Why we should shun Israel Folau’s fear-based theology

By Robyn Whitaker

You might groan at another article about Israel Folau. After all, the media attention has been massive, with little sign of abating.

This article is an attempt to address some of the issues from a Uniting Church point of view, not because I speak for the Uniting Church in any official capacity, but because the UCA has not said very much about this issue despite the fact Folau’s church, the Truth of Jesus Christ Church, meets in a UCA building.

Israel Folau, a highly talented rugby union player, came to the attention of even non-rugby fans earlier this year when his contract was terminated by Rugby Australia for an alleged breach of contract. The reason was his Instagram post on 10 April which stated: “Warning: Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolators – hell awaits you.”

Folau’s defenders have claimed he is simply quoting the Bible, but that is not actually the case. His post is, at best, a poor paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, with some significant changes.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reads:

 “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, child-abusers, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”  (1 Cor 6:9-10)

The version quoted on Instagram changed Paul’s “will not inherit the kingdom” to “hell awaits”. These are not the same thing, either theologically or rhetorically. “Atheists” is added too, a word not present in Paul’s letter.

Another issue is with the translation Folau quotes, in particular the translation of the Greek words malakoi and arsenokoites as “homosexual”.

These are notoriously difficult terms to translate. The first denotes softness, a male victim of pederasty (an older or elite male engaging in intercourse with a younger boy or male slave), or those who engage in homosexual acts perhaps as temple prostitutes in pagan cults.

The second term most likely refers to an elite male who has sex with younger boys of lower rank, hence my translation above as “child abuser”. Neither indicates an orientation towards the people of the same gender.

The source of the meme Folau shared appears to be an American group called Bulldog Ministries, a group who operate much like Westboro Church in promoting a fear-based message that obsessively focuses on sexual “sins” above all else. It gives us insight into the kind of theology with which Folau is surrounded.

Issues of translation and paraphrase aside, Folau’s post shows the danger of quoting any small sentence of Scripture devoid of context and an awareness of how it might be heard. Real harm is done when Christians threaten entire groups of people on the grounds of their gender, sexuality, or beliefs.

A UCA approach to the Bible asks us to do the harder work of interpretation through an awareness of history and culture, as well as with love and compassion. We do not proof text nor scare people into faith. By contrast, the Basis of Union uses the language of nourishment to describe the role of the Bible.

Some in our community are calling this a religious freedom issue. Let me be clear: it is not.

From a religious freedom perspective, Folau is free and has the right to post his message just as he continues to be free to preach sermons and post things on social media. But, in Christianity, we don’t talk about rights without also talking about responsibilities.

We are all free to speak, but we don’t speak free of consequence and responsibility.

In his specific case, Folau’s posting puts him in breach of an employment contract and Rugby Australia’s Code of Conduct, something he had been previously warned about. And lest we think that seems extreme, let’s remember that the UCA also has a Code of Ethics and a Social Media Policy to which its clergy and employees must adhere to or face consequences.

The last point to make here has to do with the unfortunate association of the Truth of Jesus Christ Church with the UCA. The group meets at a UCA church in NSW, a connection that has not escaped media attention. Several articles have now highlighted the extreme teaching of Pastor Eni’s church, including a rejection of the Trinity, baptism in the name of Jesus only (not “Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” as affirmed in the Basis of Union), and the claim that all other Christians are going to hell.

One concerned parent exposed to its teaching calls the church an “isolated hate group”. These extreme views have now resulted in another member being sacked for speaking out against the very Catholic institution that employs him.

Alarm bells should ring when any group of about 30 people claims to have unique insight into divine truth, especially when it is contrary to both 2000 years of tradition and the majority of contemporary Christianity.

The Uniting Church should be doing everything it can to distance itself from the kind of faith espoused by the Truth of Jesus Christ Church. Its approach to Scripture, faith, evangelism, sexuality, and the Trinity places it at odds not just with the UCA but with most of the worldwide Christian church.

Is this the kind of fear-based, judgmental Christianity with which any of our churches should be associated? I think not.

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4 Responses to “Why we should shun Israel Folau’s fear-based theology”

  1. Wes Porch

    Thank you Robyn I heartily agree and the reinforcement he gives to other fundamental faiths is a sad fact. I work with some fundamental Christians and it seems to strike a homophobic nerve with them. Very hard to reason with

  2. Adrian Buttery

    Theologically, Paul teaches against Folau’s actions and attitudes consistently, and there is plenty in the book of 1 Corinthians that Folau has abused. Verse 8 immediately preceeding the altered 9-10 of this Meme, shows that Paul is actually chastising the Corinthian Church for their own hypocrisy. He is not addressing this to unbelievers at all. At the end of Chapter 5 Paul says “Who am I to judge those outside (the Church)”. 2 verses later in 1 C6 he writes, “I can do all things, but not all things are beneficial/expedient/helpful”, calling for wisdom in how we conduct ourselves. None of this from Folau has been even remotely beneficial/helpful/expedient. Paul reiterates and expands on this in 1C10:23-33. For all the cherry picking Pharisee’s who love to say rubbish like “Paul is only speaking about food and idolatry”, he expands on it and makes it clear that it applies to “all things”. Do not give offence! Folau admitted on record during his Code of Conduct Hearing that he knew he was offending a LOT of people at the time of posting this Meme. 1C13:4-7 Love is…. across translations of these famous verses is “does not behave rudeley”, “does not dishonour others”, “does not offend”, so to claim that this meme was posted in love does not match up with what the Bible teaches us of love!

    In 1C9 Paul models evenagelism and in verses 21-22 says “To those without the law, I became as one with out the law…. in order that I may save those without the law”. Firstly, whats the point in throwing law in the face of people not under it. You can rant at me as much as you like about what the law is in America, I don’t care, I’m not under it – this is Australia! It serves no purpose! Secondly this is in stark contrast to Folau’s actions – To those not under the Law, I got on instagram and threw the law in their face… in order that I may scare them straight! Please!!!!!

    Folau and his supporters call this Evangelism. Evangelism is drawing people in and closer to wanting to know about God, not pushing them even further away with offence. Paul was consistently clear on this.

    I have had many engagements with Folau’s supporters on the ACL FB Page – My experience has been this. They are wantonly ignorant of any and all of the true facts to do with Folau. Martyn Iles purports to tell “the truth of it” yet his truth does nothing but endlessly parrot “religious discrimination”. He does not discuss ANY of the many pertinent facts and issues. Folau’s supporters are mostly self-righteous, Bible cherry-picking, ignorant Pharisee’s, with no genuine love or compassion for others – they just hunger for something to be irate and self-righteous before the world with. And Iles constantly gives them plenty to feast on.

    2000 years ago Christ came to disempower those who had placed their own love for religiousness and self righteousness above the dignity of all humanity. 2000 years on the Church has many modern day Pharisees who have trampled the Grace of God, the example of Christ and the teachings to the early Church underfoot. They have returned to a place where they place their own selfish, self righteous, love of religiousness above the dignity of others.

    You shall know them by their fruit – the fruit of all of these people is pure poison.

  3. Adrian Buttery

    To gibe people an idea of the sorts of so-called “Christians” supporting Folau, on every occasion that I’ve invited these people to discuss the Bible and Folau with me, they’ve either ignored it, scoffed or mocked at it, or tried to throw masses of cherry picked verses at me. Not a one has been prepared to actually acknowledge and discuss what 1 Corinthians has to say.

    I have even had people telling me that they can’t discuss the Bible with me because clearly I am not a Christian and do not have the God given discernment that they have been blessed with in order to understand the Bible like they do.

  4. wes james

    I find this conversation somewhat puzzling. It seems we are looking for an entitlement to reject the plain meaning of a Biblical text as in the 1 Corinthians passage even though there is a consistent historical context that homosexual practice, sodomy in this case, is not an acceptable practice. If it is ok now then does the same apply to adultery and fornication and the other “sins” that get a mention in the passage?
    Robin Whittaker’s concern about “fear based theology” is also puzzling. John the Baptist and Jesus, as well as St Paul, said some very strong things about wrong behaviour and its consequences. Doing so is not exclusive of love. Throughout the whole Bible there is a message that, in love, God wants people to act rightly and enjoy a happy relationship with Him, rather than follow an alternative path.
    A sensible reading of Biblical texts surely does not involve turning the Bible into an incomprehensible nonsense book where anything we don’t like has to be re-contextualised to produce a contrary meaning.