodoxy was, and pursued unity in that orthodoxy by eradicating anybody who threatened it. This lead to some pretty dark chapters in church history, but since the modern secular mind is so keen to remove any religious influence from the way we do business we’re unlikely to see secular priests and prophets learn from those mistakes. And so, where once we had religion occupying a place in our understanding of what it meant to be human — so that our understanding of personhood came from the divine order and the ‘givenness’ of reality; now we have less inclination to look for transcendence (so religion is just one choice we make about how we understand ourselves, and it’s a private thing… see Charles Taylor, again), but we replace the role religion and religious institutions played in giving us a sense of who we are with other institutions. Like Rugby teams. Where the national Rugby team, or other Aussie institutions, used to be purely secular, operating in society alongside ‘sacred’ religious institutions like the church, they now have to carry a more sacred mythology and purpose to fill the void left by the privatisation of the ‘religious’ sacred (the same is true of things like ANZAC Day, and other common objects of love in our modern world). Where once you were chosen to play Rugby for Australia because of Rugby ability, now you are chosen to uphold certain quasi-religious values and to be a ‘role model’ for those values, especially in public. Here’s Fitzsimon’s pontificating (he’d probably like to be a pope) about Folau’s ability to hold a place in the game once he’s expressed, publicly, his reasonably orthodox, mainstream, even if un-nuanced, religious views.

In the wake of his latest homophobic outburst – gays, among other sinners, are heading to hell once more – Israel Folau has to go, and will go.

Quick. Clean. Gone. At least until such times as he repents.

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. They cannot go through one more time the agony of last year when Folau’s social media comments trumpeting that gays would go to hell, saw rugby lose sponsors, fans, and support.

Then it took three weeks for Folau to pull his head in, and it seemed like he got it: that you couldn’t be a standard bearer for the inclusive game of rugby and put out bigoted nastiness like that.

This time, it won’t take three weeks. Rugby must surely move quickly, or be made to look ridiculous.

All of the dynamics that applied last year – outrage in the rugby and wider community, people swearing not to go to games, volunteers threatening to leave the game, sponsors looking at tearing up their contracts – apply this year, but there is one difference.

Back then, it seemed it wasn’t clear to Folau what he could and could not do.

Rugby is tolerant and inclusive so long as we’re talking about bits that are public and part of somebody’s identity, not the bits that people should be keeping in private — but Rugby is also now part of a civic religion, and it can’t handle such heretical views being expressed. Because our public square isn’t pluralist, it’s aggressively monotheistic. Its monotheism isn’t the traditional religious monotheism, where there’s a transcendent God who sets moral standards and judges accordingly, it’s the new monotheism, where our personal, individual, liberty — our freedom to self-determine our own authentic identity through personal choice, where nobody but the self can sit in judgment — except against those who reject this view or refuse to conform.

Fitzsimons points out (perhaps poisoning the well) that there’ll be objections to Folau’s dismissal on the grounds of ‘freedom of speech’ — because all issues are now interpreted through a grid of individual freedom. He’s right that commercial ramifications aren’t actually restrictions on Folau’s free speech, but ‘free responses’ to Folau — that the market will solve the problem (and force the hand of the new ‘religious’ regime which is thoroughly wedded to the market). Free speech and ‘religious freedom’ are ultimately concerns that come from a certain sort of view about ‘the good’ being tied to unfettered personal liberty… But my argument about Australia failing Folau isn’t about freedom of speech or expression, but about a failure to accomodate or understand religious belief (perhaps as a result of the failure of the church outlined above). There’s a great new podcast, The Eucatastrophethat has been exploring some of these foundational issues in recent episodes — which I’d commend to anyone who wants to think more about this stuff.

Australia is failing Israel in precisely the way the church is — in needing a celebrity to use their ‘platform’ to promote a particular sort of ‘gospel’ — but further, in refusing to make space for other expressions of other convictions. The church failed to embrace pluralism when we were tested in the same sex marriage debate; we failed to properly account for our belief in a spiritual order and made natural arguments, and we failed to make space for different spiritualities or understanding of life. We pushed a zero-sum agenda; we pushed for monotheism (bizarrely without making a case for monotheism), and now ‘secular’ Australia, after a decisive public decision making process, has adopted that zero-sum, monotheistic, approach when dealing with opposition. We’re reaping the whirlwind, and it’s unclear how the Australian ‘public’ square is going to change any time soon, especially if we, the church, can’t recognise our failures and shift accordingly.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

3 thoughts on “How the church failed Israel (and modern Australia is too)”

  1. Has Israel repudiated the modalism he expressed a year ago here? https://twitter.com/izzyfolau/status/953943903379472384

    This is not to dispute your critique of our churches here. But I think it’s more complex than if it were someone from one of our churches saying in public what he said. Israel apparently came from a Mormon upbringing, has spent time in Pentecostal circles including Hillsong, but still seems to explain God in modalistic terms, and not in way I could see as accidental. Does he go to a Oneness church now (I don’t know) or an ACC/AOG church that has failed to introduce him to the real God? Does he even have a true faith? Modalism is such a huge error, it teaches a fundamentally different God, so I wouldn’t normally consider that to be possible.

    If Israel is still being influenced by Oneness people, then what doctrine of humanity, sin, and the church are they teaching him? I don’t know, I know very little about the Oneness movement. It just makes it more complex.

    1. I mention that I don’t have the same view of the Trinity as him in this post — but a friend on Facebook who knows the pastor of his church says he is now a Trinitarian.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.