It’s been an interesting few weeks in the world of Christianity and celebrity sport stars. Last week, it emerged that Wallaby rugby star Israel Folau had landed in hot water (not for the first time) after posting an image on Instagram stating that hell awaits drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, and idolaters. Folau captioned the image: “Those that are living in sin will end up in hell unless you repent. Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him.”
Progressives were immediately up in arms. Seemingly overlooking the fact that his post also called drunks, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, and idolaters to repent, they zeroed in on “homosexuals” and, predictably, called him out for hate speech. The outcry has been loud, widespread, and swift. Rugby Australia has given him 48 hours recant or have his contract terminated.
Folau’s comments have drawn a wide array of responses, ranging from Australian megachurch pastor Brian Houston to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Social media is polarised, with many praising Folau for his faithfulness to Christian ethics, while others have condemned him and called for his immediate removal from all forms of rugby. Christians should think carefully, rather than reactively, about Folau’s comments and the outcry that they have raised.
It must be said quite clearly that Folau’s posts should not be surprising for anyone who has read the Bible. Indeed, the Instagram post that has attracted all this negative press is little more than a direct allusion to Scripture:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
(1 Corinthians 6:9–11)
We should not pretend that it is a shocking thing for a Christian to hold to historic, Christian teaching. The bigger news story should surely be professing Christians who reject what the Bible clearly teaches.
Folau’s response to the criticism should also be appreciated. He has come under intense criticism and is facing severe sanctions, which will have a serious impact on his livelihood, but he has remained steadfast in his commitment to Christ and his word. In the spirit of Martin Luther, his conscience is captive to Scripture and he will not go against it, whatever that might cost him. That is to be admired.
The bigger question, I think, surrounds his initial use of a public platform to condemn sinners in the way that he did. Brian Houston has drawn much criticism in the theological circles in which I travel for his response to Folau. Houston admits admiration for Folau’s willingness to stand uncompromisingly on his beliefs, recognises sin as a reality, and confesses belief in heaven and hell. His concern is Folau’s use of a public platform to condemn sinners, which he considers judgemental.
I am not a fan of Brian Houston, and the tone of his response does seem to be more seeker-sensitive than I am comfortable with. He is concerned that, because of views like those expressed by Israel Folau, “the church is not relevant … and is seen to be stuck in the past.” I want to respond that, if the church’s commitment to biblical ethics is “irrelevant” to the world, so be it. It is not our place to change what the Bible clearly teaches so that we can appear relevant to the world. But that is not what Houston is saying.
Houston’s central thesis is captured in this line: “Jesus, John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul, all kept their harshest criticism for those who were religious and judgmental.” Whatever you might think of Brian Houston, he is right on this point. Jesus, John and the apostles were never afraid to confront sin and call sinners to repentance, but when they addressed sin publicly, it was the sin of the religious, not the irreligious, that they confronted most harshly.
It was to the religious leaders of Israel that John directed these words: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:7–8). Jesus denounced Israel’s religious leaders in his most scathing public discourse (Matthew 23). As you read the book of Acts, you see that the apostles addressed their strongest criticism to religious Jews. Even the text that Folau seems to have been referencing in his Instagram post (1 Corinthians 6:9–11) was written, not as a public broadcast to the world in general, but as a personal letter to a local church in Corinth.
None of this implies that John, Jesus, or the apostles were unwilling to call out sin individually. John was executed because he confronted Herod about his sexual sin. Jesus directly called Zacchaeus to repent of his unscrupulous financial practices. In their evangelism, the apostles confronted sin and called sinners to repent. But whenever you see that happening, you find the evangelist involved in a direct, personal confrontation with the person he is calling to repentance.
This is not to say, of course, that public calls to repentance have no place. The Old Testament prophets frequently called Gentile kings and nations to repent. Jonah, for example, was sent to a completely pagan people with a simple message: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). Isaiah and Ezekiel, among other prophetic writings, are replete with oracles against pagan nations, calling them to repent of specific sins. Given the weight of the biblical text, it is difficult to accuse Folau of any wrongdoing.
But wisdom sometimes calls for particular approaches to particular situations. Solomon wrote, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and whoever captures souls is wise” (Proverbs 11:30). Capturing souls is not a reference to evangelism (being a “soulwinner”) but a reference to being winsome toward others. The CSB puts it this way: “A wise person captivates people.”
Jesus was a wonderful example of this truth. He was so winsome in his approach to sinners that he was accused by the religious hypocrites of being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:16–19). In Jesus’ day, tax collectors and sinners were Public Enemy Number One for orthodox, religious Jews. It would be akin to a Christian today being known as a friend of homosexuals and abortionists. No doubt, many orthodox Christians would rebuke a confessing Christian who was known to be a friend of homosexuals and abortionists, but that person would be more like Jesus than we would like to admit.
Israel Folau is a public figure with a significant public following. At the time of writing, he has 126,000 followers on Twitter and 338,000 on Instagram. His posts are seen publicly by hundreds of thousands of people. The thoughts he expressed are true, and it is admirable that he stands by his convictions. It is beyond dispute, however, that the way that he went about it can hardly be described as winsome, and therefore there is cause to question the wisdom in it all.