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Viewpoint: Freedom of Speech Doesn’t Mean Freedom from Consequences


As an Adventist minister, I’ve followed with more than casual interest Dr. Eric Walsh’s transition from valued employee to former Public Health Director of the City of Pasadena, California. I’ve particularly noted that his demise began when the content of some of his sermons, delivered in his role as a part-time pastor, came to public attention.   

Despite being a stalwart supporter of both freedom of religion and freedom of speech, I find myself conflicted concerning his case. 

When I wear my defend-religious-liberty-and-freedom-of-speech hat, I’m deeply concerned by the fact that a part-time minister has been forced to resign from his secular job — and had a job offer elsewhere rescinded — because he said things to his congregation that he strongly believes but that many in society don’t agree with and don’t want to hear. 

When I wear my ministerial-colleague hat, I sympathize greatly with what Dr. Walsh and his family have gone through. As if it’s not humiliation enough to have his name dragged through the mud publicly, it’s dramatically more painful to have the denomination to which he has dedicated his life seek to distance itself from him — when his only “crime” was to preach in the very same way about the very same topics that Adventist pastors and evangelists have been addressing for decades. 

Quite candidly, I think we’ve had too many bad role models — at least for anyone wishing to speak effectively to our more skeptical, more secularized society today. And Dr. Walsh, because he was employed in the secular world as well as by the church, is paying a price that most pastors and evangelists are able to avoid.

Which brings me to my third hat — my What Would Jesus Do hat. And when I wear it, I’m reminded of the many admonitions of scripture concerning how we should speak to and about others, both inside and outside the faith. That raises a whole different set of concerns. 

Jesus said: “In the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:2). That’s sobering. 

The First Amendment’s freedoms don’t include freedom from all consequence. The legal right to speak my mind doesn’t mean I won’t be fired from my job if others find my speech too offensive — especially a high-profile governmental job. And no employers want an employee to jeopardize the image and credibility of the entity they represent. The more strident and the more public an employee’s offensive comments, the greater the likelihood of repercussion. We need to recognize that sermons preached to an all-Adventist congregation become public presentations when posted on the Internet. And our in-house terms and emphases are likely to be interpreted differently by the public from how we view them within the Adventist context.

Maybe I’m just a wimp, but I cringe when I hear about the names of specific public figures being accused from the pulpit of having the spirit of antichrist, or when I hear whole belief systems vilified. I cringe for those denounced, and I cringe because I know the way large segments of the general public will inevitably respond. Society is increasingly unwilling to grant a pass to any who they feel have unfairly maligned others — even if we feel we’re just “bearing the straight testimony,” and doing it in the defense righteousness. The tone of our words is perhaps even more important than what we actually say.   

The scriptures call for judicious speech: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:5, 6). 

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, . . .” (2 Timothy 2:24-26). “Be merciful to those who doubt . . .” (Jude 22).

Humility, as well as gentleness, is called for in how we approach others — because we’re all vulnerable to spiritual missteps. “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). 

Among the qualifying characteristics of a high priest are: “He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people” (Hebrew 5:2, 3).

And humility must go beyond recognizing just our own moral frailty and vulnerability. It also includes the recognition that we as Christians, collectively, have a track record of speaking stridently when we should have kept silent — because we were wrong

Christians today don’t believe in burning heretics at the stake or drowning accused witches. We no longer support slavery as a part of God’s natural order. We no longer claim that, for solid biblical reasons, women should be deprived of the right to vote. We no longer buy into the separate-but-equal theology that prevented blacks from being served in the same venues as whites–even in church-run settings. We no longer claim that marriage between people of different races is immoral. Yet at one time, a Christian majority stridently promoted all of these beliefs and practices — and used the Bible as support. 

Of course, it was also Christians (a smaller group of them), working hand in hand with their secular counterparts, who were instrumental in getting such social-moral evils eliminated. But the proclivity of the Christian majority for being on the wrong side of history definitely damages our credibility when we fulminate against what we see as current evils. Indeed, the very act of fulminating is considered inappropriate in today’s world.

I happen to think that we as a society, to our detriment, have become too unwilling to listen to speakers and arguments that might force us to rethink our entrenched positions and prejudices. However, few would argue that the likes of Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church or the Quran-burning Terry Jones should intentionally be afforded a platform for spewing their diatribes. 

So the question isn’t whether there’s a limit. The question is where the line should be drawn. Those of us who would like to be reformers don’t have the privilege of determining where that line should be; our listeners will do that for us. But we do need to recognize how counter-productive it is to unnecessarily cross whatever line they’ve drawn. 

I haven’t personally listened to all the sermons Dr. Walsh has posted on online. But I have listened to some. It’s obvious that he’s a highly talented wordsmith. He clearly states where he stands on issues. And he shares his convictions with power and flair. 

But I would question that the average “person of the world,” particularly one who’s struggling with some of the behaviors Dr. Walsh has denounced, would listen to certain of his sermons and say, “Now there’s a man I would feel safe pouring out my heart to because he would understand what I’m going through.” I believe it fair to say that understanding, gentleness and compassion aren’t the hallmarks of the comments to which members of the Pasadena public have objected.

But let me hasten once again to speak in Dr. Walsh’s defense: In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, of which both he and I are members, the role models for compassionately conservative preaching aren’t plentiful. Conservative, yes. Compassionate, no. 

Protestants in general, and Adventists in particular, are protesters. Since our very inception we’ve battled evil, whether it comes in the form of ideas, people or structures.  And our emphasis has too often been on what we’re against rather than what we’re for. Thus, love, compassion and gentleness can easily get lost in the shuffle. 

As the general populace becomes more and more concerned about these very characteristics, the widespread absence of them in much of our preaching is increasingly ensuring that the messages we present aren’t received well. And it’s not a lack of sincerity on our part as preachers. It’s our inability to recognize which approaches open doors and which approaches close doors in our fast-changing world. 

It’s important that we analyze what happened in the case of Dr. Walsh. And we certainly need to do it through the lens of First Amendment rights. We must ensure that our freedoms of religion and speech aren’t taken from us. Vigilance is the watchword.

But I’m not convinced that religious-liberty and free-speech issues are the most important take-away from has happened. Rather, we all need to be asking ourselves as Christians — and more specifically as Seventh-day Adventists — are we living out the Golden Rule in the way we speak about those with whom we disagree? Are we being “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16)? Are we projecting an image of care, concern and love for our fellow strugglers, whatever blind spots and shortfalls we feel they have? Are we urging people to “have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10)? Are we inviting them to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8)? 

Or is our specialty the art of condemnation?  

Before his retirement from church employment in 2011, James Coffin spent nearly 36 years as a youth pastor, pastor and editor for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 

Listen to Eric Walsh describe some of the impact the events have had on him in a candid, upbeat sermon titled “Is Your Window Open?” in Loma Linda, California on May 31, 2014.

Note: This article was updated June 8, 2014.

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