Free speech on campus – so why not in church?

Alt-right leader Richard Spencer has been heckled by hundreds of demonstrators at a meeting he was trying to address at the University of Florida. He's a white supremacist, though he prefers to describe himself as an 'identitarian', and has called for a 'peaceful ethnic cleansing'. So vehement were the protests against him in Gainesville that the Governor of Florida declared a state of emergency. According to the BBC, roadblocks and barricades were set up to control the crowds, while helicopters and drones circled and snipers stood atop buildings. It was all very dramatic – and very expensive.

ReutersA white nationalist at the University of Florida, where demonstrators were protesting a speech by Richard Spencer.

Not nearly as dramatic, and not nearly as expensive, but just as damaging, is a similar mindset when it finds its way into the Church.

Spencer is an extreme figure who appears to revel in controversy. However, there's a movement in universities both in the US and the UK to ban from the platform anyone whose views are deemed objectionable. An address by controversial social scientist Charles Murray was violently broken up at Middlebury College in March. Activists affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement shut down an event at the College of William and Mary at which a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union was to speak. Among the slogans they chanted were, 'Liberalism is white supremacy' and 'The revolution will not uphold the constitution'.

In the UK, the government is worried enough about threats to free speech for universities minister Jo Johnson to say freedom of speech must be protected or institutions would be deregistered by the new Office for Students. He told The Times: 'Freedom of speech is a fundamentally British value which is undermined by a reluctance of institutions to embrace healthy vigorous debate.'

Healthy, vigorous debate is good for society. The arguments against this are too obvious to need much time spent on them. Who decides what's settled? If bad arguments aren't exposed they'll go underground. You can't stop people thinking, you can only help them think better. Political censorship is dictatorship. Etc, etc.

But it's good for the Church, as well, and the Church is temperamentally bad at allowing it. There's a groupthink which fixes thinking in particular patterns. In heirarchical or authoritarian churches, the tone might be set from the top; in congregationally-governed ones, it might have more to do with social pressure.

Some things become unsayable. Whether it's questions about sexuality, or doctrine, or church customs and traditions, or biblical interpretation: there are places we just don't go. And if we do, the spiritual thought police are there to shut the debate down, either through social exclusion or – more or less politely – a dismissal by those in authority. 'This is what the Bible says' or, 'This is what we do.'

But the fact that something's unsayable doesn't always mean it's unthinkable. And a refusal to welcome, question and debate because it challenges the position of the leadership, or because it unsettles the faithful, is deeply damaging to the body or Christ. In some cases, it allows doubts about key issues to fester because they can't be brought out into the open. The internal pressures become so great they can only be relieved by leaving the faith altogether. In other cases, it promotes a sort of hive mentality, where everything is subordinated to the harmony of the group – and abuses, of whatever kind, go unchallenged because no one wants to disturb the status quo. And when authority is oppressive and voices aren't heard, the Spirit of God is quenched. What can't be said can't be heard; and God does not always speak through powerful people with microphones.

Doctrine is not decided by a vote, and no one is saying it should be. There's a deposit of Christian belief – its core creeds – that are open to greater understanding, but that can't be repudiated without the faith ceasing to be Christian. But church leaders and institutions that lack the confidence to open their minds to different ways of thinking – that no-platform people with ideas they believe are wrong, and assume they've already learned everything they need to learn – don't do the gospel any favours. These disruptors might be wrong, objectionable and even dangerous – but they should be heard.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods

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