PAUL COLLINS. Give me a break!

Please, please, give me a break from Israel Folau! We’ve all heard more than enough about who’s going to hell. He can believe whatever he wants and he can blow his bags ad nauseam to his Pentecostal mates. But we don’t have to take it seriously. He’s a rugby footballer, for goodness sake, not a biblical scholar! His literalist and fundamentalist views are simply wrong; they’re not what the bible says and they don’t represent the views of the vast majority of Christians.

I’m happy to confess I’m one of Folau’s targets. I’m an “idolater” happily on the way to hell. Idolaters include Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, other Christians and all the unwashed who haven’t been “born-again.” But the main focus of his talk/sermon last week at a Pentecostal gathering in Sydney’s Kenthurst was on the way “homosexuality is in disguise to try and take-over…this world.” He says that “kids…16-years-old-or-younger…are able…to change their gender.” And it’s not only “non-Christians” who are the problem, because “a lot of the churches today allow these things to happen.” Those born-again are the last “true believers in Christ.”

The only problem with all this is that the biblical basis for Folau’s claims is extraordinarily tenuous. In fact, the biblical texts touted as condemning homosexuality don’t support later interpretations foisted onto them by people with agendas. In fact, the word “homosexual” doesn’t occur anywhere in the extant Hebrew, Greek, Syriac or Aramaic versions of the bible.

The classic text cited as condemning homosexuality is the Sodom story in Genesis 19. The essence of the text is the men of Sodom want to “know” the two visitors to Lot’s house. The most credible interpretation of the word “know” in the text is not sexual, but that the city elders want to know who the two visitors are to whom Lot has offered hospitality, especially given that Lot himself was a foreigner. Despite popular opinion, the word “know” very rarely has a sexual connotation in the bible. It is only much later, post-biblical interpretations that inject a homosexual connotation into the Sodom story. This is really a story about hospitality and who stays inside the city walls overnight.

Folau might claim that he has support in the Leviticus verse, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (18:22). But the word “abomination” here is actually a reference to ritual uncleanness, like eating pork or having intercourse during menstruation. This is all about the Jews distinguishing themselves from their pagan neighbours when they first settled in Canaan (roughly equivalent to present-day Israel and parts of Lebanon) in the mid-eleventh century BC. This text is about ceremonial uncleanness, rather than hostility to homosexuality.

In fact the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) provide some extremely positive images of friendship between people of the same gender: examples are Jonathan who loved David “as his own soul” (I Samuel 18:3) and Ruth who pledged her life to Naomi saying, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge” (Ruth 1:16-17). These passages inspired the cult of Christian friendship, particularly in the Middle Ages.

There are three passages in Saint Paul which Folau might summon to support his view. The first text from I Corinthians says that “sodomites” will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (6:9) and there is a similar reference in I Timothy (1:10). The Greek word here translated as “sodomite” is μαλακός, which means “soft”, “weak-willed”, or “gentle”. It was only in the twentieth century that μαλακός came to be translated as the unfortunate word “sodomite” by reading a modern issue back into the Pauline texts.

From the Folau perspective perhaps the most telling passage is Romans 1:26-27 where Paul talks about women and men “giving up natural intercourse…[and being] consumed with passion for one another.” Some scholars argue Paul is referring here to temple prostitution. Other scholars say that he is talking about the non-Jewish gentiles and that the whole second section of chapter one is a quotation from a reused Jewish boilerplate attacking the rotten behaviour of the gentiles.

The whole text is written in the third person: they do this, they do that, so that verses 1:26-27 might not be Paul speaking personally at all, but simply quoting what contemporary Jews were saying about the supposed depravity of their neighbours. This is re-enforced by the opening verse of chapter two: “Therefore you [Jews] have no excuse whoever you are when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another, you condemn yourself” (2:1).

The whole problem here is reading modern controversies into ancient texts. This is especially problematic when the individual interpreting the text has no knowledge of the text’s original context, nor its meaning in the original language. Its very doubtful if Folau’s views on gay relations are actually biblical, which makes it very questionable why outfits like the Australian Christian Lobby are supporting him.

The thing that is particularly annoying about the Folau case and the support he’s received from an unrepresentative minority is the way in which all Christians are assumed to support his views. Casting the Folau affair as a freedom of religion issue is also problematic. I’m all for vigorous freedom of speech, but in a pluralist society this has to be negotiated with the rights of others.

As I showed in my research paper “God and Caesar in Australia” (Australian Book Review, March 2018), the Catholic church is the largest non-government employer in Australia with about 230,000 people working in its schools, hospitals, aged care and social services. The majority of staff are not Catholic, but are invited to share in mission, a generic word meaning participating in and supporting the ethos and service-aim of the organization. That generally works. What doesn’t work is when the church as employer attempts to investigate people’s personal lives and beliefs and make conformity to church teaching a condition of employment.

What Folau and his ilk do is turn this workable arrangement into ideological battle between the churches and LGBT Australians. As I said, give us a break!

Paul Collins has written four books on church/state/culture issues in Australia.


Paul Collins is an historian, broadcaster and writer. A Catholic priest for thirty-three years, he resigned from the active ministry in 2001 following a dispute with the Vatican over his book Papal Power (1997). He is the author of fifteen books. The most recent is Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world (Public Affairs, 2018). A former head of the religion and ethics department in the ABC, he is well known as a commentator on Catholicism and the papacy and also has a strong interest in ethics, environmental and population issues.

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15 Responses to PAUL COLLINS. Give me a break!

  1. Avatar Malcolm Fisher says:

    It was Daniel Boorstin who first wrote how the sizzle became more than the sausage. He said it started with radio quarter hourly news which elevated the unimportant as there really wasn’t that much of interest happening. I find it amazing that our society is divided, lawyers are lining up to make a fortune, and churchmen are showing their horrifying side because of the opinions of a Polynesian happy clapper millionaire fullback. Diligaf.

  2. Avatar Michael D. Breen says:

    How does this guy merit such serious and considered opinions for or against? He is a footballer. Unfortunately for him and many others he has been, because of hand eye coordination become a celebrity. Unfortunately like many such young people he does not have the personality infrastructure to manage the attention he gets. But how many of the people who put him in the spotlight are apologizing to him and to us for their lack of judgement? How many of the sporting fraternity will reflect on what they do to young unformed persons, to make money? I apologize for adding to this remarkably vacuous matter.

  3. Avatar Peter Dwight says:

    Dear Paul I would love to agree to every piece of what you say. But the niggling knowledge in the background for me is that, regardless of any textual ineptitude on the part of Folau, he his biblical condemnations (For example about homosexuality) are substantially reflected in the Heavily reinforced mainstream official teachings of the Catholic Church, and no doubt the other Abrahamic religions. So despite his ineptitude I don’t think his negativity can be easily dismissed as unChristian. I am intrigued, however by a hypothetical but keeps running through my mind: what is rugby Australia (or New Zealand) have been face not with Folau but with, say, Sonny Bill Williams Quoting to similar effect from his own Scriptures? How differently might that hypothetical case have been treated ?

  4. Avatar Peter Johnstone says:

    Thanks, Paul, for the scriptural analysis. It’s helpful to have those facts when dealing with the literalists. It’s sad that otherwise good people are so beholden to flawed doctrines, even to the extent of claiming a ‘right’ to vilify others. Religious freedom allows Israel Folau to hold his own religious beliefs, even homophobic beliefs. If his religious beliefs condemn or vilify others as they clearly do, he should keep them to himself out of respect for the more fundamental human right to live in a tolerant society respecting each other regardless of gender, race, ability or sexual orientation. It is also a clear abuse of his football fame to use it for propagating unassociated personal beliefs that can do damage to others. It’s particularly worrying that some Christian extremists think it’s Christian to support such vilification. The predominant value of Christianity is love, and homophobia and any vilification of others is certainly not loving; nor is it appropriate to our society’s values, Christian or other.

  5. Avatar Kerry Wensing says:

    Thank you Paul, as the mother of a gay son whom I have no doubt in my mind was born gay! Your article gives me hope that the Israel’s of this world will quickly become ‘yesterday’s news’.

  6. Thank you Paul for a sorely-needed corrective from the mainstream church. We are witnessing the personal tragedy of Israel Folau who is ending his brilliant sporting career with an exhibition of greed in the courts after a lifetime of grace on the field. He is being manipulated by people on the Right. We all know who they are.

    The danger to our society is that they will succeed in creating such a McCarthyistic climate of popular opinion that our Parliament will not have the backbone to reject religious discrimination legislation now being drafted in the Attorney General’s office. This hysteria would fade if Australians were more familiar with Section 116 of their Constitution which is written in plain English, easily understood both as it stands and in the context of Australian federation.

    Most religious people know how lucky they are to live in Australia. The few complainants who appear on television panels advocating government interference in the religious marketplace should look in the mirror and count their blessings. In which other country would they prefer to live? Where else on earth do people enjoy such freedom and tolerance?

    I hope your views, Paul, are representative of the silent majority and we would feel more comfortable if the Anglican and Roman Catholic Archbishops made similar, forthright comments from the pulpit.

  7. Avatar Paul Wonnocott says:

    Thanks from me as well Paul.
    I have thought from the beginning of the Folau saga that it was a matter of employment/ contract law and that suggestions that it was about freedom of religion or freedom of speech were somewhat exaggerated.

    Folau’s paste/post is a loose paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. I describe it as loose because I have a problem with the use of the word “Hell”.That is a word which has connotations of eternal damnation after a person has died.However if one looks at translations of that passage the phrase used is ” .. shall not inherit the kingdom of God. ..” In my view even a casual reading of the Gospels would suggest that when Jesus is talking about “the kingdom of God ” he is talking about the here and now in this life.

    I don’t think the sloppy distortion of scripture helps the freedom of religion argument.

    The beginning of 1 Corinthians 6 makes for interesting reading – St Paul seems to be highly critical of believers taking religious disputes before the courts of the unbelievers.

  8. Avatar Michael Johnston says:

    Those of us with a more ‘liberated’ bent when it comes to religion might well spend some time praying for Izzy’s success. Does the christian Lobby really understand the implications of a successful outcome for Izzy? It will surely set the precedent that conscience or ‘bigotry’ overcomes contract and employment law. Ye gods, what if gays and lesbians employed by Christians, Catholics or whoever, actually speak their minds?
    Or will it be one law for Folau and another for mere mortals?

  9. Avatar Evan Hadkins says:

    Here’s a born again Christian who disagrees with the footballer.

  10. Avatar Dr Wayne Sanderson says:

    Thanks Paul for shining a clear light into some ugly places.
    Folau’s zeal to harangue the public on sexual (and other) ethics from his well deserved platform in Rugby excellence displays a staggering ignorance and callous insensitivity towards the fallout from his proclamations in the wider community. Specifically, as some have suggested elsewhere, the impact on large numbers of young people who play or follow rugby league, rugby union and AFL – and who are big fans of his prowess on the paddock. Folau has played all 3 codes at the highest level. Some, just some, of those young fans might be gay, unclear in their sexual orientation or confused or impressionable. The Headspace clinics, the various community mental health services, Lifeline and Kids Helpline could offer some solid perspective on this. Might Folau be wise to heed the biblical injunctions on compassion and the vulnerability of the young?

  11. Avatar Peter Day says:

    Great stuff, Paul: thank you.

    It is, to say the least, exceedingly annoying and frustrating that biblical literalists are afforded so much airtime in the marketplace – that they are presented as the Christian norm. Well, they’re not.

    I have nothing but admiration for Mr Folau’s sporting prowess – he’s an extraordinarily gifted athlete. But his biblical exegesis is full of ‘forward passes, missed tackles, and dropped balls’!

    The bible is, among many other things, a literary, cultural and spiritual classic. Those of us who are ignorant of its original languages, of its complex literary forms and historical context, must tread very carefully, very humbly… and very quietly.

    Never in a million years would I give credence to a person with only a year twelve background in science waxing lyrical about quantum physics.

    Similarly, we need to be very wary of those scriptural pretenders who, from a place of utter ignorance, wield the Bible as though it were a proof text – a tool of oppression and damnation.

    Dare it be said, the media, too, is culpable here. While they are willing to trot out experts when examining important and sticky issues concerning defence, counter-intelligence, medicine, economics and the like; their collective approach to matters of religion is to trot out the I’ll informed. This not only fuels their love of conflict that guarantees audience share and sales, but perpetuates the popular narrative that Christians one and all read the Bible literally.

    Has anyone heard from a bona fide scripture scholar on Q&A, or elsewhere recently?

    Religion and the Bible, whether one is a believer or not, are central contributors to western civilization. Good religion sets people free. Bad religion destroys. This is important stuff: it matters. People’s dignity and beauty are at stake.

    Please, as much as is possible, can we hear from ‘doctors’, not snake-oil merchants.

    Peter Day

  12. Avatar Rosemary O'Grady says:

    Thanks for the scripture-lesson PAUL. Seriously.
    I thought we were having all this blather so the ‘public intellectuals’ could bang-out some easy copy in the so-called interest of ‘free speech’.
    In fact the Folau business is a simple (or not) breach of contract and if he is to be sacked, it seems harsh, it must be for breach of a term of his contract.
    The interest, for me, in the story, long since exhausted, has been the demonstration of the enduring effect of the Old Testament -style religious instruction of Pacific missionaries. It lingers for generations. QED. Australians have been treated to similar indoctrination. sometimes with even more costly consequences.
    I have been proposing a series of courses in Civics, and Ethics and Philosophy (secular) in Australian schools for generations. I don’t expect to live to see it happen.

  13. Avatar Peter Donnan says:

    “Prosperity theology (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, the gospel of success, or seed faith)[A] is a religious belief among some Protestant Christians, who hold that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them.” [Wikipedia]. Folau often speaks of his religion as defining ‘who I am’ but the golden calf, mammon, moos in the shadows.

    The yoke of religion and money, or in Paul’s title, ‘God and Caesar in Australia’, is even more evident in US television evangelism but it flourishes worldwide.

    With the upcoming meeting today[28June] between Folau’s team and RU Australia, there is speculation that an out-of-court settlement may be on the table, or perhaps down the track a little. Issues of freedom of religious expression etc seem to be a blurred legal zone in Australia and the crazy-brave strategy might be to let it proceed to the High Court. The prospect of a $10 million dollar loss may be terminal for Rugby Union. Ergo, the spiritually corrosive habit of compromise.

    Paul Collin’s position in this article is endorsed by many Christians in Australia, especially those with some biblical scholarship. What most gets up their nose is the obscene amounts of money involved, the way religious freedom is linked to financial transactions, the way the law is weaponised, and the unctious cant and self-righteousness of some of these born-again Christians who are so judgemental. The fact that Foau has more than half a dozen properties yet initially lines up on Gofundme to compete with children’s severe health bills, adds additional elements of disbelief even, in the minds of some, hypocrisy.

    • Avatar Evan Hadkins says:

      The prosperity gospel is more common among pentecostals and charismatics, a subset of protestants. Probably most protestants regard the prosperity gospel as a wrong emphasis at best and heresy at worst.

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