For many months now, a good friend and I have been slowly working our way through the book of Proverbs together. One of the many things that has struck us is the book’s obsession with our words and our speech. But we aren’t just urged to say things that are true; we’re urged to say the right things at the right time and in the right way. “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Prov 15:23) “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” (Prov 25:11)
Perhaps building on Solomon’s wisdom, the apostle Paul wrote that one mark of a mature Christian is not just speaking the truth, but “speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). Hopefully, your experience of life has already shown you that this is true. It’s simply not enough to go around saying true things; we also have to develop both the wisdom and the love to know how and when to say them—and, therefore, when not to say them.
Which brings us to Israel Folau. One of Australia’s best Rugby players (which, let’s face it, may not be saying much—high five All Blacks fans), Folau has just had his contract with the ARU terminated for posting this on his Instagram page:
I’m persuaded that Israel Folau’s message was both right and wrong. I’m not saying that in order to pile onto an easy target (since most people think he’s just wrong), or because I want to be edgy and have a hot take that differs from most of my Christian friends (since most of them seem to think he’s just right). I’m saying it because the principles at stake are vital for healthy Christian relationships, and especially for healthy Christian evangelism.
Let’s start with Folau’s rightness. Yes, anyone who actively and unrepentantly practices homosexuality is committing a sin that excludes them from the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Yes, being excluded from the Kingdom of God means facing the conscious, eternal reality of Hell (Mark 9:48, Revelation 20:14-15). Yes, homosexual practice is just one of many, many actions that, if done unrepentantly, see us excluded from the Kingdom (1 Cor 6:9-10 again). Yes, God calls all people everywhere to repent (Acts 2:38-39, 17:30), and Jesus is the only name by which we can be saved when we do repent (Acts 4:12).
I have no doubt that Israel posted those words out of a desire to be faithful to his Lord and Saviour. After all, an earlier post on his Instagram says, “Be brave enough to follow Jesus even if it means losing your reputation with the world.”
What’s more, the ARU’s response—not to mention the entire nation’s response—has been very telling. It reveals (as if we needed this revealed) just how far Western society has fallen from its Christian heritage. It shows that we’ve entered a time where Christians can expect serious, real-life consequences simply for believing and proclaiming the truth of the Bible. It reveals the hypocrisy of a culture that tolerates everything except for what it perceives as ‘intolerance’. It reveals the idolization of sexual freedom, and our collective inability to understand that “I think your behaviour is wrong and dangerous” doesn’t mean “I think you’re a terrible, disgusting person”. It shows that we really can’t do public discourse or disagreement anymore, and we’re basically stuffed. And many other things besides.
Yet all that said, Folau’s words were poorly chosen and foolish. I have no doubt that he was aiming to be loving, but he did not offer “a word in season” or “a word fitly spoken”. He made a mistake.
There are lots of ways to engage with people on the topic of homosexuality. For the Bible-believing Christian, none of them are easy or popular, but that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook when we make things worse by being tone-deaf. That’s exactly where Folau has gone wrong. He chose to engage in a manner that anyone could see would be inflammatory and misunderstood.
Colossians 4:5-6 is a brilliant two-verse, how-to summary of evangelism: “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” As a Christian, I can see the notes of grace tucked away in Folau’s message. But I can also see where the non-Christian would miss the grace and taste nothing but salt. This means he hasn’t walked in wisdom towards outsiders, nor has he made best use of his time and his platform.
Remember, this wasn’t some poor, unfortunate young Christian trapped by an experienced journalist and sputtering out some clumsy words under pressure. This was Folau’s own choice, unprompted by anyone else. How did he think people would respond? No doubt he knew that some Christians (probably even some Christian teammates) would declare their support, but he also had to know that many people would be angered and that his words would be misinterpreted. When you know your words will be misinterpreted, there are two possible responses. One, you say them anyway—and decide that it sucks to be the hearer who can’t grasp the point. Or two, you step inside the hearer’s shoes, and you work extra-hard to speak in a way that will be properly understood. Which option is wiser? Which option is more loving?
Not for a second am I saying that Folau shouldn’t be speaking up about his faith, or about the Bible’s teaching on sexuality. I pray for more ‘celebrity Christians’ with the boldness and courage to winsomely articulate the truth on these vital subjects. But what part of Folau’s post was winsome? What part of how he has positioned himself has allowed him to make the best use of his platform to point more people to Jesus?
If you’re reading this, you’re not a ‘celebrity Christian’. But if you’re any kind of faithful Christian at all these days, with any kind of real commitment to the Lordship of Jesus and to sharing his saving good news with your friends and neighbours, then people will be watching. People will be scrutinizing your words and your life, ready to nitpick. People will carry with them all the assumptions, all the cultural baggage, that FolauGate has revealed. That’s why we need to learn from this case. We all need courage and clarity to articulate the truth whenever we get the chance, but we also need the wisdom and the love to speak words that have the greatest possible opportunity to be heard as truth.
A good friend (who also happens to be my boss) defines evangelism as preaching the gospel to non-Christians who are listening. That’s a really important definition for a moment like this. Faithfulness to the word of God is absolutely essential, but are people listening? Are we speaking the unchanging, life-giving word of God in ways that people can actually hear and understand? Are we helping people to listen?
If any of us were scared into silence by the treatment Folau has received, that would be a tragedy. We have to speak up. We have to preach the Lordship of Jesus, including the gospel’s demand that we repent of all our sin, including sexual immorality in all its forms.
But if any of us decided that Folau’s brazen approach is the only real way of faithfulness—the litmus test of courage and the only way to be a genuine evangelist in the 21st century Western world—that may be equally tragic. The gospel demands fidelity to the truth, along with a healthy dose of bravery. But wisdom demands thoughtfulness in how we speak that truth. Christian maturity demands care with the words we choose and the manner in which we choose to speak them. Love demands that we pay enough attention to the real world around us to know how our words will be heard.