Beyond Israel Folau: the importance of rhetorical setting

Over the past couple of months there’s been a steady stream of articles by Christian leaders weighing in on the Israel Folau controversy. A common theme has been an affirmation of Folau’s commitment to his faith, while expressing concern about his rhetorical strategy; that is, the way in which he’s spoken about it. We see this in such diverse writers as Brian Houston from Hillsong Church and Simon Smart from the Centre for Public Christianity.

However, if you then dive into the comments section on these articles (and on the plethora of social media posts expressing similar sentiments), you’ll find significant pockets of support not only for Folau’s courage, but also defending his approach. The common theme there seems to be: all he’s doing is quoting the Bible. How can we fault him for using the same rhetorical strategy used by the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul, and even Jesus himself?

But is it the same?

Lost in much of the discussion is an awareness of how the rhetorical setting of a Biblical text – i.e. the situation into which it speaks – is integral to its rhetorical strategy. Or to put it in more everyday terms: it matters who the original audience was, and how they were open to being persuaded.

Why does it matter?

Firstly, if our audience is markedly different from the original audience being addressed, it should give us pause to think how our rhetorical strategy might also need to be different. Although the content of our beliefs isn’t open to change, the way we express them should be.

Secondly, we see the Bible use different strategies to different audiences. In general, the Bible’s more harshly-expressed words of judgement were written for an audience made up of insiders; or, at least, of people who thought they were insiders. By contrast, when the audience consists of outsiders, the tone and rhetorical strategy are quite different.

Now to defend this contention exhaustively would probably take a book; here, in a short(ish) post, let me outline what this looks like. And the implications are much wider than Folau’s case, as it goes to the heart of how we use the Bible in the public arena – both what it says, and how it says it – which is why I’m writing about it here.

To Insiders

The Bible often speaks to two groups of insiders directly: God’s people in general, and the leaders of God’s people more specifically:

1. God’s people generally

In the Old Testament, the vast majority of material which warns of and proclaims God’s judgement was directed at those who were already God’s people—who claimed to belong to God, who knew his requirements, but failed to live like it. These are insiders being disciplined, not outsiders who didn’t know God. 

Similarly, John the Baptist (quoted numerous times in the aforementioned social media comments) went out into the wilderness and called for God’s rebellious, exiled people to repent and ready themselves for God to return. Likewise, Jesus’ simple message to “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” was primarily focused on the “lost sheep of Israel” (e.g. Matt 10:5-6). In both cases they were calling God’s people back to what they already knew—or should have known; no background or reasoning was necessary. And in the book of Acts, fiery speeches like that of Stephen (Acts 7) spoke of God’s judgement on his own people who had for generations persistently rejected him.

The epistles are also addressed to insiders, even if many of them (from non-Jewish backgrounds) had joined God’s people more recently. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (which Folau was paraphrasing), Paul was writing to those who had chosen to be part of God’s people, urging them to live like it rather than reverting to pagan morality. He wasn’t addressing an audience of outsiders who followed different gods and perhaps hadn’t even heard of Jesus.

2. Leadership specifically

Some of the harshest words of the Bible are reserved for the leaders of God’s people when they have led them astray. The “bad shepherds” are excoriated by prophets like Ezekiel and Zechariah for not caring for their flock. Jesus pronounces woe and judgement on the Jewish leadership of his day, accusing them of hypocrisy and greed: “You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matt 23:13). The fieriest rhetoric in the epistles is directed at false teachers who claim to follow God but lead the people astray (e.g. in Galatians, esp. 5:12; 2 Peter 2).

In both these cases—God’s people and their leaders— the warnings of judgement are directed at those who claim to belong to God but don’t act like it. They aren’t general warnings to a humanity which doesn’t know God, but to God’s people, who should have known better. We can’t use these texts to justify Folau’s approach.

To Outsiders?

But there are also texts about judgement coming on outsiders. What about them?

1. About outsiders, to insiders

Firstly, we need to see that much of that might be written about outsiders, but the audiences are still very much insiders. Mostly, these audiences are God’s people when they find themselves a persecuted minority, longing for God to bring vindication and justice. Or, in some instances, a minority which is being tempted to make compromises to avoid the threat of persecution or ridicule. Although the text is about judgement on outsiders, the rhetoric is directed to the persecuted insiders. It reminds them that God hasn’t forgotten about them and that he will act to avenge the injustice they are currently experiencing.

We see this in Old Testament prophecies about the nations around Israel who have oppressed God’s people (e.g. Obadiah; Isaiah 13; etc.); they might be judgements about those nations, but we read them because they were collected in Israel’s scriptures.

We also see it in the New Testament in the book of Revelation. It comforts its readers—a persecuted minority—with the message that God is in control, and the oppressive Roman empire will be destroyed (along with all those who persist in rebellion against God—including those among God’s own people who make compromises to accommodate themselves to the prevailing social order).

It should go without saying that in Australia we’re not a persecuted minority in that way—at most we’re in the process of being a little more marginalised and ridiculed in public discourse. So the kind of rhetorical approach we find in Revelation is not only inappropriate to use when speaking with outsiders, it’s probably also not helpful to use that approach in our internal discourse.

2. To outsiders

But the Bible does occasionally address outsiders directly (although they are still recorded within “insider” texts). The most obvious are the records of speeches and debates in Acts. In Athens (Acts 17:16-34), Paul doesn’t begin by criticising those who don’t yet know his God for their moral behaviour, nor does he open with a message of judgement. He builds rapport, argues within their own framework (quoting their own poets a couple of times), and only then does he present the claims of Jesus. Importantly, he doesn’t shirk a call to repentance (17:30-31), but neither does he open the conversation with it. Elsewhere in Acts, Luke uses the words of persuasive discourse to describe Paul’s approach to outsiders (reasoning, explaining, proving).

What’s more, in the epistles we are given explicit teaching on how to engage with outsiders. For example:

1 Peter 2:12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

1 Peter 2:17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.

1 Peter 3:15-16 Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander  

Colossians 4:5-6 Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

Conclusion

I, too, respect Folau’s courage and his sincere desire to warn people of the consequences of living in rebellion against God—which is manifested in far more ways than those listed in 1 Cor 6:9-11 which he chose to post on social media. However, I can’t find support in the Bible for his rhetorical strategy where the audience is made up of those who don’t know God and who don’t already consider themselves part of his people. I find far more support for the reasoned, gentle, respectful approach we see modelled and taught in the New Testament.

One thought on “Beyond Israel Folau: the importance of rhetorical setting

  1. Al Hewetson says:

    I sum up my warm response to your post: “me too”.
    Delivery of Israel’s truth is arguably what has drawn so much negative attention. He is still a courageous and upright bloke, and I like that we get to discuss and have a fresh look at religious freedom of speech – cos it needs a look. But other christian operators would have interacted with fans and critics in an internet fishbowl, with more smarts than he used. It’s, as you say, never as simple as reading out the texts to any person who drops by… unless of course you are in church. Maybe that’s where Is has come a cropper: forgetting his context, before reading his text

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