How free is speech Biblically?

What do the fine minds of Sanityville see as the bounds or guidelines concerning free speech?

I’m not asking for what the First Amendment grants, or how the Supreme Court interprets such things. We do not hold these two voices as infallible, and it is clear that the latter encourages wickedness.

This is why I ask: Deuteronomy 13:4-5
This has to do with false prophets and goes on to talk about those who try to turn people away from the true God. The popular concept (current distortion?) of freedom of religion/speech is not feasible. God said it is a capital crime.

My second thought is “Do unto others…” Matthew 22:39-40
So, then a Christian Libertarian can begin banging their drum for just leaving each other alone; we give others the rights we ourselves enjoy. Yet remember, Matthew 22:40 says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” This includes the selection from Deuteronomy 13 above. Just because we enjoy protection to practice our religion does not mean it is right to apply that same protection to all others. We know all religions are not ultimately equal, how loving is it to encourage/protect such lies?

I have deviated from freedom of speech to freedom of religion as a topic, but the two are entwined legally, both in Scripture and secular law.

The Southern Baptists ran up against this issue when their Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission filed an amicus brief to support a Muslim community’s right to build a mosque in New Jersey.

If we argue for free speech and free practice of any religion are we taking our standard of freedom from some place which opposes Scripture?

Have we set aside the commandments of God for the traditions of men?

I think we have.

What are your thoughts?


The way I think about this is as follows:

  1. The civil laws given to Israel expired along with the State of ancient Israel, though the general equity of these laws is still if moral use (WCF 19.4).

  2. All civil authorities are ministers of God which bear the sword, charged with bringing wrath on those who practice evil.

  3. The church has not been given the Sword, but has been given the ordinances if baptism and the Lord’s Supper, along with the power of the Keys to bind and loose on Earth and in Heaven (I understand this to refer to membership and excommunication).

  4. Civil authorities will be judged upon their execution of Justice according to God’s moral law (see Psalm 2), but are neither equipped not competent to render judgement in matters of conscience related to the observance of the ordinances or forms of religious worship. These things belong to the church.

  5. This is where freedom of speech/religion comes in. Things get sketchy when the civil magistrate is tasked with discerning between true and false worship, especially for the task of punishing the false. That’s not what the sword has been for since the ancient State of Israel passed away.

Are there ways we moderns (even Christians) take freedom of speech to far? Yes, I think so. But I think it’s appropriate for the civil authorities to abide with libertines in matters of speech and religious worship. The church will deal with these libertines, if it’s actually doing its job (which unfortunately hasn’t been the case).


@joshuah, a great discussion to have. I looked at this some years ago when an old Bible College Principal of mine stated that the sort of society Christianity flourishes in is a pluralist one where Christians march to support the building of a Mosque. The resulting blog posts (now only found on a couple of portable hard drives) concluded that God would not be pleased with Christians doing that. The gospel encourages we show grace to those who do not follow Jesus, but God forbid that we fight for others to practice idolatry.

A Christian’s response to freedom of speech and religion depends on whether we are in authority or not. Israel was a theocracy, so freedom of religion and speech was determined by the Law and grace towards others (foreigners, visiting dignatories). A similar, but not exact, situation arises when rulers and governments adopt Christianity, and they are bound by the law of God under Christ to permit and forbid according to God’s decrees and to show grace to non-believers.

However, in the current situation in the West, Christians are not sole authorities, (even in Australia where the current Prime Minister is a Pentecostal Christian). Our situation, therefore, is more like Joseph’s or Daniel’s, who exercised authority under another ungodly authority. Speech and religion is restricted or freed according to principles outside of the Bible, but personally, we are to make the decision to live according to the Lord’s instructions in our own lives.

That still leaves a lot of questions, but I’ll stop there.


Sorry, Zak, but this would be news to all the fathers of the Church from NT times on. This is the R2K view that has corrupted the church’s witness today, importing rank libertarianism into the Church and denying what all our founding fathers thought they were doing. I won’t start over here since we have written extensively on this error over at Baylyblog for many years now, but a good way to get at the matter is to consider what a pastor should say to the state Budget Director or Appellate Judge in his congregation on civil matters concerning which Scripture (general equity) is clear. Take sodomite marriage, for instance. Public education. Baby slaughter. Capital punishment. Etc.

I’m with you on the first three points but not the last two, dear brother. There’s a reason R2K men (falsely identifying themselves as 2K) love libs’ separation of church and state. I’m not a theonomist, but don’t have to be to repeat the truth our United States of America was built upon: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD.” Love,


Reread my comment, brother. It’s not R2K or even 2K, really. I’m only saying the sword is not to be used to punish false worship. The government is responsible to punish evildoers according to God’s moral law, and I believe that every civil magistrates will be judged by God in accordance with their faithfulness in that regard. And the church should remind them of this frequently. But I don’t think the civil magistrate should use the sword to enforce a particular understanding of the sacraments or liturgy. That is the use of the sword I’m saying expired along with ancient Israel.

Unless you’re saying that the civil magistrate should bear the sword against Catholics and Mormons and Jews and Muslims for engaging in false worship, I don’t think we disagree. But if that’s the case, you would sound like a theonomist. But I know you’re not saying that.

I’ll admit that I have trouble seeing clear distinctions between the tripartite distinctions of the law commonly referred to. I don’t think the church is consistent with the handling of the Law, and this gets worse the deeper into antinomianism a church slides.

What do you understand the general equity to be for the laws I refer to in my first post? (Deuteronomy 13)

I know that we often start with, “Well, that was for Israel”, but I’m having trouble doing that in this case. First, I think that they are moral, having to do with the first 3 commandments directly. And second, the magistrates must have a standard for just punishments. (I understand your argument to be that this is not now a punishable offense.)

I’m not personally a part of the civil authorities, but I do vote, and while we see Abortion as a great wickedness, I think we ought to see these other deviations from God’s just and good law as wicked aberrations as well. (That’s why this discussion even matters.)

As the church sees an influx of social justice warriors I would encourage men and women to have their definition of justice clear before falling into the morass of argumentation without a solid foundation. (This has little to do with Zak’s comments, and I do not say this to slight him in any way.)

I want to follow you in this thinking, but can you explain how they are not equipped here? Surely not physically, for a sword is a sword - if it’s sharp it will work. As far as competent, this is why a religious oath for office is important. Yes, I believe the civil magistrates, as ministers of God, should at minimum fear and worship God. I do not think it is too difficult for our judges to know the difference between religions. (Regarding ordinances, the state can work out who are the proselytizing pagans, the church can continue to divide over who follows Paul and who follows Apollos.)

Sketchy it may be, but God has tasked them in this matter. I cannot see in Scripture where He has not, or rather, where He has dissolved this task. There may be difficult situations, and mistakes will always be made, but that does make a task illegitimate. I would argue the same with someone who believes that the State should have no Sword, for innocent men could be put to death. To set aside that responsibility is a greater wickedness than fallible judges making honest mistakes.

If I’m understanding you, your major concern is the state making distinctions within Christianity, like Baptists vs. Presbyterians. Surely that is related, but it feels a little early in the discussion. I’m talking more macro-religious distinctions. I think it is historically recent that the state took the hands-off approach regarding religious affiliations. I’d argue this is a bad thing, and not feasible in the long run.

I appreciate the examples of Joseph and Daniel, good points. Useful in understanding what you mean by “personally” living according the Lord’s instructions. Not because they were free to choose obedience or not, for they worshiped God and therefore were obedient, but because their authority was not without constraint. Could Daniel have demanded Deuteronomy 13 be carried out? No, but his friends didn’t complain when Nebuchadnezzar enacted blasphemy laws. Daniel 3:28-29

Also, you make an important point. It was not that anyone who worshiped a different god was to be punished, but specifically those drawing others into that false worship. Thank you for mentioning that.

Sadly, the majority of the churches in our country have worked hard to distance themselves from influencing the world, and especially the magistrate. It’s a dangerous thing when salt looses it’s flavor, for the world and especially the salt. Matthew 5:13

4 Likes came across this while wondering what a theonomist is. Might be helpful here.

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My understanding is, basically, the law still stands but the penalty is different. Under the New Covenant, the God’s people do not wield the sword but do possess the keys of the kingdom, which I understand as church membership and admission to the sacraments/ordinances (cf. Matt. 16:19 & Matt 18:15-20). The New Covenant parallel to the death penalty is excommunication. This doesn’t mean that the literal death penalty is abrogated in all places, just that the Church hasn’t been given that responsibility.

I meant equipped in the sense of being able to discern spiritual things. Perhaps this is only the case for modern secular governments, but they have proven to be unable to tell the difference between Catholics and Mormons and Protestants and (increasingly) Muslims. Let alone Presbyterians and Pentecostals (those words sound kinda the same, so how different could they really be?). The point about a religious oath of office is a good one. I need to think about that more (I’m in favor, but need to work out the implications).

Ideally that would be nice. But I don’t know if there’s much historical precedent for this. Many baptists got their “third baptism” (aka execution by drowning) at the hands of Lutheran, Reformed, and Catholic states alike. There was also a refusal among the 17th century Reformed to distinguish between the continental Anabaptists and the Credo-baptist Congregationalists in England, even though these groups had no genetic link and disagreed on almost everything except for the mode and recipients of baptism. I suppose the question becomes: Is it possible to establish Christianity as the State religion without establishing a particular denomination/sect? Maybe the answer is yes. But I’m a bit skeptical.

Just to clarify, the “this” we’re talking about is punishing false worship, right? What is your understanding of how this should work out? Should Jews and Muslims and Atheists be brought up on idolatry charges and executed (that would be consistent with the task given to ancient Israel)? What about Catholics? Are they idolaters because they bow to statues and deny justification by faith alone, or are they just another Christian sect because they have Trinitarian baptism?

This just isn’t passing the smell test with me for some reason.

I’d say, tentatively, that the civil magistrate should enforce the 2nd table of the Law (Commandments 5-10), but not the first table (1-4). Why? Because I heard this at some point and it stuck. Is this consistent? I’m not sure. I need to think about it more.

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This is an intriguing discussion. I’m not sure I have an answer yet for the questions posed in the OP. But I do have a few thoughts pertaining to the ensuing discussion.

  1. I do think the church bears the sword. Scripture makes this clear. The question is: what type? See: Ephesians 6:17, Hebrews 4:12, Matthew 10:34, Isaiah 49:2, Hosea 6:5. In my understanding, the proper use of this sword typically elicits two responses, reception or rejection, as demonstrated in Acts 2:37 and Acts 5:33.

  2. The political realm is not outside the inevitability of religion. We like to pretend it’s neutral; it’s not. This is post-modernity’s great mirage, that somehow you can be irreligious. Not so, for religion in its most basic form is a set of beliefs which inform the way you live your life. Therefore, everyone—and by necessity everything—is religious, and so is the political realm.

  3. Flowing from that, I would posit that a theocracy (and therefore, a theonomy) is inescapable. Doug Wilson has written about this very thing, which I think might contribute to the discussion:

First, theocracy is inescapable. Every society is theocratic, every society has a god of the system. The ethical expectations governing the members of that society are generated by the god of the system, and dissenters are clubbed in accordance with the divine will. In Islamic republics, this god is Allah, in secular democracies it is Demos, in Alabama it is Football.

  1. One must also have the constituent elements of a theocracy—a law, a priesthood, sacrifices, a gospel, church discipline, etc. Of course this is exactly what we see today in woke religion. Original sin is whiteness, reconciliation is reparations, atonement is never final but always perpetual, church discipline is shut up and be quiet because you’re a racist and don’t even know it, being born again is becoming woke, biblical charity is social justice, etc.

Flattery is never loving. But it is one of the choice sins of the day. It likes to cover itself with pleasant garments of “speak the truth in love,” which is a type of code to signify something more like, “be nice and make peace at all costs, especially at the expense of truth.”


My mind ain’t that fine but here’s my simple shot at it:

The definition of speech itself is argued over by people with a lot more letters after their name than me. But when I think of speech, I think of it as “things you say.” The injection of ideas into the public discussion. So that’s my working definition.

It seems to me that the balance of the Scriptures, especially the New Testament, emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit in my life who will transform me by the renewing of my mind. A renewed mind says different stuff; stuff that is not sinful; at least, progressively more righteous. The boundary of acceptability forms from within not without.

But then I see the Apostle talk about, what have we to do with judging those outside the Church? My sense is that this includes things they say, virtually all of which is dishonoring to God. God will judge them. We are to judge ourselves, those in the Church.

Therefore I can’t support someone injecting any old fool idea into the Family Discussion (the Church). Such speech is grounds for removal and rightly so. But people saying all kinds of things outside of the Church? None of my nevermind.

If I were a legislator and someone raised a bill that made it a crime to take the Lord’s precious name in vain, of course I’d sign it without a second thought and a with clear conscience, because it’s Right and honoring to God - not because I operate under some fantasy that it will be effective at changing individual hearts (laws don’t do that) or even possible to enforce. It would be more along the lines of what my marine buddies say: leave every place better than you found it. I am glad, however, that I am not a legislator.


I think we are talking about two different things here. By bringing in the Church, and her tools of discipline, it’s easy to make this knot worse. I agree that the church has not been given the Sword as a tool. I’m speaking of the State’s use, not the church. I do not see excommunication as a replacement, but I do see it as a valid tool for the church.

The penalties must remain. This is our standard for knowing if a penalty is just. A murderer is to be put to death, not fined, not imprisoned. A thief works toward restitution, not imprisoned, not put to death. The amount of restitution should be set in relation to the value of the thing stolen (not based on the skill of a lawyer), a man’s life is not ruined for stealing bread. Without bringing the penalties forward we have no argument against the injustice in the courts today, we can only say, “That doesn’t seem right, but who can say?” You have not said anything contrary to this, I’m only pointing to a difficulty that I see that lies in abrogation without clear guidelines.

Since you brought up excommunication, what can the church do in cases where a crime has been committed, but not considered a crime by the state? Adultery is nearly nothing at this point in our country. When the state has no punishment for adultery the church must rule with the tools she has been given. We do not bear the sword, and so excommunication is what we see as the alternative in the NT. I do not think it is a replacement, both ought to happen. The church should excommunicate and the state use the sword.

Can you be a bit more specific on how we can differentiate where the death penalty is still valid and where it’s not? (Is this the separation of the tables of the Ten Commandments you mentioned?)

Excellent point. My thought is, if it’s not a punishable crime, don’t make it one. Killing over Baptism and Sacrament? Sounds like those representing the church were forgetting the weightier matters.

Right, as defined in Deuteronomy 13. Your concern is well placed, and I think this is why wise judges are so important. (We place too much emphasis on new legislation. We already have good and perfect laws in the Bible, they need to be wisely applied.)

Personally, I think it is a mistake to draw the lines the way the church has historically. Given the difficulty of proving Trinitarian doctrine in the New Testament, and more importantly the absence of that specific subject being addressed at any length, well, I find that a poor standard. I’m not saying it can’t be argued, I’m saying that measured against all the other subjects addressed specifically in Scripture, it comes up pretty light. I would point to the things Scripture is abundantly clear on to make such divisions. “Is Christ Lord?” That’s a simple question that even non-Trinitarians can answer in the affirmative. Sorts the other religions out fairly well too. (This doesn’t mean I don’t disagree with the non-Trinitarians, but it means I don’t think it would be punishable as breaking that law. The church ought to continue to defend solid doctrine, even without a sword.)

Catholicism bowing down to idols… that’s interesting and it doesn’t stop with the Catholics. How about those icons in the east?

Like you said, it sounds good. Can you defend that? I’m being honest, not combative. Christians need to have a solid rubric concerning the things we bring forward. I don’t have the answer here, I’ve yet to find an answer that isn’t arbitrary at some point.

This is creeping into the church at a great pace. If the church does not teach, from fear or inability, what real justice looks like… well, let’s all just “believe the victims” and ignore the idea of consequences for false witnesses.

I get what you’re saying. I’m not a legislator either. I’ve probably answered poorly in just these few responses, I know I don’t know the Law as well as I ought, and not nearly as well as a proper judge should. I’d really appreciate if a legislator did sign something because it was right, not because they were playing another stupid political game. But, good news is, the longer they play these games the more people will long for something better. What are we offering as an answer?


Thanks for posting the topic. It’s making me think through what my position actually is and interrogate my own assumptions.

Yeah, I think it has to do with the tables of the Law, though I’m not quite prepared to plant the flag there.

No, at least not yet. However, the alternative is that modern States are responsible before God to execute idolaters, blasphemers, and Sabbath-breakers. Setting aside the practical difficulty that might create for Christians to witness to their unbelieving neighbors, it requires the State to have ordinances regulating worship (idolatry & Sabbath-breaking) and speech (blasphemy), which gets back to your original question. This also requires the State to decide the question of whether Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are idolatry. I understand the need for wise judges, but I don’t see how deferring to the wisdom of judges avoids the general criticism you’ve made about substituting God’s wisdom with man’s. We all know what would happen if someone were found lighting candles to statues or iconography in the Israelite camp. I don’t see how outsourcing the question to a judiciary is any better than outsourcing it to a legislature.

That said, is just doesn’t seem right for some reason. I can’t quite put my finger on why. I’ll need to think about it more.

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Keeping in mind that the law was specific to punish those who proselytized, not just anyone who practiced another religion, what did you have in mind here?

I know you didn’t mention it, but I wanted to bring this up. A common argument against any death penalty is that it removes the “chance” for the criminal to repent. Apart from that soteriology being unsound, it also sets aside God’s judgement in the matter. We are to value life, but we can go too far. God is the one who says when a man has crossed a line, when a man has forfeit his life.

  • An example of this kind of injustice is when one holdout juror denied the ability of the State to execute James Holmes. Juror Says Holdout Would Not Budge on James Holmes Death Penalty

    Because the jury could not reach a unanimous decision, Holmes will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for opening fire during a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” on July 20, 2012, killing 12 people and wounding 70 others.

Again, you didn’t propose anything like that, but I was reminded of it and thought it related to our discussion.

True, and the State has done so by prohibiting any laws which would do these things. (This is a problem if the State is required to uphold God’s law in this area.)

I point to judges rather than legislators because I would rather decisions be made according to the law already given, not with the goal to make laws apart from the foundation of Scripture.

Why have men interpret the laws at all? I just don’t see any way around that. It’s not preferred, but without Urim, Thummim, or prophet we will have to make do with “general equity” wisely applied.

So it’s not that I’m asking for judges to have a blank check regarding man’s wisdom, and this is why I mentioned a religious oath of office.

How is it different? Men will err, this is true. On the one hand we start from a position that is sound, and if intelligently applied, should act as a bounds of that error. On the other hand, and I submit this is what we see today, men err and their foolishness knows no bounds. The Constitution can be amended, has been, and will be again.

  • I don’t claim to be a prophet but I think there will be a change with regard to “hate speech” soon enough. I always thought it would be the Second Amendment to go first, but I’m just not sure about that anymore.

I realize that even Israel, with a perfect law, failed on a nation-destroying level. There will not be enough men like Phinehas (Psalm 106:29-30), nor enough prophets like Elijah (1 Kings 18:22).

It’s not clear to me from the NT that the secular power has a role in in enforcing the first tablet of the Law, and FWIW my own take on things is that the Church’s record of speaking Truth to power is a lot better than when it has exercised secular power itself.

Over the summer I was in Boston MA and on one walk around the place, I came across a monument to the three men and one woman who were executed in 1660 by the Puritan regime of the time for being Quakers. That the children of people who had fled England in 1618 on grounds of religious persecution should then up being persecutors themselves, is a horrible irony. Now, agreed, that is an extreme example, but …


I dispute the claim that the Law limited the death penalty only to those who proselytized. Deut. 17:2-5 indicates that suspicion of idolatry was to be investigated and the idolater stoned on the evidence of 2 or 3 witnesses.

The practical difficulty I had in mind was evangelizing unbelieving neighbors when you don’t have any, since they’ve all been executed.

Yes, it is an irony. Here’s another example:

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You are correct, sorry for limiting that when I shouldn’t have. Thanks for correcting me there.

I think that makes things simpler, not more difficult. Gone is the task of figuring out what constitutes proselytizing.

Does that sound heartless? I suppose, but that’s not the culture or law we live under, and I highly doubt it would be an overnight event. I’m not saying it would ever happen either. For that kind of legal system to ever come into play there would have to be a real great awakening, and at that point such punishment would be rare.

  • If Israel is an example, they pretty well removed entire cities and towns before these laws came into play. So that law would be coming into play on those who defected or who decided to live among them despite that threat.

As much as it goes against our pluralistic tendencies, for the State to involve itself in the punishment of First Table offenses would produce a sanctifying effect on society. No, it won’t change hearts, but it would bring about a chilling effect on public idolatry and blasphemy - Romans 13:3. (No more pride parades?) I think that’s ok, because the State punishes evil, it is not their job to change hearts.

Regarding Christian persecution of Christians, I had spoke a bit to that earlier. Don’t make something a crime that isn’t. Debate doctrine, defend your brand. I wont disagree with you or @Hobbit that some terrible things have happened. I’m sure each of us if placed somewhere else geographically and chronologically would have been imprisoned at best by our brothers.

  • Hindsight allows us to pick out these errors in judgement, but what we can’t know for sure is how these societies were preserved. I am referring to the moral downgrade we see today in Europe and the US, but also anywhere else pluralism is the guiding light.
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No irony at all. The Massachusetts Puritans came to establish true religion, not religious freedom - don’t be led astray by American Founding myths. If you want to see religious freedom, then go to Rhode Island or Pennsylvania.


This is very well put.