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Friday, January 09, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: Outspoken Faith or Poor Judgment?

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

You may not have heard of him, but Kelvin Cochran was Fire Chief in Atlanta up until last week when he was terminated by the mayor. He was also a Christian. You can read about it here if you’re interested.

There disagreement as to precisely why he was fired, but the bottom line is that if he had not published a book entitled “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” in which he expressed his understanding of the biblical view of homosexuality, he would still be employed.

Tom: Immanuel Can, former Fire Chief Cochran is not the first and won’t be the last Christian to lose his job as a consequence — whether it’s a remote or a direct consequence — of taking the Bible seriously and saying so publicly. We are both Christians with opinions who still work for a living. What’s your take on this developing trend?

Do We Wish to Die on This Hill?

Immanuel Can: I suppose we could ask, “Is this really the hill to die on”, and for me it might not be the first issue of concern. But since the Fire Chief in question decided it IS the hill he wants to die on, that would be irrelevant. I guess a starting point for me would be this: suppose there were someone who had concerns about homosexuality — not angry, biased, irrationally-expressed kinds of concerns, but cool, rational, principled ones — in what forum would he be okay to express those concerns? Or is it the case that the gay lobby is so convinced of its own righteousness that there simply CAN BE no such forum anywhere, for any reason, under any conditions.

If so, then it makes homosexuality the only issue our society is simply incapable of discussing. And we have to wonder why.

Tom: Well, not the only one now. I think you’d find transgenderism is rapidly catching up, and there will be more Things That Cannot Be Argued to come.

But I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here when you ask “In what forum would it be okay to express those concerns?” The answer that the gay lobby is working toward is “none”, but realistically, you and I express the same sorts of concerns frequently in this forum. What’s the difference here? On the surface, it’s that Mr. Cochran’s job presumably required him to sign an agreement that limited his ability to say what he thinks. When he violated that agreement, he was out. I’ve had no such all-encompassing limitations placed contractually on me, though there are certainly limitations while in my workplace.

Looking Over Our Shoulders

But such agreements can certainly be forced on employees retroactively. Do you think you and I should be looking over our shoulders?

IC: In a sense, I think we’d be fools not to. On the other hand, if the issue is really one of Christian principle, then we ought to rejoice that the world hates us and that we are persecuted as Christians. But on that note, we should make sure the persecution is coming to us as Christians, not merely as tactless, confrontational people. For that, there’s no reward.

What do you think? Was the Fire Chief tactless?

Tom: Well, here’s the thing: as I read it, because he was accepting pay from a government entity, in this case the City of Atlanta, he signed a contract that gave the City the right to approve anything he might write, even in his private life. And when he wrote his book, it seems he submitted a request for approval, but if the story is correct, he went ahead and published the book without receiving signed approval, though he says he had received verbal approval.

And then, allegedly, he went ahead and gave out copies of the book at work.

You see the problem, right? There’s a combination here of governmental overreach (which we are wise to always anticipate) and a Christian who did not follow the rules he had contracted himself to follow.

That’s IF the media reports are accurate.

The Unanswered Questions

IC: Yes, and these days that’s an “if”, realistically speaking. On the assumption that they are telling the truth, I would see him as having behaved a bit tactlessly. I also don’t know what was in his book: was it a balanced, reasonable, biblical treatment or a personal screed? And was self-publishing and circulating it to fellow firefighters the right method and audience for his message? It seems hard for me to imagine that the gay issue is rightly to be settled in the way and forum he chose. Something looks ill-advised to me there, however much I might share his convictions about the biblical view of this form of sin.

Do you think it’s possible or reasonable for a Christian to sign a contract of the sort he signed and keep it? Or should he not have signed it at all?

Tom: I believe if you sign it you should keep it. If you can’t keep it and have a good conscience about it, you need to look for a job in another field. And I suspect that by the time there are no jobs available without making a compromise of some sort, then the Lord will have come to take us home. So I don’t think that’s an issue.

But if you want to be Fire Chief, and you want the salary and prestige that entails, then you’d best keep the contracts you sign.

Obeying God Rather Than Men

IC: What about “We ought to obey God rather than men”: is that an appropriate answer in this case?

Tom: Do you mean that the Lord would be pleased for us to accept a job under a certain set of written conditions with which we do not comply until we get caught doing something the conditions prohibit, when there may be other jobs without the same conditions attached that are available to us? Or are you thinking of something else?

IC: Ha! Very good. I take your point.

But that maybe also puts a responsibility on us, when we take a job or sign a contract, to consider carefully whether we are prepared to live and confine our Christian witness within the terms it specifies. If we feel that it asks us to compromise our convictions more than we ought to do, maybe the right answer is not to take the job or sign the contract in the first place.

Is that fair?

Tom: I think so. I would certainly not be interested in signing any agreement that dictates my conduct outside office hours, in terms of what I can write or what opinions I can express. It seems to me that sort of thing falls outside the legitimate purview of an employer. But I can say that rather glibly, being well into my career. I know one of my sons had to go through a pretty invasive vetting process to get his most recent position, so it’s very possible that the next couple of generations of Christians may have to consider sacrificing things that were never on the table in our generation.

Restricting Freedom of Speech

Have you ever encountered employers wanting to restrict your freedom of speech or your testimony outside of the work environment?

IC: Oh yes. In my profession that is quite ordinary. At present, the regulations are not too demanding. But they could easily become so, and I expect they will, in a few years’ time, given our current environment of irrational pluralism and political correctness. But I see that the Fire Chief apparently increased the chances of getting slapped down by using his work as a distribution point for his book. Do you know if he did so at the request of the recipients or just took the initiative in that himself?

Tom: It just says that Mr. Cochran “acknowledged passing it out” to some members of the fire department.

IC: Hard to say, then. If he was only responding to what his colleagues asked him to give them, he was blameless. If he was pushing his materials on them against their wills, he was disrupting the work environment and doing what he is not paid to do. So it’s not easy to judge the situation fairly.

Playing the “Persecution” Card

Tom: There is a tendency among some Christians to hurl accusations of persecution and discrimination at the employer in situations like this. That was the first reaction of a few Christians I spoke with about that recent case with the five pastors in Houston that received subpoenas for copies of their sermons and internal documentation from a law firm representing the City, which was a named defendant in a lawsuit commenced by the pastors. I don’t want to revisit that whole incident except to say that on careful examination, it seems there was more to the story than obvious persecution.

There are good reasons to be careful about passing judgment without evidence in this Fire Chief situation too, as you point out. But genuine persecution will come, and has already come to believers for their faith, even when they exercise good judgment and don’t provoke trouble.

Do you think the scriptures that encourage us to lead a “quiet life”, to “mind our own affairs” and to not be “meddlers” have anything to teach us about how we ought to respond to genuine persecution?

IC: Well, as I’ve said before, I think Christians have an unqualified right — indeed, a moral obligation — to preach the gospel wherever they are. But that doesn’t mean using the most tactless and confrontational means they can devise. Rather, I think that calls for a discriminating sense of when to speak up, when to wait, when to role model, when to discuss and debate, and so on. Is publishing your own book and handing out to your colleagues really the best way to witness in a given situation? And is the thing that’s sending your colleagues to a lost eternity merely their sexual practices, or are there more core issues of which sexual misdoing is merely a symptom?

The Real Issue

What was the real issue the fire chief’s colleagues needed to think about? Can we ask that question? I mean, without unfairly presuming him to have made the wrong decision.

Tom: I’d say he definitely made the wrong decision. I don’t mean in writing the book; these things need to be said. But his testimony on the job did not, nor should it, revolve around opposition to gay marriage, or whatever. Even if you change your co-workers’ minds about the evils of homosexuality, they are still all on their way to hell when you’re done.

Now if he’d been fired for preaching Christ on his lunch hour to a fellow worker who was willing to listen, I’d say good on him; it might be worth the subsequent job hunt.

Opposition to wrong thinking and behavior is great, and completely appropriate, in the right forum.

IC: It’s that old balance, isn’t it? “Speaking the truth in love …” Today, some people say, “Be loving, and if there’s any room left for it, speak the truth”. Others say, “Speak the truth, and forget about this love nonsense”. But both are really imperatives. Yes, you must speak the truth; and yes, you must do it in love. 

Maybe the Fire Chief got the balance wrong, or maybe he didn’t. We need not judge, since we do not have the facts on that. But we can, and should judge ourselves on it.

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