[This post has been edited slightly in light of some constructive feedback from friends; though the main points remain unchanged.]
I have tried for a long time to avoid commenting publicly about the incident with Folau. Yet, every time I hear about it, and every post I see about it, burdens me more and more. With every defence given for what Folau posted, my heart burns with both anger and grief. Anger that people have so blindly and defensively taken his words as gospel, and grief that it is the non-believers who really stand to lose from all of this… those who do not yet know the love of God; who still live in the chaos and darkness of this world.
Every Christian I have seen or heard defend Folau has been speaking and acting not out of love for others, but out of fear and selfishness. Fear that their “freedom of speech” is being taken away from them (and what this means for their position in society). Selfishness, because they refuse to put the spiritual welfare of others before themselves.
But before I continue, I do want to acknowledge that I don’t believe Rugby Australia have made a wise choice, and that they have acted with a lack of integrity and have utterly shamed themselves. If for no other reason, then merely this: Dylan Walker physically assaulted his fiancé in 2018, and Rugby Australia supported him through that time, and has allowed him to continue playing.
Let me say that again; a player was charged with violence against a woman and is still playing, unhindered, for Rugby Australia. In fact, Rugby Australia has shown more support for their players who have been accused or even charged with rape, than they have for Folau because of an Instagram post. This is despicable, and the world should know that they are enabling abuse against women. So no, I don’t stand with Israel Folau, but I call for shame on Rugby Australia for their hypocrisy and indecency to their country.
There are many reasons why I am passionately against Folau’s post and attitude, and equally for the defence he has received for it [I am not against Folau as a person]. So, naturally, this will be quite a long post. But I hope that you will stay with me, and that you will read on with an open heart, and pray into what I have to say before you disagree.
The first issue to address is whether or not the claim of hell awaiting those mentioned in Folau’s post can be offensive to non-Christians. For the sake of space, I will answer that question more fully in another post, titled ‘God, Salvation, Evil, and Hell [ https://therestlesssojourner.com/2019/05/19/549/ ]. But, the short answer is yes, they have a right to be offended, even if they don’t believe in hell.
Now, to the other issues:
The Instagram Image
The first problem with Folau’s Instagram post is the blatant misuse of Scripture, which has caused much damage and misrepresentation of the Gospel of Christ.
Yes, technically, the words in the image have scriptural basis. Much like the statement, ‘speaking in tongues is the evidence of being baptised with the Holy Spirit’ technically has scriptural basis, and also like the argument ‘the supernatural gifts of the Spirit have died off’ can technically claim scriptural basis. You know what the problem with all of these statements are? They are picked out by people who have no desire to know or show the truths of God that don’t prove their own opinion right, and are used to promote, at best, only half a truth, and at worst, complete dishonour for the things of God.
There are four main issues that I have with the text in the post itself.
1. The words of the quoted “scripture” have been manipulated to better emphasise personal beliefs.
Firstly, the image posted does not quote Scripture. It is not a Bible verse. It is not a quotation. It’s a (misguided) mashed paraphrasing of different verses to create its own “scripture”. It is adding, and taking away.
If you visit Galatians 5:19-21, which I’m assuming the post is based on, as it’s the only relevant scripture that Folau gives for it in his caption, you won’t find the words “homosexuals”, “thieves”, “liars”, or “atheists”. While some of these may be implied by the text, they are not explicit. [I’ve been told that it is actually quoting 1 Corinthians 6:9 – 10, but this would still not make it a direct quote, and Folau nowhere gave reference to this passage]
2. The size of the text that states, “Hell Awaits You” compared to the size of the text “Only Jesus Saves”.
The photo is clearly provocative and whoever created it seems more concerned about telling people that they’re going to hell over telling people that Jesus loves them and wants to save them.
3. There is no mention of grace, nor love – which are the very means by which we are saved.
If whoever created such an image was actually concerned about people repenting and wanting to be saved, they would have included something about grace. Without grace, there is no repentance.
Furthermore, it doesn’t even tell its audience what repentance means, nor how one would go about it. This is not the gospel; it’s an egocentric display of pride and ignorance.
4. It promotes a works-based view of salvation.
By not mentioning grace, nor the love of God, and with no explanation of what it means to repent, nor why it is necessary, the image promotes a works-based view of salvation. Let every Christian understand this – salvation does not come to us by our stopping sinful behaviours.
We are not saved by a lack of sin. Sin decreases after we are saved as a result of being saved. How can someone stop sinning before they understand the grace of God? How can they even be made aware of what sin is, apart from being made aware of the grace of God? This approach to evangelism is unbiblical and foolish. And I’m sure Folau himself, if he can proclaim what the Bible says about liars and drunks, can also proclaim what it says about foolish behaviour.
To fellow believers: Please, for the sake of the gospel, don’t defend the Instagram post that Folau put up. Please, for the sake of all those who will be pushed further away from salvation by such hurtful speech, stop claiming that his post is preaching the message of Christianity.
To atheists/agnostics who have jumped to his defence based on freedom of speech: Thank you for your offer of help, but please understand that what Folau has posted is not what the Bible teaches (at least, it is not a full explanation of what the Bible teaches, and is more harmful to Christian teaching than it is good). Just as ‘Islamic’ terrorists hurt Muslim believers, uneducated Christian “hell awaits you” speech damages our testimony.
Folau’s Instagram post is not the Word of God.
Folau’s “Gospel” Explanation
Possibly the part that grieves me the most about Folau’s post is his caption, where he quotes three verses of scripture, from Galatians and Acts. God’s Word is disrespected here more than anywhere else. Allow me to explain how he has misused each of the passages he quoted.
The first thing to mention of this passage is that Paul is writing to people who have already made the decision to proclaim Christ as their God. The reason he is so forceful in his instruction to stop sinning is because they are claiming to be Christians, but not acting like such. They claim to be living in the light of life, but they still cling onto the ways of death. This passage should be used to instruct Christians; not to preach to non-believers!
Secondly, even if they hadn’t made a profession of faith in Christ, they were living in a society where the notion of “sin”, “hell”, “repentance” and “salvation” were understood. The Greco-Roman world was a religious world. The pagans were able to grasp the message of the gospel because they already knew the concept of sin and spiritual life and death.
Australian society today is far more detached from such ideas. People barely understand the concept of right and wrong, as morality is turning further and further inward of each individual, let alone of sin and sanctification. So if the said Instagram post was intending to show Christ to those who do not know Him, it was ineffective at doing so.
The actual, Biblical process of salvation and purification from sinful lives:
Unbelievers see Christ revealed (with His overwhelming love, peace, comfort and joy) >>> Unbelievers receive the grace of God and salvation >>> The grace of God slowly (in some cases quickly, but these are rare) sanctifies us >>> Through our sanctification, we sin less and less.] This is the Biblical process of becoming a Christian, not the process that Folau has advocated.
You can’t build a temple without first building a foundation on which it stands.
This verse is the answer Peter gives to a question, that is asked in response to a sermon he gives, in response to a rebuke he received, in response to the Holy Spirit being poured out on the disciples in front of hundreds of non-Christians. You see where I’m going? This statement from Peter is a very specific response to a story which God has given 37 prior verses to.
Bible: 38 verses of contextual gospel proclamation, which is powerful and good.
Folau: 1 verse, torn out of its God-given place, given in isolation and thus made ineffective and misleading.
The Jews who Peter was speaking to were also very familiar not only with our God YHVH and sin and sanctification, but they were very aware of the current events of that time (Jesus being crucified).
In this passage, these Jews who became Christians saw a demonstration of the power of God, and then were given a very long and articulate explanation of the Gospel by Peter, and then they responded and asked what they needed to do. Only then did Peter tell them they needed to repent; a concept with which they were well versed.
Out of all of the verses Folau gave for his poor explanation, this is possibly the most relevant, and even still not really effective. Once again, it has been violently ripped from a very significant passage in the Scriptures, which was designed by God, to fit Folau’s own perception.
Here, Paul is talking to pagans (non-Christians). The irony is, here he gives a model for true, humble and effective evangelism. He actually begins this particular speech by complimenting the pagan worshippers. He sees their error, but knows it to be due to ignorance rather than necessarily evil desire. He takes care to explain the message of the one true God, and furthermore explain it in a way that is relevant and can be understood by his audience.
If Folau’s intention was truly to win people over to the love of Christ, he should not have posted what he did. We cannot expect people to know that God is crying out for them to see how He loves them if the first thing we say to them is “You’re going to go to hell if you don’t stop doing the things you like doing.” How confusing, hurtful, and devastatingly damaging that would be! And yet, this is effectively what the Instagram post has achieved. If you can find me a place in the Bible where Paul preaches the Gospel of God starting with “You’re all going to burn in hell if you don’t repent”, then I will concede.
The beauty of Paul’s ministry was that he was “all things to all people”. He loved and cared for others, and always strived for gentleness, even in his frustrations.
I am confident to say that Paul himself would not approve of the way Folau has attempted to convey the Word of God, and the damage it has done, that outweighs any good which might have come from it.
A Lack of Integrity
Something that I feel must be mentioned is the lack of integrity with which Folau has handled this entire situation.
This is the most disappointing fact: That Israel Folau had previously agreed with his employers not to publicly post such things as he did on social media. This is disappointing for two main reasons:
1. He broke his word
Jesus tells us to let our yes be yes and our no be no. We should, as Christians, be so renowned for our integrity that we don’t even need to make promises or swear by anything; people should be able to know that when we give our word, we are good for it. This is a sign of God’s work in us. This would be something that distinguishes us in our community.
Even more serious is that Folau has implicated himself. In his post, he states that hell is awaiting liars, unless they repent.
Now, Israel is saved. He proclaims Christ’s death and resurrection, and that He is Lord. I’m also not prideful nor foolish enough to tell someone that they are going to hell; when only God knows that.
However, if he wants his words to be effective, he needs to exemplify them. If he wants liars to repent, he must repent for breaking his word. And, repentance is noticeable. So, anything less than a public acknowledgement of the wrong he committed (which, thus far, I have not heard) and an apology for his hypocrisy would suggest that he has not really repented; which throws him in with everyone that he has told is headed for hell.
2. He has shown a lack of respect for his employers
According to 1 Peter 2:13 – 20, Christians should submit to our authorities (keeping in mind that the language of slaves is relevant to that time; slaves in the Greco-Roman world were much more like employees than what we might think of). Folau has not done this.
Furthermore, Verse 20 reads, ‘But when you do what is right and suffer for it and you patiently endure it, this finds favour with God’.
So if he, and in fact if every Christian who has jumped to his defence, thinks that what he has done is good, he should be patiently enduring the suffering he receives as a result, and we should be encouraging him to do so.
Folau needs to accept the consequences of what he did, and he needs to acknowledge that he did not act with wisdom, nor with honour for his authorities. There was no need for him to post what he did, even if it had not been Scripturally inaccurate [‘misguided’ may be a better word than ‘inaccurate’]. He was not trying to defend the gospel, but was going out on an offensive ploy to try and force feed a fear-based message down the throats of nonbelievers. Ironically, in doing so, he lost a position from which he could have had more influence, shown more people what it means to live in the love and peace of Christ, and impacted more lives for the glory of God.
Let each Christian learn from this – just because you can say something, it doesn’t mean it needs to be said; especially if you are gambling with the position that God has given you.
A Stumbling Block
I do not enjoy writing about another believer in such a manner as I have; however the extent of the damage that I feel Folau’s actions have done to the message of the Gospel requires a firm response. I don’t believe that Israel ever intended to hurt anyone with what he posted. And I do believe that he loves God and loves others, and that he is trying, like we all are, to live a life that gives glory to the name of God.
It comes with the territory of being a well-known Christian, though, that words and actions are made public for all to see – both the good things, and the mistakes. And when a Christian public figure acts in foolishness or struggles with sin, as we have all seen in various countries and churches and circles, it casts a bad light on the message of Christ. And it is when this hope of the gospel is clouded, and thus becomes despised by those who might otherwise reach out to it, that believers must unite in condemning the actions of those who caused it to be so. This does not mean that we are condemning the person or people; only that we must make it known that what they have done does not reflect God, nor the message of the Bible.
Folau’s post is damaging because it is seen as spite and animosity by those who don’t understand the work of Christ. As such, it repels them from wanting to know God, and that is no small matter.
A much, much worse possibility is that someone who God has just started a work in, who is only just starting to come to know His love and compassion, has seen Folau’s post, and it has become a stumbling block for them. His words do not suggest the Biblical structure of saved and unsaved. Being unsaved is much more complex than being someone who ticks one of the “sinful behaviours” listed in those verses. Christians have also committed adultery, fornication, lies, idolatry, and drunkenness. Christians shouldn’t do these things, and should be repulsed by the thought of them; but do our mistakes mean that hell awaits us? No. Yet, from what he posted on Instagram, you wouldn’t be able to come to this conclusion.
Perhaps a new Christian struggles with lust, or with addiction, or doubt. Perhaps they have read this “exposition” of the gospel, and have not been able to understand why, if they have accepted God, they are still struggling with this sin. Perhaps they now believe that it must be because they’re doing something wrong. Perhaps they become sad, angry, confused, and disheartened. And, perhaps, this causes them to move away from God.
Woe to the one who causes any of these little ones to stumble. (Mk 9:42)
The Christian Disposition in Our Society: Fear over Faith
And finally, we come to the crux of the issue with those who have leapt to defend Folau. I’ve tried a number of times to find a less confronting way of saying this, but each time it doesn’t seem to quite fit; so I’m sorry for my bluntness.
If you are a Christian, this world does not owe you free speech.
Jesus says, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, they must deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.” He is not only talking about death. He is talking about His journey to the cross; the journey of rejection, humiliation, mockery, and abuse.
Where, in this call to discipleship, does Jesus affirm our right to free speech?
Christians need to wake up and realise that we are not living in a Christian world anymore. We can no longer decide what can and can’t be done or said. We are strangers in this world, and we will be hated because of our discipleship to Christ. That is the cost of following Him. That has always been the cost of following Him, from the day He spoke those words to today. This challenge of sacrifice has never wavered, and Christians need to stop trying to cling to their safety and comfort in this world to which we do not belong.
I am pleading with Australian Christians, with all my heart, to stop giving yourselves over to fear and anger. If you have accepted the love, grace, and peace of God, you have been given the strength to accept that you will be stripped of certain freedoms. But though we may lose our freedom in society, it is of no comparison to the freedom we have gained through Christ – freedom from evil, from fear, from hatred, and from death.
Stop wasting time being afraid for your political freedoms. Instead, accept that there is a time for everything, and that we are like the grass of the field that withers and dies; but that when this world has faded away, we have been given eternal life.
Instead of acting in fear of your future in this temporary world, put your time, effort, and passion towards the Word of God, which will stand forever.
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of God will stand forever.