What does the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) and the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA) have in common? About as much as Theological Liberalism and the International Rugby Board (IRB).
GAFCON & FIFA
I had the immense privilege, along with 200 other Australians and 2,000 conferees altogether, of being at the recent GAFCON in Jerusalem.
As this event was unfolding, so too was another event, far more famous, but also far more fleeting in its ultimate significance than the relatively unheralded gathering I was at. In Russia, the 2018 Football World Cup was being contested by 32 nations over 64 matches, each pulling in crowds of 50,000 plus.
Something else was going on for me as Helen and I participated in GAFCON by day, and watched the World Cup on TV by night. I was preparing a talk on a section of 2 Timothy 2 for a church where I was to preach in South Africa shortly after GAFCON:
As for you, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard from me, pass on to reliable men who can teach others also . . . . an athlete doesn’t wear the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules - 2 Timothy2:1-2-5
Be strong in grace.
Timothy was to ‘be strong in grace’ as he passed this word of grace on to others, so that the gospel of grace will be embraced by generations and nations, and torrent (or trickle) down to the grace-starved people who populate the world in our own day.
Paul goes onto to give three illustrations to help Timothy understand the single-mindedness (soldier), integrity (athlete) and fortitude (farmer) he needed to apply to his task. He takes Timothy to the battlefield (or barracks), the stadium, and the farm.
As Timothy was to be strong in grace in passing on the gospel of grace he was to remember that an athlete only wins the prize if he competes according to the rules. Make no mistake, Paul is not reverting to a gospel of works. He has already debunked that notion in the first chapter (2 Timothy 1:9-10), as indeed he battled it for his entire ministry.
The gospel of grace, Christianity no less, has a certain character, an essence, such that if you contradict it, redefine it, revise it so that it’s something other than Christianity, you have invented something that is quite foreign to the original thing. This is what Timothy, with the mindset of an athlete, must not do.
The Integrity Of An Athlete
At the risk of it sounding like a tautology on steroids, let me illustrate just one of these illustrations. Football is defined by a round ball, peculiar looking timber structures called ‘goals’ at each end of the pitch, sidelines, penalty areas etc. There are technical rules about things like being off-side and illegal tackling methods.
But the very essence of football is using your feet skillfully to kick and advance the ball from player to player into the goal. You are allowed to use your head, and even your chest occasionally, but most definitely not your hands or arms.
For example, a defining moment in Australia’s fortunes at the 2010 World Cup was when our star player, Harry Kewell, was red-carded for allegedly using his arm to block a ball in the penalty area. He was expelled from the field and Ghana slotted the penalty goal. The game finished in a draw and ended Australia’s hopes of advancing to the knock-out stage of the tournament. Harry was judged to have broken a rule and was duly punished for it. He didn’t flaunt the rules or try and invent a different game.
But in 1832 an outrageous different thing happened in a football game. In England, in a small town called Rugby, a boy called William Webb Ellis decided, not just to break the rules, but to change the essence of the game altogether. He picked up the ball, tucked it under his arm and ran with it to towards the goals. You could call it a revision of football, but in realty, a completely different game was invented.
Today, we have the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA) and the International Rugby Board (IRB). They both govern their different sports and administer World Cups.They have a few similarities. But they are as different as cheese and chocolate. And everyone understands the history. No one doubts the origins. Everyone acknowledges what the real football is. Nobody doubts that rugby is the breakaway, the schismatic sport. Not even me, a rugby nut from way back when!
Applying The Athlete Illustration
The Biblical, credal and reformed Christianity that GAFCON seeks to champion has always had those who want to revise certain aspects of how it is played. A little tinkering here and there. How much water should be used in baptism? How often should we celebrate The Lord’s Supper?
But a few years ago someone came along and decided to pick up the ball and invent a different game altogether. They sought to revise it beyond recognition. Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead. His death was only an example of sacrificial love. The miracles didn’t happen. There’s no judgment, heaven and hell. Scrap superstitious notions of the supernatural. Ignore the Bible’s teaching on human sexuality. Can the creeds. Dismiss the great Articles of Faith.
There’s no law against inventing your own religion. While the Bible has long called it idolatry, we nonetheless recognise the right to freedom of speech in a democratic society. ‘Liberal theology’ can, and will, say and do what it wants. But it shouldn’t lie and pretend to be a legitimate part of Biblical, credal and reformed Christianity.
It should, if it had any integrity, go and buy its own paddocks, build its own stadiums and draw its own crowds to its vacuous rhetoric, rather than pinch our paddocks, steal our stadiums and damage or destroy the faith of the followers of Jesus.
Rugby, at least, had the integrity to walk away, set up its own structures and code, and not call Football divisive or schismatic.
Theological liberal Anglicans should at the very least have the integrity to walk away and certainly shouldn’t accuse GAFCON of being the very thing it is itself. Schismatic or divisive.
That’s the most lying, laughable, own-goal of all.