Free Speech in a Christian Theocracy

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One of the reasons why the question of free speech in a hypothetical Christian republic is such an interesting topic is because it brings together all kinds of issues, and presents them to us in a sizzling pan, a sort of corned beef hash with eggs and onions and exotic sauces all mixed up together, and piping hot. Some of the taste sensations you might not have anticipated as going well together before you first tried it, but they do go together.

I am talking about issues like God’s law in the covenant of grace, the relationship of Old Testament law to modern society, the differences between sins and crimes, the central theopolitical genius move of Christianity, the actual charge given to us in the Great Commission, and more.

But here is the bottom line issue. Can someone committed to the long-term mission of the Christian church, which is in fact to disciple all the nations of men (Matt. 28:19-20), with the end result of that process being the obedience of all those same nations, be genuinely committed to a robust doctrine of free speech? The answer to that question is yes, with no shucking or jiving. Another way of saying this is that theocratic libertarianism is not an oxymoron.

I was initially tempted to feel bad about the length of this post, but I have done two things that will help address any possible problems. First, if you have other places to go—like Mulberry Street or other Dr. Seuss locations, while you still can—then you can just go back up to the top of this post, click on the “show outline with links” button, and go straight to the section entitled The Hinge Upon Which All Turns. Read that section, and you will be up to speed. And then when everybody is talking excitedly about this post at work, you will be able to join in the discussion without having to admit that you were off watching videos of parakeets hopping around. The second thing I did to ameliorate any possible problems due to length was this. I made the prose extra scintillating, which comes from the Latin word for sparkly, and I did this by not stinting when it came to inserting extra adjectival joy.

Getting a Few Chuckles Out of the Way

I believe that when a Christian theocratic libertarian is challenged with regard to his free speech bona fides, the challenge is absolutely a legitimate one. On paper, there can appear to be serious tension between free speech on the one hand and the biblical strictures against blasphemy on the other. So I don’t begrudge the questions. In fact, I anticipate them, and ask a bunch of them below myself.

But what I do think is funny is when I am asked these questions by anyone who has ever been any part of the woke brigade. We are living in a time of unremitting hostility to free speech, and the people who have declared open war on that free speech are those most likely to be supported by those Christians who are most skittish about any kind of theonomy redivivus. So cancel culture is real, and the Christians who are kind of on board with all of that BLM and woke stuff (‘shut up,’ they explain) are also the ones having Rushdoony nightmares. Our summary dismissal of them is just.

So consider this an interaction with committed believers, who aren’t woke at all, but who still wonder how it is possible for a “general equity” theonomist like myself to argue for free speech—and like I said, without shucking or jiving. It is a serious question, deserving a serious answer.

Strategic Transition in the New Covenant

The standards of God’s law, being rooted as they are in the character of God Himself, do not change. How could they change? But God’s tactics, God’s strategies, do change because the world is a field of battle, and battles have a narrative arc. Because of the triumph of Christ on the cross, which was the turning point in the long war, one of the central strategic shifts for God’s people has occurred in this area. By “this area,” I mean the realm of religious liberty, free speech, personal freedoms, all that.

One of the differences between the law under Moses and law of Christ as given to us in the New Testament is this. In the old covenant, unholiness was contagious, and in the new covenant it is the holiness that is contagious. Jesus went around touching lepers, and instead of Him being made unclean, they were made clean. And lest we say something trite like “yeah, well, but that was Jesus,” we have the same kind of logic applied to believers generally.

In the old covenant, the people of God were not supposed to fraternize with the Canaanites. That was basic. They were supposed to stay clean away. There appears to have been a policy of zero tolerance.

“Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son . . . But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire.”

Deut. 7:3,5 (KJV)

The examples of Rahab or Ruth marrying into Israel were not violations of such restrictions because they were examples of complete conversion. “Your God will be my God” (Ruth 1:16).

But in the new covenant, we find a striking reversal of attitude. We are given clear permission to fraternize with pagans.

“If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake.”

1 Cor. 10:27 (KJV)

And don’t worry about where the central dish came from. The pagan who invited you to dinner got that roast somewhere, and you shouldn’t care that much about it. If it stumbles a weaker brother in the faith, you should care about that, but you shouldn’t care about the meat. The meat is not demon-possessed. You shouldn’t mind sitting down at a table with rank unbelievers. The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness of it.

The membership of the church is to be kept holy, and that holiness is to be enforced through church discipline. But that discipline is emphatically not concerned with simple fraternization with idolaters—rather, the concern is any overt immorality committed by someone who was a member of the covenant people of God, a professing Christian.

I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.

1 Cor. 5:9–11 (KJV)

Notice that Paul is here assuming that faithful believers are going to be in company with (associate with, mix with, hang out with, share meals with) what? People who are fornicators, covetous, extortioners, and straight to the point of this post, idolaters. Please note this. Christians were given explicit and free permission to keep company with idolaters who would worship Aphrodite by fornicating with prostitutes at her temple. But is that not a blasphemous activity? Yes, it is, and this is the Pauline strategy for attacking it.

The mission assigned to the church in the Great Commission is the eradication of idolatry in the entire world.

So this is not happening because we are now instructed to make our peace with such idolatry—far from it. Our mission remains the same, which is to bring every thought captive. The mission assigned to the church in the Great Commission is the eradication of idolatry in the entire world. It is quite a sinful world, and it is a huge mission. Idolatry is still the great enemy, along with the attendant blasphemies, and this means that idolatry must go.

But how?

“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;”

2 Corinthians 10:3–5 (KJV)

Paul tells us here that the artillery of the new covenant is more powerful than what the people of God had in their possession in the old covenant. These weapons of ours are not carnal, Paul says, but rather mighty. Because they are mighty, they are able to accomplish their assigned purpose.

Some people think that in the transition from the old covenant to the new, blasphemy went from outlawed to somehow acceptable. It actually went from outlawed to doomed.

Holy, Righteous and Good

So none of this is written because we as post-Enlightenment Christians are supposed to feel a little bit sheepish about all the Mosaic hardball.

When Elijah executed the priests of Baal down by the brook Kishon, what he did was not a violation of the modern spirit of ecumenism. What he did was holy, righteous, and good. When Moses commanded a man to be executed for picking up sticks on the sabbath, that too was holy, righteous, and good. And when the son of Shelomith blasphemed the name of the Lord in the camp, and was executed at the word of a holy God, his execution was holy, righteous, and good. There was nothing wrong with any of that.

“And the son of an Israelitish woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of Israel: and this son of the Israelitish woman and a man of Israel strove together in the camp; And the Israelitish woman’s son blasphemed the name of the LORD, and cursed. And they brought him unto Moses: (and his mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan:) And they put him in ward, that the mind of the LORD might be shewed them. And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp; and let all that heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, Whosoever curseth his God shall bear his sin. And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the LORD, shall be put to death.”

Leviticus 24:10–16 (KJV)

But if his execution was holy, righteous, and good, inquiring minds want to know something. Why is that not to be the law for any future Christian republic you might want to develop the blueprints for? What will we do with the sons of Shelomith then?

Thomas Jefferson once said that if someone “neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg,” then we should leave him entirely alone. As well-catechized Americans, this sits well with us, and it goes down easy, but how on earth can that be harmonized with Lev. 24?

Sit still, children, and I will tell you. Stop squirming.

The Hinge Upon Which All Turns

Many Christians mistakenly interpret the transition to the new covenant as one that acknowledges that the church is consigned to perpetual marginalization. No. The gift of the Spirit at Pentecost signaled a transition from defense to offense. That first glorious day was a preview of coming attractions.

This conquest is not evolutionary progress. It is not a case of our better angels breaking out of the chrysalis of ignorance and poorly funded public education. No, it is a conquest of our sin and iniquity by means of the proclamation of a crucified Christ.

So I don’t believe in free speech because I think that everybody has something valuable to say. No. I believe that all men and women are bad sinners, and it shows up in their speech. The trouble is that as soon as you start talking about regulating their free speech, because it is bad, all the possible enforcers and regulators are rock hewed from that same quarry.

When you give the state power to punish a blasphemer, you are giving the state the power to blaspheme.

Keeping in mind the things shown earlier, the Christian church began its long campaign against the biggest blasphemer—the state. Limited government is the theopolitical genius of Christianity. What I am arguing for is not a secular libertarian ideal, where any man can blaspheme if he wants to. Rather, in its long war against blaspheming idols, the Christian church started by attacking the biggest blasphemers, the central blasphemers, the blasphemers with the power of coercion.

And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months.

Rev. 13:5 (KJV)

So here is the base line argument. Whenever you give the state power to punish a blasphemer, you are in that moment giving the state the power to blaspheme. And limiting a government’s power to punish blasphemy is limiting a government’s power to blaspheme. And the biggest blasphemy culprits in human history have consistently been these so-called lords of the earth—and not the mental patient who got off his meds and is saying erratic things in aisle 7 at Safeway. The state is the principal blasphemy threat, in other words.

Pontius Pilate had the power to punish blasphemy. The Sanhedrin had the right to urge him to. And Jesus was in fact convicted on a spurious charge of blasphemy. It was by such means that the greatest blasphemy ever committed in history was in fact committed. The greatest act of blasphemy our race was ever guilty of was committed in the name of fighting blasphemy.

“Ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye? And they all condemned him to be guilty of death.”

Mark 14:64 (KJV)

This fact alone should make every true Christian more than a tad nervous about “executing the blasphemers.” The high priest stated his outrageous charge in front of the Sanhedrin, and it was Dostoevsky’s genius that enabled him to see that very same spirit in the Grand Inquisitor.

So you want to shut down blasphemy? Great. Let’s start with the biggest ones.

Whenever you give the state plenipotentiary powers to crack down on x, y, and z, what you are actually doing—please remember this—is giving them plenipotentiary powers to commit x, y, and z. This is because sinners don’t do well with plenipotentiary powers. The doctrine of sin and total depravity is the cornerstone of a true doctrine of free speech, and hard-headed democratic liberty.

“I believe in political equality. But there are two opposite reasons for being a democrat. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows. That I believe to be the true ground of democracy.”

C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

And I see more sin lurking in the repression of speech than I do in the speech itself.

And so the central Christian theopolitical contribution is to frame the constitution in such a way as to take human depravity into account. That means limited government. That is essential.

Why haven’t we learned this principle yet? When you pass something like the Patriot Act, with much fanfare, in order to enable patriots to spy on the bad guys, what winds up happening is that the act is used to enable bad guys to spy on patriots. So the license to punish blasphemy is actually the license to blaspheme. And yet . . . Leviticus 24 is still in the Bible. Hold on for a just few more moments.

So Abraham and his seed will in fact inherit the world. But we will not do it through law. It is the proclamation of gospel truth that will do it. We inherit the earth, but not through law. We conquer idolatrous blasphemy, but not through law.

“For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.”

Rom. 4:13 (KJV)

This means that the laws will be affected downstream from this inheritance, but the inheritance will not be brought about by means of the law. Rather it will be through the proclamation of the righteousness of faith. This will happen when scholars start preaching a hot gospel.

Yeast in the Loaf

According to the balances of Scripture, it would be far better for a guilty man to get away with his crime than for an innocent man to be punished for something he didn’t do. The latter is a far greater travesty. We can see this principle embedded in the standard that requires two or three witnesses to convict someone of a crime. One witness can see a particular crime, and be absolutely sure of what he sees, and yet it would be better to let that particular guilty culprit walk free than to establish a principle that would allow for the conviction of an individual on the basis of one man’s testimony alone—because then you are inviting real trouble. You have opened the door to outrages. A wicked man could take out his enemy, using the instrument of the courts, which would defile the courts. And when the courts are corrupted and defiled, we are all in trouble.

In a similar spirit, it is better to allow a troubled individual to blaspheme than to give, for the sake of preventing such things, regulatory powers over the definition of blasphemy to the very people most likely to be tempted to get into real blasphemy.

That’s all very well, somebody is going to say, but what about Leviticus 24? I haven’t dealt with that yet, have I?

First, the executed man there was not a victim of injustice. He got a just penalty for his crime, and it was right and proper for the Israelites to stone him. No apologies here for Leviticus. God told them directly to execute him. How could it not be just?

The Mosaic law as given to Israel in the wilderness was holiness in a kit. The laws were hard-edged, cut and dried, God was present with them, they had prophets on scene, and God’s purpose was to define and defend a holy people called by His name. That law was, pure and simple, rough cut justice. It was capable of killing blasphemers, which was right and good, but not of ending blasphemy.

“For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:”

Rom. 8:3 (KJV)

“For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second.”

Heb. 8:7 (NKJV)

So what I am arguing for here is a Christocentric theonomy—theonomy as though the Christ had come. It is not a question of whether the law of God is just, but rather a matter of how that standard of justice is to be implemented throughout the world. It will eventually show up in the law, but it will not be implement through the law.

And when it shows up in the law, it will have worked the way yeast works through a loaf of bread. It will not be given to the world in a fearsome revelation at a new Mt. Sinai. It will not be given all at once, with the people instructed to guard every detail of the law with the ferocity of Phineas.

There are three basic reasons why this should be taken as what God intended for us to do, and not as an example of idolatrous compromise, pure and simple.

First, the Mosaic code is a case law system, not a top-down system. It is not a legal code that tries to anticipate every eventuality, and then make a rule about it. So following Old Testament law is as much more about copying the system of law that it contained than it is about reproducing every detail of the law. This is what our common law system does—it is a theonomic reproduction of a system of precedents and principles. That is what a case law system is, and despite some recent setbacks, there has been some good headway made. This is why my ideal Christian republic, set sometime in the future, would not have a law requiring a parapet around the roofs of houses, but would nevertheless hold a home owner liable for damages if a guest fell off a second-story deck that had no rail and broke his arm. You look at a situation, discern the principle, and apply it to a new situation.

Second, the Lord of glory has been made flesh, and through His death, burial and resurrection, and through the coronation that followed His ascension, He has made all things new. Like Aslan bringing stone creatures back to life, this new life that originated in His resurrection is inexorable, and will spread to the entire world. The earth will be as full of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. That means the conquest of this Canaan will not end with corrupt kings, disaster and exile. This Israel will not falter at the end. The power that was dropped into the world as a result of God’s gospel intervention was such a great power that it justified the shift in tactics that we see, and which I described earlier. But it does not alter the end result that we are aiming for—obedience to every word of Christ— including the things He said about the words of Moses.

Third, because God has more confidence in His gospel than we do, in His wisdom He dropped the yeast of His Word, which included that system of case law into the Greco/Roman loaf. This means that as we teach the nations and tribes to obey every one of the Lord’s commands, and to submit to all of His teachings, this would include His teaching that Old Testament Scripture cannot be broken, and that He did not come to abolish the law but rather to fulfill it. But He also taught us, and we are called to remember this also, that this kingdom of His was to spread gradually—as we go out there and make friends with the Canaanites.

These are not dark and mysterious tasks. We have already done this once, and historians call that result Christendom. We learned a lot in that initial rollout, and there are some things we don’t want to do again, certainly, but that’s all right. We have plenty of time—as Christians we live in the light of eternity, as Dawson put it, and can afford to be patient. And so the world still lies before us, and that world is what we Christians call “a mission field.”

So it is time for a Christendom upgrade, a reboot as it were. I am suggesting that we call it a mere Christendom.