Israel Folau is a highly competent Australian rugby player and a devout Christian. Recently, he had the temerity to make a public call to repentance by posting on his social media account a meme that more or less contained the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6-9-10. Accompanying the meme was a short text Folau himself wrote in which he stated that unrepentant sinners would go to hell but there was still time to repent.
Although a list of sins were mentioned in the meme, it was St. Paul’s reference to homosexuality that triggered a torrential downpour of outrage. Folau was immediately accused of “homophobia” (although, it seems, not “adulterophobia” or “drunkophobia”), and the governing body of the sport, Rugby Australia, determined he had committed a “high level breach” of the professional code of conduct. He now faces either a hefty fine, or the effective termination of his playing career.
Israel Folau is of Tongan background and was raised a Mormon before converting to Pentecostalism. Despite this sketchy theological history, both Folau and his family have demonstrated a deeper and stronger understanding of the cost of following Jesus and eternal consequences than many orthodox believers. They have clearly imbibed deeply the warnings of Jesus about the inevitable conflict between those who follow the Lord and those who prefer the darkness of rebellion.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus indicates that persecution is a test of ultimate loyalties. At the hour of decision to whom will we be loyal? Is it to Christ? Or can our defection be gained by the unbelieving world with threats, enticements, or compromises?
In a short statement tinted with godly defiance and faith, Folau said:
First and foremost, I live for God now. His plans for me are better than whatever I can think. If that’s not to continue playing, so be it. In saying that, obviously I love playing footy and if it goes down that path I’ll definitely miss it. But my faith in Jesus Christ is what comes first.
One of his friends added:
He doesn’t care how he’ll be persecuted in this world, where it’s temporary, but it’s in the afterlife when we all die.
This is a correct diagnosis of the situation regardless of the sophistry of social activists. It is indeed a form of persecution. A man’s career is being ripped away from him not because he is a poor player, or a criminal, or a bad role model, or because has harmed anyone. He is being punished at the highest level for a single transgression: he dared to express the words and teachings of the Christian faith publicly.
The Lord Jesus taught us not to fear men. They can kill the body but not the soul. Rather, Jesus said, if we are to be afraid let us fear the loss of body and soul in hell.
In Israel Folau’s defiance we are witnessing a demonstration of this principle in action. This is what it looks like when you really believe what Jesus said. A genuine faith is revealed in disregarding the wishes of world in order to speak and act according to the wishes of God. In one sense, this is a modern replay of St. Peter’s quiet defiance to the Jewish leaders. Knowing they were about to be beaten and told not to speak in the name of Jesus, they firmly declared: “We obey God rather than men”.
This perspective is apparently taken by Israel Folau’s father who has stated that his son did not breach any contract regarding “hate speech”. In essence, Folau’s father simply assumes that it cannot ever be wrong or illegal to repeat what God has said. Any laws, contracts, or rules to the contrary can be disregarded for the sake of God. Pointing to the sky, the elder Mr Folau told the media: “For me and for him, we try to obey Him”.
A former member of the Federal parliament, Wilson Tuckey, wrote last weekend:
In the days of the Roman Empire, to stand up in public to espouse your Christianity was most likely to result in a trip to the Colosseum for a brief meeting with a couple of hungry lions for the entertainment of the masses. The Israel Folau case indicates that little has changed in today’s ‘progressive empire’.
This is another correct diagnosis, although now realised only by a shrinking number of people. Persecution of Christianity is not merely on its way. It has now returned to the pagan West and is expanding at an increasingly energetic pace. The process took a few decades to get going following the collapse of Christian observance and the liberalisation of stained-glass-window denominations, but the ship is now under full steam.
Persecution takes many guises, whether it be the grotesque intellectual contortions of millennial identity politics, or vaguely-defined institutional rules, or kangaroo tribunals that seek to silence Christian dissent.
The time is fast approaching when Christians will become – willingly or otherwise – radicals in a strange new culture, as laws and frightening mobs are used to try to control the preaching, believing, and practising of Christian teachings. This is not going to get better. Anyone who thinks the pendulum will swing the other way, outside of the sheer grace of God, is deceiving themselves. Rather persecution is only going to get worse. Moreover, it will become more systematic and organised with time.
As Matthew Henry wrote centuries ago, Christians are never so well prepared for eternity as when they “live loosely in this world”. The lesson therefore is this: be not so strongly attached to anything in this world that you would not immediately leave it for the sake of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow thee,
Destitute, despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my all shall be.
Go, then, earthly fame and treasure
Come, disaster, scorn and pain
In thy service, pain is pleasure
With thy favour, loss is gain.