Question: "What does the Bible say about censorship?"
Answer: The Bible does not directly address censorship because “freedom of speech,” “freedom of the press,” and “freedom of religion” are relatively modern concepts. In many places around the world today, these freedoms are still denied. Ancient rulers all exercised censorship in that a person could be killed for criticizing the king/emperor or any of his policies. Likewise, a person could be killed for going against the prevailing religious thought or practice. This “censorship” was considered normal and natural.
In ancient Israel, people were not allowed to worship any way they pleased, nor were they allowed to spread any teaching they wanted. False teachers in Israel faced the “ultimate censorship”: “But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death” (Deuteronomy 18:20). “If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, ‘Let us follow other gods’ (gods you have not known) ‘and let us worship them,’ you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the LORD your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 13:1–5). False teachers and false teaching were supposed to be censored.
On the other hand, when the king was living in disobedience to God, he might try to censor God’s Word. In Jeremiah 36, Jeremiah’s scribe wrote the words that the Lord gave to Jeremiah. Subsequently, they were read to the king, who listened and periodically cut out a portion of the scroll that he had just heard and burned it. Even today, the Bible remains one of the books that is most often the target of censorship.
The church today is to “censor” false teaching. Church leaders should maintain control over what is taught in the church, making sure it is in accordance with Scripture. Many fear that, if Christians ever became a majority in the United States, they would impose something like Old Testament Law on the population at large and people would no longer be free to express their ideas. Indeed, some branches of Christian theology would view this condition as ideal. In the most strident of these groups, some would say that, if the United States were constituted as a biblical theocracy, the proper response to certain cults would not be evangelism but execution for blasphemy and false teaching. This is an extreme position, and most Christians today would reject it, even if they do long for society to be ordered along biblical priorities.
In reality, every organization and society exercises censorship on some level. Today, certain things are simply not allowed. For instance, child pornography is illegal and punishable by imprisonment. Other things may be legal but are socially unacceptable. Anyone who utters certain words or ideas may be “cancelled.” Even with lax social standards, there are still some things that are not allowed on broadcast television because the airwaves belong to the public and therefore must maintain some semblance of public decency. These standards are much more relaxed than they were a generation ago, and more and more obscenity, vulgarity, and profanity is allowed on broadcast television. There are no restrictions on cable, internet, or movies shown in a theatre.
Public libraries have long stood against censorship, but every library makes decisions about what to put in, what to take out, and what to keep out. There is simply not enough room or budget to put everything in, and collection development decisions will inevitably be influenced by the beliefs and values of the librarian who is making those decisions. Christians are often accused of censorship because they want filters to be placed on computers at the public library or object to certain materials being made available to children.
As far as Christians censoring other materials, there is fine line to walk, especially in Western-style democracies. On one hand, it is best that people be protected from certain images and ideas like pornography. On the other hand, censoring something often has the effect of making it more interesting and desirable. Christianity seems to thrive in the “free marketplace of ideas,” in which ideas have to be refuted by sound argumentation and the loving presentation of truth rather than censored. Likewise, Christian parents have to walk a fine line between protecting their children from harmful content and over-protecting them so that they are unprepared to make good decisions when they are on their own.
Increasingly, biblically based positions on public behavior are considered intolerant by society at large, and there is an increased call for censorship of Christian ideas that are labeled “hate speech.” Merely expressing certain ideas based on biblical truth is increasingly considered hateful or even violent. Obviously, when the powers that be attempt to censor truth, Christians must stand against it. In many cases this may involve political and legal action, but it should always involve a bold proclamation of the truth, both publicly and privately. Peter and John set the example when they refused to stop preaching in the name of Jesus even when they were threatened by the authorities (Acts 5:28–29).
Perhaps most importantly, Christians are supposed to censor what they put into their minds and what comes out of their mouths. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).