Last Friday, September 2, 2016, a group of students at Clemson University gathered to protest the suppression of free speech by campus officials. Christian evangelist Robbie Roberts had been removed from campus for sitting in a chair with a small sign marked, "Prayer" (see video and Wall Street Journal coverage). According to Clemson officials, Roberts was not in a "free speech zone," even though he was seated in a public park. WeRoar, a student group in support of first amendment rights, saw this as a violation of the US Constitution, as well as a betrayal of the spirit of inquiry for which a university exists. Many of the protesters were Christians, which has raised objections from some observers. Let me respond with five questions and answers on the theme, "Should Christians Roar?"
- Q: Some observers have claimed that this is a safety issue for colleges. Is safety a valid reason to limit free speech in public places? A: Only if we believe that ideas are dangerous. Of all the nations that have ever existed, America stands out as a nation that does not believe that people - university students least of all - need to be protected from ideas.
- Q: Is it sinful for Christians to protest against government (or university) actions? Doesn't Romans 13:1-2 forbid civil resistance or disobedience? A: Romans 13:1-2 is often cited against Christians who resist or protest, since God has established the secular sovereign over each nation. However, in America at least, our sovereign is not a king but the United States Constitution. This is why government leaders enter office by swearing to uphold and defend the Constitution. Christian students who protest campus officials in defense of the Constitution are fulfilling the requirement of Romans 13:1-2, as in the case of the WeRoar protest, by showing loyalty to the authority God has established for our blessed land.
- Q: Should church leaders or campus evangelistic groups enter into campus protests? A: As a rule, the answer is No. Churches and their evangelistic auxiliaries on campus are charged by Christ with the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20), which focuses their calling on the spread of the gospel and the discipling of believers. When their members are involved in protests, pastors should of course provide them with counsel and prayer. Sometimes, the issues behind the protests will need to be illuminated by clear teaching from God's Word. But in general, the mission of the church is not well served by its direct involvement in government action.
- Q: If the church is called to proclaim the gospel, are Christians betraying the gospel when they protest about matters like free speech? A: The answer is 'No!' for the simple reason that Christians have multiple duties, one of which is their duty as citizens and members of a secular society. The idea that ordinary Christians should refuse to involve themselves in important public controversies, so that the gospel may be seen in an attractive light, has little support from history and often masks a culture-accommodating cowardice.
- Q: The conflict at Clemson started when an evangelist went onto campus and publicly practiced his faith. Should Christians be doing this? Isn't it obnoxious for us to preach and pray in public places where people are trying to take a break? A: Not if we believe that the eternal destiny of souls is at stake, as Christians do believe. Consider the example of Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles in John 7:37-38 and John 8:12. Consider the public witness of the apostle Paul in Athens (Acts 17:16-21). Culturally trendy Christians may loathe the label of "proselytizing," but the Christian faith has always sought to bring the saving message of Jesus, and the peace that he gives through prayer, to where the needy sinners are.