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Israel Folau, the world has already heard about God’s judgment. What about his grace?

Wednesday, 24 April 2019  | Cheryl McGrath

Today, it seems like Christianity is equated with what it's against. Whether it's women in ministry, preventing abortions or opposing same-sex marriage, Christians aren’t always known for their acts of mercy and compassion.

So it was an unpromising context in which Israel Folau, the rugby star, made his controversial post on Instagram two weeks ago. The wording even made Christians like me flinch:

Warning: Drunks. Homosexuals. Adulterers. Liars. Fornicators. Thieves. Atheists. Idolaters. Hell awaits you. Repent!

Although Folau added a comment about how God loves all people and wants them to be forgiven, the damage was done. Unsurprisingly, there was widespread condemnation from the general public, and his employers have stated their intention to sack him.

At the same time, many Christians have doubled down. Movements have sprung up to ‘support Israel Folau and free speech’, and others are saying this is yet another attack on religious freedom.

But to me, Folau's post was incredibly damaging. In an age when Christians are known for ‘against-ness’, it was another reiteration of that judgment and condemnation that people associate with Christians, and not enough of the gospel.

But that's not the only reason why Folau's words were ill-advised.

His words alienated the people he was trying to speak to

The Australia that Folau is living in is less Christian than ever. Church attendance continues to decline, biblical literacy is down and more people are ticking ‘no religion’ on their census form.

Yet, to understand Folau’s words fully, you need Bible knowledge. In fact, you need a fleshed-out understanding of total depravity, as well as balance with God’s grace, to appreciate what Folau was trying to say.

And while I recognise Folau addressed the nuance in his comments, he was posting on social media – a medium not known for encouraging deep dives on theological issues.

In the context of all this, surely no one can be surprised that was offence was taken?

To me, Christian community seems to be at a strange crossroads. On the one hand, we are hyperaware that Christianity is no longer the cultural default in Australia. We also understand how a person’s culture can colour how they understand the gospel, and we have whole swathes of studies dedicated to interpreting the gospel through cultural lenses.

But at the same time, we’re consistently shocked that a shifting culture is understanding Christian ideas less and less. And instead of episodes like Folau provoking self-reflection, we’re seeing more Christians going to the mattresses against the hordes we assume just hate us.

What if the situation is more complex than that?

His words also failed to understand the suffering of LGBTI people

As Scott J. Higgins observed, if there's any group of Christians who know the fear of hell, it's LGBTI Christians in evangelical churches. It’s what’s driven so many of them from faith communities altogether, and many more to breakdowns and even suicide.

That's why it's so alarming that Israel Folau decided to choose an image that tells LGBTI people that ‘hell awaits them’. To the outsider, it looks like God has already made up his mind about you, whatever you do.

For Christians, it's leaving out half the equation - that we are all under condemnation without grace. Grace which exists for all people.

So Israel Folau may have thought he was ‘speaking truth boldly’, but his way of communicating it was a particularly poor way to do so. As Scott J Higgins continues,

… communicating truth is never simply a matter of speaking propositions into the ether. Propositions are spoken into a context, and in our context Folau’s way of speaking is unlikely to succeed in communicating the holiness, compassion, grace and love of God to members of the LGBTI community. If a traditional view of sexuality is to be defended, this is certainly not the way to go about it.

Situations like this should be a time for self-reflection, not just reaction

Persecution from a hostile society is a real concern for many Christians. But why, oh why, do Christians seem to always interpret pushback as aggression, instead of a corrective?

Maybe – just maybe – Christians sometimes mean well and do badly. Maybe Israel Folau’s words were unhelpful and wrong to speak into the climate we’re in. Maybe his boldness wasn’t matched by his wisdom.

I know Folau’s sacking is a scary prospect for many Christians, and I don’t blame them. I’d hate to see a day when people are stripped of their employment because of what they believe about God or the universe.

On the other hand, many employers today have policies around what their employees can post on social media. Many of my employers have told staff not to post about certain subjects, or at least to make it crystal clear the post is their own opinion.

So I am unsure of what I think should be done. But I hope what’s done is fair and just.

Israel Folau has now posted an extensive testimony, sharing why he holds his faith. He has also fleshed out his belief that all people are equally lost and condemned without God, not just the categories of ‘sinners’ he mentioned in his post. He speaks with nuance and with personal warmth and love.

I just wish he’d done this in the first place.

Cheryl McGrath is a writer by passion and by vocation. She works as a full-time copywriter in Melbourne, Australia, and blogs on Christian culture, psychology and creativity at Twenty-Six Letters.

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