It is one of the most precious rights in human history - the right to express your convictions by any means without restriction, recrimination and persecution. By it we can offer an opinion, call to account our elected leaders, have open honest debate, hold a minority opinion without fear, and preach the gospel. We call this ‘freedom of speech,’ first pioneered in modern times by the Americans and now enjoyed by democratic countries worldwide - to a point.
The massacre of the editor and cartoonists of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 brought the topic of free speech back into the public square. Bearing in mind that free speech has only existed for a short period in human history, it is good to outline a Biblical Christian response. What should our attitude be towards free speech?
Democracy & Free Speech
Consider the following:
• Democracy: As Biblical Christians, we should always support the principle of democracy. It sure beats totalitarianism and tyranny. Since we are made in the ‘image of God,’ democracy allows the people to be served by their rulers, rather than the rulers being served by the people;
• Free Speech: You can’t have real democracy without free speech; any infringement of it greatly diminishes democracy;
• Limitations: A person’s right to free speech is not absolute. Even in the freest of societies there are laws against perjury, plagiarism, pornography, profanity, copyright infringement, defamation, liable, and the like. Most thinking people would agree that these are reasonable restrictions;
• Offense: One aspect of free speech is the possibility that someone will not like what we say and take offense. Traditionally, the possibility of offense is part of the price we have to pay to have free speech. After all, if one person is muzzled for stating what they think, however controversial or ridiculous, then in time we will all be muzzled. Political correctness, as we learned in the last blog, seeks to prevent speech that might offend another, even if it doesn’t; it literally puts words in your mouth.
• Mutually exclusive: We also learned in the last blog that if people demand freedom from offense, then free speech will eventually cease. You cannot have free speech and freedom from being offended; it is unrealistic and even a mark of immaturity.
A Scriptural Look at Speech
While the Christian can live in a democratic society that values free speech, Scripturally-speaking there should be some Bible-based limitations above those already mentioned. These include:
Avoid negative talk: Free speech allows a person to be profound, inspiring, inspirational and also critical, back-biting, insulting, and even a gossip. Nevertheless, we are exhorted, even commanded, to refrain from negative talk.
Psalm 34:12-13 What man is he that desireth life, and loveth many days, that he may see good? 13 Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile.
As you can see, a wholesome tongue is healthy for you; it can even give you longevity!
Limit Your Speech: Some people presume that verbosity is a virtue and exhibits authority. However, the opposite is true: knowledgeable, wise people, don’t just talk for the sake of talking; they speak only when they have something worthwhile to say. There are even times that the wisest thing you can do is not to say anything at all. Today, it is the good listener, rather than the big talker, who is wise and will prevail in the end.
Proverbs 17:27-28 (KJV) 27He that hath knowledge spareth his words: and a man of understanding is of an excellent spirit.28Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.
The less words you utter, the more valuable they become when you do speak.
Jesus Christ gives a solemn warning in Matthew 12:36-37: Every idle word you speak will have to be accounted for in the day of judgment. Imagine standing before Almighty God’s judgment seat to explain why you cursed John, gossiped against Jill, insulted Jeremy, belittled Jessica, and swore at James. Christ goes on to say that our words will either justify us or condemn us. This alone is a good incentive to watch our words and keep them few.
Season your speech: Our mouths should be like a clear, cool, clean stream, not a broken sewer pipe. Words of life, encouragement, edification, and blessing, should overwrite and replace caustic, critical, corrosive, and corrupt words. Seasoned speech should be the only language we speak, in any language. Paul writes that our speech should always be in grace, seasoned with salt, so we know how to answer every man (Colossians 4:6).
We should defend democracy and free speech to the hilt. Never should we use free speech to be deliberately rude or offensive but neither should be afraid to speak our Christian convictions, with sincerity and grace. That being said, we need to align ourselves to a higher law - the Word of God. Instead of insisting of our rights, we have the right to give up our rights to unfettered, unlimited, ‘I can say what I want & let the chips fall where they may’ speech.The Biblical Christian will regularly practice ‘self-censorship’ so that they limit speech, eliminate negativity, and foster edifying talk. Far from being hamstrung, restricted, and bound up, they will experience the ultimate of freedoms. When you can order your life according to the Master’s plan, you will understand what it means ‘free indeed’ (John 8:36).