Holding your tongue: Christianity & Free Speech
The topic of free speech and Christianity is one that is fraught with issues. Often Christians are seen as having double-standards, being all too willing to support free-speech when it comes to our gospel beliefs but not the speech of others who disagree with us. This article will attempt to present three main ideas when it comes to free speech. Firstly, that Christians have had the debate over what should and shouldn’t be censored far sooner than any modern feminist walked the British Isles, that ultimately, in the Biblical world view, no speech can ever be truly considered “free”, and why Christians should ultimately support free speech and exchange of ideas.
A Historical Journey
The debate over what should and shouldn’t be censored is something that was a significant problem for many Christians. One good example of this can be seen in the 17th Century, where there was a significant debate as to whether Christians should be allowed to read works that were contrary to the Church’s thinking. This would include works that were and are Blasphemous, heretical and/or otherwise deemed offensive.
There were those that felt that people in the British Isles needed to be defended from these heretical doctrines, arguing that they could do irreparable harm to people’s souls if they were allowed to circulate. There were also those such as John Milton in his Aeropagitica who argued that a true defence of the Gospel could only be made if people learned about opposing ideas. If the Church taught the people well, Milton argued, they would be able to use their God-given discernment to challenge and refute heretical views. This probably sounds familiar to most people by now, many university students argue that individuals would be “unsafe” on campus if certain ideas such as rejection of LGBT identitarianism, pro-Life positions, and even critiques of Islam are expressed there. The fear is clear: if people find consensus-opposing viewpoints convincing, they could spread and increase the number of conservative heretics.
However, it is worth noting that there is a point to those who wished and wish to censor, much like heresy can damn a person’s soul, an idea that incites violence or discrimination could lead to problems not just for those who come to harm due to incited violence, but those who take those ideas to heart. When the Islamist terrorist blows himself up, he not only kills and injures innocent people, but also (obviously) kills himself in the process. In this way, it is understandable why some would want to censor. Ideas are very dangerous. Facism caused the Holocaust, Communism has, and continues to cause misery and atrocities across the world. Islamism has caused many a bloodbath, and those who misuse Christianity have also caused their fair share of evil. Much like the Puritans of the 17th Century, both of today’s sides on free speech have valid points. Ultimately, the historic position Christianity has taken (at least, in the patristic period) was to allow free discourse, which ultimately led to consequences (Arianism and many other heresies were cast out of the Church). Freedom to speak did and has never meant complete freedom from any consequence.
Not Truly Free
Any cursory reading of the Bible and particularly the words of Jesus makes it clear that everyone will be judged for their words, either on their own merit, or on Jesus’ righteousness. Jesus states “But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’, shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.” (Matthew 5:22). Paul states that there is to be no “unwholesome talk” (Eph 4:29) amongst Christians, and even more strikingly says that those who teach falsehood (Gal 1:8) should be anathematised (cast out of the Church). Thus, for Christians, free speech is not something that truly exists, in the sense that we are to take the judgement of our speech seriously. Christ should determine the way we think, talk and feel.
If you’ll forgive my digression, in honesty, I can never claim to have been perfect in regards to my righteousness of thought, speech or deed (no Christian can). However, given that Christ has taken upon himself our iniquities (Isiah 53:6) (1 Peter 2:25) we are free to pursue the correct way of thinking, speaking and acting. The warning of judgement of course, applies to all people, and not merely Christians and through repenting and believing in Jesus, non-believers too can take on his righteousness. Thus, our calls to repent are a very serious one, calling non-believers and believers alike to embrace the righteousness of Christ.
Given speech is not truly free, why then support free speech in law?
Much like the Aeropagitica before me, there are reasons why I would support free speech. Firstly, any form of censorship can be used against my beliefs just as easily as those who I would disagree with. 10 years ago, it would have been unthinkable, for example, for transgender pronouns not merely to be accepted but mandated in any country, let alone somewhere like Canada. Christians are amongst the most persecuted minorities (though, by God’s grace, not so significantly in the West). However, as Christians are becoming not merely tolerated so long as they keep their “hate-speech” to themselves or at least only in the pulpit converted, but mandated to go against their beliefs, (Ashers Bakery being a very good example) this could well change within the century. Thus, while I strongly believe Christianity to be true, any legislation that curtails religious freedom could easily curtail the spread of the truth.
As well as this, those who hold incorrect religious or political beliefs do not simply cease to exist if their speech is censored. One only need look at the shock victories of Brexit and Trump to see that shouting down your opponents in debate does not work. Similarly, if one is to call for repentance and belief, it is certainly important that false beliefs are in the open, so they can be challenged and exposed for the falsities they are. Further still, Christians have often relied upon free discourse in order to sharpen their own apologetics and to better delineate what constituted orthodoxy. Arius (a man who denied the divinity of Christ) for example, was not censored heavily and the emphatic defeat of his false teaching at Nicaea allowed the Church to grow stronger. Given that we have the truth, we should not be afraid to strengthen our own understanding of it, or to defend it against unbelieving viewpoints. We also cannot expect the unbelieving world to behave in a fashion according to Christian morals, as much as we will promote it as the only way of salvation, they consider this foolish and are given over to their unbelief (Romans 1). What we can do, is define what Christianity is, and have the freedom to say whether something is heretical or not.
Christians should support political free speech because of the implications for us and indeed those souls that could be won through God’s work in us, even if we must by virtue of what our God has said to us, control our own speech both to the unbelieving world, and to each other.