Freedom of Speech: Not for Christians

These have been difficult days for US embassy workers and people living in the Middle East and Africa. They and we are caught in a complex situation that is neither easily understood nor simply resolved.

This blog typically does not comment directly on political events. Certainly the world doesn’t need another opinion about events in the Middle East and Africa, especially by someone who has not been there.

However as a Christian living in the United States, I do have something to offer to Christians in the US for their consideration.

These recent events certainly aren’t the first time that a person or a group has said or done something  that others of a different faith find deeply offensive. When this happens, the common American reaction is to cite our Constitutionally enshrined freedom of speech. Americans disagree about a lot of things, but there is widespread agreement that people should-within some broad parameters- be able to say what they think. If you don’t like what someone says, you may also state your dissenting opinion, both acts protected by the Constitution. We are willing as a society to tolerate some quite obnoxious statements in the name of free speech. Americans believe that everyone should be able to express their views and thoughts openly.

Because freedom of speech is such an important value for us, it is not uncommon for Americans think that if people somewhere react strongly, even violently, in response to a statement/video/song/cartoon/etc the “problem” is with the other people and their reaction to the statement. Our initial reaction is that each individual is responsible for their own behavior. I and I alone am responsible for how I react to what you say. You are responsible for the way you react to what I say. This combination of  free speech and individualism means the typical US  perspective on speech relieves the speaker of much of the responsibility for the hearer’s reaction. ( There are some exceptions, the classic example is one cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater is there is no fire. Hate speech and slander are also prohibited, although it is sometimes difficult to reach agreement on what exactly constitutes hate speech and slander.)

This idea- that I can say anything I want and that I am not responsible for your response to my statement- is deeply American.

It is, however, not Christian.

Christians are responsible for the results of our speech and our actions. We are, indeed, our brother’s keeper. Jesus and Paul are quite clear on this*. If our words or actions are harmful or distressing to another, we need to alter our actions and words. Paul, for example, spends a lot of time in 1 Corinthians explaining that while it may not actually matter whether the meat one ate had been sacrificed to idols, if your eating of that meat causes another distress, you should not eat that meat. In Paul’s view we need to consider the effect our actions have on others. If our actions might cause anxiety or distress to another, we should modify our actions.

And to go deliberately out of our way to be offensive and hurtful, heedless of the consequences? Do we really need to be reminder that such behavior is wrong? We can’t justify bad behavior by saying the Constitution allows it. To paraphrase Paul, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.(1Cor 10 esp 23, 28-29,32)

If we take Jesus’ command to love our neighbors and even our enemies seriously, we don’t deliberately say or write things designed to provoke others to anger or violence. And we don’t condone those who do. Which means we don’t excuse un loving behavior by invoking “freedom of speech”. Christians may not invoke the Constitution’s freedom of speech clause to excuse un Christlike speech.

I’m glad I am a citizen of the United States, but there are times when “American values” conflict with “Christian values”. This issue of free speech is one of them. You are, of course, free to disagree with me. But my understanding of what it means to be a Christian will place limits on the way I speak and respond to you. How can it not?

I’d like to know, what do you think?


I’m not saying we can’t disagree with each other. I’m not saying we can’t disagree over who Jesus or Mohammed are and what they mean for the world. But differences of opinion and belief can be stated in respectful, non offensive ways.

* The examples are too many to cite, but you could start with this list:

Matt 15:10,11,18,18

Matt 5:43-48

Matt 7:1-5,12

Romans 12:9-21

Eph 4:29-31

1 Cor 8

1 Cor 10:23-33

1 Cor 13

2 Cor 5:18-19,20

This list is the result of , oh, about 10 minutes of paging through the New Testament. There is more that could be added; feel free to do so.

14 thoughts on “Freedom of Speech: Not for Christians

  1. I’m glad you wrote this. You are write. Free speech is too often used as a license to offend especially in the name of entertainment. It this reason I really don’t like a lot of comedians because they are offensive for the sake of being offensive – just because they can. But as you already pointed out – that is in direct conflict with what Christ taught. Of course for the Christian the real challenge then is to live up to the hope of Christ and be a healing balm on the wounds caused by others (either purposely or accidentally).

    I think that we as Christians need to be what Jesus claimed for himself, and Isaiah before him (Luke 4:18,19, Isaiah 61:1,2)
    “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. he has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” None of this is achieved when we use something like free speech to criticize, abuse, and harm others.

    More people need to read this post!

  2. Outstanding writing about the conflict … and wow … what a conflict!

    I’ve been thinking about the Middle East and the various Arab Springs. Here they are fighting/demonstrating for freedom, but not sure if they understand freedom. A similar thought is “Yankee go home, but take me with you.”

    Nonetheless, for us, one aspect of Christianity is the challenge of tolerance and acceptance … and that is quite the challenge within our democracy and with other cultures. Well done Nancy!

  3. I am not a Christian but agree that RESPECT is a word that we could all benefit from understanding. It may be a kick to put down other beliefs in the name of free speech but what about hurting others feelings? Would we do the same to our friends?

    1. Yes, sadly respect seems to be lacking in our public discourse. Thanks for reading and commenting. All people are welcome here and our conversation is enriched by your presence.

  4. I appreciate your thoughts on this complex and difficult subject. I too believe we would benefit from remembering our call to be Christ – like. It’s a topic that has had my attention for some time. However, I’m wondering if part of the reason we are where we are isn’t this very thinking. Isn’t it possible to take what Paul has written and try to offend no one – to the point that the Gospel loses its power? We don’t want to offend, so we say nothing to point out that others are not following Christ’s teachings. Let me give you an example. I know there are couples in my church who are living together but aren’t married. Since living together has become socially acceptable in our country, we Christians often make the choice to tolerate this choice because we don’t want to offend them and we don’t want them to leave the church. However, by doing this very thing we negate the teachings of scripture that it is a sin to have intimate relations outside of marriage. So, we dilute the teachings in favor of being non-offensive. I believe this is at the core of the decline of the church. It makes us hypocrites, and totally repulsive to those who seek a way of life whose followers actually follow the teachings.
    I would suggest that there has to be a balance. We stand up for what we believe in at all costs (as did the Apostle Paul), and yet mind our conversation so that it gives life, even when it isn’t popular. Criticism and hate speech are never welcome, but perhaps loving honesty and guidance are necessary.

    1. I agree this can be a complicated and difficult area. When to speak and when not to speak can be hard to discern. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

  5. Nice post! I am working on an essay about how a christian should evaluate freedom of speech and I found this post really helpful for my essay. Thanks 🙂

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