The Federal Election is over and many have let out a huge sigh of relief that Labor didn’t get in to enact their own narrow view of freedom of religious expression.
But just because we haven’t had a change of government doesn’t mean that our culture has really changed. Yes, the progressive left of politics have suffered a setback but they’re only seeking to implement what many in our society are already pursuing. In fact, if many of that persuasion are at all consistent in their behaviour then I foresee that there will be an angry backlash coming quite soon. We’ve already seen lots of vitriol on social media as more than half the voters get told how stupid/evil/selfish/homophobic they are for daring to not get with the program.
We know nothing has really changed because Israel Folau is still without a job. Do you remember Folau? While what happened to him served, perhaps, to crystallise something in the minds of many voters (and they let Labor know about it) he’s still unemployed and planning his next move.
The Folau affair is a difficult one for Christians. On the one hand we want to defend freedom of speech and expression, not only for ourselves but also for others. On the other, many of us are uncomfortable with some of his methodology. As Nathan Campbell points out, the original source of his “Warning” graphic is far from savoury. Besides, Folau isn’t even a Trinitarian. No wonder that I keep seeing some Christians not only find it hard to say anything positive about him but also distance themselves from his words.
What a mistake for us to make. I fear we’re in real danger of shooting ourselves in the foot over 2 related issues – the crass message of the gospel and the freedom to say it out loud.
One of the things you’ll hear people say regularly about Folau’s post is that he didn’t actually quote the Bible. Here, again, is what he posted:
The argument that “he didn’t quote the Bible” goes like this: This is not a direct citation of the Scriptures but rather a loose paraphrase of the following:
1Cor. 6:9-10 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
On face value it’s a solid argument. Not only is it a loose paraphrase, but it’s used in a manner inconsistent with its original intent. Paul is writing to the church in Corinth to urge them abandon sinful behaviour as inconsistent with their new status as Christians. Instead the meme turns it into a message to people who aren’t Christians as a warning about their eternal fate.
And yet, despite this I’m increasingly coming to the view that there’s more to say here. The meme is true. It’s as true as the original statement that Paul makes. Think it through with me for a minute.
First, there is a basic equivalence between “will not inherit the kingdom of God” and “will go to hell”. They’re essentially the same thing. If you had asked the Apostle Paul “do you think that those who do not inherit the kingdom are those who will end upon hell?” he would have said “of course”. He directly contrasts entrance to the kingdom and God’s punishment on more than one occasion (e.g. Eph. 5:5-6, 2Thes. 1:5-7 etc.).
Second, Paul’s argument in 1Corinthians (and elsewhere) is that these behaviours do lead someone to eternal punishment. Of course, the bigger issue that Paul himself shows us is our sinful nature and rejection of Jesus which then results in those behaviours but it is interesting that Paul is content to list those actions (and others in other places) as things which disqualify people from God’s presence, blessing and favour in eternity and, instead, bring condemnation. In doing this he only mirrors what Jesus himself has said (so, e.g. Mark 7:20-23 – it is abundantly clear what the fate of the “defiled” are).
So Folau may not have quoted the Bible exactly in his meme (although he does include a verbatim quote in the accompanying text) but what he wrote was entirely true and consistent with what we find in 1Cor. 6 and elsewhere. We might not like the way that it was expressed but it’s not as though Paul and Jesus wouldn’t recognise the statement as alien to the truth that they themselves expressed.
Which then brings us to Folau’s style. He was, let’s face it, as subtle as a tackle from a prop. We’ve already noted that the meme has an unsavoury source and wasn’t served up with the winsome eloquence that many of us might prefer.
But then the gospel itself hardly meets those criteria either, does it? Paul has this to say a little earlier in 1Corinthians (the same letter that Folau paraphrases in the graphic):
1Cor. 2:1 And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.
Now I don’t want to overstate my claim here. When Paul contrasts his message with eloquence and human wisdom he is speaking primarily about the essence of the message, the cross itself. The world thinks that God dying on a cross is raw foolishness. They want their gods to be powerful and heavy on the latest sophistry, not offensively pathetic like the dying Jesus.
But his argument is not just about the message itself. It’s also about style. As we read through 1st & 2nd Corinthians we see a church seduced into thinking its leaders and speakers need to look equally impressive. But that’s not who we are. We’re the exact opposite:
1Cor. 1:27-29 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.
Paul’s argument goes beyond the message to the vessels it is presented with and, dare I say it, the style in which it is presented. Yes, he urges us to be wise about how we communicate the gospel but he also urges us not to be seduced by style and presentation.
There is something quite unsettling about seeing Christians hang Israel Folau out to dry because of the manner in which he sought to communicate himself. I fear that in many of those instances we’re in real danger of falling into exactly the same trap that the Corinthians themselves got caught in – valuing eloquent presentation far too highly. No, Folau didn’t do it the way that we’d do it. But to a large extent his foolishness was foolishness as the world assesses it.
Plus there’s one ancillary point to be made. Freedom of expression and speech must be the freedom to say things in stupid and foolish ways. After all (as Paul has shown us) one person’s wisdom is another’s foolishness. If we say that Folau blew it because of the foolish way in which he communicated himself, offending people and not quoting the Bible accurately, then we can hardly complain when others seek to silence us for speaking foolishness too – even when our foolishness is “pure” foolishness like Paul’s own message.
And I fear for the day when we also end up arguing that only totally accurate citations of the Bible can be protected. After all, somewhere someone said that “somewhere he has spoken” (Heb. 4:4) and Paul himself was partial to the odd paraphrase as he explained the gospel.
Folau’s communication of the Bible was nowhere near as eloquent and precise as it could have been. But in its imperfection it was surprisingly Biblical. Let’s not be so foolish as to insist otherwise. Ultimately, do we really think that the world thinks any different of us when (as if?!) we get it perfectly right?