Israel Folau has gone from being one of the best players in Australian rugby, to an outcast. How did this happen?
On 10 April 2019, Folau quoted the Bible on his own Instagram page. Because the post mentioned homosexuals, it looks like he is being terminated from his livelihood of playing professional sport, will miss playing in the Rugby World Cup later this year and is being persecuted across Australia, the UK and New Zealand.
When Tasmania passed new legislation making gender optional on birth certificates, Folau commented on Twitter, “The devil has blinded so many people in this world, REPENT and turn away from your evil ways. Turn to Jesus Christ who will set you free”. And He posted the following on Instagram.
There was an image stating: “Warning – drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolaters – hell awaits you. Repent! Only Jesus saves”.
There was a statement: “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.”
And three passages were quoted from the Bible:
“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21NIV).
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
“In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).
Here is an explanation of the reason for the post (Appendix A).
The text in the image is a paraphrase of the following verses in the Bible: “Do you not know that the unrighteous [sinners] will not inherit the kingdom of God [they will go to hell instead of heaven]? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10NKJV).
Some say the text in the image is not a direct quote from the Bible because the words “warning” and “hell” have been added. They infer from this that Folau could not have been sacked it he had not included these words. However, this fails to recognize that the text is a paraphrase and not a direct quotation. The “kingdom of God” is equivalent to “heaven”. And the opposite of “heaven” is “hell”. And the truths expressed in any of these biblical passages can be applied as a warning, even though the word “warning” isn’t mentioned specifically. The context of the text in the image is the other text in the post, and this includes Galatians 5:19-21, which is a warning. Critics needed to read the whole text, not just the part that mentions “homosexuals”. This is basic to understanding the meaning of any statement.
Rugby Australia intend to terminate Folau’s contract, because they say the post is a breach of their inclusion policy which states: “Rugby has and must continue to be a sport where players, officials, volunteers, supporters and administrators have the right and freedom to participate regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race or religion and without fear of exclusion. There is no place for homophobia or any form of discrimination in our game and our actions and words both on and off the field must reflect this”. They claim Folau’s post is a breach of the player’s code of conduct because “he cannot share material on social media that condemns, vilifies or discriminates against people on the basis of their sexuality”.
The decision about Folau’s future is being made today. The accusation is that the post “condemns, vilifies or discriminates against people on the basis of their sexuality”. They say “The content within the post is unacceptable. It does not represent the values of the sport and is disrespectful to members of the Rugby community”.
Media commentators are calling it “hateful”, “hate speech”, “harmful”, “homophobic”, “anti-gay comments” and “offensive”. A sponsor said, “These comments are really disappointing and clearly don’t reflect the spirit of inclusion and diversity that we support”. This persecution was swift and severe. And the attack has been relentless. In the name of inclusion and diversity they will not tolerate and include Israel Folau! There is no tolerance today towards outspoken Christians!
This is not surprising. Both Jesus and Paul were persecuted for teaching the Christian faith (Appendix B). Paul was imprisoned and Jesus was executed. So it’s unsurprising that the Christian message given in the Bible isn’t tolerated today.
Jesus told His disciples: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first … If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (Jn. 15:18, 20). And Paul told Timothy that “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).
The Christian message
The Bible says that all people are sinners and they are all heading to eternity in hell unless they repent. That’s why God sent Jesus to earth. By taking the punishment we deserve upon Himself, Christ has made a way for people to be reconciled to God. So people must be warned. And that’s what Folau is doing. Mark Latham’s summary of the post is “that sinners go to Hell”.
Some people are upset about his reference to hell. Hell is the judgement for sinners who refuse or ignore God’s free gift of eternal life. The Bible is full of references of the punishment of the wicked (Rom. 2:5-12; Gal. 6:7-8; Heb. 10:29-31; Rev. 20:11-15). Hell is mentioned 14 times in the New Testament (Mt. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15; 23:33; Mk. 9:43, 45, 47; Lk. 12:5; 16:23; Jas. 3:6; 2 Pt. 2:4). It has more references to hell than it does to heaven. And Jesus Christ often warned about hell and the judgment to come.
Folau quotes Galatians 5:19-21 and paraphrases 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 that list some sins. The people who practice such sins are not believers and are bound for hell (eternal punishment). The Bible says that some lifestyles are sinful and displeasing to God.
Did you know that tolerance is a Christian idea (Appendix C)?
This is an example of selective tolerance. There is no tolerance to outspoken Christians. And an example of selective inclusion. There is no inclusion for outspoken Christians. How is rugby showing its “inclusiveness” by excluding an outspoken Christian?
What’ s wrong with sharing our Christian beliefs in public? Suppose a person went to a doctor and the doctor discovers they have a deadly cancer, but he sends them home, telling them that they are healthy. That’s not loving. They are refusing to share a life-giving truth. Or suppose you see a child playing on the street and a big truck hurtling their way, if you cared at all, you would yell, scream, jump up and down and do all you can to save them. The most loving thing we can do for sinners is to tell them the truth about sin, hell and Jesus.
It’s been noted that Folau’s actions suggest he’s more inclusive than his critics. Despite his personal views, he’s still happy to play with the many rugby players who are gays, drunks, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists or idolaters. And note the contrast in how Israel Folau is being treated compared to Tiger Woods! It reminds me of Jesus and Barabbas.
This is an erosion of free speech and free religion. Can we have real democracy without freedom of speech and freedom of religious belief? Christians are the only ones attacked for their religious beliefs. It’s spiritual warfare.
It reminds me of the thought police in the novel “Nineteen eighty-four” by George Orwell who persecute independent thinking and spy on people’s private lives. Are we becoming like a totalitarian state with a high degree of control over citizens and no tolerance of different views? Could this trend lead to parts of the Bible being classified as discriminatory hate speech that’s not inclusive? If this eventuates, parts of the Bible could banned from usage in public and be restricted to private use.
Of course, sharing Christian truth will always offend some people. Jesus alienated people because He spoke truth. And the truth about ourselves is confronting.
The Bible teaches that Christians should obey governing authorities because they are instituted by God (Rom. 13:1-7). But when the Jewish religious leaders told Peter and John “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus”, they disobeyed because “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 4:18-19; 5:27-29). So the Bible allows disobedience if the authority orders them to sin or to compromise their loyalty to Jesus Christ. If there is a conflict between the will of an authority and the will of God, then believers give precedence to the will of God.
No matter what happens at the code of conduct hearing today, Israel Folau says, “It’s obviously a decision that’s in the process right now but I believe in a God that’s in control of all things. Whatever His will is, whether that’s to continue playing or not, I’m more than happy to do what He wants me to do. First and foremost, I live for God now. Whatever He wants me to do, I believe His plans for me are better than whatever I can think. If that’s not to continue on playing, so be it. In saying that, obviously I love playing footy and if it goes down that path I’ll definitely miss it. But my faith in Jesus Christ is what comes first.”
What a great example of a follower of Jesus!
Appendix A: “I’m a sinner too”, by Israel Falou
People’s lives are not for me to judge. Only God can do that.
I have sinned many times in my life. I take responsibility for those sins and ask for forgiveness through repentance daily.
I understand a lot of people won’t agree with some of the things I’m about to write.
That’s absolutely fine. In life, you are allowed to agree to disagree.
But I would like to explain to you what I believe in, how I arrived at these beliefs and why I will not compromise my faith in Jesus Christ, which is the cornerstone of every single thing in my life.
I hope this will provide some context to the discussion that started with my reply to a question asked of me on Instagram two weeks ago.
I read the Bible every day. It gives me a sense of peace I have not been able to find in any other area of my life. It gives me direction. It answers my questions.
I believe that it is a loving gesture to share passages from the Bible with others. I do it all the time when people ask me questions about my faith or things relating to their lives, whether that’s in-person or on my social media accounts.
Two weeks ago, I tore my hamstring quite badly in the opening minutes against the Brumbies. I was told I would be on the sidelines for a month. Finding out I would miss three or four games so early in the season was disappointing and frustrating, but I accepted the news and started looking ahead.
That afternoon I put up the following Instagram post, referring to James 1: 2-4:
Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials, because the testing of your faith produces endurance … so that you may be lacking in nothing.
In the comments section of that 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.
No man or woman is different from another – if you sin, which we all do, and do not repent and seek forgiveness, you will not inherit the kingdom of God.
As it is written in Acts 2:38:
Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
I believe when Jesus died on the cross for us, it gave us all the opportunity to accept and believe in Him if we wanted to. To enter the kingdom of Heaven, though, we must try our best to follow His teachings and, when we fall short, to seek His forgiveness
Break me down, build me up
It wasn’t always this way for me.
I grew up in the Mormon church but, like a lot of kids, I didn’t really pay all that much attention.
I went to church on Sundays because that’s what my parents expected. I didn’t want to disappoint them. It was box ticking, pretty much.
We left the Mormon faith in 2009. As much as I might not have been the most devout follower out there, I always believed in God, so it left a huge void in my life.
I tried to fill it with other things. Alcohol. Women. Sins.
I was playing in the NRL at 17 and, soon after, playing Origin and Test footy.
That opened me to a world of temptation I had never been exposed to before. I had the means to indulge in that, but not the wisdom to understand what it really meant.
Often during this period I felt I was losing control of who I was and what I wanted to be. It was all ego and no humility.
But despite living this materialistic life, I still felt empty.
I would wake up on a Sunday morning and think, ‘This isn’t me’. And yet I would do it again the next week. And the week after that. It was a cycle of sin that was getting me nowhere.
The big change happened with the move to Greater Western Sydney.
With one signature, I went from the top of the NRL to the bottom of the AFL.
I have written before about the reasons why I signed with the Giants, but not so much the way it made me feel at the time.
I’ll be honest: I would be driving to training most days thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’ It kept me up a lot of nights.
I was doing what I thought was best for my family, but the reality of the situation – that I wasn’t very good at this new sport – made me upset.
All I had wanted to do in life was play in the NRL. Now I had made a decision to leave that all behind and live a new life to appease other people.
It left me emotionally broken.
It was around this time I started attending a new church where I experienced God’s love for the first time in my life. That’s when I started to realise this was all part of God’s plan for me.
I had been hiding my inner thoughts and feelings from everyone around me, but God could see into my heart.
He had to break me down in order to build me up again into the person He wanted me to be. It all suddenly made sense.
I have tried to live my life in God’s footsteps ever since. I follow His teachings and read the Bible all the time in order to learn and become a better person.
Since that happened I have been at peace and enjoyed life with an open, honest heart, which is why my faith in Jesus comes first.
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.
As you have probably read, last week I met with Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle and Waratahs general manager Andrew Hore.
During the meeting I told them it was never my intention to hurt anyone with the Instagram comment, but that I could never shy away from who I am, or what I believe.
They explained their position and talked about external pressure from the media, sponsors and different parts of the community, which I understand.
I acknowledge Raelene and Andrew have to run things in a way that appeals broadly to their executive, fans and sponsors, as well as its players and staff. It is a business.
I didn’t agree with Bill Pulver taking a stance on the same sex marriage vote on behalf of the whole organisation, but I understand the reasons behind why he did.
After we’d all talked, I told Raelene if she felt the situation had become untenable – that I was hurting Rugby Australia, its sponsors and the Australian rugby community to such a degree that things couldn’t be worked through – I would walk away from my contract, immediately.
I feel I need to explain this part in more detail because at no stage over the past two weeks have I wanted that to happen.
There have been things written about me angling to get a release from my Rugby Australia deal to pursue an NRL contract. That simply isn’t true. There have been rugby offers from the UK, Europe and Japan that are way above anything I could earn in Australia.
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.
After the meeting I went home, turned on the TV and was really disappointed with some of the things that were said in the press conference.
I felt Raelene misrepresented my position and my comments, and did so to appease other people, which is an issue I need to discuss with her and others at Rugby Australia.
That aside, I hope Raelene and Andrew appreciate my position, even if it differs with theirs.
I love rugby union. It has allowed me to travel all over the world and meet some fascinating people along the way.
It is one of the best things about the game in my opinion.
I do not want to bring hurt to the game and want as many people playing it as possible, so when I spoke to Raelene about walking away, it was to help the game, not harm it, in the event we couldn’t come to an understanding.
I used to believe I was defined by my actions on the footy field, but I see now that’s not true.
God can see from beginning to end
Anyone who knows me knows I am not the type to upset people intentionally.
Since my social media posts were publicised, it has been suggested that I am homophobic and bigoted and that I have a problem with gay people.
This could not be further from the truth.
I fronted the cover of the Star Observer magazine to show my support for the Bingham Cup, which is an international gay rugby competition for both men and women. I believe in inclusion. In my heart, I know I do not have any phobia towards anyone.
With everything that has been said and written, many people over the past six months have told me they think I am wrong, either to my face or via social media.
I won’t to go into the specifics – some of it has been pretty heavy, and from people close to me – but they let it be known that their views differed from mine.
I don’t have any issue with this.
Every individual in this world is different and we have all experienced things that have shaped us in unique ways.
I don’t expect everyone to believe what I believe. That goes for teammates, friends and even family members, some of whom are gay.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers in life. It can be difficult making the right decisions.
You are always trying to reconcile the truth from the Bible with things you feel inside. But I have faith that God’s path is the right one and that path is outlined in the Bible. I will keep sharing that.
One of God’s commandments is to, ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’. In other words, God loves each and every one of us. He just doesn’t love the sin we live in.
That is what Jesus died for, to give us a chance to be forgiven.
If you choose to believe in Him, repent, and be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the removal of your sins, you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. That will enable you to live the life that God has called us to live.
God can see from beginning to end. I can’t. There’s a big element of trust in that and sometimes you have to give up the things you really want in order to please God.
I trust that He knows what is best for me. He knows the future. He knows how it is all meant to play out.
At times, you can feel alone and down. But Jesus told us that when you stand up for Him in this world, you can expect backlash. I find peace in that.
As testing as it can be standing up for what you believe in, the Bible tells us it will be worth it in the end.
Appendix B: Persecution of Paul
Paul described the persecution and suffering he endured when he shared the Christian message to sinners as follows,
“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked” (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).
Appendix C: Tolerance in the Bible
Tolerance is a Christian idea. It says, “I disagree with what you’re saying, but I allow you the right to say it”. The Bible calls Christians to do more than merely tolerate our neighbors. We’re called to love them.
– “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44).
– “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Lk. 6:27).
– “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Lk. 6:31).
– “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lk. 10:27).
– “do good to all people” (Gal.6:10).
– “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Col. 3:12).
– “be ready to do whatever is good … slander no one … be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone” (Tit. 3:1-2).
– “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pt. 3:15).
But the Bible says that there is no other way to God and heaven than other than through Jesus. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). So the Bible is intolerant about sin and the way of salvation.
Christians are to tolerate other people, but be intolerant towards the postmodern idea that all religions lead to God or that everyone’s beliefs are valid. We don’t have to agree with their opinions. Tolerance of something or someone doesn’t mean we condone it. Of course, there are limits to tolerance, we don’t tolerate terrorism, violence, child abuse, or neglect of the elderly.
Postscript: The hearing and legal proceedings
The hearing is being held in Sydney on 4-5 May 2019. In one of the most significant legal battles in Australian sport’s history, Folau’s team is expected to argue that Rugby Australia did not include a specific social media clause in his contract and that his posts were merely passages from the Bible and not his direct words. And Rugby Australia is likely to contend that Folau has seriously breached its code of conduct policy and its inclusion policy.
7 May 2019: “A hearing has found rugby union player Israel Folau committed a ‘high-level breach’ of the Professional Players’ Code of Conduct over controversial social media posts”.
17 May 2019: “Israel Folau’s Australian rugby union career appears over, after a three-person panel ordered that the Wallabies star’s four-year contract be terminated as punishment for his breach of the players’ code of conduct”. “Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle said the decision had not been directly communicated to Folau”.
20 May 2019: “Israel Folau says a lack of ‘confidence’ in Rugby Australia’s ability to treat him fairly is the reason why he will not appeal against its decision to terminate his contract”. “He did not have faith in Rugby Australia’s ‘management of the judicial panel process’.” “I simply do not have confidence in Rugby Australia’s ability to treat me fairly or lawfully throughout this process.”
6 June 2019: “Sacked former rugby international Israel Folau has launched legal proceedings with the Fair Work Commission against Rugby Australia and NSW Rugby for breach of contract. Folau’s lawyers said under Section 772 of the Fair Work Act, it was unlawful to terminate employment on the basis of religion.” Folau stated, “No Australian of any faith should be fired for practising their religion.”
18 June 2019: A crowdfunding campaign was launched to fund Folau’slegal fight against Rugby Australia.
24 June 2019: The crowdfunding campaign is shut down by GoFundMe after raising more than $750,000. The company said it would not tolerate the promotion of discrimination or exclusion. “We are absolutely committed to the fight for equality for LGBTIQ+ people and fostering an environment of inclusivity,” GoFundMe’s Australian regional director Nicola Britton said.
25 June 2019: After GoFundMe shut down the crowdfunding site, the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) offered to host Folau’s online appeal for funds to pay for his legal case. Over $1 million was raised on the first day! The target is $3 million.
27 June 2019: ACL put the fund raising campaign on hold after $2 million was raised from over 20,000 donors in just two days. This shows that there is considerable support for religious freedom.
28 June 2019: A conciliation hearing begins at the Fair Work Commission. If a settlement isn’t achieved, the case will probably go to the Federal Court.
29 June 2019: No settlement was reached at the Fair Work Commission hearing.
This post has been inspired by Bill Muehlenberg’s (Culture Watch) commentary on this topic.
Written, 4 May 2019