5 Reflections From the Israel Folau Media Storm

By: Akos Balogh

Australian Rugby star Israel Folau has found himself in hot water. As an outspoken Christian, he put up a post on Instagram showing us how God’s plan for our lives is often different to our plans. Someone then posted a comment, asking the question: ‘What was God’s plan for gay people?’. To which Folau replied: ‘HELL…unless they repent and turn to God’.

Unsurprisingly, his comments ignited fury across social and mainstream media. Qantas has made an official complaint to Rugby Australia, and said it would pull it’s sponsorship of the Australian Rugby side if further ‘homophobic’ statements are made by Folau or other players.

Rugby Australia also distanced itself from Folau’s views, stating:

Israel’s comment reflects his personal religious beliefs, however it does not represent the view of Rugby Australia…we are aligned in our view that rugby is a game for all, regardless of sexuality, race, religion or gender, which is clearly articulated in rugby’s inclusion policy.’

There’s much to reflect on with this incident, but here are 5 points that come to mind:

1) What People Hear Is Often Different From What We Intend To Say.

Especially when we speak about controversial Biblical views.

No doubt Christians looking at Folau’s comment will have a number of different reactions.

On the one hand, at a purely propositional, intellectual level, we may well agree with Folau that non-Christians – whether gay or straight – are destined for hell unless they repent and turn to God. The Bible is very clear on that. Many will admire Folau for being so open about his faith.

And yet, many Christians will also find Folau’s comment troubling. It easily comes across as insensitive at best, and judgemental at worst – as if gay people are especially deserving of God’s judgement (while straight people aren’t). God’s impartiality – not to mention his love – seem absent.

And so, at the very least, Folau’s comment is open to misunderstanding. Folau may have meant that everyone deserves judgement and are lost without Jesus (including gay people). But judging by the outrage, what many non-Christians heard was a comment more in line with the heretics at Westbro-Baptist, akin to ‘God hates Fags’.

Now I’m not judging Folau’s sincere belief in the gospel: from everything I’ve read, he is a loving, godly man. But his comment is poorly contextualised: while he may be speaking God’s truth, he’s not taking into account his hearers, and their particular views, emotions, biases, and culture. People aren’t blank sheets of paper, to which we just add the gospel: we need to speak the gospel in ways which make sense to them.

And our western Aussie culture – particularly amongst the elites – interprets any form of disagreement – particularly around sexuality – as a form of hate (which the gospel is not). This means we have to work hard at showing how the gospel is good news – particularly to gay people.

(Perhaps a better contextualised comment would have been something along the lines of ‘we’re all destined for hell without Jesus’.)

2) Christians Need to Guard Against Being Unnecessarily Offensive.

Our hearers should hear the gospel’s offence, not our offensiveness.

The gospel is inherently offensive to many of our hearers (e.g. 1 Cor 1:18,23). But we must be careful not to be offensive ourselves. As the apostle Paul wrote about his method and motivation in reaching the lost:

‘Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.’ (1 Cor 10:32)

If we understand our hearers well, we’ll be less likely to say or do things that unnecessarily offend them.

3) The Plausibility Problem of Christianity

The Bible’s views, especially on hell and homosexuality, are beyond belief for increasing numbers of Australians.

This won’t come as a surprise to many Christians, but it’s worth reflecting on.

Listen to how sports writer Peter Fitzsimmons interprets Folau’s comment:

[Folau] seriously believe[s], as a grown adult, that there is a really good supernatural being, called ‘God’, in a paradise above the clouds called ‘heaven’, and a really bad one beneath us, called the ‘Devil’, living in ‘hell’, and though God must have created some beings as being attracted to their own gender, because he created everything, he still so hates his children for having that same-sex attraction, he will send them to hell …’’

For Fitzsimmons, and many other Aussies, the spiritual realities of the Bible aren’t just misunderstood; they’re also unbelievable. And so we need to work on making the gospel believable, before people accept it as true.

4) Christianity is increasingly seen as harmful, not merely as deluded.

This will probably lead to increased calls for regulation of Christian speech, especially around areas of sexuality.

Listen again to Peter Fitzsimmons, as he appeals to Folau:

Do you have the first clue of the agonies [same sex attracted young people] go through? Do you know how those agonies must be compounded by a respected figure like yourself saying they deserve to burn for all eternity?…How can you visit such pain upon them?’

Now if something is seen as harmful, then it won’t be long before there are calls for it’s regulation – whether it’s drugs, or speech. So we shouldn’t be surprised if Christian speech – no matter how well contextualised – is increasingly associated with ‘hate speech’, and treated accordingly. (Indeed, in Tasmania, religious institutions and ministers are already being caught out.)

5) In all this, Christians must be careful how we use the word ‘persecution’.

Folau might be under pressure, but he’s not persecuted.

There’s no doubt Folau is feeling the heat for his comment. Sponsors, sports writers, fans – many are outraged by what he’s written. And they’ve let him know this in no uncertain terms.

But is that ‘persecution’ in any meaningful sense?

He’s been publicly criticised for his public views, yes. But our pluralistic public square is rife with different views and ideologies, and anyone is bound to cop some criticism for putting forward a minority view. (Just ask the Safe Schools coalition).

And what about private companies like Qantas, threatening to pull sponsorship of Rugby Australia?

While we might be tempted to look at that as corporate bullying, let’s remember that private companies – whether airlines or wedding photographers – should have the freedom to do business with whomever they wish.

Of course, if the government got involved, and started putting pressure on Folau for his comments, then that would be different. A government that unjustly pressures people for their religious views – now that’s persecution. Just ask our brothers and sisters in China, North Korea, or Saudi Arabia.

But that’s not Folau, or us. At least not yet – although cracks are starting to appear.

Let’s pray for wisdom for Christians in public life.

Whatever your thoughts on Folau and his comment, let’s pray for him, and for other Christians in the public eye. Let’s pray they speak with wisdom and love – not to mention boldness. It’s a tough gig.

Photo courtesy: Wikipedia.com.

Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.

About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.