UPDATE: ACL response added below
“Can Christians walk and chew gum at the same time?” That question in its original form was asked by former US president LBJ (Lyndon Johnson). He used more colourful words, but it comes in handy when thinking about Israel Folau.
Can Christians support Israel Folau’s free speech rights AND disagree with his theology at the same time?
It seems some of us are having trouble with doing both at once, which is “sad” – to use the Trumpian term – because it is an unnecessary cause of disunity among (conservative) Christians who generally support Folau’s free speech rights.
It is fair to say that some Christians are more focused on doctrine than others – this is a product of temperament and the spiritual gifts we have and the roles we play in the body of Christ.
This mix of responses to Folau – some who simply want to support him, and others who want to express some doubts about his theology as well – has been ventilated in the pages of Eternity and many other places.
But this complex Christian response to Folau only really became public when the Sydney Morning Herald published a piece by investigative reporter Kate McClymont. (Declaration of interest – she was a long-time colleague of mine).
The paper, with a left-of-centre readership, tends to be critical of conservative Christianity and Stephen McAlpine has critiqued its motives in Eternity here.
But rather than a ‘lefty’ paper seeking out a story to discredit Folau, this story began with a Christian mother concerned to look after her Rugby footballer son. She feared that her son – alongside other young players – might be drawn into the Folau family’s Truth of Jesus Christ church.
What follows is her story.
She is anonymous for her son’s sake, but Eternity is aware of her identity. We asked the ACL to comment on its issues with the SMH story but, at the time of publication, it had not responded.
We now have an ACL response: “It is not wise, beneficial, or Biblical to ventilate allegations of theological dispute among Christians in the public square, or through the mouthpiece of secular media,” says Martyn Iles, Managing Director, ACL
I did not set out to tell my story to a mainstream newspaper. Instead I first brought the matter to the attention of Martyn Iles, Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby, in the hope that he would know how to avoid the public misunderstanding of Israel’s Folau church as representing mainstream Christianity.
As recounted in the SMH story, I was concerned about what my son and other young Rugby players might be taught at the Folau family’s church, so I attended Bible studies at the home of Pastor Eni, Israel Folau’s father, as well as discussions with Eni’s disciple, his 20-year-old nephew Josiah Folau, who has at times been the church’s appointed spokesman to media and also on their social media platform.
For example, as McClymont wrote, “One of those who won’t be saved is Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose Pentecostal Horizon Church teaches the doctrine of the Trinity. When the parent asked the Folaus if Mr Morrison was a Christian, they laughed and said “No, he’s a Hillsong.”
The Folaus told me that baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is false, and carried out by false teachers. They teach that baptism must be in water, in the name of Jesus Christ, and is necessary for salvation.
After my visits to the Folaus’ church at Kenthurst, I talked my concerns over with knowledgable Christian friends who happened to be associated with the ACL.
After things heated up with Israel Folau’s Instagram meme in April 2019, I contacted the church and asked for a statement of belief. They sent me several videos by US-based Oneness Pentecostal Pastor Gino Jennings, notably describing the Trinity as “junk”, women preachers and teachers as following Satan and other derogatory descriptions such as women who wear makeup are “prostitutes” and homosexuals are “faggots”.
When the ACL took over the fundraising campaign for Folau, its new site repeated what Folau had said on his GoFundMe page: “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.”
When I asked the Folau church whether Folau had told the ACL about his beliefs, this was the response: “I have no idea what he’s told the ACL. I have no clue about his interactions with, maybe he has and maybe he hasn’t – but they have definitely seen his preaching and the truth that Israel believes in, for sure. Some of them came to our church, and heard our doctrine, so they definitely know what we’re on about”
Josiah Folau went on further when I asked, “Do you think the ACL believes your teachings are false?”
He responded: “Gino Jennings, Eni, myself, Izzy and all born-again believers are simply servants of God. We aren’t false teachers, but if you want to believe that go ahead, it’s up to you.”
My ACL friends urged me to send my information about the Folaus’ church to the ACL executive. Their office suggested I should talk directly to Martyn Iles and an assistant arranged a phone appointment.
I spoke with Martyn Iles on July 4 for 35 minutes by telephone. It was a direct, respectful discussion on the following specific issues:
- My knowledge of the teachings of the church and what appeared to be the beliefs of Israel Folau in Oneness theology/Modalism ( I had already sent information which he acknowledged he was now aware of). Martyn initially suggested he had no idea, but later in the conversation indicated “he had heard things”.
- A major doctrinal fall-out with Brian Houston over issues pertaining to the Trinity and salvation and I asked, “Have you seen the Twitter rants from Israel Folau to Brian Houston?”
- Comments I had received from people close to Israel Folau that he had “cut himself” off from any other form of Christian teaching since becoming heavily involved in the church run by his father, Pastor Eni Folau.
- The Folaus’ church adherence to Pastor Gino Jennings and that Jennings was coming to Australia in October/November this year.
- A rough chronology from Israel Folau that he had become born again and a Christian in December 2017 – at his father’s church, not Hillsong, which contradicts earlier statements.
- I suggested the Christian public had a right to know Israel Folau’s true beliefs.
Iles appeared alarmed if these were the true beliefs followed by Folau and his church. He did express hope that maybe Izzy was on a journey from “Mormonism to Christ”, and he made it very clear that he personally had never described Izzy as a “devout Christian”. He commented that he would not have “Izzy” speak or preach at any ACL events and that their involvement would be limited to this one campaign.
While Martyn did clearly express concern, he also made it clear that for him the greater issue was religious freedom for all Australians. I said if Izzy was calling himself another religion, I could see his point. However, he has “repackaged Christianity”, effectively nullifying the rest of us with his “Oneness theology” – and is being viewed as the “poster boy” of our beliefs, while denying our essential doctrines, treating us all as “unbelievers”.
Martyn told me that he would meet with Izzy during the following week and have a serious discussion about his true beliefs. I suggested he take a church minister with him to have a witness to the discussion. Martyn disagreed, commenting he was still just getting to know Izzy and he had actually only known him for two weeks and met him twice. Once was at the very public ACL dinner and then on a second occasion.
In my view it all seemed to have happened very quickly, without any actual due diligence by Martyn Iles. This struck me as very odd.
Martyn also said he would contact Brian Houston to see if he could get some more insights. I do not know if he ever spoke to him.
Despite some follow-up texts and unanswered calls to his phone, I have not heard from him since July 4, nor have my ACL friends who facilitated my conversation with Martyn.
In the end I felt compelled to bring the information I had to the public.
I was understandably shocked when Martyn Iles made allegations that I had made these things up.
Finally, I would like to respond briefly to two public comments published by Martyn Iles to various social media platforms (also published in some news reports), in response to the SMH article about me earlier this week.
They are as follows:
“A hostile 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).”
I identified myself to ACL members who organised my phone conversation with Iles. I hesitated to identify myself to Iles himself as I was unsure if he was clear on what the Folaus really believe.
I identified myself when I attended the Bible study, Israel Folau was also present, and I also had a second person with me who was a witness to what was said. I do not have an axe to grind with the Folau family and I am genuinely as a Christian concerned for the difficult situation they are in.
“The story appears to be based predominantly on quotes from a single anonymous source who has been acting in concert with Rugby Australia.”
I have nothing going on with Rugby Australia. I am a Christian concerned about the spread and acceptance of false teachings in the church. To quote some wisdom borrowed from the ACL website, “And the truth, whenever it is spoken, will yield fruit. Silence is not an option.”
I would have assumed Martyn Iles would adhere to these words of wisdom himself. I spoke the truth to him, in love.