Transgender rights protesters were unsuccessful in their campaign to prevent Kathleen Stock from speaking at the Oxford Union this week. The Bible doesn’t specifically address the topic of freedom of speech, but it does provide Christians with these helpful principles, explains CARE’s Peter Ladd
After weeks of online speculation and noise, gender-critical professor Kathleen Stock finally spoke at the Oxford Union this week.
When it was first announced that she’d been invited, it prompted a furious backlash from students and campaigners. The university’s LGBT society called for her invitation to be rescinded.
During her speech, demonstrators interrupted her, with one gluing their hand to the floor in front of her. It took half an hour to sort out, while two other protesters waved rainbow flags and threw leaflets, until they were all eventually removed by security. Before she’d even stood up to speak, 200 protesters marched from Oxford’s Bonn Square to the Student Union.
What was Ms Stock there to do? Simply to defend the importance of women-only spaces. During her talk, she argued that transgender women (biological males who identify as women) should not be able to use women-only spaces. A view, incidentally, shared by a majority of the public if recent polling is to be believed.
The whole incident has raised, yet again, questions around the state of free speech in our society and its place as well. Believing as I do that the Bible should shape our thinking when it comes to free speech, I want to suggest three fundamental principles that will help us grapple with the topic of free speech.
We should not just expect free speech
The Bible never suggests that we should always expect to have freedom of speech as Christians; in fact, it is quite the opposite. The life Jesus promises us is one marked by persecution (John 15:18-20)
Jesus expects our values and the world’s values to clash. He expects the world to look at what we have to say, and to not like it. He even expects the world to hate us and to persecute us.
There are plenty of examples in scripture of people whose freedom of speech as believers was curtailed. After Peter and John healed the lame beggar in Acts 4, the Sanhedrin are amazed and disturbed at their courage and their miraculous power, and attempt to silence them, warning them not to speak about Jesus any more. Peter and John’s response is instructive to us today: “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20).
If there are attempts to prevent us from speaking God’s truth, we are to listen to God, rather than to man, and to keep speaking.
God’s design is for people to speak
God created us as beings with the ability to communicate. He has given us the gifts of voices and language so that we can speak to one another and to him. When Jesus appears announcing the kingdom of God and restoring everything which has gone wrong, as part of his healing ministry, he gave a voice to a man who was mute.
Although scripture says plenty about how the tongue can be used for evil, the ability to speak is part of God’s good design for humanity. In the Bible, we see that God does not want anyone to be without a voice.
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” (Proverbs 31:8)
God calls the powerful to speak on behalf of the powerless, so that everyone is represented in some way. It is a small leap from there to suggest that the ideal would be for the voiceless to actually be able to speak for themselves.
For free speech to work, it has to work for all, in a society where people can debate, not where they are silenced and effectively told they shouldn’t exist. And that means that as Christians, we might have to put up with things we don’t like said, in return for being able to say things ourselves; after all, the Gospel, although good news to us, is downright offensive to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Our speech is to be gracious and good
It is one thing to have the ability to speak. But as Christians, we are called to speak (and to persuade and inspire others to speak) in a particular way - with grace and truth.
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29)
Speech is designed to be for the good of others; it is not to be cruel or malicious, or to tear people down. That does not mean that it never criticises or rebukes or challenges; but these are not for the sake of building up ourselves, but to build up the person receiving it.
We know we are to be the “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), being distinctive and being flavoursome to the world around us; this will naturally happen if we are speaking God’s word to others. But we are also to do it in a way which is “full of grace”, not speaking down to others or shouting at them, but respectfully, as fellow human beings made in the image of God.
At CARE, we believe in free speech. We believe that everyone has worth and value and a voice which should be heard. But in everything we say and do, we want to imitate Jesus Christ, the one who brought “truth and grace” (John 1:17), and the one who “committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:9)