Lyall Mercer is one of Australia’s toughest Public Relations professional – and a Christian. Eternity is not sure whether advising Hillsong or handling the Nauru Government press operations has been his hardest assignment.
The decision by Rugby Australia to terminate Israel Folau’s contract after he posted a paraphrased Bible verse on social media listing the sins of those who are “going to Hell”, has major ramifications for churches and ministries.
It can be credibly argued that Folau’s comments were unnecessary, arrogant, insensitive and disrespectful to his employer. There were ways he could have shared his faith, and scriptures he could have used, that would have been far more effective.
But let’s drop the pretence that his views are extreme or isolated. His words were from a passage of scripture that the majority of evangelical Christian leaders preach and potentially billions of people across the world believe.
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The concept of sin (Folau listed but didn’t single out homosexuality) that without repentance, leads to a place of eternal punishment, or Hell, has been mainstream Christian teaching for over 2000 years, but no one wants to say that because the current social climate is so toxic towards Christianity that its leaders want to avoid becoming targets themselves.
When churches don’t take a position on subjects like gender, homosexuality and similar ‘hot button’ issues, they not only confuse the Christians they are leading, but empower and cede the public discourse to those with opposing and extreme anti-Christian views.
Churches are struggling with teaching what they see as biblical values and truths, particularly in the area of morality, within a social, political and media environment that doesn’t only reject the teaching, but the right of Christians to believe it.
In the background is an increasing number of Christians (and churches) who have been influenced by modern culture and believe that homosexuality and same-sex marriage is acceptable scripturally.
In response many churches have elected to avoid subjects that are now deemed controversial or ‘non-core’ to the evangelistic mission. This is understandable in the context that churches genuinely want to be inclusive and is also a recognition that for too long, the church’s attitude to homosexuality has been hypocritical, judgmental and disproportionate to its stance on other issues.
Yet when churches don’t take a position on subjects like gender, homosexuality and similar ‘hot button’ issues, they not only confuse the Christians they are leading, but empower and cede the public discourse to those with opposing and extreme anti-Christian views. The silence and ambivalence of the church on these issues has directly contributed to the increased pace of secularism and social change.
The Israel Folau decision indicates we are closer to a time when churches and other Christian organisations will not be allowed to adhere to or teach what they believe. His decision to quote a widely held and taught religious belief has cost him his job, millions of dollars and his reputation. Putting aside his possible lack of wisdom and sensitivity, let’s remember that all he did was state what the Bible says.
The condemnation of Folau had nothing to do with anyone being offended. How can anyone be genuinely offended by being told they will spend eternity in a place they don’t even believe in? If Hell is a fairy tale the reaction should be raucous laughter not outrage.
His list of sins was so extensive that he effectively stated everyone on Earth who has not gained salvation through repentance is heading to Hell. Rather than hate speech, this is a foundational tenet of Christianity.
This ‘outraged’ reaction was about reinforcing the new social norms and controlling belief and speech.
Sponsorship was the biggest factor in the Folau case, and likewise there are already calls to stop government funding of Christian schools for teaching scripture or setting employment standards, and donors of ministries have been targeted and threatened for holding certain Christian views.
The firing of Israel Folau sets a precedent. The question now is whether churches will change their approach and be just as bold as those that seek to silence them.
Following the re-election of the Morrison Government, a number of politicians from both sides are suddenly supporting new religious freedom laws, but Christian leaders who believe this is the long-term solution are naive. While legislated protections will help now, governments change, as do political climates.
The bigger-picture solution is for Christian churches and ministries to find their voice and become a greater part of the discussion. Churches could respectfully, lovingly and wisely have a position on those issues that go against the secular trend and be willing to explain these views without fear. It’s a harder road but would this not empower believers to be more faithful and resolute in their convictions?
Criticism and martyrdom is synonymous with Christian history. Even today across the world Christians (and people of other religions) are killed for simply having a faith. Surely comparatively, the consequences for Christian leaders of stating a viewpoint that may upset secular activists and social media warriors would be inconsequential.
The activists are the minority anyway, irrespective of how loud they shout on social media. The majority of Australians – as the recent election confirmed – may be inclined to examine alternatives to more extreme views and may understand a church’s position.
The firing of Israel Folau sets a precedent. The question now is whether churches will change their approach and be just as bold as those that seek to silence them. Maybe they could look to the Bible they preach – “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
Lyall Mercer is managing director of Mercer PR and consults to Christian churches and ministries across Australia and internationally www.mercerpr.com