During the extended Israel Folau debate I have been waiting for a theologian or biblical scholar to come forward and address Folau’s misuse of scripture in his controversial post. The saga rolls on and I am still waiting. I have also been searching media reports curious to know what brand of church Folau attends. It is important to know this to understand his motivations. I gather he is a member of The Truth of Jesus Christ Church at Kenthurst in Sydney’s north-western suburbs.
Given the silence of the theologians I guess it is up to me – an agnostic, lapsed Catholic, Master of Theology, former Charismatic Christian – to make a few relevant points. Although these points are on the whole critical of Folau, you will see that I am also somewhat sympathetic toward him.
First let us go back to the actual Instagram post that started it all: “Warning. Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolators. Hell awaits you. Repent. Only Jesus saves.” Folau added his own comment to the graphic, “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.”
Folau attached the biblical passage that underpins the post – the letter to the Galatians, chapter 5, verses 19-21. He is using the 17th-century King James translation: “Now the works of the flesh are manifest which are these: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revelings and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”
These words were originally intended for communities of mainly non-Jewish Christians in a province called Galatia (in what we would call modern Turkey) somewhere in the decade 50-60 AD. They are not the words of Jesus. They are the words of Saint Paul. The King James translation, although widely loved for its beauty, is not as precise as modern translations.
It is nevertheless pretty clear that the sins referred to here can be summarised as sexual promiscuity, idolatry, drunkenness, violence and other bad stuff. Whoever composed the original Instagram post has also attempted to summarise these sins. Note however, that Galatians 5:19-21 does not, in any translation, mention homosexuals. Folau and whoever wrote the original post have projected homosexuality into the promiscuous category. That is their bias.
You will also notice that there is nothing in the passage from Galatians about these sinners going to hell. The early Christians were expecting the imminent arrival of the resurrected Jesus to usher in the Kingdom of God. To be part of that you needed to repent and believe. This was urgent business. They believed that the world as they knew it was coming to an end. Many evangelical Christians still cling on to the same vain hope.
This expectation of the Kingdom of God has nothing to do with going to heaven or hell when you die. It is about the end of the world. The concept of “hell” that Folau is talking about was developed later in church history.
Those who defend Folau by saying that he is just quoting the Bible are wrong. He is doing more than just throwing biblical quotes around. He is misusing this biblical passage by projecting judgments about homosexuality and “modern” beliefs about hell into it.
Those who defend him by saying he has every right to practise his religion need to understand what that involves for a Pentecostal Christian. He is not a Sunday Catholic or a gentle Buddhist. For a fundamentalist Christian, practising religion will necessarily involve preaching and proselytising. It is a package deal. There is no such option of quietly living your faith. That is for hermits and contemplatives, not Christians of his ilk.
Folau’s contract with God is to live a good life, to worship God and to reach out and save others. Unfortunately, he also had a contract with Rugby Australia. If there is a clash, which contract do you think will take precedence in his heart?
As a former Charismatic, I think I understand where Folau is coming from. I am sure that in his mind he does not think he has done anything wrong. His naive intention is not to vilify anyone, he is trying to save them. He is not a mean and nasty internet troll. For him this is an act of tough love and faith. I expect his church will be counselling him thus.
As a former biblical studies major, it annoys me when Christians distort a biblical passage to preach their message. And to a late-life agnostic like me, those messages just sound like nonsense anyway. For me now it is all about kindness. Folau’s comments fail that test. It is not kind to lump people into categories and tell them that “hell awaits”. I am pretty sure that the atheists on his list are not going to lose any sleep over this threat. But there may be vulnerable people out there who are negatively impacted by his judgments.