Badges, crosses and wristbands – are we too concerned with the externals?

Symbols are important but what we do and how we act when we're wearing them is more so.

It was reported last week that the badges intended for chaplains at the London Olympics have had all faith symbols removed from the design, in case they cause offence. The original design for the lapel badge was to feature symbols of nine religious faiths, but it was recognised that perhaps not all the chaplains would feel comfortable wearing the symbols of another faith, so the latest approved design will merely carry the word “Faith” alongside the Olympic logo.

The much overworked term ‘diversity’ has, of course, been the watchword behind not only the organisation and planning of the Olympics, but reflects the collective mindset of government and many local councils and national institutions in seeking to privatise Christian faith and remove any Christian distinctiveness from the public arena.

Christians have rightly expressed concern and even alarm when this unrestrained political correctness has resulted in the undermining of freedom of speech, and also in punitive action against Christians publicly witnessing to their faith. The wearing of crosses in the workplace has been a particularly contentious issue lately.

Visual symbols of faith in the form of jewellery, badges, wristbands, T-shirts and the like have become very popular in recent years. In my own memory, the Christian rock singer Larry Norman seemed to set the trend in the 1970s with the famous “One Way” T-shirt. Since then we have had “WWJD” and “Not Ashamed” wristbands, fish symbols, and other logos, slogans and abbreviations that are sometimes only meaningful to the initiated. Indeed, some have been prompted to question whether many of these innovations owe more to the canny marketing strategies of those selling merchandise than to any real attempt to help Christians to witness.

There is an arguable case for saying that such “badges of faith” can even inhibit meaningful witness, by allowing the wearer to think that merely by displaying these signs or symbols on their person in some form is sufficient to say that they are sharing their faith, even when no verbal conversation or personal relationship exists.

The factor that is often forgotten is that it is the attitude and lifestyle of the wearer that makes the bigger impression on people. In my experience, there is a certain irony in the fact that those displaying fish stickers on the back of their cars all too frequently seem to be aggressive and inconsiderate drivers, or are exemplified by those who overtake me on the motorway travelling well in excess of the speed limit.

I have always maintained that Christians who choose to wear some visual witness to their faith need to display a lifestyle that reflects rather than contradicts the character of the Saviour they claim to represent. Thus in today’s post-modern culture, if we become overly aggressive, arrogant and dismissive of those who seek to deny us the liberty to wear any such badges of faith, our witness will ultimately be compromised and even counter-productive.

When the Apostle Paul wrote to Christians in Corinth, he reminded them that “You yourselves… are a letter from Christ… read by everybody” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3). The vital importance of people coming to encounter the saving power and love of Christ is best achieved by the transparently Christ-like lifestyles of believers, rather than by relying on badges, crosses, slogans, wristbands and the like. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t decry their existence. They may serve as a useful aid, but the Bible constantly challenges me that people need to see Jesus in me, not merely in what I wear. Peter’s words to Christian wives, indicating “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment… instead, it should be that of your inner self” (1 Peter 3:3-4) have perhaps also a spiritual parallel and application as regards the external badges of faith.

Certainly, to defend Christian liberties in today’s society against the encroachment of a dumbed down ‘diversity’ agenda is important. But we must not forget that the ‘externals’ of what we wear are not the crux of Christian witness. The inner life that reflects the beauty of Jesus, and shares the Gospel from a heart of genuine love and compassion must forever be the main focus.

Tony Ward is a Bible teacher and evangelist who was ordained in Zimbabwe. He currently lives and ministers in Bristol.

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