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Freedom of speech 

Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech. (1 Peter 3:10, NIV)

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has recently announced a raft of measures to encourage freedom of speech in universities. This is a response to no-platforming of speakers.  Although the overall numbers of such incidents is said to be small, there is arguably a chilling effect on the nature of public uni discourse.  Now, says Mr Williamson, this must stop.  

Freedom of speech is widely held up in our society as an inalienable right.  But what does the Bible say?  Some preliminary thoughts:

1. We need freedom of speech as a counter to our tendency as humans to suppress the truth (Romans 1:18).  In the case Paul’s thinking about, it’s the truth about God, but the same bad habit can permeate all of our thinking.  Governments try to suppress criticism of their activities; critique of a religion is dubbed hate speech; important conversations on ethics are prevented by the slogan “You can’t say that”.  To counter this, we really do need to be able to make, hear, and defend different views in the public square.  We should be thankful for the freedom of speech we have in the UK, and be praying it may be preserved.

2. This said, a Biblical understanding of freedom of speech must be tempered by a recognition of the power of the tongue.  Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark, says James (3:5).  Riots can be incited, reputations destroyed and resentment built, all through careless use of speech.  It is right that the law recognises this, for instance through the law of libel (based on the Bible’s ninth commandment), or incitement to racial hatred.  I know I need to pray, with the Psalmist (141:3), Set a guard over my mouth, LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.

3. Both principles (1) and (2) are largely about the same issue - the truth.  Christianity puts a very high value on telling the truth.  It is the devil who is the father of lies, Jesus tells us. Scripturally, this seems to be the biggest way he works in the world. The verse above, in which Peter quotes Psalm 34, presses upon us the duty to keep our lips from deceitful speech.  The way this is phrased - keeping our lips from this - implies a necessary restraint from a (sadly) natural impulse to lie.

4. Social media is the Wild West of discourse - with vigilantes, lynch mobs, gun fights, bush fires and seemingly no sheriff to enforce justice!  Of course it can be used well - to tell the truth.  But it can also be used to disseminate lies, sometimes on an industrial scale.  We need to think about that 1 Peter verse whenever we are online.

5. Positively, let’s make use of the freedom of speech we have to make the best news in the world known - the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.  In fact, we’d need to keep on speaking it, even if that freedom were officially denied us.  As Peter also said, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20).

Incidentally, we continue our series in 1 Peter at the 10am this Sunday.

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Alasdair Paine, 26/02/2021