I’ve been thinking a lot about free speech, lately, and have been closely following some of the debates around it in the wider culture. As most people who know me are aware, I am huge fan of people who have the courage to speak out about what they really think is true, even when it’s unpopular. I too aim to be the kind of person who is not controlled by groupthink, but to be willing to examine and reevaluate my beliefs based on the available evidence.
The other night, my wife and I watched the movie Come Sunday on Netflix. It’s the true story of the pastor Carlton Pearson, a protege of Oral Roberts, who was leading a thriving church in Tulsa, Oklahoma and eventually became convinced that in the end all people will be saved. He started preaching his new convictions and as a result, he lost most of his congregation and many of his friends. He suffered a great deal of self-doubt in all of this, but in the end he stayed true to his newfound beliefs and ended up building a new church. Unsurprisingly, he eventually found a home among the Unitarians.
Come Sunday actually is one of the few movies about Christians that treats the nuances of faith, Scripture, and belief with care. It portrays the questions and problems of universalism versus the traditional understanding of the gospel in a sophisticated realistic, manner. The movie raises a lot of great questions, theologically, the most obvious is about the extent of salvation and the question of hell. It prompts a lot of good questions and reflection, especially for those who live in the Christian world.
As I watched this movie, I found myself being struck by the immense risk that Pearson took in saying what he actually believed to his congregation. While the questions about universalism were really interesting, they were nothing I’ve never considered or encountered before. The truthfulness of his theology aside, what affected me the most was Pearson’s courage to say what he thought, even though the cost would be immense.
While I think there are some serious flaws Pearson’s theology, I have to admire his courage. During one scene in the movie, he is preaching about his new belief and people are walking out of his church. Some are verbally challenging him and calling him an apostate who has been deceived. Later in the movie, he is preaching to a mostly empty church and being brought up on heresy charges by his denomination. As I watched these scenes, I kept thinking to myself how much safer and easier it would have been for him to simply keep his new opinions to himself. For example, he likely could have just stopped talking about Hell, rather than outright denying it. He chose to go with what he believed rather than what was safe.
People who work and live in Christian ministry, professionally, are sometimes challenged to find a balance between saying what they really think and what they are expected to think on any number of topics. Their community has standards,understandably, that they are expected to uphold and teach. If they change their mind on a certain topic that the community considers important, they can be out of a job if they tell anyone. So if they aren’t ready for unemployment, and potential social ostracizing from their community, they have to find a way to disguise what they really think and just fly under the radar.
Now, I fully believe that churches, denominations, and seminaries should have clear theological standards for their leaders. The alternative to that is chaos. The denomination that I am working toward ordination in emerged from a mainline denomination that was becoming very lax in what it expected its leaders to affirm, so I am pretty aware of the craziness that results from that posture. I am NOT advocating that any and every belief should be acceptable in a faith community.
The potential risks of saying what one really thinks are not just limited to conservative Christian circles. Progressive Christians are just as bad, though only on other issues. Spend enough time on Twitter these days and you will see the progressive Christian left eating up other Christians who don’t hold the right views on any number of issues from race to LGBT inclusion.
I guess my takeaway is this: saying what one truly thinks always has a cost and one must be prepared to take the consequences. I don’t think the answer is to repress saying what one thinks, but one must be incredibly careful about the way one does it. One must decide if this is truly the hill to die on. It takes a lot of courage to do that, so even if we disagree with the position the person is stating, we can at least admire the fact that they are brave enough to speak.