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02 September 2016

Freedom: don’t chill out, speak up!

Freedom: don’t chill out, speak up!

Evangelicals – surprise, surprise – really like evangelism. This makes freedom really important, and for 170 years the Evangelical Alliance has understood this. Our archives contain wonderful examples of international campaigns for religious liberty that involved letters and petitions to the president of the United States, the King of Sardinia, the Emperor of Austria, the Shah of Persia, the Sultan of Turkey, the King of Prussia and the Emperor of France! This campaigning covered issues such as repealing the death sentence for apostasy in Muslim-majority countries and protecting protestant minorities in Catholic-majority countries. Alongside longstanding campaigns against slavery, we also ran appeals on behalf of Jews in Germany in the 1930s.

The political structures may have changed over the years, but the issue of liberty remains as important as ever. Today, alongside campaigning for the persecuted Church around the world through our Religious Liberty Commission, we continue to advocate for gospel freedoms both internationally and domestically.

A few years ago, in response to news stories and high profile court cases against Christians, the Alliance conducted a series of parliamentary hearings with Christians in parliament to establish what was happening to our freedoms in the UK. The subsequent report Clearing the Ground found that, despite some reports, Christians in the UK were not being persecuted. However, it did conclude that we are experiencing marginalisation, and that this was creating a 'chill factor' in which Christians felt increasingly pressured to toe the line and be quiet about their faith in public. Apparently, although our good works are still valued, our good words are not.

Added to this, we now have various forms of censorship creeping into public life through things like 'hate crime' legislation to address 'non-violent extremism' – whatever that means. On the surface these can be seen as political responses to legitimate security concerns that threaten our freedoms.

However, they also suggest other agendas to muzzle those voices and opinions that dissent from the prevailing secular, liberal worldview. This means that rather ironically, our long-held, hard-won freedoms are being threatened in the name of freedom. There's no denying that we live in a society that is less tolerant of other beliefs, and is easy to take offence. However, as Salman Rushdie once stated: "What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist." It would be great if Christians could once again courageously take a stand for freedom by reminding our society that no one has the right not to be offended. But will we?

At one end of the Church spectrum, the response to this threatening secularism has been anger – a righteous rage about the direction of our 'Christian country'. At the other end of the spectrum, the response has been acquiescence – a cowardly compromising to maintain status, comfort and of course funding. Clearly, neither of these responses cut the mustard for the work of the Great Commission.

So, what should we do? For evangelicals – people committed to the authority of scripture and the proclamation of the gospel – the chill factor is a real challenge. Undeniably, we are called to practically demonstrate the love of God to a lost world, and thank God Christians take this seriously. But we can't just quietly do social action. It's the gospel that makes us distinctive. It's our USP. Our raison detre. As Tim Keller has noted: "If we confuse evangelism and social justice we lose what is 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 into a certain hope of eternal life. No one else can make such an invitation." (Generous Justice).

Critically, our response to the current 'chilling' will determine the future of our freedoms to: proclaim the gospel; to live out the gospel; and to transmit our values to the next generation. There's a lot at stake, and at the Alliance, we want the Church to be equipped to know more clearly about the freedoms we have to share our faith, and to be encouraged to do this more confidently. In partnership with the Lawyers Christian Fellowship we have produced Speak Up as a brief guide to our gospel freedoms. Covering what the law says in relation to sharing the gospel in work, in public, via advertising and more. It shows that our religious freedom in the UK is considerable indeed.

Importantly, the resource encourages Christians to resist the temptation to respond in the manner of just another rights-claiming victim group, solely focused on our own narrow agenda. This is because the gospel has wider consequences for society. It has shaped our modern ideas about freedom of religion and belief which in turn have become foundational for many of our other freedoms, human rights and civil liberties. Historically, the gospel of salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ is synonymous with freedom. Indeed, true freedom can only be found in Jesus. But there's more. His gospel not only sets men and women free, it also has what John Stott called "an antiseptic effect on society". It cleanses, heals and strengthens our national life. This is because the freedom to proclaim and live out the gospel – and the freedom for all to accept it or to reject it – demands and sustains even more freedoms. And when this happens everyone benefits.

So, we really shouldn't listen to the 'chilling' words of a few secular "thought police". Instead, we should remind everyone that evangelism is not a problem for our society. It's actually a sign of its health and freedom. It should be celebrated. For a salutary reminder of this truth, we need look no further than Russia, where President Putin – again, in the name of tackling terrorism – is creating laws to suppress the freedoms of evangelicals to gather and proclaim the gospel. 

In the West, our society is in denial about the biblical source of the many freedoms that are presently being abused. The recent secularised commemorations of the Magna Carta provide a good example of this wilful denial. Our response to this needs to be strong and clear affirmation of where our freedoms come from. And we need to remember that, as followers of Christ, the truth is that if we don't exercise our freedoms, like a muscle they will eventually weaken. If we don't use them, we'll lose them. So don't be chilled out. Speak up.

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