Christian Concern’s Rebekah Moffett comments on the punishment of England rugby player Billy Vunipola for his support of Israel Folau.
Whether you follow sport or not, you will likely have heard about the controversy following Australian rugby player Israel Folau’s provocative Instagram post, and then England rugby player Billy Vunipola’s support of it.
The criticism came quickly and from numerous people and places, condemning their supposed ‘anti-gay’ posts. Following that criticism, Izzy Folau has now been sacked by Rugby Australia, and Billy Vunipola issued with a formal warning by the Rugby Football Union (RFU) for supporting Folau’s post. It was then announced that Channel 4 had dropped Vunipola from promoting its Champions Cup coverage due to it being “an inclusive broadcaster”.
The posts in question
The controversy began with an Instagram post by Izzy Folau, although few who were quick to criticise have quoted it in full:
“WARNING Drunks, Homosexuals, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists, Idolaters HELL AWAITS YOU, REPENT! ONLY JESUS SAVES”
Of course, those criticising were swift to witness the word ‘homosexuals’, and quickly labelled him ‘homophobic’. I wonder if we would have seen the same amount of uproar if that particular word had been missing from the list? Because while the tone of Folau’s post was deliberately provocative, it was the content of the post that seemed to cause the most offence.
Billy Vunipola was then found to have ‘liked’ Folau’s post, and later clarified his support of Folau:
“So this morning I got 3 phone calls from people telling me to ‘unlike’ the @izzyfolau post. This is my position on it. I don’t HATE anyone neither do I think I’m perfect. There just comes a point when you insult what I grew up believing in that you just say enough is enough, what he’s saying isn’t that he doesn’t like or love those people. He’s saying how we live our lives needs to be closer to how God intended them to be. Man was made for woman to pro create that was the goal no? I’m not perfect I’m at least everything on that list at least at one point in my life. It hurts to know that. But that’s why I believe there’s a God. To guide and protect us and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Despite the clear difference in tone, Vunipola’s club, Saracens, still implied he lacked “respect and humility”, again taking issue with the content of his post.
Tactful social media posts?
Of course, Folau’s post wasn’t the most tactful, and likely not the best way to evangelise. While it’s necessary and urgent to warn people about the danger of sin and the reality of hell, and not something we should shy away from, it’s also important to reflect the love, compassion and mercy of our Heavenly Father.
Brian Houston, senior pastor of Hillsong Church, has commented on the lack of tact of Folau’s post:
“While sin is a real issue, the God I know and seek to follow is a God of love. He says that He did not come to condemn the world, He came to save it. And as Christians we would do well to follow the example of the founder of our faith. I believe there is a heaven and a hell but if you study scripture you won’t read about Jesus screaming to people that they are all going to hell. In fact Jesus, John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul, all kept their harshest criticism for those who were religious and judgmental …
“The problem with harsh comments in the media and disparaging statements on social media is that they create a further wedge between God and people. The world doesn’t need more judgmental Christians. In the eyes of many, the church is not relevant to their lives and is seen to be stuck in the past.”
But is Instagram really the best place to tactfully express beliefs? Plenty of social media posts are renowned for being misunderstood or misread. For example, Australian cricketer James Faulkner recently got into trouble after having to clarify that he is in fact not gay, after posting a picture to Instagram with the caption, “Birthday dinner with the boyfriend (best mate!!!) @robjubbsta and my mother @roslyn_carol_faulkner #togetherfor5years”. Anyone posting on social media always runs the risk of being misunderstood, misinterpreted or misrepresented; these platforms will never be the most nuanced place to express any belief.
But this should not stop Christians from posting their beliefs on social media. And while Houston is right to say that we should not be judgmental in our evangelism and we must be relevant, it might be a little unfair to label Folau’s post as such. Certainly, it seemed lacking in tact, but if it was aimed at speaking of the culture of the day, it hit the nail on the head.
As a westernised culture, do we not celebrate those very sins that Folau quoted? Certainly, it’s fair to say that the ‘religion’ of today holds those who live out a gay lifestyle up on a pedestal. Today’s gospel says, “embrace who you are; accept yourself, flaws and all”. And when that’s the case, why can’t we criticise it? After all, it completely contradicts the gospel message.
While tact is important, we shouldn’t shy away from speaking the truth into this new religion called ‘secularism’ and ‘LGBT Pride’. Jesus, John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul may have criticised the religious and judgmental, but isn’t that was Israel Folau was aiming to do? And the truth is, the gospel is ‘offensive’: Paul even says it is foolishness to those who are perishing. So shouldn’t we expect a reaction to it?
Content over character
That said, perhaps there is a more tactful way of sharing the gospel than posting deliberately provocative Instagram posts that warn sinners they’re destined for hell. After all, aren’t we all sinners?
But then this is exactly what Billy Vunipola was so quick to point out in his own post. He admitted to falling into every single one of those sins at one point or another. The fact is, we have all fallen short of the glory of God (another quote from Paul). But despite being more tactful in his approach to sharing the truth of the gospel, he was criticised just as much as Folau.
Peter Nicholas, of Christians In Sport, says:
“The character of Folau’s post has been accused of being provocative and further of lacking compassion. However the content that Billy Vunipola is defending … is historical, orthodox Christianity which holds that God’s good design for sex is within heterosexual marriage. What Vunipola’s response flushed out is that it’s not really the provocative character of the communication people are taking issue with, but with the content that goes against the current Western consensus.”
Which means that any criticism of a homosexual lifestyle is now seen as the ultimate faux pas in today’s society.
The ‘misdeed’ of homophobia
Writing in the Daily Mail, journalist Adam Crafton said that the “instant response to Israel Folau and Billy Vunipola is one of justified outrage and frustration” and suggested that their posts were “misdeeds [which] must have a path of rehabilitation.” Anyone who dares speak out against an LGBT lifestyle must be educated and needs to “be offered the opportunity to grow.”
But who decides that their viewpoint is a ‘misdeed’? The fact remains that millions of Christians worldwide hold these views. Even the gay rights campaigner and former MP Matthew Parris agrees that “many of the world’s major religions believe homosexuality is a mortal sin. Most of Africa does. So do many, many Christian churches and sects.” He argued that sports people should be able to express the view that homosexuals are going to hell if that is what they believe.
The other problem is that neither of these posts really demonstrate ‘homophobia’ (if such a label is to be used); both players were simply quoting from the Bible. Nor were they specifically excluding people from society – or even from playing rugby; they were not attacking LGBT people. They were simply expressing their beliefs.
Crafton continued in the Daily Mail, saying, “spare a thought for any young player concealing their sexuality at Saracens and alarmed that one of the dressing room’s most prominent voices may oppose their presence.” But does Vunipola really oppose the presence of LGBT people? Should young LGBT people really be concerned? Was he really being intolerant of LGBT people?
The answer is, of course, no. Vunipola himself clarified in his own post that he “[doesn’t] HATE anyone.” Which brings me onto my next point: the ‘tolerant’ pro-LGBT society in which we live is very intolerant toward alleged ‘intolerance’.
Owen Slot, Chief Rugby Correspondent at The Times, commented on the case of Vunipola:
“How do you discipline a player who posts this and who openly declared his values in this way? Vunipola happens to be one of the most popular players in the game. He is more than a great player; he is generous and funny. I would not have said, until now, that he is judgmental. He always seemed tolerant.”
But was Billy Vunipola’s post really intolerant?
Responding to Vunipola’s post, the RFU stated that “rugby is an inclusive sport, and we do not support these views.” Jumping on the bandwagon, Vunipola’s club, Saracens, also issued a statement, saying:
“Saracens proudly embraces diversity and warmly welcomes everyone to the Club regardless of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation.
“Our sport is open to all and we strive for it to be free from all forms of discrimination. We recognise that people have different belief systems and we expect everyone to be treated equally with respect and humility.”
This all seems somewhat ironic. Rugby might hail to be an ‘inclusive’ sport, but it won’t include those whose views don’t conform with theirs. In fact, it will actively exclude them. It seems to be outrightly lying by stating that it “welcomes everyone to the Club regardless of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation”; it clearly doesn’t seem to welcome a Christian viewpoint that believes marriage is reserved for a man a woman. This isn’t tolerance; it is hypocrisy, it is ‘totalitolerance’, whereby the expression of any viewpoint contrary to their own is immediately shut down and thrown out.
A threat to Christians’ freedom of speech
Continuing on in the Daily Mail, Adam Crafton wrote: “[Vunipola] may refuse education and continue to espouse bigotry, in which case the RFU will be left with little choice but to terminate his contract.” Similarly, Slot continued: “however much you like Vunipola and want him to know that, it remains hugely incendiary to post this show of support. It is deeply damaging. It raises questions about rugby, the sport, its values and what it professes to stand for.”
Which suggests that even expressing support for someone who holds these views should be restricted. Let that sink in.
If these viewpoints are not to be tolerated, we risk infringing Christians’ right to freedom of speech. In fact, don’t be deceived – it is already happening.
Sadly, Folau and Vunipola are not alone in being penalised for their support of biblical marriage and sexuality. Christian Legal Centre is also supporting several people who have lost their livelihood for posting on social media. We are still awaiting the judgment of former student social worker Felix Ngole, who was expelled from Sheffield University for similar posts on Facebook, speaking out against LGBT lifestyles and promoting a biblical model of marriage. In fact, lawyers for Sheffield University even inferred that Mother Teresa would not be allowed to be a social worker if she were to express her views on sexual ethics!
Similarly, pastoral assistant Kristie Higgs has also been sacked from her role in a secondary school for expressing her concern over the new Relationships and Sex Education in schools. She had done this privately, but after a Facebook ‘friend’ saw the posts, Kristie was reported to the school and later fired.
Are we to censor all Christian viewpoints out of the public square? Are we really saying that anyone who disagrees with an LGBT lifestyle should be excluded from public life? Are we saying that any public expression of these views is not allowed? Is that not the very opposite of tolerance? All Billy Vunipola did was to like an Instagram post – are we really saying that any show of support for a Christian worldview should be censored?
Censoring a Christian viewpoint out of the public square will lead to nothing good. In fact, all viewpoints should be openly debated and openly criticised. Freedom of speech should extend to everyone. Phillip Jensen, of Two Ways Ministries, writes:
“The best argument against censorship is that genuine testing of ideas requires that they are freely expressed and challenged. Truth is the best and only defence against error. Censorship never works at silencing error it just drives it underground. Truth may be slow to work but it is the truth, not the censor, that sets us free.”
Freedom to disagree
Interestingly, Folau’s Christian beliefs are somewhat questionable. In fact, it has recently come to light that Izzy Folau, who grew up as a Mormon, has previously explicitly denied the doctrine of the Trinity. I would disagree with him about this, but I support his right to express his opinion on this as on other issues. We need a culture of tolerance where people can express what they think, not feel cowed into silence for fear of being found to be ‘politically incorrect’.
Everyone should have the right to express their opinion in the public square; I would defend anyone’s right to do so. Those who disagree with Folau and Vunipola also have a right to voice to their opinion, and I would defend their right to speak out, too.
Fellow rugby player James Haskell recently responded to Folau’s post saying that an orthodox view of the Bible is allegedly a road map to killing people. The Christian Institute has written a letter to the RFU asking if they will take similar action against Haskell for singling out Christians and offending them. (Perhaps some are more equal than others?)
Exeter rugby players have also been warned about their responsibilities on social media, following the controversy, with Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter saying,
“If you make a statement on social media, you’re effectively making a statement just like I’m making today to members of the press. … It’s all very well claiming it’s your own opinion and the value you have of your own opinion and how much right you have to give your own opinion, but actually if you put it out there publicly you’re making a statement about yourself.”
He’s not wrong: what you express with your words is an extension of your beliefs. But surely everyone should have an equal right to express their own beliefs, whatever they may be. People should not be vilified for expressing their beliefs or their religion. It seems paradoxical in a society that tells everyone to ‘be your true self’ and ‘embrace who you are’ not to allow a Christian to do the same.