The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) re-branded recently. It adopted the tagline “Truth Made Public.” New chief, Martyn Iles, has successfully reintroduced religious language into the ACL’s public platform, and has set about creating a new approach to politics that saw the organisation focus its energies on marginal seats, which meant publishing election materials that promoted One Nation, and then defending that position on the basis that the party provides better access to the political process for the ACL (and thus its “Christian constituency” than other parties, and that it had clearer policies on the ACL’s ‘big ticket’ Christian priorities, which included the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament, and religious freedom).
The ACL is enjoying a post-plebiscite moment in the sun thanks to the Israel Folau saga. The organisation stepped in after Folau’s crowd sourcing fundraiser was deplatformed by GoFundMe, donated $100,000, and raised $2.2 million on the basis that Folau’s situation with Rugby Australia was a result of a Christian expressing his Christian beliefs and losing his job as a result. The fundraising page contains a statement from Mr Folau that says:
“I am also a Christian. My faith is the most important thing in my life. I try to live my life according to the Bible and I believe it is my duty to share the word of the Bible.”
Israel Folau has a religious history as complicated as his sporting code history. He grew up in the Mormon church, with his family, left that church (changed codes), with his family, joined the pentecostal church (Hillsong specifically), left that church (changed codes again), with his family, and now is part of the Truth of Jesus Christ Church in Sydney, with his family — specifically his father Eni Folau is the pastor of that church, and he and his cousin Josiah often preach at the church (videos of their sermons are posted on the church’s Facebook page).
After leaving Hillsong, in 2018, the Folaus were caught up in the ‘oneness pentecostalism’ of Gino Jennings. In 2018 Israel Folau tweeted:
“To be born again you MUST, repent of your sins, be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ and then prayed upon asking God to receive the holy spirit. If you’ve done it a different way from this then you aren’t born again. John 3:3,5 Acts 2:38 Acts 19:1-6
Jesus Christ was the vessel of God, God is a spirit. He formed the body of Jesus Christ and was in him. And the holy spirit is the characteristics or functions of God. But it’s not 3 or the trinity but just him alone. Isaiah 43:10
There’s nothing in the bible that says anything about a trinity.”
There is nothing hidden about these tweets, and no reason from Folau’s stream of public Christianity since, or the publicly available teachings of the Truth of Jesus Christ Church (including Israel’s own sermons) that suggest he has changed his position.
These are the sort of tweets that might have a Christian lobby group doing some due diligence before posting a testimony to their website with the footballer claiming to be a Christian.
Because here’s the thing; theology is fundamentally integrated. What a person believes about the nature of God will shape how they understand the person and work of Jesus, and so will frame how somebody understands the Gospel. There’s actually a particularity to Folau’s expressed views on baptism here; like other ‘oneness’ co-religionists, Folau (and his church) believe that if you are baptised following a formula based on Matthew 28:18-20 (in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit), then you are not born again; you must, indeed, be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ.
Watch enough of the sermons on the Truth of Jesus Christ Facebook page and you’ll see some deliberately strange terminology being used around the Trinity. There is “one God, and his name is Jesus Christ.” The sort of belief the Folaus espouse has a fancy label ‘modalistic monarchianism‘; it ends up with a wonky Christology because ultimately Jesus, the son, does not remain incarnate and human and ascended to heaven as the first fruits of our resurrection, he goes back to being God the Spirit, and people are meant to switch to praying to him as ‘father’. How that works with, say, Jesus interceding for us, or redeeming us, or many other parts of how ‘Christology’ works gets very messy very quickly (because theology is integrated). It’s hard to say at this point that the words ‘Jesus is Lord’; given by Paul as a sort of litmus test for the presence of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12) has the same content or meaning as you’d find in the Bible (not just emerging in the history of the church).
There are a few historic creeds that all Christian denominations recognise. And these creeds are often used as a framework for assessing whether or not a person who claims to be a Christian is a Christian. These are the reason that Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also deny the Trinity, are not considered to be “Christians.” These creeds universally uphold the Trinity. I really like this bloke in church history named Athanasius. He wrote lots about the incarnation of Jesus; that he was God’s eternal word made flesh. I remember my mind being blown when I realised that the incarnation of the word doesn’t end with the ascension of Jesus; that Jesus remaining ‘in the flesh’ means that the sacrifice of the incarnation goes way beyond the cross and the Easter event, and continues for eternity as Jesus, though in very nature God, remains fully human and fully divine. That’s a big deal for the way God’s dealing with humanity works in an ongoing sense — the divine human Jesus in heaven interceding for us as we pray, the efficacy of his sacrifice on our behalf and the mystery of our union with him, by the Spirit (which he and the Father pour out on us) such that he is able to stand in our place. Theology is integrated; and the Christian Gospel requires a fully divine Jesus, and a fully human Jesus, and prior to that, a Triune God. The way Athanasius drew threads of the story of the Bible together to help us grasp this picture was recorded in ‘The Athanasian Creed’ (though probably not by him). Here are some quotes:
“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith unless every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.”
“Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Substance [Essence] of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Substance [Essence] of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood into God. One altogether; not by confusion of Substance [Essence]; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works.”
There is of course the earlier (and more widely authoritative) Apostles’ Creed (390AD) which is Trinitarian in its structure, and content, and before that, the Nicene Creed (325AD), which is essentially, explicitly, a statement about the Trinity and the way the Triune God works in the world and in salvation. It also contains the following statement.
“But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’ — they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church”
The word ‘catholic’ here simply means universal; these creeds were formulated before the schism between the eastern and western churches, and before the protestant reformation. The Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestant churches all uphold belief in the Trinity as essential. Mysterious and difficult, certainly. But essential to knowing God.
When the Folau family and their theological buddy Gino Jennings stand against the Trinity they stand not only against the Scriptures, and the tradition of the church, but also against intellectual giants like Athanasius. They are choosing to position themselves at odds with these statements of belief, and so, drawing a clear line. They are staking their salvation on the idea that they are right about God, but almost the entirety of church history is wrong. In fact, their bet is that the Mormons and JWs are closer in their understanding of God than the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions.
Because theology is integrated and Israel Folau’s view of personal salvation (shared by his church) involves a particular form of baptism, and particular beliefs about God, we shouldn’t be surprised that his proclamation of what he believes is the “good news” takes a particular form that feels different to the Christian Gospel. Because the Folau’s church insists that they derive their doctrine from ‘the Bible alone’ but they also rule out the Trinity, we should expect the church to have a different, idiosyncratic, interpretive grid. It shouldn’t surprise us when they take hard, literal, interpretation, for example, to the english word ‘homosexual’ without considering what the words might mean in the greek; language study is, for them, a move from the ‘plain reading’ of the Scriptures.
Over the weekend the Sydney Morning Herald published a story about Folau’s beliefs (or the beliefs of his father’s church). Celebrated journalist Kate McClymont spent weeks investigating this piece and validating the testimony of her sources. I know this because I was a source for the story, or, more particularly, because the story is built on the testimony of a ‘concerned mum’ of an up and coming Rugby player, and I know this mum, who sought my advice on some of the theology being espoused by Folau’s church. She reached out to me a few weeks ago and we have since become friends. We had coffee yesterday. She is a real person. She is who she says she is: a mother of a Rugby player, and a Christian who worked for some time in Christian ministry. She’ll be sharing more of her story in coming days, but I’ve seen her evidence from an undercover trip to the Folau’s church, where Israel’s father, Eni, laid out the church’s position on the Trinity. They told her that there is one God in heaven, whose name is Jesus Christ (you’ll also find this in their published sermons), and that when Jesus was alive on earth it was God the father inhabiting a body, and that after his resurrection he returned to be Jesus Christ, the father. When my friend asked how this fit with the Lord’s prayer and Jesus’ instruction to pray to the father he was talking about prayer when he goes back to the title “father,” when he goes back to heaven. My friend also has message transcripts from her contact with the church and its representative (Israel’s cousin) on Facebook.
The publication of this story clarified what was already public knowledge from Israel’s tweets. The Truth of Jesus Christ Church, pastored by Israel’s father Eni, that rents space of a Uniting Church and meets midweek in the Folau family home (where my friend was offered baptism in the backyard pool), is heterodox. It is not a Christian church in any meaningful sense.
When this story broke instead of issuing a mea culpa, acknowledging that Folau’s position puts him outside the Christian constituency, the constituency the ACL turned to to raise financial support for Israel’s trial on the basis that Israel was a fellow Christian being persecuted for expressing Christian beliefs, the ACL’s Martyn Iles doubled down and attacked both the mum, and a multi-award winning investigative journalist. Instead of saying ‘we didn’t do our due diligence on Folau, and we apologise for the confusion caused by presenting him as a Christian, but his legal plight is a matter of religious freedom and we still believe this to be important’… He did a Donald Trump. He played the ‘fake news’ card. He sought to undermine the public’s confidence in the sort of institutions our democracy needs to function by attacking the story; and he did this by bringing Folau closer to the fold. He showed that for the ACL correct politics — or political advantage — is more important than correct doctrine (just as he did in the election when endorsing One Nation because they’d give his organisation better political access).
Mr Iles is quoted in the Herald piece saying:
“I have never heard from him anything which contradicts mainstream Christian belief. That is not to say there is no disagreement – I am sure there is – but some disagreement is normal between Christian denominations.”
Whether or not the Trinity is real definitely contradicts mainstream Christian belief and is not simply the type of disagreement that is “normal between Christian denominations” it is what separates “Christian denominations” from other religions; like Judaism, and Islam.
His Facebook statement said:
“His [Israel’s] alleged beliefs are largely unsourced and unreferenced.
It is written by hostile journalists who have been listening to a woman with an axe to grind against Izzy’s family (who won’t identify herself and has been trying to make trouble for a while now).
Izzy’s people asked to include a comment in the article, even if only one sentence, and was refused.
I can’t claim to know all of Israel’s theology, but I have spoken with him and friends of his enough to know that what’s written contains errors.”
It seems unbelievable to me that Iles did no checking into Folau’s theology before endorsing him on their website (and in his video blog) as a Christian. Folau had been a Mormon, and his tweet about the Trinity became part of the coverage of his first foray into social media controversy. But this is not the smoking gun. It is, however, classic ‘culture war’ stuff; it’s a playbook Trump perfected. You play to your base. You deny. You redirect the attack back to the ‘other’… The “Real Mark Latham” chimed in on Twitter to suggest that this mum, my friend, is a fake.
A day later Iles shared the Folau’s statement, again on Facebook.
“We are extremely disappointed the Sydney Morning Herald’s Kate McClymont did not seek comment from Israel, his family or his church, for her story focussed on Israel’s church and its doctrine.
The story carried a number of factual inaccuracies which could have been avoided had Ms McClymont simply followed standard journalism practice and approached us for comment.
The story appears to be based predominantly on quotes from a single anonymous source who has been acting in concert with Rugby Australia. Any suggestion that Israel would stand in judgment of another person is incorrect.”
This is an interesting ‘clarification’ that elucidates nothing; there is no identifying of what claim is inaccurate, and given that my friend tells me the claims in the story were predominantly copied and pasted from messages sent to her by Folau’s church, and the story claims to be representing the views of the church, these seem pretty watertight; and consistent with what was said to my friend in her visit to the church.
So here’s the smoking gun.
The ACL’s tagline is “truth made public”.
The truth is that this mum, my friend, brought the content of the story; the beliefs of Folau’s church, to Martyn Iles attention, directly, over the phone, in the first week in July. She did this because she was concerned about the doctrines Folau holds, having seen his influence in the Rugby community. She was concerned that Folau’s beliefs fell outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity, and that the ACL needed to know the truth (and communicate it). She withheld her name in that conversation because she wants to protect her son from repercussions or reprisals, but she was connected to Martyn by mutual friends who knew her identity. For him to turn on her the way he has, for political gain, is diabolical.
The truth is that Martyn knows she is not “a single anonymous source who has been acting in concert with Rugby Australia” who “has an axe to grind against Israel’s family,” but a Christian mum concerned about the Gospel. The connection she has to Rugby Australia is as the mother of a player contracted to Rugby Australia. Very few people are discrediting Alan Jones and his arguments on this situation because he ‘has an axe to grind’ against Rugby Australia because he missed a board position, or the ACL for supporting Folau because they have an ‘axe to grind’ with Qantas and the cause of religious freedom.
There are lots of motives at play for every actor in this situation, and lots of opportunities to play the man or woman. The accusation that she “has been trying to make trouble for a while now” is strange and non-specific; how long? She has been trying to ensure the ACL (and Iles in particular) possessed the truth about the Folaus and their beliefs; and that is only trouble making if the truth is a threat to some political agenda the ACL holds dear. She tried to make contact with him over a month ago to do this, and then spoke to him a week after that, that doesn’t sound like trouble making to me? It sounds like truth telling.
Either what the stories reveal about the beliefs of the Folau’s church is true, or it isn’t. I know, from the evidence available publicly, and revealed to me privately by my friend, that the claims are true.
The truth is that Folau’s beliefs, or the beliefs of his church, are also well documented and directly sourced from his tweets, and the sermons posted on Facebook; beliefs that put him (and them) outside the bounds of the church.
The truth is you can fight to defend Israel Folau’s religious freedom without calling Israel a Christian; and the ACL should have been more careful to do this from the beginning, and they had the opportunity to correct the record very early, when my friend raised her evidence with them — and they didn’t. And now they are doubling down and attacking her in order to defend their cash cow; their golden calf. That’s what idol will do to you, they’ll turn you from the truth, and turn you against those faithful messengers who speak it.
The truth is that Christians should’ve been more carefully nuanced with Israel’s instagram post right from the beginning; its fatal flaws were deep and wide. He sourced it from a hate group. It distorts, rather than quoting, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. It is unhelpfully unclear about what that passage says about homosexual — using a word understood as describing orientation, or attraction, rather than action. Israel’s understanding of ‘repentance’ is built on a false picture of God and a false Gospel. There was nothing Christian about his meme.
It was religious; Israel is a religious person; his religious freedoms should be protected and he shouldn’t have been sacked for holding or expressing religious beliefs. But Israel is not a Christian, and to co-opt him into a Christian war against the culture is only going to end badly.
That’s the truth.
The truth is that Martyn Iles will probably double down on this until the cash cow comes home to roost, but the evidence behind these claims is out there, and truth loves becoming public.