Lately, I have been fascinated by the issues regarding free speech and a free exchange of ideas from a biblical perspective. If we are to fight the current trend of skiing down the slippery slope of secular leftist ideologies to steer our society back towards the ideals of Christendom, then we will need our public square to be a place where people can exchange ideas and engage with different viewpoints. This ideal is not just some product of deistic, Enlightenment philosophies; rather, it is a scenario that is greatly supported and defended by the words of Scripture.
Right Versus Principle
The first thing to discuss is the right of free speech with regard to the government. Often, the first thing people think of when they hear free speech is how speech should not be restricted by the government. This is an important aspect of free speech, and certainly it should be emphasized greatly in any era. This is especially the case in eras when parties are unifying to crack down on the proclamation of truth in an attempt to solidify their power. However, I believe that we often lose focus of the fact that the right of free speech is rooted in the general principle of free speech that is described in Scripture. Free speech should not just be a right protected by the government; it is an ideal that should also be implemented by Christians, churches, and businesses as part of our mission to spread Christ to all areas of life.
Restrictions in Old Testament Law
In order to understand a biblical case for free speech, we first need to look to the Old Testament, specifically the Law. The especially important thing to note might at first seem to render this entire post pretty wrong and useless, but note it we must- free speech was not a right in God’s original nation of Israel. I will explain how this doesn’t utterly undermine my case, but for now, let’s just look at what the Law has to say about restrictions on speech. There are a few passages that speak about issues related to speech and such, but we will just focus on two relevant ones:
But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him. (Deuteronomy 18:20-22)
If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, “Let us go after other gods,” which you have not known, “and let us serve them,” you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams…But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God…So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy 13:1-5)
These passages make it clear that if anyone speaks something in God’s name that he did not command or advocates following other gods, that person has sinned greatly and should be put to death under Old Testament Law. Speech that goes against God’s teachings is an extremely serious sin in his eyes. It is both an arrogant attempt to undermine God’s authority as well as an attempt to lead others astray, a sin that Jesus said will result in a punishment that would be worse than being dropped in a lake with a heavy rock tied around your neck. Clearly, God is not joking around when it comes to this subject.
What Stays the Same
What stays the same in the New Testament is God’s opinion of this type of sin. It is an egregious evil and worthy of death. This is something that is key for Christians in understanding how we should approach the subject of free speech. Sometimes, I think when we are discussing free speech and exchanging ideas, we celebrate that people have different opinions than us. This is honestly a good and a bad thing. As none of us is perfect in our beliefs and opinions, it is good that people are thinking for themselves and there to debate, challenge each other, and teach each other. However, it is bad in the fact that there are objective truths and realities, and if people disagree, that means many of them are wrong. This is especially true and can result in serious sin when it comes to our beliefs about God and his Word, as we are supposed to strive to achieve the “unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:13). So, let us not lose sight of the goal of free speech. We want to have free speech, but we should view it as helping us move towards the goal of unity in knowledge and faith, not a permanent clashing of disagreement and differing worldviews.
What Changes with Christ
So why should we have free speech, especially in areas of doctrine and moral opinions? Should false teaching actually be met with capital punishment? The answer is a resounding “no!” God’s standard for the seriousness of the sin of teaching false doctrine has not changed. However, the economy for how he operates in the world through people has in massive ways. The nation of Israel was under the Law of Moses, and the point of the Law was to teach them (and us) how holy God is and how important sin and righteousness are. The strict penalties for false prophets were in place to show how teaching things against the truth of God is worthy of death and to also show how keeping evil in your midst will lead to it spreading. As the Scriptures say, a little leaven leavens the whole lump (I Corinthians 5:6). However, it turns out that all of us are worthy of death because of our sin, and God gave the world a solution for that. Through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ, he provided a path for people to have their sins forgiven, with Jesus taking the punishment that we deserve. Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world but to save it, and our current mission as the Church is to play our part in that. As Jesus said in Matthew 28 and in Luke 24, our mission is to go into the world and disciple the nations, calling people to Christ with the good news of his salvation.
How We Fight False Teaching and Information
We know that we have the divine power to fight false teaching and opinions through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul said this in his second letter to the Corinthians:
The weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. (II Corinthians 10:4-6)
Destroying arguments presupposes a dedication to listening to opposing arguments and being able to interact with them on a logical basis. We see the Apostle Paul put this into practice in Athens when he was “reasoning” with Jews, Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, and pagans with the Word of God. We also see him tackle extra-biblical and early gnostic philosophies in the book of Colossians in a very systematic and logical way. Christianity is a religion of reason, and we must be able to respectfully listen and address opposing arguments not by simply reciting a few verses over and over again, but actually by using the Word of God in relevant and specific ways. The Bible and the great traditions of teachers and theology that have been instructed by it have provided us with a comprehensive philosophy and worldview that can stand up against even the most seemingly intellectual arguments of the world. As it says in I Corinthians 1, God has made foolish the wisdom of this world, even the wisdom of scribes and the great debaters of the age. We are not people blindly following a set of unreasonable beliefs. Our beliefs flow from Christ, the foundation of all reason and truth.
Sins Versus Crimes
A seemingly reasonable objection to this view from some enthusiastic young soldier for Christendom might be, “Well, we still believe the government should punish other forms of evil according to the standards of Old Testament Law. Why not false teaching as well?” While this question could be well-intentioned, it reveals an overly simplified view of how biblical law should be the basis for our standards of justice today. We already discussed how the advent and death of Jesus changed things with regards to how the law is now fulfilled. We still need the government to provide justice between people so that society might be peaceful and stable (II Timothy 2:1-2). Our life, liberty, and property should be protected by those with governmental authority, as they have been given the sword by God for such a purpose (Romans 13). However, when it comes to the souls and lives of individuals, the Church is supposed to take care of those through the Gospel. False teaching is clearly an issue that the Gospel is equipped to handle, as we have already established. It is not a threat that should be met by force. The Church and the government have different spheres of sovereignty, and those should not overlap. But men and women who teach false doctrine will see justice, whether that is Christ taking their penalty or God issuing a sentence on the final Day of Judgement.
A Quick Aside
Obviously, this post has been focusing on the biblical response to false teaching in the Old and New Testaments. I would just like to add that other types of false information that are not a matter of doctrine or biblical belief are much easier to defend under free speech, as there is never a mandate in the old or new covenants for regulating debates on controversial or mistaken information. Obviously, there are arguments to be made against things like fraud, slander, libel, and speech that incites violent behavior. But the vast majority of speech should be protected in a Christian society.
Practical Advice for the Individual
One of the most important questions when it comes to this topic is, “What does this have to do with me?” The answer is that free speech is something that should be defended and practiced by everyone who is a follower of Christ. This is not just a problem on a governmental level. If every thought is to be brought captive under Christ, then we will need pastors, teachers, families, friends etc. to be combatting false opinions with God’s Word. This does not mean that we must encourage free speech in every situation. For example, the homily on Sunday morning should be spoken by a mature man of God, and the academic lessons that kids are learning should be taught by people of faith. There are also likely times and places for keeping controversial points and arguments out of the conversation. However, Christians should not maintain a rigid safety bubble for every part of their lives. They should make sure that they are creating and taking advantage of spaces where they can hear and evaluate viewpoints in a manner consistent with a biblical worldview. Remember, Christ and his Church are not just playing defense; sometimes we have to go looking to cause trouble for the enemy.
As you can see, being able to interact with the beliefs of others through the intellectual framework of the Word of God is an essential part of how we are supposed to spread the Gospel through the world. As such, it is troubling to see the secular left cracking down on free speech, referring to some of it as violence and de-platforming those who dare to fight against the coming wave of totalitarianism. Actions taken against free-speech platforms, such as the recent de-platforming of Parler, are just as disturbing. As I have said in previous posts, the secular leftists must try to change the world from the top down
through force, not by seeing hearts change through the Gospel. We must not be tempted to fight fire with fire. Jesus has called us to fight our battles with different methods- the ones he has prescribed. This involves using our renewed hearts and minds to listen to and reason with the false ideas of others through the worldview he has revealed to us. Without this, our society will continue to crumble into chaotic tyranny.