Words can build up or destroy. For Australia rugby star Israel Folau, it was a lesson he had to learn the hard way after his response to a comment on his Instagram post went viral—and awry.
The Instagram post itself was a pretty standard one from the sporting celebrity with over 300K followers. Widely known to be an outspoken Christian, there was nothing out of the ordinary in the image he had posted earlier this month which quoted James 1:2-4, along with a diagram that showed the difference between our plans and God’s plan.
But amid the thousands of comments that streamed in, Folau’s response to one comment in particular would completely affect his life, put him in the headlines of multiple media outlets, and potentially ruin his rugby career.*
The comment: “what was gods plan for gay people??”
Folau’s response: “HELL..Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.”
As soon as his response was published, battle lines were drawn across the internet. Some praised his bravery to speak up for his beliefs and supported his right to free speech. But the vast majority pummeled Folau for what they perceived as an anti-gay and homophobic comment.
The topic “Israel Folau says gay people will go to hell unless they repent” began to trend online. Many people across the country and the sporting world weighed in with their opinions. One of Australian rugby’s biggest sponsors, whose CEO is openly homosexual, threatened to pull their support. Several intense meetings between Folau and the Australian Rugby Union were held behind closed doors, discussing his future in the sport.
Over the last three weeks, I have followed the developing story with much interest and have learned much about the incredible power that words can have, particularly on social media.
To Communicate Truth Effectively
From a Biblical standpoint, Folau’s words seem to echo what the Bible has stated plainly. Romans 3:23 tells us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and a few chapters later, that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:23). What this means is that all of us are destined for hell because of sin—regardless of whether our struggle is with homosexuality, selfishness, greed, pornography, lying, gossiping etc. But it doesn’t end there, as the second half of Romans 6:23 tells us that there is a way of escape in the free gift of eternal life, made possible through the unconditional, sacrificial love of Jesus who died for us.
Unfortunately, not all of that was communicated in the 11-word reply by Israel Folau. He did however, write a 2000+ word article two weeks later entitled “I’m a Sinner Too” to communicate those truths and his intent. In his response, he shared about the struggles he went through in his sporting career—letting fame get to his head early on, sinning with other women and battling alcohol addiction. Coming from a place of humility, he then shared how he personally experienced Jesus’ love and the peace he received when he opened his heart to God.
But it seemed as though his response may have come a bit too late—damage had already been done.
Words obviously have an incredible power, and as we have seen in the backlash to Folau’s Instagram comment, even a few words have the potential to hurt an entire community of people and possibly push them away from learning more about God. In a world hostile to the faith, it is ever so pertinent that we as believers in Christ speak truthfully, but also wisely and lovingly.
Would We Lay Down Our Rights?
The other major debate surrounding this episode was on the right of free speech. Was it Folau’s right to express his religious beliefs unreservedly? This seemed to be how Folau also felt, based on his tweet which quoted Matthew 5:11-12, suggesting that he felt persecuted for his comments.
Although I respect Folau for standing up for the Christian faith, particularly in the face of immense backlash from the world and at the risk of his own career, I wonder if the shift in conversation to the rights that Christians should have to defend our faith, rather than towards the truth about a loving Savior who wishes for us all to have relationship with Him, including those in LGBT community, is helpful.
I think of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9. Referring to a culturally accepted right that he had to request financial support from the Corinthian church, Paul says in verse 12 that he and Barnabas “did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.”
In the realm of online debates and “keyboard warriors”, believers can be caught up in our right to express our beliefs. No doubt there are many times when we should stand up for our faith in the face of evil and adversity, but we must be cautious about our intentions behind our actions. Are we speaking out just so we can prove to ourselves and others that we are “right”? Do the words we say and the actions we make actively lead others toward Christ?
Paul continues in verse 19 that “though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” Admittedly, I find that incredibly tough to live out. As human beings, there is a strong yearning in us to want to show and prove that our beliefs and ideas are correct and right. But Paul challenges us to flip that human desire on its head and instead make ourselves slaves, give up the rights we have to prove ourselves correct in order that the gospel can be shared freely and effectively to the world around us.
If there is one takeaway for all of us from this episode, it is this: To come before God and plead with the Holy Spirit to guide us daily, to speak through us, and to help us act wisely. May all that we do with our lives point others towards God and lead others to relationship with a Savior who desires more than we can ever imagine to save us from HELL. (2 Peter 3:9)
*At the time of this writing, Folau’s future in Australian rugby is still uncertain.