This fine is not a matter of free speech and doesn’t commend the gospel

Do you recall the name Mike Overd? You may remember him from such stories as, ‘I got arrested for quoting the King James Bible‘ and ‘I got acquitted for quoting the King James Bible’. He has been arrested a number of other times. He is now described as ‘Britain’s most arrested preacher.’ The label is not entirely without warrant.

In the overwhelming majority of those cases, I was keen to defend Mr Overd’s right to speak. I can’t say I always agree with his methods. Whilst some of the time, people are taking offence at the Christian gospel, I am not convinced his messages are always delivered with much consideration for just how provocative they are nor with any great sensitivity. But since when has being provocative, rude, obnoxious or irritating ever been grounds for arrest?

If Britain First can wander through Oldham town centre, under police protection, to engage in their coordinated effort to wind up Muslims, I find it difficult to believe a provocative single bloke sharing his understanding of the Christian gospel – however insensitively – is credibly more deserving of arrest. Up to now, Mr Overd has repeatedly been stopped from speaking because of words that he has uttered. Not actions, not even incitement to action, just the mere sharing of words. How provocative they are, how irritating, how insensitively delivered is neither here nor there. And so, whilst I can’t say I’d want to be part of his open air team, his right to say the things he did should be strongly defended.

But Mr Overd has hit the news again. Only, this time, he has not been arrested for words he has said. He was issued with a COVID-19 encoforcement notice for failing to comply with lock down measures. Mr Overd claimed:

God willing, I will be back in town in the near future, God has prepared me for a time like this. I will not let wicked authorities challenge the church of Christ. God is the higher authority. It’s our duty to call government and Kings to account when they overstep the mark.

You can read the full story here.

On this one, I can’t help but think that Mr Overd has over-stepped the mark. Because he has not been arrested this time for mere words spoken, he has been issued with a fine for endangering others by being out during the COVID-19 lock down. This is not a matter of the government seeking to ideologically close down churches, it is a matter of protecting people from harm. The churches have not compromised in the face of authoritarianism, they have complied with the government because the Bible commands us to love our neighbour (which easily extends to not infecting them with COVID-19 nor overwhelming the health service so that those who most need to use it can access the help they need).

It bears saying that there may well be a point to make about government overreach. It may well prove, in time, that having taken certain liberties in this emergency situation that the authorities are not inclined to give them back. But now is not the time to test that theory based on little more than a worst-case-scenario presumption. If that proves to be the case in time, when everything is back to normal, then civil disobedience may well be appropriate. But let’s not pretend that is the reason we are in this situation nor assume, based on nothing, that this will be the case.

What is more, it seems hard for Mr Overd to insist that he has to be out preaching if his own church have complied with the government orders. It is a tall enough order to insist on the necessity of meeting, despite the danger to health, when the vast majority of churches have all closed in the immediate term.

The problem here, then, is that Mr Overd makes it increasingly difficult to actually support him. Whilst he was being arrested for saying things that some people didn’t like to hear – regardless of the tone, content or provocative nature of those things – his right to say them was vital to defend. But now he is happily endangering life and ignoring important health advice, even in the face of churches up and down the country closing in response to the situation. Not only is it hard to have sympathy, it is almost impossible to defend.

Perhaps worst of all, Mr Overd hardly helps the cause of the gospel. Whilst there are those who have faced arrest for public speaking, these things are not the norm. The frequency with which Mr Overd is arrested – and especially in light of his latest infraction – it is extremely hard to avoid the conclusion that he is courting such controversy.

But the gospel itself is hardly commended in this. The Bible is clear that, so far as it depends on us, we should live peaceable and quiet lives. It is hard to see how this features on Mr Overd’s agenda. Nor does it commend the gospel to flout the authorities when scripture is clear that we should honour and submit to our leaders. Considering even our own leaders are abiding by this protocol, many now working from home, it is not as though they are asking of us what they are themselves not willing to endure. The Prime Minister himself is now in intensive care, which hardly screams ideological overreach. Moreover, whilst the entire country is in lock down for the purpose of saving lives, it does not commend the gospel for us to flout the advice as though the Lord has no concern about the welfare of his creatures. I mean, it’s not as though he commanded us to love our neighbour, is it? And it doesn’t strike me as loving, in the face of all the best advice being implemented worldwide, to ignore the government on this and carry on with business as usual.

I appreciate that the counter-argument to all this will be to speak of people’s greatest need. Surely it is better for people to enter Heaven with COVID-19 than to be cast into eternal fire without coughing? The problem with this line of reasoning, in these particular circumstances, is severalfold.

First, it assumes that everyone you manage to share the gospel with will necessarily convert. Unless everyone with whom you make contact becomes a believer, you have only served to (potentially) spread the virus without affecting their salvation. You may, inadvertently, be speeding people to judgement which is, surely, especially terrible.

Second, that is before we consider the wider impact. If we infect a number of people – or catch it from someone else and begin spreading it around – we are infecting a far wider group of people than we can possibly reach with our gospel message in the street. The very act of being out may well cause people to meet their maker without having ever met you to hear the gospel of salvation. Far from loving people to tell them the gospel, you are damaging people you cannot possibly reach with the gospel under the circumstances. This seems entirely counterproductive.

Third, this view takes no account of God’s sovereignty in these things. The bottom line here is that the Lord is in control of these circumstances. He, in his sovereignty, has brought us a scenario in which we are unable to physically meet with people as a means of sharing the gospel with them. Flouting such limitations on the grounds that the Lord would be displeased seems to overlook the fact that it is he who brought these circumstances to pass.

Fourth, it assumes that we are duty bound to go into the street to share the gospel. We are certainly duty bound to go and share the gospel. Truth be told, we are still duty bound to do that even now, we are just having to be more creative about the means by which we do it so we don’t end up damaging the people we are claiming to love. And that street preaching is permissible is evident because it is what the early church did. It is something my own church does under normal circumstances. But let’s not confuse what is good under normal circumstances, and permissible, with necessary. The Bible doesn’t specify exactly how we are to make disciples; it simply tells us to make disciples. Street preaching may well be one reasonable way to do that, but it is not the only way nor a demanded way. My church certainly believes in it (otherwise we wouldn’t do it) but we have to acknowledge that it is not the way sanctioned by the Lord. It is a way.

So, I am not convinced Mr Overd is in the right here. I can’t help but think, this time, his fine is entirely justified and the gospel is not commended by his behaviour.