Israel Folau is one of Australia’s finest rugby union players and one of the most popular sportsmen in the country. He has represented Australia 62 times in international games. He’s also a dedicated Christian with active Twitter and Instagram accounts where he often posts quotes from the Bible.
He is Sydney-born of Tongan heritage and is active in the Tongan community.
Not long ago, one of his Instagram followers asked what God’s plan for gay people was. Folau responded: “HELL … Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.”
And of course all hell broke out. Major sponsors of Rugby Union, notably Qantas, Australia’s leading airline, threatened to withdraw. Folau was pilloried on social media as a homophobe. “What a fool. Continuing to promote hatred. Fundamentalist Christian imbeciles” was a typical comment.
No one can say that Folau isn’t consistent. Back in September, when Australia was debating the legalisation of same-sex marriage, the administrators of Australian Rugby Union, along with soccer, cricket, Australian Rules and rugby league, backed the “marriage equality” campaign. Folau tweeted: “I love and respect all people for who they are and their opinions. but personally, I will not support gay marriage.” And of course, all hell broke out.
Of course, Folau has a strong case theologically. Homosexuals are really not a special case in the salvation stakes. What is God’s plan for Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity? Hell, unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.
And besides, since most gay people presumably don’t believe in God or hell anyway, the dummy-spit is hardly logical. If Folau had tweeted: “If gays don't believe in Santa Claus, they won't get any presents”, would there be outrage or laughter? But, as so often happens in LGBTQI+ issues, logic has little to do with it.
Folau has stuck to his guns and refused to retract his comments under intense pressure from the media and the administrators of his sport. He even offered to quit rugby union in Australia and play elsewhere.
But he will not back down. “This is not about money or bargaining power or contracts. It’s about what I believe in and never compromising that, because my faith is far more important to me than my career and always will be,” he writes this week in in an online magazine, Players Voice.
He explains his stand there at some length. He insists by no means a homophobe or a bigot. He has gay family and gay friends. Once he even appeared on the cover of a gay magazine, the Star Observer, to promote an international gay rugby competition.
As for the controversial Instagram post:
I was asked a question by somebody about what God’s plan is for gay people.
My response to the question is what I believe God’s plan is for all sinners, according to my understanding of my Bible teachings, specifically 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10:
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 the drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
I do not know the person who asked the question, but that didn’t matter. I believed he was looking for guidance and I answered him honestly and from the heart. I know a lot of people will find that difficult to understand, but I believe the Bible is the truth and sometimes the truth can be difficult to hear.
I think of it this way: you see someone who is about to walk into a hole and have the chance to save him. He might be determined to maintain his course and doesn’t want to hear what you have to say. But if you don’t tell him the truth, as unpopular as it might be, he is going to fall into that hole. What do you do?
In this case, we are talking about sin as the Bible describes it, not just homosexuality, which I think has been lost on a lot of people.
There are many sins outlined in that passage from 1 Corinthians and I have been guilty of committing some of them myself.
In a frank confession of his past, Folau describes empty years without God when he filled his life with “alcohol, women and sins”. But now, having become a Christian, he says that “I would sooner lose everything – friends, family, possessions, my football career, the lot – and still stand with Jesus, than have all of those things and not stand beside Him.”
Who deserves praise here? The shape-shifting trimmers who run Australia’s sports or the firm and respectful convictions of Israel Folau? Some people may find them hurtful, but they are not meant to be – unlike the mean-spirited Christianophobic comments of some of Folau’s critics.
At least we know where Folau stands and will stand. But the finger-in-the-wind chameleons? Who knows whose views they will channel next week? A democratic society is based on open and robust debate, not stifling unpopular opinions. Silencing Israel Folau for speaking his mind would be a nail in the coffin of democracy.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.