The Biblical Necessity of Free Speech

Sharing Options
Show Outline with Links


So I want to ask you to work with me here on a thorny theological problem, a problem caused by a number of factors—those factors including the continuing validity of God’s holy law, the totalitarian impulses of our current rulers, the nature of the difference between the old and new covenants, the inescapable nature of theocracy, and the fact that there is no absolute right to free speech in any society. And the problem is this. Within the framework and limits I just described, I want to argue for the biblical necessity of a genuine right to free speech. For more on this, please see below.

But note at the beginning that I do not believe that an abstract principle called “free speech” is in any way our savior. We have no Savior but Jesus. But when Jesus saves us, one of the things He saves us from is our own misguided efforts to stifle the free expressions of others. We do not hang on to free speech so that we might talk about Jesus. We hang on to Jesus so that we might talk with each other.

We do not adopt freedom of speech so that we might fumble our way into the truth. No. We are given the truth by the grace of God, and part of that truth includes how we are to treat those who have not embraced it yet.

A Cabal of Snollygosters

Before we come to address the theological problem, we have to recognize that our task is the more difficult because we are currently being abused and manipulated by corrupt politicians and the titans of tech, all of whom despise any kind of speech that might contradict them, or interfere in any way with their designs. They aren’t even pretending anymore, and are quite brazen.

If you think that their ability to whip themselves up into a meringue will be exhausted once they are done with Dr. Seuss and his sneetches, or with statues of Confederate generals—not to mention Union generals that look to their uneducated eye like they might have been Confederate generals—you are quite mistaken. They are coming after the Bible, and after any kind of speech that depends on the Bible.

You ought to be able to see that red laser dot quivering on the cover of your Bible. After all, your Bible is black, and the red dot should be quite visible by this point.

In this midst of this, there will be a temptation that therefore presents itself to Christians, which will be the temptation to become reactionary instead of remaining reformational. A reactionary response would shut down their ability to speak their piece because turn about is fair play, right? Sauce for the goose, right?

Wrong. A Christian civil order will grant them liberties that they have no intention of granting to us.

The Basic Problem

But what I just claimed is not immediately apparent when someone starts reading their Bible seriously. The problem arises when someone reads through the Old Testament, and concludes that a commitment to biblical law means we are to bring all the requirements of the old order straight across.

“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.”

Lev. 24:15-16 (KJV)

It should be obvious that in the time of Moses, that particular blasphemer could not appeal to his Jeffersonian right to free expression. And when David slaughtered two-thirds of his Moabite prisoners (2 Sam. 8:1-2), they did not have the recourse of appealing to the Geneva Convention. But what do these righteous laws and such admirable examples mean for us today?

What does it mean for us who say that we want biblical law to serve as a foundation or framework for modern society? On the one hand, it should not mean retaining a basic secular outlook, decorated with a few references to the gods of American civic religion, which are then festooned with a few Bible verses that we got from the Liberty Bell and the speeches of Bill Clinton. No, it doesn’t mean that.

But neither does it mean picking up the Mosaic code with a huge grappling hook and plonking it down in the middle of the year 2021, year of our Lord. There is no need to have the Idaho Code include a provision that prohibits boiling a kid in its mother’s milk (Ex. 23:19; 34:26; Deut. 14:21). Or requiring all homes to have a parapet around the roof line (Deut. 22:8). And here’s why.

The principles embodied in these laws do still apply, but the circumstances they were addressing are no more. The central circumstance that has been transformative for all human cultures has been the coming of the Christ.

In the meantime, nobody wants to boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk anymore, and it remains just to hold a homeowner liable if someone falls from a second story deck that was not secured with a rail.

There are two basic approaches to law. One is the approach that tries to anticipate every eventuality, and to have a regulation in place to deal with that eventuality when it comes. Coming up with this kind of law system is the bureaucrat’s dream job. This is because bureaucracies always aspire to omniscience, and are never deterred by how often or how spectacularly they fail.

The other kind of law is the case law system. Old Testament law does not just have odd provisions, like the baby goat and mother’s milk law, but it is also an expression of a legal system that should seem very familiar to us. A case law system is based on precedent, and the principles of justice that can be identified in that precedent. There is every expectation that as circumstances change, the decisions that respond to the changes will adapt along with it, while the principles of justice involved are to remain constant. Our common law system is a case law system that goes all the way back to King Alfred, who got it from Deuteronomy. It is foundational to our liberties.

What Should Give Us Pause

Many modern Christians want to say that we should enforce the second table of the law (the last six of the Ten Commandments, those having to do with our fellow man), but that we should not even think about enforcing the first table (those duties that we have towards God). This is the uneasy truce they have made with secularism.

Other Christians, of a more ardent reconstructionist bent, don’t see why we shouldn’t apply the blasphemy law from Leviticus 24 straight across. We should stone the blasphemers, and firing squads are certainly permissible, for what are these bullets but very small stones?

And then I come along, urging us to respect the right of free speech for unbelievers, and it seems to some that I am waffling, noodling, and backfilling. “Wilson is just a squish with a tough guy act!”

No. There is a difference between a theocracy that operates with God’s direct involvement, and a theocracy that has to operate on the basis of God’s written law alone. A righteous ruler would start where Jesus commanded us all to start, which is with himself (Matt. 7:1-5). The first lesson that a healthy Christian theocracy would have to learn is to be deeply suspicious of their own lofty pretensions. This is not a refusal to apply the words of Christ. It is a basic application of the words of Christ.

“They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.”

John 16:2 (KJV)

Some might think it is “clear” that we simply must enforce the first table of the law against the likes of Servetus, but we must also remember at the same time that Christendom has been guilty of enforcing the first table against some of the godliest people in their realms.

And we should never forget that Christ was convicted on a first table offense. This should give us pause, not because it should never be applied, but rather because of how easy it is to be misapplied.

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

Mark 14:64 (KJV)

The same thing happened to the first Christian martyr, Steven. That was a first table offense also.

“Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.”

Acts 6:11 (KJV)

Those who want the government to have the right to kill blasphemers are also asking for the government to have the right to kill those who rebuke their blasphemies.

As a Christian who believes that all governments are theocratic in principle, I want our deep suspicions about the depravity of human nature to begin with our rulers, and not with their subjects. I am far less concerned about the blasphemy that might come from some impudent and sophomoric atheist with a web page than I am about the blasphemy that might come from the powerful and well-connected, those who have complete and absolute control of those blasphemy laws. This concern of mine is theologically grounded, and it is a first order theonomic concern.

This is not a softening of “theocracy,” but rather a foundational application of it. Dostoevsky knew what he was about when he had Christ hauled up before the Grand Inquisitor.

Before we get to the details of biblical law, in other words, we must first have the framework of biblical law. That means embracing the biblical doctrine of the nature of man, which means limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism, which in turn means a removal of many of the temptation to bring in the kingdom with a sword.

The Coming Of Christ

And yet, the mission given to the Christian church does require us to eradicate blasphemy. We want the world to be filled with praise, and no longer with cursing and bitterness.

“For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same My name shall be great among the Gentiles; And in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: For my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the LORD of hosts.”

Malachi 1:11 (KJV)

So how is that mission to be accomplished? Not through the 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.”

Romans 4:13 (KJV)

I said above that the coming of Christ was transformative. The message that we are suppose to proclaim to all nations is that man is sinful and God is holy, and that there is therefore a settled antipathy between them. The chasm between God and man was bridged in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has thereby made all things new ( Rev. 21:5). Christ’s followers are therefore commanded to fan out across the globe with the message of salvation, a gospel that commands all to repent and believe.

The first part of that message (repent) applies to every creature. It even applies to king and all in authority (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Part of what is entailed in this message is the theological truth that rulers, kings, princes, and presidents share with the rest of us this radical disease of depravity. When those rulers are brought to obedience, one of the first things that will develop from this is the idea of limited government. They will no longer consider themselves lords of the earth. They will learn to walk with humility. When the message comes to these kings, their first application will be to repent themselves, and not to enforce the repentance of others with a sword.

“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; And what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

Micah 6:8 (KJV)

Walk with humility. And the more power a magistrate has, the more necessary this is. And the more instructed he is, the more the magistrate will know that the power of the gospel is not to be found in carnal weapons. He should do whatever he can to keep his coercive powers out of the way.

“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)

When Jesus commanded his followers to conquer the world (and that is what He told them to do), what instruments were they to use? They were to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Spirit, and then what?

“And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”

Matthew 28:18–20 (KJV)

Christ gave us our mission and He gave us our methods. The world is to be brought to Christ, with all the nations submitting to Him, agreeing to obey Him. That is the mission. The method consisted of words and water, bread and wine. In this passage from Matthew, just the words and the water are mentioned.

“Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith: To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ for ever. Amen.”

Romans 16:25–27 (KJV)

Now if all nations are to come to the obedience of faith, this means that the speech of all nations will come to the obedience of faith. Blasphemy will be eradicated. It will be put to death, a sentence which it richly deserves. And how will it die? It will be crucified in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

But how is obedient speech free speech? In fact, it is the only way that our speech can ever be truly free. Obedience to the gospel of God is the only way for sinners to be set free, and this includes their speech. But it has to come through gospel, not law.

The power to do this is resident in the gospel, in the preaching of Jesus Christ, which is to be made known to all nations for the obedience of faith. The nations, all of them, are to be brought to obedience. This would obviously include the obedience of their words. One of the things we are laboring for in the gospel is obedient speech. But this is a gospel result that can only be accomplished by gospel means.

In the Meantime . . .

The historian Christopher Dawson once said that the Christian church lives in the light of eternity and can afford to be patient. But in the meantime, I find it interesting that Luke, also a historian, commends the example of Gamaliel to us.

“Then stood there up one in the council, a Pharisee, named Gamaliel, a doctor of the law, had in reputation among all the people, and commanded to put the apostles forth a little space; And said unto them, Ye men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what ye intend to do as touching these men. For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nought. After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed. And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought”

Acts 5:34–38 (KJV)

Truth is quite sturdy, and has nothing to fear.