By Robyn Whitaker
You might groan at another article about Israel Folau. After all, the media attention has been massive, with little sign of abating.
This article is an attempt to address some of the issues from a Uniting Church point of view, not because I speak for the Uniting Church in any official capacity, but because the UCA has not said very much about this issue despite the fact Folau’s church, the Truth of Jesus Christ Church, meets in a UCA building.
Israel Folau, a highly talented rugby union player, came to the attention of even non-rugby fans earlier this year when his contract was terminated by Rugby Australia for an alleged breach of contract. The reason was his Instagram post on 10 April which stated: “Warning: Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolators – hell awaits you.”
Folau’s defenders have claimed he is simply quoting the Bible, but that is not actually the case. His post is, at best, a poor paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, with some significant changes.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reads:
“Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, child-abusers, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor 6:9-10)
The version quoted on Instagram changed Paul’s “will not inherit the kingdom” to “hell awaits”. These are not the same thing, either theologically or rhetorically. “Atheists” is added too, a word not present in Paul’s letter.
Another issue is with the translation Folau quotes, in particular the translation of the Greek words malakoi and arsenokoites as “homosexual”.
These are notoriously difficult terms to translate. The first denotes softness, a male victim of pederasty (an older or elite male engaging in intercourse with a younger boy or male slave), or those who engage in homosexual acts perhaps as temple prostitutes in pagan cults.
The second term most likely refers to an elite male who has sex with younger boys of lower rank, hence my translation above as “child abuser”. Neither indicates an orientation towards the people of the same gender.
The source of the meme Folau shared appears to be an American group called Bulldog Ministries, a group who operate much like Westboro Church in promoting a fear-based message that obsessively focuses on sexual “sins” above all else. It gives us insight into the kind of theology with which Folau is surrounded.
Issues of translation and paraphrase aside, Folau’s post shows the danger of quoting any small sentence of Scripture devoid of context and an awareness of how it might be heard. Real harm is done when Christians threaten entire groups of people on the grounds of their gender, sexuality, or beliefs.
A UCA approach to the Bible asks us to do the harder work of interpretation through an awareness of history and culture, as well as with love and compassion. We do not proof text nor scare people into faith. By contrast, the Basis of Union uses the language of nourishment to describe the role of the Bible.
Some in our community are calling this a religious freedom issue. Let me be clear: it is not.
From a religious freedom perspective, Folau is free and has the right to post his message just as he continues to be free to preach sermons and post things on social media. But, in Christianity, we don’t talk about rights without also talking about responsibilities.
We are all free to speak, but we don’t speak free of consequence and responsibility.
In his specific case, Folau’s posting puts him in breach of an employment contract and Rugby Australia’s Code of Conduct, something he had been previously warned about. And lest we think that seems extreme, let’s remember that the UCA also has a Code of Ethics and a Social Media Policy to which its clergy and employees must adhere to or face consequences.
The last point to make here has to do with the unfortunate association of the Truth of Jesus Christ Church with the UCA. The group meets at a UCA church in NSW, a connection that has not escaped media attention. Several articles have now highlighted the extreme teaching of Pastor Eni’s church, including a rejection of the Trinity, baptism in the name of Jesus only (not “Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” as affirmed in the Basis of Union), and the claim that all other Christians are going to hell.
One concerned parent exposed to its teaching calls the church an “isolated hate group”. These extreme views have now resulted in another member being sacked for speaking out against the very Catholic institution that employs him.
Alarm bells should ring when any group of about 30 people claims to have unique insight into divine truth, especially when it is contrary to both 2000 years of tradition and the majority of contemporary Christianity.
The Uniting Church should be doing everything it can to distance itself from the kind of faith espoused by the Truth of Jesus Christ Church. Its approach to Scripture, faith, evangelism, sexuality, and the Trinity places it at odds not just with the UCA but with most of the worldwide Christian church.
Is this the kind of fear-based, judgmental Christianity with which any of our churches should be associated? I think not.