Free Speech in Society and in the Church

Free speech is oftentimes simply an excuse to say anything of a divisive or offensive nature. But “free” does not mean that words do not have consequences. Rather, it is that the words and the ideas they express should stand on their own. External power, rule, pressure, and influence seem more useful, but when connected to ideas and indoctrination the freedom to win over hearts is removed. We see this in the world, but also in church dialogue.

In the midst of the “cancel culture” ongoing in society, even a few liberal atheist are uncomfortable that people are delegitimatized and ignored for life if they do say things in the exact way deemed “correct” by the social mob at the moment. This intellectual power play and bullying is done in the name of justice—but this human justice is a passing fad: might makes right. The ideas are not allowed to stand out their own—because they cannot.

A recent open letter entitled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” (Harper’s Magazine, July 7, 2020),

signed by some 150 intellectuals, stated, in part:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.

But the church is not immune from such silly thinking as “might makes right.” I was reminded of this by a WELS pastor in Iowa. He threatened to burn issues of Christian News. After some emails, it was admitted that he heard—very vaguely—that CN was supported by “white supremacists.” He wanted my assurance that was not the case. I responded that he was free to investigate himself–it is not wise to take others words without discrimination. I further asked: why would you want to burn something you have not actually read—and whether you truly disagree with the words printed?

Christians so often judge by name and reputation. Perhaps they are too lazy to actually consider a thought or idea that is not theirs. That is pride and hubris, no doubt. F. Scott Fitzgerald is quoted as saying: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” But today it is rare for anyone to even consider or read an opinion that is not their own. We insulate ourselves.

Christians can worship loyalty to a church institution or it leaders, when it reality it is willful ignorance, shutting our eyes to any possibility we—to whom we pledge out allegiance—could possibly be mistaken. But Christianize does not lionize and give infallibility to its leaders or synodical decrees. That is human authority. The doctrine of Holy Scripture tells us only God’s Word has full and ultimate authority. Inspiration and inerrancy are not ideas—they are very useful and practical teachings, derived from the Bible, that tells us only God’s Word can be trusted and fully relied upon for all time. Everything else is sinking, human sand.

So every human opinion, no matter how dear or from respected speaker, should be submitted to God’s speech—the Word of God spoke through the prophets and apostles. Without this teaching there is no final authority, but merely a mass of opinions and human power plays. But the church should not act like the world. But people are torn down and insulted—usually because they cannot make case or appeal to anything beyond their own superficial emotion. It is like tearing down a statue without even knowing who it is of, or what they actually said. It doesn’t matter. A personal sense of justice overrides trying to instruct and win hearts willingly with truthful words.

The only solution is to be challenged and consider viewpoints beyond your own mind. I do not expect everyone to agree with everything in CN, but I pray you will be challenged and moved to defend your own position, on the basis of Scripture. The mind is a gift of God to be used to discriminate. We are not to be mindless slaves, robotically following whatever heresy or flimsy idea we might have come across in our past. But freedom—not power–is required to think.

No sinful man or institution is infallible. I am thankful for a voice in Lutheranism and Christianity that will allow dissenting opinions, even if unpopular. And I charge those who can’t bear the sight of it: to put your position into words—actually try to convince someone by making a case. Marshall evidence, use your words—not your power or actions of indigence. Ignorance does not like information or light. It prefers the darkness, as Satan does.

Some see it as a great shame that CN is unofficial. It is not endorsed by synods or denominations—but that allows it a greater freedom. Make a case! There is no force In the printed word, but the challenge of ideas is beneficial. We welcome articles and letters trying to use Scripture and reason, rather than human power and political maneuvering. I think this intellectual freedom and commitment to letting Scripture, rather than human authorities judge, is so valuable, especially in this time of intellectual shaming and cancellation. But like people who have not exercised in decades, the intellectual muscles are weak for many. For this freedom to exchange ideas in CN, in a still mostly free country, I am truly thankful. The absence of such freedom might please some, but no man is God. And the truth of Christ is not a power play, forcing us to go against conscience, or binding us to not thinking carefully. Amen. –ed.

“A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it.”

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.” –Martin Luther