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Speak Up: The law and your Gospel freedoms by the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship

December 18, 2016

sulcfMuch as people dislike other ‘banging on about religion’, third report doesn’t advocate that but urges sensitivity. It also says that you should avoid judging others – so telling gays that they are going to hell. Stephen Green and his Christian Institute need to take note.

The report assures Chris­tians that “the commitment of the law to freedom of speech and freedom of religion is as strong as it has ever been. It is a jealously guarded principle.”

“Small but vocal humanist and atheist organisations would have us believe that Christianity should be kept as a private mat­ter, and that speaking about faith with non­believers will be unwelcome,” the vice-chairman of the LCF, Thomas Cordrey, writes in the report.

“The media seize on, and report, the rare cases where talking about Jesus has led a Christian into legal hot water.”

But, he said, Christians were protected from religious discrimination by European legislation.

The report offers reassurance to those who seek to share their faith at work: “In the vast majority of cases, employers will have little problem with Christian employers’ sensitively discussing Jesus and religious issues with workmates in the same way that you might talk about sport, hobbies, and family life.”

It suggests that it may be wiser to steer con­versations away from controversial issues. Some interlocutors may have “negative or hostile motives, wanting to trap you”.

The report is clear, however, on a duty to evan­gelise, and quotes Charles Spurgeon on the choice between a missionary and an impostor.

After acknowledging the freedoms enjoyed by Christians, the director of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance, Dave Landrum, warns in his closing remarks: “If not attended to, they will wither away. Like a muscle, without exercise they will atrophy.”

Quotations:

Freedom to share, discuss and debate religious beliefs has benefited from legal protection for many centuries. The protection that exists today covers the spoken word and written publications, including online content. It ranges from protectinga street preacher, to allowing a billboard displaying Bible verses, to ensuring a conversation in a home can occur without inhibition.

There is an almost unlimited freedom to speak about all Christian matters from the pulpit. However hard-hitting or provocative, Christians are entitled to talk about and share their faith in church. The only potential limits provided by the law relate primarily to preventing speech that incites violence. That said, there is no doubt that sharing your faith at work calls for wisdom and consideration. If done aggressively or in circumstances where a colleague has made it clear they do not wish to participate, an employer may take objection and, in rare cases, disciplinary processes could result. If you are in a position of authority you should never abuse that power.

Can I pray for a colleague? There are different ways of handling this but sensitivity is crucial. Gently suggesting that you will be thinking and praying for someone is less likely to cause an issue than asking someone if they want to stop and pray about a situation there and then, but it will not be as strong a witness. As in all such circumstances context is important. Be wary of stepping too far outside normal workplace boundaries. It may be far more appropriate to offer prayer outside of work itself.

Remember, most of Jesus’ hard words were reserved for the hypocritical religious hierarchy. To the crowds of non-believers Jesus met, his approach was intriguing, questioning, compassionate and patient. In trying to reach people for Jesus through public ministry we will want to seek to be winsome and loving.

Pastor McConnell preached a sermon in which he said: “Islam is heathen.Islam is satanic. Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.” His sermon was streamed over the internet and was therefore subject to legislation which covers anything distributed over a “public electronic communication system,” i.e. through forms like podcast, livestream or YouTube. An offence is committed if a ‘grossly offensive’ message is broadcast. The judge found the words above were grossly offensive, but the prosecution had conceded that these words were protected by the defendant’s rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and freedom of expression under Articles 9 and 10. The judge found that other comments by the pastor about mistrusting Muslims were not covered by Articles 9 and 10 but concluded that while such comments were offensive, they were not grossly offensive and so the pastor was ultimately acquitted. However, the case is a reminder of the need to be wise in what we say and how we say it.

 

Harassment – unwanted conduct that is related to a protected characteristic, such as religious beliefs, and which violates dignity or creates a working environment that is intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive, is unlawful, for example shunning a Christian colleague because of their faith.

Of course, while these provisions protect a Christian’s rights, it is important that Christians remember that they in turn are bound by the same restrictions. While a Christian may feel that his or her colleagues’ constant swearing and blaspheming constitutes harassment, a non-Christian may invoke the same principle against a Christian who is insulting of their or other religious beliefs.

Some basic principles to consider:Remember what you’re there for Sharing your faith should not be done at the expense of working. You are employed to do your duties, not to share your faith. This accords with biblical  teaching that we should respect those who work hard. Christian witness is not just about what we say to our colleagues. It is also about the way we work, and what our actions say to our employer, employees and colleagues. By working diligently and in a manner that would be pleasing to God, our witness will have more credibility when opportunities to share about Jesus arise.

employers may be justified in limiting the freedom of employees in promoting their beliefs at work, when this involves someone in a powerful position acting inappropriately towards someone in a vulnerable or subordinate position.

Asking questions rather than expressing opinions will help maintain a discussion, and allows a person to choose whether or not to participate. It is unlikely that we will ever brow-beat someone into giving their life to Christ. Do not expect to have answers to everything, either. Answering a question from an unbeliever with another question is very Christ-like and stops us always feeling like we’re defending our faith. So, if we want to be effective in sharing our faith at work it will often be wise to use considered questions to lead someone to think about their own need for salvation through Jesus.

 

Respect your colleagues’ wishes – If a colleague makes it clear that faith discussions are unwelcome, they should not be pursued with that individual, nor should that individual be treated unfavourably by you as a result of their stance. To do otherwise could amount to harassment or unlawful discrimination. The model of the early disciples is a good one: they spent as long as was  necessary with those people who were open to hearing the good news but when people showed they were not open to it, the disciples would move on to the next town (to find someone who was open) rather than direct their energies towards arguments that were not going to bear fruit. Of course, you will need to continue to interact with colleagues, and a colleague who has shown themselves closed to discussion about Jesus should be respected and shown continued and even greater kindness and love by Christian employees, not least in the hope that they will “see your good deeds and give thanks  to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Posters and other written materials showing Bible verses will rarely raise any legal issues, even where those verses contain strong challenges. It is not hard for Christians to realise which verses are likely to prove more controversial and it will be for each church or individual to prayerfully consider whether using banners or tracts with such verses will help to spread the good news of Jesus Christ in a particular situation. Christians will, naturally, want to consider what sort of written materials will be most effective and will most reflect the tone of Jesus’ ministry. In Mark 6:34 it describes how Jesus saw a large crowd and “had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd”. Publications motivated by that same compassion are likely to be in line with the teaching of the Bible

 

To risk committing a criminal offence, that written material would have to:

  1. a) be shown with an intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress and be classed as threatening, abusive or insulting; or
  2. b) be threatening or abusive (whether or not there was an intention to cause harassment, alarm or distress); or
  3. c) be intended to stir up religious hatred or hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Timothy Keller has noted: If we confuse evangelism and social justice we lose the single most unique service that Christians can offer the world. Others, alongside believers, can feed the hungry. But Christians have the gospel of Jesus by which men and women can be born again into the certain hope of eternal life. No one else can make such an invitation.

 A brief guide is available here

The full report is here

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