How to be a public Christian in an Israel Folau world
“You’re a Christian. What do you think about Israel Folau?”
Part of my job is to spend my days meeting with Christians in the workplace, talking with them about the issues that they face on the job, and consider together how the Gospel shapes their life at work. But the last two months there has been one workplace issue more than any other that I’ve found myself talking with them about – Israel Folau.
It has perhaps been the most talked about topic in Australia so far in 2019. While huge amounts of ink have been spilt on newspaper articles, editorials, and blog posts discussing the saga, I have one simple aim in this article. For the everyday Christian in the workplace (or at the school gate, or in the coffee shop with friends), how should they respond when the above question comes? How might we be public Christians in an Israel Folau world? Here are four things to keep in mind as we navigate this question.
1. How we should think about ourselves – holy exiles
Firstly, we need to remember our identity in such an environment. The Apostle Peter sums it up like this - those in Christ are “holy exiles”. In his first letter, Peter repeatedly says that Christians, both individually and corporately, are a holy people (1:13-16, 2:9). They are distinct, different, set apart from the world around them. That is, holy.
Further, Peter also describes his recipients as “aliens and strangers” or “foreigners and exiles” (1:1, 1:17, 2:11). Some assume Peter means something like Christians are just temporary residents of this planet, and that heaven is our true home. Indeed it is true that elsewhere in the New Testament the Apostle Paul is emphatic that the Christian should understand their citizenship to be ultimately in heaven (Philippians 3:20). But that’s not what Peter has in mind here.
The words “foreigners and exiles” were often used in Peter’s time to speak of temporary residents, that is, someone who is not a tourist but has a fixed address. It’s a term to describe someone’s horizontal relationships, that is, with those around them. And like temporary residents, we do things differently. We have different practices to those we live amongst. We hold different values. We’re in the world but not of the world. As one writer summarises what Peter means by these terms, “Peter uses the term “foreigner” to distance his readers from the hold their society may have over them. Nevertheless, Peter does not call them to withdraw from society… [exiles] dwell respectfully in their host nation but participate in its culture only to the extent that its values and customs coincide with their own that they wish to preserve” (Jobes, 1 Peter, 62). Christians are part of this world, but we are distinct, different. We are holy exiles.
One implication of this is that it shouldn’t surprise us if we feel a little out of place oftentimes, a bit strange in the eyes of our colleagues, friends, family and neighbours. In fact, if we don’t sometimes feel out of place, or at times others think that our practices are a little strange, then maybe we’re not being who we are – holy exiles.
2. How we should live – “such good lives”
Secondly, to these holy exiles Peter then explains how they should live. “As foreigners and exiles…live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (2:11, 12). Peter’s repeated instruction to holy exiles is to do good. The reason for this is ultimately missional. As Peter explains, though your distinct, different living at times might be assessed as evil by some, nevertheless the good that we do is seen by those around us, and can have a witnessing effect. Our neighbours, friends, family and colleagues are watching.
However this is not to say that words are unimportant to Peter when it comes to mission. Rather it is in the “context” of our good lives that we speak of Jesus, our “text”. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (3:15). Peter instructs us to live questionable lives, that provoke the questions of unbelievers. It’s in this context that we speak, and give reason for the hope that we have.
So in an Israel Folau world how should Christians think about themselves? As holy exiles. And in an Israel Folau world how should Christians live? “Such good lives”, that trigger people to ask us for the reason for the hope that we have.
3. “You do you”
But how does all this help us answer the question I opened this article with. How do we respond when asked where we stand as a Christian on contentious issues?
Firstly, being reminded of our identity is important. As much as we might not like it, the reality is that being a follower of Jesus puts us at odds with the world around us. We should be ready for that. Our answers to some questions will inevitably put us at odds with colleagues, neighbours and friends. We shouldn’t necessarily go out of our way to answer in such an inoffensive way that we deny our convictions. But on the flip side, this doesn’t mean that we go out of our way to be offensive. Rather, we seek to answer honestly and lovingly, knowing that how people respond might make us more keenly aware of our status as an exile.
But secondly, we answer these questions in the context of being someone who has first sought to live a “good life” amongst the pagans. Our answer to such a direct question comes in the context of us having first lived in a winsome and attractive way before our colleagues. Hence, this is why it is so important for us to consider how our Christian faith shapes our lives in the workplace – this will be the context in which we answer such questions! I know of Christians whose colleagues have disagreed with answers that they have given to contentious questions related to their faith, but the relationship has not been jeopardised, primarily because of the context of the “good life” in which such an answer has been given.
However there is a particular feature of our culture that might help shape how we answer such direct questions. We live in a world that prizes authenticity, being true to yourself. As the saying goes, “you do you”. As Elsa sings in the Disney film Frozen, “let it go”. Having been instructed by her father at a young age to hide her true identity, the turning point in the film comes when she realises this is no way to live. Rather Elsa “you do you” (see more here).
Similarly, Australian musician Alex the Astronaut embraces this way of thinking, particularly with regard to coming out as gay in her song Not Worth Hiding: “It’s not worth hiding if you’ve got something to say. And it’s not worth smiling if you’re feeling in pain. And it’s not worth hiding if you think you might be gay, or different in another way. You’re perfect just the same”. Don’t hide or conceal who you really are – “let it go”!
This is the cultural moment we live in – be true to yourself – particularly in the context of gender and sexuality. However this cultural moment might also inform how we be public Christians in an Israel Folau world. In a culture that says “you do you” we should frame our response to questions about our faith like this: “I’m a Christian, it’s at the core of who I am, it shapes everything about me. Hence on this issue, this is what it means for me to be true to myself”. To reject “who I am” in our culture is an anathema – it’s the great cultural sin. So perhaps the best way to be a public Christian is to gladly embrace your identity as a follower of Jesus – “don’t conceal, reveal” as Elsa would say.
However, to do this requires wisdom. Some might (rightly) say, ‘Isn’t this what got Israel Folau into trouble in the first place?”. “You do you” meant Israel didn’t conceal but revealed who he really is and what he really believes, and look where that got him! Hence my earlier comment is worth repeating - “you do you” doesn’t mean that we go out of our way to be offensive. Rather, we seek to answer honestly and lovingly, knowing that how people respond might make us more keenly aware of our status as an exile. We need wisdom.
4. Confidence not fear
Notice the posture I’m suggesting Christians take in a culture of “you do you”. It is one of confidence rather than fear. I personally get nervous when I see fear shaping the posture of Christians in Australia today, primarily because it is a posture so at odds with New Testament Christians, in particular, the Apostle Peter’s audience.
Peter says much about fear in his letter, however it is almost always in the context of not fearing humans, but rather fearing God (1 Peter 2:17-18). For example, the instruction to answer people’s questions in 3:15 immediately follows this instruction: “But even if you should suffer for what is right you are blessed. Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened. But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (3:14-15). Notice the logic - we might be disliked for our Christian views - that’s part of being an exile! But don’t fear humans, rather fear (or revere) God. And in light of that, answer when you’re asked what and why you believe. Reveal don’t conceal. Be marked by confidence rather than fear.
What motivates such confidence? In addition to remembering our identity as holy exiles, Peter implores his readers to remember one more thing, that is, the sure hope that they have in Christ.
Throughout his first letter, Peter repeatedly reminds his readers of their hope (1:3; 1:13; 1:21; 3:15). It is a life animated by hope that Peter says will ultimately mark Christians as different and cause people to ask questions of them (3:15). And in a culture such as ours, to answer with loving confidence when people ask us pointed questions about our faith will certainly provide opportunity to demonstrate not fear, but hope. Our confidence can demonstrate that our hope doesn’t rest ultimately in the opinion of others, but in the God in whom our eternal hope rests.
Some of my favourite verses in the whole Bible are 1 Peter 1:3-9. They have ministered to me in a variety of situations, because at the core of them is a reminder of the hope of the Gospel - the “new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3). Let me encourage you to read them, commit them to memory and to heart, and cling to them as you seek to be a public Christian, a holy exile, in an Israel Folau world, animated not by fear but by hope. And so, “you do you”.