Last weekend it was the number one big headline in the papers – well, some of them.

The issue that’s soaked up hours of Equalities Commission energy – well, it seems like it. The issue that defines some people’s Christian witness.

And that’s the real issue.

We’re probably all aware of the cases – usually focused around claims of unfair dismissal – that have been with us for several years. A man or woman chooses to display their Christian faith by wearing a cross on a necklace or as a lapel badge. Someone alerts the employer who decides that such items contravene Equalities law or Health and Safety provisions or will, in some way, give offence. The employee is required to remove or hide the cross – or face dismissal. What follows is usually a great deal of heart-ache and, if it goes to a tribunal, a great deal of expense.

Who’s right in these cases?

My own gut-feeling involves refers to sledge-hammers and nuts – if you take my meaning. But, of course, there’s more going on than meets the eye.

No, we’re not talking ‘voodoo history’ here – a reference to the tendency always to spot a conspiracy going on in the background. True, there is often a sense of officials getting tangled in their own legal language and unintended outcomes driving the situation. That’s what the Bible refers to as ‘human wisdom looking really foolish up against what God says’.

But rather, I’m looking at how important the cross-wearing is in the first place – from a Christian perspective.

As far as we know, the cross doesn’t appear as a Christian symbol at all until nearly 400 years after the death of Jesus and then wasn’t seen around much for another 500 years after that. No one wore distinctive clothing either for at least 400 years, and then only church leaders taking part in services.

So what distinguished Christians then? How would anyone know that you followed Jesus as Lord and Saviour?

‘If you really love one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples and follow me and my teachings.’ That’s what Jesus himself said. And also ‘You’ll know those who really follow me by their fruitfulness.’ What does that mean?

The results – fruit – of having God’s life in us will be an abundance of love, of joy, of peace – especially when things are tough. Jesus’ followers will always have hope, will always show mercy and forgiveness.

Doesn’t sound like the church as it’s often portrayed, does it? But that doesn’t alter the facts. If we want people to know we’ve committed our lives to Jesus Christ, the sign should be our character and behaviour. Not what we wear.

Personally, I think that people should be able to wear any item of jewellery they wish, hmm, better say ‘within reason’ unless it actually stops them doing their job. Too many banning-orders have seemed arbitrary and mean-spirited.

But equally Christians saying that wearing a cross defines who they are seems to miss the point.

By Nigel O’Dwyer.