Sometimes Free Speech Means We Should Shut Up

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I’ve gotten some pushback from my recent article, The Error Of Confronting Islam, from those concerned with the differences between political free speech and the biblical notion of free speech. Therefore, I’d like to clarify my position here. A little background is in order.

During my radio days in New Mexico (1988-1994) I took on the task of doing daily social issues commentary on my radio shows. At the time I did two daily 5-minute political/social commentaries, a daily 4-hour music show that occasionally offered some political comment, and a weekly 90-minute social issues talk show. In addition to that I was producing a monthly magazine about political and social issues with a local distribution of 25,000. I was steeped head first in politics and social issues. I became well known for it, formed alliances over popular issues and tried to give a biblical spin to everything I was addressing. I felt I was accomplishing a lot of good with my efforts. There was only one problem.

I sought to offend.

At first, I didn’t see it that way. From my perspective I was standing up for our rights as conservatives and as Christians. If others were offend, then so what? First Amendment rights trumped how someone might respond, so I didn’t care who I offended, or that I often polished my words to create offense while being able to deny it at the same time.

This doesn’t mean that the moral values or solutions I was advocating were wrong. It means that my purposes for what I did were compromised by my self-righteousness. Once I moved on to missionary service, over several years, I began to re-evaluate my past efforts and starting coming to different conclusions about what I did, and what I was also doing in my new ministry.

I still think the values and solutions I offered were good ones. But I can’t lay claim to a single person reached for Christ during those years of my political and social efforts. I created more heat than light and my work never really reached the goal of being a true witness for Christ in light of our command by Jesus to fulfill the Great Commission.

And for me, for where I am right now, this is paramount. As a Christian, I must always self-examine and ask if what I’m involved in is helping or hindering the Great Commission. I have a legal and biblical right to free speech, but how am I using my rights to that speech? When should I speak, and when does the Bible urge me to clam up?

So, what I’d like to offer today is a biblical guide to free speech exercise. Two assumptions help guide my thoughts: (1) Free speech is the right of every human being, regardless of country, culture, or conviction. (2) The Bible is the ultimate authority on free speech usage.

This is not an essay on the legal right to free speech. If you want a legal or cultural examination, you can find those elsewhere. Free speech for the Christian must first be guided by scripture before it is guided by the Constitution. The Bible is our ultimate authority on the proper and improper use of speech, not matter what kind it is. The cross waves higher than the flag and the Bible is more authoritative than the Constitution.

Let’s make it simple. I will look briefly at five areas of speech: what we say, when we say it, who we say it to, why we say it, and how we say it. We must have a biblical perspective on these things if we want to express ourselves to the issues of today in a way that might help make headway for the Gospel of Truth.

What we say

What we have to say about our views, be it political, social, or spiritual, is the most important element to our speech. If we say the right things, that is, if we express the right information for the moment at hand we can impart truth to another and see a life changed. We can speak nicely, be sensitive, be timely, but if our information is wrong we will only have served to express a falsehood to an attentive audience. Therefore, truth is paramount to what we have to say.

“These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace” (Zechariah 8:16).

“Put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25).

When we say it

Timeliness in speaking the truth is important. A word spoken at a strategic moment can bring comfort, change a mind, even save a life. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).

When is it appropriate to exercise free speech in the face of opposition? Some might answer that it is always the time to speak the truth to someone. However, that view fails to take notice that people are more apt to willingly receive something if it is spoken at a strategic time, as the passage from Proverbs above indicates. I’m sure you can think of times in your life when you were unwilling to hear something in confrontation, but then at the right moment you would be more receptive. So, speak the truth, but look for the opportune time to share it.

Who we say it to

In the recent shooting at the Mohammad cartoon event, attendees were trying to send a message to the radical Islamic community about their free speech rights and their rejection of Islamic ideas. As a political conservative I may share some of these views, but as a communicator, a broadcaster, and as a missionary, I know from experience that I must have an understanding of who my audience is if I want to reach them effectively.

Tell me, how does holding an event that intentionally offends Muslims help to persuade those Muslims to adopt a different view? Every audience has layers of preconceptions, beliefs, attachments, and ideas that we need to understand if we want to help a person make a life change. It seems to me that the organizers and participants of the cartoon event either didn’t care about their Muslim audience that would be offended by the event, or were ignorant about the Islamic culture and its hold on them.

When the Apostle Paul confronted the leaders of Athens with the Gospel he didn’t do anything to offend them even though he told them, point blank, that their ideas about the supernatural were wrong. Paul understood who is audience was, what their culture was, and he knew how to address them. Acts 17:17 says that Paul “reasoned” with them. And he was so successful in piquing their interest that the scripture says his opponents invited him to share more. “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?” (Acts 17:19).

Do you think any Muslims would be willing to ask Pamela Geller to speak at their Mosques? Many Christians are invited to speak at Mosques all over the world because the person speaking has an understanding of his audience and what they care about.

Why we say it

Offending others intentionally is legally permitted, but is it spiritually wise? The Bible tells us that the Gospel is offensive (Romans 9:33). But that doesn’t mean that we have to make it even more offensive, or offensive for the wrong reasons.

Love should be the primary motivator in our speech. “Speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:13). Peace is another thing that should motivate our speech. “Whoever desires to love life and see good days…let him seek peace and pursue it” (I Peter 3:10,11). Remember Paul’s supreme admonition about speech and love. “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol” (I Corinthians 13:1).

I dare say that love and peace were not the motivations for the Mohammad cartoon event—far from it.
How we say it

What is the objective of your speech? Is it to exercise freedom, make political statements, advocate for religion, offend, etc.? What is the difference between necessary and unnecessary offense where speech is concerned? If your goal is to intentionally offend, then you have crossed the line in what is biblically permissible in speech. Offense doesn’t make speech informationally wrong. You can’t avoid offense in all situations. But if your goal is to offend, or to make a point through intentional offense, then as a Christian you have crossed the line.

The recent shooting at the Mohammad art exhibit is a classic case of offending to offend. The organizers may have had a legal right to put on their event, and the attendees had a legal right to attend and take part, but should a Christian have been involved? I think not. And I hope no believer in Jesus will involve himself or herself in such future events. They are contrary to our mission as Christians. Our mission for Christ is of far more importance that our legal right to express our anger or political views. Politicians and the military must respond to threats within their spheres of responsibility, but Christians must operate in a sphere that is modeled by Jesus and the apostles. Such an event does nothing to help fulfill the Great Commission, and it doesn’t advance our witness for Christ.

Did you know that every year more than 50,000 Muslims in the Islamic world come to faith in Christ and abandon Islam—even the radical varieties? This is happening because of those who understand the principles of loving, persuasive speech. If you want to see the Islamic world changed, then events like the Mohammad cartoon event are not the answer—they are part of the problem—loving speech delivered in humility and yet firm will transform many millions more.

We can forego certain political free speech expressions because we have an agenda greater than our political free speech. Our free speech must give way to the Gospel, because, as I noted earlier, the cross waves higher than the flag and the Bible is more authoritative than the Constitution.

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