Missioning recently in Oxford, I paused at the spot on Broad Street where Hugh Ridley, Bishop Latimer and Archbishop Cranmer were burned at the stake in 1555. Just a few yards away, Martyrs Memorial, which towers imposingly over shoppers, silently testifies as a permanent reminder of their courageous stand for truth.
They refused to be intimidated by the ‘powers that be’ or their employers in the ecclesiastical system. Royalty itself proved impotent when pressurising these faithful men to be silent about their biblical beliefs. Obedience cost them their blood.
And yet, a little later, I heard a fine Christian GP say that she never spoke to her patients about the gospel, for she feared being ‘struck off’. She is not alone.
Those in public service in the NHS, education, the civil service, the media, politics or social services are being intimidated into silence by people in authority. To gain or keep favour, they have repeatedly succumbed to pressure and have done what even Balaam’s ass refused to do — namely, be silent!
Someone somewhere has meddled not only with freedom of speech, but also the Lord’s command to proclaim the gospel to every person, whether it is in season or out of season. Under the guise of equality and diversity most opinions appear acceptable, except, that is, the Christian message which has become a no-go area.
Of course, we believe in the right of people to hold a variety of worldviews. We believe in equality, but we also know that the most pressing need for each individual is to be reconciled to God, and that we should be allowed to lovingly express and share this.
As the Wycliffe Bible Translators’ chorus says, ‘Every person, in every nation, in each succeeding generation, has the right to hear the news that Christ can save’. Out of the abundance of our hearts we must speak of Jesus.
The silence of Christian employees is in stark contrast to the atheists, who in university lecture theatres, school classrooms, the media, parliament and individual consultations are bold, outspoken and fearless.
While recognising that we are outsiders in this world, we also know that this is our Father’s world. Only the Lord has the authority to tell us to speak or be silent, and anyone instructing us to act contrary to his commands is usurping his authority.
Peter and John were aware of this. For, when instructed by the Sanhedrin not to speak about Jesus, they replied, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard’ (Acts 4:19-20).
Of course, we are to do all our work as unto the Lord, being faithful and diligent employees. And witnessing is to be appropriate, with love and without arrogance or belligerence.
I remember hearing the GP, Dr. Murray Webb-Peploe, say that he prayed each day that the last person to make an appointment with him would be of the Lord’s choosing, because they would be the ones with whom he would have time to chat.
He kept in his drawer a pile of evangelistic booklets to give to his patients. To have the answer to the greatest needs that people face and be silent, is an act of betrayal. It is buying into the lie that our career is more important than the gospel or the salvation of those with whom we have contact.
The greatest act of kindness we can show anyone is to introduce them to Jesus. And the greatest act of tyranny is to know the way of the Lord and not to share it.
‘We can die!’
We are frequently made aware that people have lost their jobs, been fined, or having to appear at disciplinary tribunals because they have spoken about their faith. I recall, though, the Puritans’ reaction to threats, which was ‘We can die!’ Have we forgotten the great cloud of witnesses of church history, or even those recorded in Foxes book of martyrs? They recognised that there is something more important than career.
The early Christians hazarded their lives for the Lord Jesus. They were a despised, illegal group, who knew that, at any moment, Imperial Rome might attempt to crush them out of existence. They worshipped secretly, were thrown to the lions, burned at the stake and crucified.
Missionaries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gave up so much that the world values. They left home and loved ones, undertook long, hazardous journeys, leaving the relative security of the West. They faced hunger, imprisonment and flogging. They were accused of being ‘foreign devils’. Are we to be different from them, demanding to be ‘carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease, while other fought to win the prize, and sailed through raging seas’?
When Peter and John were told not to speak or teach about Jesus, they courteously continued to proclaim, and then met with other Christians to pray. They didn’t ask for the threats to be removed, but that they would that they would have boldness to speak the Word of God in the face of opposition, and that the Lord would work miraculously as they did. That prayer was abundantly answered.
Obedience to the Lord’s call, and compassionate witnessing to those who cross our path, are chief reasons for the Lord keeping us here on earth. I can’t help wondering what would happen if all Christian medics across the land ignored their employers’ intimidation and lovingly shared their faith. Would all believing doctors, nurses, physios be struck off? Sadly, perhaps they would!
The workplace is a God-given opportunity to make friends and acquaintances, to whom we can witness. It is a major component of our mission field. Colleagues, patients, clients, neighbours or students are each our God-given responsibility.
C. H. Spurgeon said, ‘The truest reward of our life’s work is to bring dead souls to life. I long to see souls brought to Jesus — it should break my heart if I did not see it … people are passing into eternity so rapidly that we must have them saved at once … Brethren, can we bear to be useless. Can we be barren and yet content?’
He was echoing the attitude of Paul, who said, ‘Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel’.
In the UK, we have prayed for suffering Christians in distant lands for many years. Now we have become one of the most non-religious nations in the world, and consequently are beginning to experience a notching-up of ‘suffering’.
Actually, this is the normal Christian life, experienced by most believers throughout history. But today, after 150 years of Christians being respected and valued in UK society, it is taking us by surprise, and now, for the first time, we are seeing there is a cost to following Jesus.
The true reality is that life is not just about ‘the here and now’, but ‘the then and there’. Peter, in his first letter, uses the concept of ‘foreignness’ to explain the Christian life. We are now experiencing a period of being re-aligned to our true calling. We are learning what it means to be rejected. And Jesus said that, at such times, we should rejoice and be glad, not go silent.
All of life is given by the Lord, so must not be compartmentalised. We are to be followers of Jesus 24/7. It is he who defines us. Being a Christian is of greater significance than our country (or county!) of birth, class or career.
God is to be the first principle of our life. Everything we do and say is to be for his glory. We are to be a faithful presence in this world. We cannot be Christians only when we go to church or midweek meetings.
We are to sing God’s praise and speak God’s words under the control of the Holy Spirit, at all times and in all places. The Cornish tin miner, Billy Bray, set an example for us all when he famously said, ‘If they put me in a barrel, I will shout “Glory!” out of the bunghole!’
So let us go into each day prayerfully, asking the Lord to open doors of opportunity at work or in travel or at rest, when we can lovingly speak of the gospel and point people to the Lord.
If speaking of the Lord Jesus means that you or I lose our job, or even our life, so be it. Our times are in his hands. If we are being obedient to God, we can leave the consequences with him.
I understand that Dr David Gooding turned down the offer of the chair of the theology department of Oxford University when they simply asked him to tone down his evangelical views. He replied, ‘I will accept no gag!’
Persecution is inevitable for those with genuine faith. O, for the courage of Balaam’s ass, who even though she was beaten, spoke! It would be good to be able to sing again the chorus I learned as a teenager and have often prayed since:
‘Lead me to some soul today
O teach me Lord just what to say;
Friends of mine are lost in sin
And cannot find the way.
Few there are who seem to care
And few there are who pray;
Melt my heart and fill my life
To win some soul today.’
Roger Carswell is an itinerant evangelist and a member of the Association of Evangelists