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What Can We Learn From The Israel Folau Incident?

The Israel Folau controversy captured the media and social media and still rumbles on. I’m sure you know the details. In a reference to his recent injuries, Israel posted, on Instagram, a graphic contrasting our plan (plain sailing) with God’s plan for us (multiple obstacles and ups and downs) and quoted James 1:2-4: Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials, because the testing of your faith produces endurance…

One respondent asked “what was gods [sic] plan for gay people??” and Israel Folau answered, “HELL… unless they repent of their sins and turn to God”.

The outcry ensued with people, including commentators in the media, calling him all sorts of names and asking for sanctions, including not allowing him into New Zealand etc.

Rugby Australia chose not to sanction him but talked about inclusivity and the need for respect when players speak out.

Israel wrote a fuller explanation entitled “I’m a sinner too” which included his own testimony, his explanation for his Instagram post and a willingness to walk away from rugby if the controversy was causing too many problems for Rugby Australia.

He has since posted a link to a video by David Wilkerson calling people to repent and, at some points, mentioning homosexuality.

Clearly many are outraged. Some Christians feel that Israel was unwise. Others disagree with his stance altogether. Still others agree with him.

Was he right in what he said?

In his later post, Israel has referred to 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 which says, “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (NIV).

That passage does not single out homosexuality. There are many sins that will keep a person out of the Kingdom of God. But homosexuality is mentioned as one of those.

It is also true that God wants everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4-6, 1 Peter 3:9) so it is possible to say that God’s plan is the homosexual’s salvation, recognising that, for those who do not repent, hell is the prospect that awaits them. Israel’s post held out the possibility of repentance and turning to God as the alternative to hell. It could be argued that he could have made it more positive but it is hard to argue that he was wrong in what he said. We should note that 1 Timothy 2:4-6 talks about there being only one mediator between God and mankind, Jesus who gave Himself as a ransom for all people, and 1 Peter 3:9 says God wants people to come to repentance.

Was he right in the way he said it?

Social media is a notorious medium especially for controversial topics. We should all consider if Instagram or Facebook or whatever is the best place to engage in a conversation like this. Using only a few words also does not allow for subtlety. A brief response can look harsh. Was it wise using upper case letters for hell? Probably not.

As has already been stated, Israel Folau could have stated the positive prospect of salvation more strongly.

There are probably many things that can be learnt from this incident about Christian wisdom in responding especially on social media but also in other contexts. It is often advisable to pause before responding and to seek wisdom from others about both the content and the style of the response. An ungracious response on the issue of homosexuality runs the risk of hurting people struggling with same-sex attraction and outraging the majority, in an age when homosexuality is not just accepted but ardently defended.

On the other hand, Christians should not be intimidated into silence. Any statement in line with the biblical teaching is bound to elicit an outcry and it takes prophetic courage to speak the truth.

What are we to make of the response?

Israel Folau has experienced severe criticism and been publicly condemned. Should anybody be treated like that? It is reminiscent of putting people in the stocks for public abuse. He has been called bigoted, intolerant, homophobic, nasty etc. etc. etc. His response shows that he is none of those things and has actively promoted gay rugby. He says [he] believes in inclusion.

Some people see the irony but it is lost on others. Those who are calling for inclusion and tolerance explicitly call for him to excluded and demonstrate their intolerance.

There are huge questions around freedom of speech and it seems that, for some, that means “You are free to express your opinion as long as you agree with me.” It is very clear that some believe that certain views should not be allowed in the public square. It is worrying when segments of society are so determined that other segments should not be heard and that only what is politically correct should be permitted. That is very obviously not freedom of speech.

Raelene Castle, the CEO of Rugby Australia, has said that this has been the most difficult situation of her career “and that's because there is no black and white answer. On one hand it's a human rights issue but on the other hand, you're dealing with freedom of speech. Someone is right to express their views - whether it be religious or otherwise - the test continues to be whether that's done in a respectful way.” At least she understands the tension.

This incident shows, yet again, that these are difficult days for Christians. God’s values are not what is currently politically correct and the reaction can be vicious. It requires of us great wisdom. Jesus was full of both grace and truth (John 1:14). We are to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Our conversation is to be always full of grace, seasoned with salt so that we may know how to answer anyone (Colossians 4:6). We are called to walk a tightrope.

And let us continue to pray for Israel and Maria Folau. Even if they might have done it better, they have shown that they are people of faith, integrity and huge courage. And they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Israel’s original post (James 1:2-4) is more relevant now than when he posted it.

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