Last month, as we know, the European Court of Human Rights passed its verdict on four cases brought by different Christians regarding where and how, publicly, they could express their faith and where and how, publicly, they could not. In a sense, the outcomes were not surprising because Europe, including Britain, is now a secular environment and, indeed, has been so for a long time.
Although the decisions have been presented as secularism against Christianity, it is more accurate to say that they represent secularism and a secular state against religion. If Moslems rather than Christians had brought the cases, the outcomes would have been the same. A Moslem working for British Airways would be allowed to wear a small, non-threatening symbol of her faith, a Moslem working as a registrar would not be allowed to opt out of performing state-allowed marriages, a Moslem counsellor could not retain his job if he refused to counsel a homosexual couple, and a Moslem nurse cannot wear a religious symbol that may inflict injury on a patient.
I suppose we would agree with the fourth and not be too bothered about the first. Regarding the second and the third, it looks as if it will not be possible now for religious people to remain in employment situations where the principles of their faiths prevent them participating in legally-allowed actions that are required by the government or by employers.
With regard to employment, a Christian has two reasons why he may not work in a certain area. (1) If the work involves actions that the Bible forbids, such as gambling, then he chooses not to work there. (2) He may want to work in an area, for example a government department, but government requirements prevent him doing so, such as the registrar who refused to obey the state’s requirement that she perform a civil partnership involving a homosexual couple.
Something similar happened a couple of decades ago with regard to working on Sundays. Overnight it was difficult for Christians to get full-time work in companies that wanted their employees to be available seven days a week. I recall a young girl who was offered a job with a prominent shop in the Eastgate centre, but the contract specified that she be available for Sunday work. She refused to sign it, and did not get the job even although the company had recognised her worth and offered her one in the first place. Of course, since then the notion of Sunday as a special day that belongs to God has disappeared from our society. But that does not mean that God no longer regards it as special.
The war with secularism has been a long one. In our country it has fought against Christianity for centuries but received an enormous boost with the rise of evolution and its replacement of divine creation as the origin of life in the middle of the nineteenth century. Since the 1850s there has been an ongoing advance of secularism as it has taken over gradually the major areas of society, including education, and ensured the increased marginalisation of the Church.
The increase in secularism has already led to the demise of the concept of personal sin and the value of each human life. Christians show that they value each human life by witnessing to the need of divine forgiveness and renewal for each person. Taking away the fact that we are sinful also takes away our God-given dignity as humans and denies us the remedy for our condition.
It is a myth to assume that a secular society is a tolerant one, and that is the case at a whole range of levels. Already in Britain, secularism has led to the widespread practice of abortion, ignoring the rights of the unborn because they are not regarded as persons; in societies that are more progressive in their secularism, euthanasia also has been legalised, ignoring the rights of the old and weak who cannot care for themselves. Our secular society has not shown much tolerance towards those who refuse to work on Sundays, so their rights too is denied. Now it is about to redefine marriage and insist that it is no longer valid to call the couple husband and wife. Who knows what the outcome of this change will be?
So how can we live in a secular society? One way is to do what Jesus wants and the other way is to do whatever anyone or anything else wants. Those who will do what Jesus wants will stand out very clearly from the rest. What does Jesus want? Along with participating in normal activities of everyday life, he wants his followers to do certain things in private and certain things together in public. Privately, he wants them to find time frequently to read his Word and pray to his Father; publicly, he wants them to identify with the communal gatherings of his followers (what we call church services on Sunday and during the week – after all, if we don’t, we are imitating what the secularists do).
In other words, he wants them to live for him and obey his instructions, whether it is a secular or a non-Christian society. And we should remember that most Christians elsewhere in the world have been doing this for a long time.