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COMMENT: Respect those in authority

September 2018 | by Mike Judge

St Paul’s Cathedral
see image info

I don’t personally know Allan Coote. He’s the man who has been told he’s not allowed to read the Bible on the doorstep of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. As far as I can tell, all he does is read aloud from the Scriptures to members of the public. But security officials at the cathedral say they have standing instructions to remove him whenever he appears.

I’ve only watched two videos on YouTube relating to this ongoing matter. Maybe there are more. In the first video I watched, an officer from the City of London Police attempts a compromise. He asks Mr Coote if he would mind reading the Bible across the street, away from the steps of the cathedral. Mr Coote says, respectfully, he would prefer to stay where he is.

After a while, the officer concludes that Mr Coote is not offending anyone, and there is no breach of the peace. Therefore, he is not prepared to take any further action. In addition, the police officer says he feels it would be remiss of him to remove a man who is doing nothing more than reading the Bible aloud outside a church.

However, on a second video — which I presume is recorded on another occasion — a different city of London police officer is not so reasonable. He insists that Mr Coote should move away because the cathedral authorities don’t want him there. Mr Coote refuses to obey the officer’s instructions. He was subsequently arrested, and taken away in a police van. I understand he was taken a short distance away, and then released with no further action.

A spokesman for the cathedral told the press: ‘In order to provide a prayerful and safe space for all, St Paul’s has a policy of limiting any form of public oration, protest, demonstration, preaching or other source of disturbance to people. Our policy is to allow a short interval and then ask the person to stop, and to involve the police if they refuse to do so or to move off the cathedral’s land.’ Their attitude to Mr Coote stands in stark contrast to the ‘Occupy London’ anti-capitalist protestors who were allowed to set up camp on the doorstep of St Paul’s for four months in 2011.

That kind of inconsistency is something many of us have become accustomed to. The cultural elite make a big deal about defending free speech and the right to protest, as long as the matter at hand is part of the trendy, politically correct ideology. The moment someone exercises free speech and the right to protest on a matter they regard as ‘offensive’, they will use authoritarian means to shut it down.

The question for us, as Christians, is: how do we respect the governing authorities when they are capable of such glaring injustices? Let’s be clear. The Lord Jesus Christ, and the apostles Paul and Peter made it abundantly plain that we should respect those in authority over us. And they said that at a time when the Roman authorities were in charge. The Romans were hardly a shining light of justice and good governance. Yet Christians were told to respect them regardless.

However, ‘respecting’ those in authority and ‘agreeing’ with those in authority are two different things. Remember the apostle Paul in Philippi. When the authorities realised they had flogged and imprisoned a Roman citizen without trial, contrary to Roman law, they wanted to release him quietly. What did Paul do? He insisted they escort him out publicly.

There’s so much more that could be said about this subject. But let me draw out two lessons. First, respect those in authority even when they are being unjust. If a police officer tells you to move on, don’t resist his legitimate authority. If you believe he is going beyond his power, by all means politely say so. But don’t stand in the street shouting and bawling, daring him to arrest you. Maintain respect for the sake of Christ.

The second lesson is this. If you have been wronged, it is legitimate to avail yourself of all the legal remedies open to you. By all means, make a complaint. Demand a public apology. Ask for clarification of the law. And in the most serious cases, recourse to the civil law may be necessary. There are Christian organisations that can advise you and, in some cases, even fund your legal action.

We’ve been here before. The public reading of Scripture was outlawed in previous centuries. Believers were arrested and thrown into jail for nothing more than preaching God’s Word. Liberty of worship, of conscience, and of assembly were trampled upon. There is nothing new under the sun. These things have been the norm for most Christians for most of history. Which is precisely why the Lord gave us instructions about respecting those in authority. Go and study those instructions, and ask the Lord to impress them upon your heart. The godliness of our reaction to persecution will speak volumes.

Mike Judge is pastor of Chorlton Evangelical Church in South Manchester, and co-editor of Evangelical Times.