In recent years, there has been a troubling trend in the United Kingdom, in which the freedom of speech of street preachers has been increasingly curtailed. Whatever one might think of the practices and methods of street preachers, freedom of speech and freedom of religion are precious gifts that we enjoy (for now) in Western democracies, something our brothers and sisters in other lands do not enjoy. Americans have the First Amendment, while in the United Kingdom freedom of speech is generally protected in law.
The United Kingdom has several statutes designed to prevent public disorder and violence. Unfortunately, Christian preachers are being caught in the legal net that was originally designed to prevent riotous behavior, such as public drunkenness, brawling, and verbal abuse. For example, Section 31 of the Crime and Disorder Act (1998) makes it an offense to use “threatening or abusive words or behavior or disorderly behavior within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby, and the offense was religiously aggravated.” As is often the case with legal matters, it comes down to definitions: what is harassment, alarm, or distress? When is it religiously aggravated? Is the mere mention of hell, sin, or the cross alarming or distressing? Is not the preaching of the cross an offense (a stumbling block)?
In February 2017, two preachers, Michael Overd and Michael Stockwell, both of whom are seasoned street evangelists, were convicted of such an offense at Bristol Magistrates’ Court. The case concerned an incident that took place the previous summer. The two evangelists had been preaching in a shopping mall in Bristol when a group of spectators began to become agitated at the content of the sermons. As is often the case, they began asking hostile questions on the “hot topics” of the day, Islam and homosexuality, in an attempt to get the men to say something “offensive.” When the preachers answered the objections from the Bible, by insisting that Islam is not the way to God and that homosexuality is sinful behavior condemned in God’s Word, the crowd became more agitated and hostile, shouting abuse at the preachers. Eventually, the police were called and the preachers, who were deemed to be the cause of the trouble, were arrested. Take note—the hostile crowd or the hecklers (who were shouting obscenities at the preachers) were not arrested—the preachers were arrested. In fact, four preachers were arrested that day, but only the cases of Overd and Stockwell came to trial. Charges for the other men were dropped due to lack of evidence.
I tried to find an official transcript of the trial, but was unsuccessful in locating it. Therefore, I have to rely on the secular and Christian press reports, which, as you might imagine, vary in their perspectives.
Widely reported on the Christian Concern website were the remarks of the public prosecutor, Ian Jackson, who said, “Although the words preached are included in a version of the Bible in 1611, this does not mean that they are incapable of amounting to a public order offence in 2016.” Then he added the troubling words, “To say to someone that Jesus is the only God is not a matter of truth. To the extent that they are saying that the only way to God is through Jesus, that cannot be a truth.”1 It is one thing for a public prosecutor to dislike what the preachers were announcing about the exclusivity of Jesus Christ, but it is quite another for him to argue that the evangelists should be forbidden to preach it. Jackson is reported to have said that publicly quoting parts of the King James Bible in modern Britain should be “considered to be abusive and is a criminal matter.”2 If it is unlawful to preach the Bible or certain parts of it on the street, when will it become unlawful to preach it in the church building or to publish it online via live-streaming, YouTube, or Sermonaudio websites? Bristol magistrates ruled against Overd and Stockwell and ordered them to pay just over £2,000 each (fines, “victim surcharges,” and prosecution costs), stating, “We feel it has been proved that both defendants’ behavior went beyond preaching the virtues of their religion.”
The secular Daily Mail newspaper reported that the street preachers “ranted about other religions” and shouted “Mohammed is a liar” and “Allah is the greatest deceiver,” among other offensive statements. Video evidence presented to the court reportedly showed Stockwell saying, “Allah is the greatest deceiver—that’s in the Koran. You will die for your sins and be cast into hell.” Overd reportedly told the crowd, “Mohammed is a liar and a thief, just like you and me. Buddha isn’t on the cross—he is a liar, just like you and me.” During a discussion about sexual ethics, Overd reportedly remarked concerning David Cameron, the former British Prime Minister who championed the legalization of “same-sex marriage” in Britain, that “David Cameron is no more Christian than my dogs.”3
If what the Daily Mail reports is true (and I have not seen the video evidence to confirm it), what Overd and Stockwell said was not criminal, but it was unwise. Shouting insults at people, even if the insults contain religious truth (it is true that Allah is a false god; it is true that Mohammed is a false prophet; it is true that Buddha did not die for our sins; and it is true that unrepentant sinners will be punished in hell, for example), is not the same as preaching, witnessing, or evangelism. It is also not the same as merely quoting in public from the King James Bible, which was the evangelists’ defense. Christians must not respond to hecklers with insults: we must give an answer “with meekness and fear” (), “not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should receive a blessing” ( ). I cannot imagine the apostle Paul standing in front of the temple of Diana in Ephesus shouting, “Diana is a deceiver and you are all going to burn in hell for worshipping her.” Of course, Paul preached against idolatry, but what was his manner? Listen to the testimony of the town clerk of Ephesus: “Ye have brought hither these men, which are neither robbers of churches, nor yet blasphemers of your goddess” ( ). Clearly, Paul’s behavior was above reproach. I hope that this is true of Overd and Stockwell.
I understand the temptation to get into a heated debate with hecklers (it is even easier to do so online); but we must resist that temptation, for we represent both in our words and behavior the Lord Jesus. What appears to have happened here is as follows: the men were preaching Christ in (I hope) a proper manner, explaining who He is and what He has done, and calling the hearers to repentance. Certain onlookers were offended, especially at the message of “Christ alone.” These offended individuals, some of them seemingly supporters of Islam, tried to silence the preachers with argumentative questions. The preachers, provoked by the hecklers, exchanged words with them in which they shouted at the offended individuals. The result was increased offense and the threat of violence (not from the preachers, but from the hecklers), which led to the arrival of the police and the arrest of the preachers. What the police should have done was to disperse the hecklers who were shouting obscenities. If the obscenity-shouting hecklers had not moved on, they (and not the preachers) should have been arrested.
Happily, the preachers won their appeal at Bristol Crown Court and their conviction under Section 31 of the Crime and Disorder Act (1998) was overturned on June 29 of this year. Judge Martin Picton cited freedom of speech and freedom of expression concerns as he granted the appeal, remarking that while the preachers “seemed to take some satisfaction in ‘working the crowd,’ [they] had not committed a public order offence,” the Daily Mail reported. Moreover, the court found that people do not have the right not to be offended, for an offended person can simply continue on his way without engaging an “offensive speaker” in debate. Commenting on the court victory, Stockwell said, “Our motivation for public preaching is love. We want people to have access to the good news about Jesus Christ. When we were convicted of public order offences in February, I was shocked that God’s message of love is now considered by some to be hateful and dangerous…. Today’s result is such a great victory.”
The day is coming when preachers will be silenced not only on the streets of England, but also in the churches. When the law of man forbids the preaching of the gospel, the true church must respond despite the world’s threatening, “We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). And when the two witnesses of Revelation 11 are finally killed, which refers to the final silencing of the church’s public ministry, the time will be very short before the Lord Jesus returns, for then the preaching of the gospel will have accomplished what God intended, the salvation of the elect church.
1 “Street Preachers Who Quoted Bible Convicted In ‘Modern-Day Heresy Trial,’” Christian Concern (February 28, 2017), http://www.christianconcern.com/our-concerns/freedom-of-speech/street-preachers-who-quoted-bible-convicted-in-modern-day-heresy-trial (accessed July 17, 2017).
2 “Christian Street Preachers Acquitted of Public Order Offences,” Christian Concern (June 29, 2017), http://www.christianconcern.com/our-concerns/freedom-of-speech/christian-street-preachers-acquitted-of-public-order-offences (accessed July 17, 2017).
3 “Evangelical Christian Preachers Confronted by Angry Mob After they Shouted Slogans About Mohammed and Allah Face Religious Abuse Trial,” Daily Mail (February 24, 2017) and “Preachers Fined £300 Each for Shouting ‘Mohammed Is A Liar’ and Telling Shoppers ‘Being Gay Is Immoral’ Have Their Convictions Overturned After Judge Rules That ‘They Were Just Expressing Religious Beliefs,’” Daily Mail (June 30, 2017), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4255848/Evangelical-Christian-preachers-face-religious-abuse-trial.html and http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4653742/Preachers-fined-300-convictions-overturned.html (accessed July 17, 2017).