A Christian theology lecturer with five young children has launched legal action after being sacked and threatened with a Counter-Terrorism referral, by a professedly evangelical Methodist Bible college, for a tweet on human sexuality.
In March 2023, Dr Aaron Edwards, 37, who is being supported by the Christian Legal Centre, was sacked for alleged misconduct by Cliff College in Derbyshire for ‘bringing the college into disrepute‘ on Twitter (now called X).
The CEO of Twitter/X, Elon Musk, announced recently that he would support any user treated unfairly by their employer for posting or liking something on the platform.
On 19 February, Dr Edwards posted: “Homosexuality is invading the Church. Evangelicals no longer see the severity of this b/c they’re busy apologising for their apparently barbaric homophobia, whether or not it’s true. This *is* a ‘Gospel issue’, by the way. If sin is no longer sin, we no longer need a Saviour.”
Following the tweet, Dr Edwards was abused online, suspended by Cliff College and threatened with being reported to Prevent during an investigation and subsequent hearing.
The college has since tried to deny the Counter-Terrorism threat, despite minutes during the disciplinary hearing/investigation revealing the intimidation tactics used by college bosses.
During the disciplinary hearings, Dr Edwards was also interrogated on how he would pray for same-sex attracted students who approach him for prayer.
He believes as a result of the sacking and subsequent controversy that he might not be able to work in UK higher education again.
Dr Edwards is now launching legal action against Cliff College on the grounds of harassment, discrimination and unfair dismissal.
Lawyers representing him will argue that the college unlawfully interfered with his rights under Article 9 and/or Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).
Dr Edwards will be seeking damages for unfair dismissal, and compensation under the Equality Act 2010. A full employment tribunal hearing is expected in 2024.
Academic and Christian freedom
Launching the claim, Dr Edwards, whose role at Cliff College was to teach students to preach, has said that: “Anyone concerned about academic freedom, Christian freedoms and free speech should be deeply concerned by what has happened to me.”
“The reaction to my tweet and the unjust treatment I have experienced by Cliff College and the Methodist Church in Britain completely illustrates the problem my tweet addressed.
“The tweet was not defamatory; it was not an attack on any colleague or individual; it was not abusive; and it was not an extremist religious view. It was addressed to evangelicals as a point of doctrine, and it has been misunderstood by many who wish to cause personal and institutional trouble for those who express that view.
“The impact on me and my family has been very significant. I have lost many friends as a result, and been slandered by people who do not know all of the details but who now see me as an unkind or hateful person.
“At the time of the suspension and dismissal I also suffered severe physical stress, culminating in symptoms of cardiac arrest. This sometimes returns, especially when I reflect on the events again. Re-reading the correspondence from the college and the various comments, is something I still find difficult as it brings it all up again. It feels like everything I worked for at the college (and for the college) over the last 7 years has gone up in smoke.
“It has, of course, been a tremendous upheaval for my homeschooled family too, given that we lived in the vicinity of the college in order to serve the college, and are now uprooted in more ways than one. At the homeschool co-op that meets every few weeks, there is a slot at these meetings where a father of one of the families comes and does a presentation about “their job”.
“I know I am unable to do that because the career that I had built over the course of a decade has been severely damaged to the extent that I no longer have a career. This is why the only way forward I can see is to pioneer something new, the uncertainty of which brings its own challenges and stresses.”
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, who grew up in the Methodist Church, said: “A Christian theologian working for a Christian Bible college tweeting about the biblical Christian teaching on human sexuality, has been sacked and labelled as a potential ‘terrorist.’
“This is an intelligent, learned, respected, father of five children who has been kicked out of a Bible college for expressing views and beliefs shared by millions of Christians across the globe.
“It is saddening and very concerning to see the Methodist Church, and a once renowned Bible college, lose its way by no longer upholding marriage as God defines it, or supporting those who express it.
“The key to the revival that sprung up through Methodism was its passion for the truth that is contained in the Bible. I caught that passion from faithful Methodist Sunday school teachers as a young girl and it is devastating to see the movement reflecting society’s values rather than upholding true marriage.
“The Bible is clear that homosexual practice is sinful. Dr Edwards is right that if sin is no longer sin, we no longer need Jesus as our Saviour.
“God’s plan for sex is one man and one woman marriage. Every Christian should be ready to believe that God’s pattern for our lives is the best way for individuals and society to flourish. Every church denomination – including Methodists and the Church of England – should confidently proclaim this vision, rather than mirror the zeitgeist.”
The story is a microcosm of the fall out in the Methodist Church in Britain following a June 2021 decision by its governing body to allow same-sex marriages in places of worship.
The Methodist Church globally has traditionally understood that marriage is the lifelong union of one man, one woman, to the exclusion of all others, and the only appropriate context for sexual intimacy.
Since the vote, however, Methodist Church leaders and members have found themselves in the impossible position of being compelled to affirm same-sex ‘marriage’ while also continuing to teach the biblical belief that homosexual practice is sinful.
Increasingly, under the banner of ‘tolerance’ and ‘kindness’, conservative evangelical Christians, especially in the Methodist Church and Church of England (CofE), are unable to hold or express biblical teaching, which does not affirm LGBT ideology, without fear of reprisals.
This has included being labelled ‘homophobic’, being reported as safeguarding risks, and even being referred to the government’s Counter-Terrorism watchdog, Prevent, for holding allegedly ‘extreme’ views.
Cliff College, where Dr Edwards had worked for seven years, without any formal disciplinary issues or warnings, was founded in 1883 and describes itself as a global centre for evangelism and missiology.
On its website it says that it is: ‘grounded in the authority of Scripture… We proclaim the Gospel and invite everyone to experience the life-changing transformation of a relationship with Jesus Christ.‘
The college also says it ‘delivers university level education from undergraduate degrees through to doctoral research. It also trains people for Christian ministry in the contemporary world and provides a community within which students are encouraged to develop as Christian disciples and leaders.‘
Before the incident that led to his sacking, Dr Edwards had long argued that free speech for conservative evangelicals would be threatened by the Methodist position on marriage.
Cliff College adopted this position whilst also maintaining its vision statement to uphold ‘a distinctly evangelical voice’ to Methodist churches both in Britain and across the world, where the conservative view on marriage is the majority.
In light of the recent Church of England concessions on blessings for same-sex unions and the subsequent response from global Anglican dioceses which eventually led to their breaking communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Edwards believed this to be a key moment for the evangelical voice to be heard.
The tweet was posted within this context and the ongoing debate within the Christian Evangelical community about sexual ethics; in particular, the intense debate, around the time of the Tweet, about the steps taken by the Church of England to authorise blessings of same-sex unions.
The reference to a “Gospel issue” was to a term current in the Evangelical community to identify issues which are determinative of Christian faith as opposed to issues on which Christians can legitimately agree to disagree.
The tweet sparked a debate that went viral. There were users who posted in support of Dr Edwards and his message, but also many who harassed and abused him.
Dr Edwards insists, and clarified in subsequent tweets, that the post was not ‘homophobic’ and that it was addressed to evangelicals who agree with his message, but feel they can’t say so for fear of backlash.
Furthermore, he added that the aggressive response to the tweet illustrated the problem it addressed.
He also tweeted: “That *is* the conservative view. The acceptance of homosexuality as “not sinful” *is* an invasion upon the Church, doctrinally. This is not controversial. The acceptance is controversial. Most of the global Church would agree. It is not homophobic to declare homosexuality sinful.”
He added that: “I expressed the conservative view as a doctrinal issue, re. the implications for sin/the Gospel. It was not an attack on individuals, it was addressed to evangelicals. It seems that holding the view that homosexuality is sinful is only welcome if it remains ‘unexpressed’.”
College bosses, however, were soon made aware of the post and contacted Dr Edwards asking him to take the tweet down as they believed it ‘contravened the College’s Staff Social Media Policy.’
Dr Edwards refused, as he believed doing so would go against his conscience and be an admittance that he had intended to be deliberately provocative when the tweet was an expression of a deeply held belief which he believed was necessary to express.
In an email to the college he wrote:
“I do not believe the Tweet contravened the College’s social media policy. It was not defamatory; it was not an attack on any colleague or individual; it was not abusive; and it was not an extremist religious view. It was addressed to evangelicals as a point of doctrine and it has been misunderstood by many who wish to cause personal and institutional trouble for those who express that view. I cannot in good conscience take it down.
“Yesterday afternoon I added several responses and clarifications, including a clear separation between the expression of my view in the Tweet and the views of Cliff College; a reminder that Cliff College is a hospitable place to hold and discuss alternative views to mine; and a note of respect for the rights of others to disagree with my view.
“It was not my intention to cause trouble for the college and I apologise for causing the leadership unwanted problems here. My expressed view has not been received respectfully, tolerantly, or charitably. It has rather been met with harassment and personal defamation by many.”
‘Tweet would impact college ‘business plan’
Cliff College bosses later revealed in a disciplinary hearing that they had an ‘initial feeling‘ that they should put out a statement to condemn and distance themselves from Dr Edwards’ tweet.
In the statement posted on Twitter, the same day, they wrote: “We have become aware that one of our lecturers posted some comments on this platform this morning regarding human sexuality. The language used is inappropriate and unacceptable and does not represent either the views or the ethos of Cliff College.
“Cliff College, with the Methodist Church in Britain, is committed to being a safe and hospitable place, where those with differing convictions are welcomed and challenged to live together as faithful disciples of Christ.
“We aim to do this with mutual respect and a generosity of spirit that springs from our biblical and evangelical conviction of God’s love for each and for all.”
A wave of what appear to be coordinated correlating complaints to Cliff College followed from some of the most senior members of the Methodist church in Britain.
One senior member of staff at the Methodist Church in Britain, who holds significant influence over the missional direction of the Methodist Church, wrote that Dr Edwards’ tweet had ‘distressed’ colleagues. They added that it ‘could be extremely damaging‘ and ‘impact the college’s core work‘ and its ‘business plan.‘
They said that the tweet placed in doubt whether Cliff College is: ‘safe for both members of staff and of churches and circuits who participate in its programmes and activities.‘
Suspension and Prevent
Dr Edwards was subsequently suspended while an investigation was undertaken.
On 27 February, Dr Edwards was summoned to a meeting in which the investigation report was read to him, and where it was revealed that the college was considering referring him to Prevent, the government’s Counter-Terrorism watchdog.
On 8 March, a disciplinary hearing was held in which Dr Edwards was also interrogated, arguably seeking to accuse him of so-called ‘conversion therapy’, on what he would do if a same-sex attracted student asked him to pray for them about their sexuality.
Leading the disciplinary hearing was the Rev. Ashley Cooper, principal of Cliff College. Following the June 2021 vote to allow same-sex marriages in Methodist churches, which he voted for, Rev Cooper stated:
“We’re stronger for the gospel together if we can find a way of living with difference, because we disagree on all kinds of things.”
At the time he said he believed it was right to work together with conservatives and liberals within the church to provide a new way forward and to live together despite the differences.
Following the disciplinary hearing, however, Dr Edwards was sacked and now believes he will no longer be able to work in UK higher education again.
In his appeal, Dr Edwards argued that the decision to dismiss him was disproportionate and failed to balance his freedom to express his Christian beliefs. He will say that the disciplinary procedure that has led to his dismissal has lacked ‘requisite fairness‘ and that the level of imbalance, exaggeration, and misrepresentation in the investigation was ‘astonishing‘ for what was meant to be an unprejudiced investigation.
During the disciplinary process, Dr Edwards highlighted comments from a recent LGBTQ+ student who gave feedback in relation to a module in January 2023 which said “Overall, a great lecturer. While I disagree profoundly with Aaron on a number of points, I was never made to feel that I couldn’t express a contrary opinion.”
Dr Edwards noted that not a single supportive comment was quoted in the 17-page investigation report.
Following the sacking, which was followed a week later by an eviction notice from their private rental property, Dr Edwards set up a Crowdfunder to help support his family. In it he set out plans to set up a new theological college which encourages “shamelessly Biblical” free speech for Christians.
Find out more about Aaron Edwards