Monthly Archives: May 2019

1 Peter 3:18-22: Did Christ Descend into Hell?

May 2019 Credo

A Difficult Passage

1 Peter 3:18-22, filled with textual, grammatical, lexical and theological difficulties is considered as one of the most difficult passages in the NT.  This is evidenced by the great reformer, Martin Luther’s comments: “This is a strange text and certainly a more obscure passage than any other passage in the New Testament.  I still do not know for sure what the apostle meant.” This passage has often been understood as Jesus’ descent into hell in the interim between his crucifixion and resurrection, preaching the gospel to those who did not hear about it.

We shall attempt to understand this passage using the following questions.  Where did Christ go – did he descend into hell?  When did he go – was it after his death and before he resurrection?  To whom did he speak – who were the “spirits in prison”?  What did he say – did Jesus preach the gospel?

Attempting to Understand it

Before wading into the details, two clear points stand out.  First, the link with 3:13-17 by “because also” (Greek hoti kai) in 3:18 indicates that 3:18-22 provides the basis for the assertion in 3:17 that it is better, if God wills it so, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.  Second, Christ’s subjugation of all angels, authorities and powers prove paradoxically that his unjust suffering unto death for doing good was not a defeat but a victory (3:22).  Hence 3:18-22 serves to encourage and buttress its Christian readers amidst oppression and persecution.

First, the “when” question.  3:18-19 states that “Because Christ also …., having been put to death in the flesh, but having been made alive in the spirit; in which also having gone, he proclaimed to the spirits in prison, …”  Among various interpretations proposed for the flesh-spirit contrast, the most reasonable one is to understand it as referring to Christ’s two states of existence: his earthly human life before his death and his glorified resurrected state.  This view is further supported by 3:22 which refers to Christ’s ascension, thus accomplishing the redemptive process: crucifixion (“put to death”) → resurrection (“made alive”) → ascension (“gone into heaven”).  Furthermore, the “in which” (Greek en ho) in 3:19 refers back to “the spirit” in 3:18, i.e. Christ went to proclaim to the spirits in prison in his resurrected state, not in the interim between crucifixion and resurrection.

Turning to the “where” question, we find that “having gone” (Greek poreutheis) indicates that Christ “went”, a more general verb, rather than “descended” (Greek katabaino), a more specific verb, to the “spirits in prison” (3:19).  Furthermore, terms at the time of writing of 1 Peter used to refer to the place of the dead, such as Hades, Tartarus or Sheol were not used to indicate where Christ went.  Instead the term “prison” (Greek phylake), which does not refer to the place of the dead anywhere else in the NT, is used.  Thus, Christ did not descend to hell but went to a place where “the spirits” were imprisoned.  To shed further light on the “where” and the “to whom” and “what” questions, we need to turn to the Jewish traditions found in the pseudonymous book of 1 Enoch.

The Book of 1 Enoch as Background

Genesis 5:21-24 indicate that Enoch, the seventh generation from Adam, “walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.”  In the ancient Jewish tradition, Enoch was a well-known person with an important book supposedly composed by him.  1 Enoch 12:1-2 states that when Enoch was taken, “his works were with the Watchers, and with the holy ones were his days.”  The tradition of the Watchers was an elaboration of Genesis 6:1-4 where “the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them” (6:4).  In Genesis, this story occurs immediately before the Noah story and seems to provide the reason for the flood.

1 Enoch relates a more elaborate story, filling in the gap.  The Watchers were fallen angels who forsook the highest heaven (12:4), lain with human women, and produced children (15:3), referred to as “giants” or “Nephilim” from whose bodies “evil spirits” had gone forth (15:9).  These evil spirits have revealed to people “godless deeds and unrighteousness and sin” (13:2) and will continue to corrupt the earth until the “day of the consummation of the great judgment, when the great age is consummated.”  (16:1)

Enoch agreed to the Watchers’ appeal to intercede with God for themselves and their evil descendants.  But he returned with God’s judgment that the Watchers “will not ascend into heaven for all the ages; and it has been decreed to bind you in bonds in the earth for all the days of eternity.  And that before these things, you will see the destruction of your sons” because they will not obtain their petition concerning themselves or their sons. (14:4-7).  These  “spirits”, from the bodies of the giants, offspring of the Watchers were the cause of human evil that resulted in the flood during the time of Noah, Enoch’s grandson.

Back to the Difficult Passage

With this background, we begin to see that the spirits to whom Christ preached were fallen angels and/or demonic spirits.  Their imprisonment signified God’s restraining power over them.  Christ’s message to them was that the “day of the consummation of the great judgment”, announced during the flood had finally arrived.  Christ’s resurrection signified his victory over all powers of evil; during his ascension he proclaimed his victory and their defeat.  This understanding is further reinforced by the use of “preached/proclaimed” (Greek kerysso) for Christ’s proclamation (3:19); this term has a wider semantic range than the more specific “preached the good news” (Greek euangelizomai).

Different interpretations arose throughout the centuries, such as Christ’s descent into hell, probably due to the disappearance of the book of 1 Enoch after the second century until an Ethiopic copy was found late in the eighteenth century.

In conclusion, Christ, in his resurrected state (when), went to proclaim to the fallen angels or demonic spirits (to whom), who were imprisoned inside the earth (where) that “the day of the consummation of the great judgment,” i.e. their defeat had come upon them (what).  Thus, Christ’s victory over all evil, both spiritual and human would provide great encouragement, not only to Peter’s readers but to many Christians today facing unjust suffering to remain faithful as all evil forces opposing God have been subjected to Christ’s rule and will be vanquished in time to come.


Rev Dr James Lim teaches subjects related to New Testament at Trinity Theological College. He is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Singapore and serves as an associate minister in Ang Mo Kio Presbyterian Church. 

Dignity, Respect and Speech

May 2019 Pulse

There has been much discussion in recent months in Singapore about deliberate falsehoods (especially the online variety) and hate or offensive speech. Hardly a day passes that The Straits Times does not carry an article or two about these menaces and what the Singapore government is doing to address them in the interest not only of social harmony but also that of national security.

Global concern over the scourge of fake news and hate mongering and the harm they inflict show that words do matter and that what is written, spoken or sung can cause irreparable harm to individuals, groups and even to society as a whole. In the era of deliberate falsehoods and hate speech, we can no longer accept as a truism that well-known idiom: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’

The Christian Scriptures has much to say about the power of words, their ability to build up and tear down. For example, in Exodus 20:16 we find this clear injunction: ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.’ Commenting on this verse, Walter Brueggemann notes that the ninth commandment emphasizes that ‘community life is not possible unless there is an arena in which there is public confidence that social reality will be reliably described and reported.’

Writing to the Christians at Ephesus, the apostle Paul exhorts them to put away all falsehoods and to ‘speak truthfully’ to their neighbour (Ephesians 4:25). Peter echoes Paul’s exhortation in his letter to the Christians dispersed in Asia Minor when he writes: ‘Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit’ (1 Peter 3:10).

Christian speech must always exhibit the qualities of civility and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Words must always be spoken in love (Ephesians 4:15). However, to say that these virtues should govern Christian speech is not to suggest that truth telling should be compromised, or that we should acquiesce to the culture of ‘political correctness’. For political correctness can itself be a form of falsehood, dishonesty and deceit that, in the long run, is harmful to human relationships.

To treat our neighbours with civility and respect is to acknowledge and honour their inherent dignity. It is to recognise that they are created in the image and likeness of God and are therefore valued by their Creator. Although this principle is firmly rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the basic intuition it conveys is not lost to our secular culture.

For example, in a series of articles on hate speech, Jeremy Waldron has convincingly argued that this form of discourse is fundamentally an assault on human dignity. Working with a broadly Kantian account, Waldron insists that ‘dignity is inherent in every human person.’ Furthermore, Waldron believes that dignity does not only have to do with the moral status of an individual but his social and legal status as well, which have ‘to be established, upheld, maintained and vindicated by society.’

Noting that hate speech is mostly directed at minority groups, Waldron argues that it behoves the rest of society to do their best to address the problem so that the dignity of the members of the target group is protected. He maintains that when society takes measures to curb hate speech against a minority group, the members of that group will be assured that their basic dignity and social standing as citizens are valued and respected.

For Waldron, assurance, which he defines as the ‘pervasive, diffuse, ubiquitous, general, sustained, and reliable underpinning of people’s basic dignity and social standing, provided by all for all’, is a public good. Such an assurance is vitally important if members of a society are to live trustingly and peaceably with one another. Waldron explains:

[I]n a well-ordered society, where people are visibly impressed by signs of one another’s commitment to justice, everyone can enjoy a certain assurance as they go about their business. They can feel secure in the rights that justice defines; they can face social interaction without the elemental risks that such social interaction would involve if one could count on others to act justly.

But in order for society to offer such an assurance, every single member must recognise that it is their duty to treat their fellow citizens with dignity and respect. Seen from this perspective, laws against hate speech are not only meant to punish transgressors. They are also purposed to instil in the members of the public their (legal) duty to acknowledge each other’s civic status – as social equals and as bearers of rights – and to treat each other with dignity.

Hate speech violates the dignity of its victims by calling to question or rejecting their status as people that should be treated as equal members of society. As Jonathan Seglow has argued, hate speakers implicitly claim ‘that minorities do not really merit the basic civic entitlements which the majority of citizens enjoy.’ ‘Hate speakers’, he adds, ‘communicate the view that minorities, who are often already vulnerable and marginalised, are not members in full standing of society.’

In denigrating its victims, the hate speaker does not only treat them with profound disrespect, he also assaults their self-respect. Thus, Jonathan Seglow, in agreement with other commentators, has argued that ‘the damage to self-respect which hate speech causes is a direct harm: it sets back individuals’ interests in morally unacceptable ways. As such unless there are strong reason to the contrary, we should treat it as we do other harms.’

The menace of hate speech can be successfully dealt with only when members of a society learn to respect one another and see this not only as their civic and legal duty, but also (and more fundamentally) as their moral obligation. To respect an ‘other’ is to accord him or her with an inviolable dignity as an equal member of the human race. It is to value him or her as a unique human being, who, like the rest of us, is given the privilege to be a bearer of the divine image (Genesis 1:26-28).



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

All Things To All Men: Being a Christian in a Secular Society

May 2019 Feature

In a world that is increasingly detached from religious belief, it is not easy to be a Christian that inspires faith.  The rise of secularism has placed believers in an increasingly minority position, and sometimes, the pressures of the world can threaten our Christian identity and purpose.

After 2,000 years of church history, it is easy to forget that our faith community was birth in the Roman world of political suspicion and religious persecution.  It was in this context that Paul’s testimony in 1 Cor 9:19-23 gives us some knowledge and useful insights to be a Christian in a secular society.

Paul became “all things to all people” so that by all possible means they may be saved (v22). How can we, too, intentionally seek to win others for Christ in our everyday interactions with the people we meet?

But first, what does it mean to be all things to all men?

It is important not to mistake this as conforming to the world. Christ has sent us to be in the world, but not of it (John 17:16). Paul says in Romans 12:1-3 that Christians should not conform to the patterns of the world, but to be transformed. Hence, Christians are called to create a new culture.

Paul’s strategy was to use his Christian freedom to become the slave of all (v19). It meant to become a servant, to have an attitude of servanthood. It meant putting the needs of others before himself to serve in love, in kindness, for the purpose of the Gospel.

Serve in love and humility

Colossians 3:23 is a good reminder that whatever we do, we do for the Lord and not for man. In the same way, when we serve others, we do it in love, as Christ did on earth. Jesus took the very nature of a servant when He was made into human likeness and came down to earth, ministering the good news to all.

Jesus did not discriminate against those who came to him. He did not judge. In fact, He welcomed the sinners and tax collectors—lowest members of Jewish society—to eat at his table. He healed the sick and the poor, including a leper, who in that time, was stigmatized as unclean. It was clear from Jesus’ attitude and actions that He had a heart for the poor.

Jesus saw individuals, not just their labels. Jesus didn’t let social status or cultural norms dictate His relationships with people. He brought the truth and good news to those who most needed it and were willing to listen. They recognized Jesus as a righteous man, a man of God—the miracles He performed bore witness to that—and they saw His compassion and sincerity.

If Jesus did not judge, who are we to judge those who may be of less status or wealth, or those who may be different than us, whether in culture, race, or religion?

Philippians 2:5 tells us to have the same mindset as Christ Jesus in our relationships with one another.

To be imitators of Christ – the command is simple but not an easy one to follow. But we can start first in our homes, workplaces and then communities. We can do this through meaningful acts of kindness to those around us.

Serve in kindness

Another aspect of “being all things to all men” is to engage others with kindness. Kindness is not simply being “tender-hearted” (Eph 4:32), but it involves having the confidence in our faith to interact with others of a different faith respectfully—as Paul related to the Jews and Greeks—without being threatening or imposing, yet at the same time, without compromising our own faith. It is speaking with empathy so that our words and deeds may reflect the loving-kindness of Christ. Kindness is other-centredness, putting the needs of others before our own.

In the Singapore Kindness Movement’s latest “Be Greater” campaign, we encourage the community to go beyond random acts of kindness, and think of individual and collective characters and values.

We need to acknowledge that every one of us has a responsibility towards building a community, a nation, a world of kindness – a world where people of different faith and beliefs can come together in peace and understanding.

In addition, it aims to act as a call for everyone to be better and greater versions of themselves, no matter which age and social group they belong to. For Christians, this is the transformed life we are called to live, a life greater than ourselves, a life dedicated to Christ.

Serve with purpose

In reading Paul’s testimony, we might ask why has he made himself a slave to all? Why is he becoming “as a Jew” to the Jews? Why did he make himself as a “lawless one” to the lawless, and weak to the weak?

It is important to understand that Paul did not become “all things to all men” to please people or to gain favour with anyone. He did it “to win as many as possible… for the sake of the gospel” (v23). He says this five times. Paul’s purpose was clear.

His ultimate goal was to witness to others the transformed life in Christ—saved by grace through faith—so that God may be glorified in him.

It is not by chance that God has placed us where we are – in a particular job, church, position of influence, and even in our roles as parents, wives, husbands, children. And He has given each of us unique talents and gifts to do the good work he has prepared for us to do (Eph 2:10).

How then, in your sphere of life, can you use your spiritual freedom to serve in love and kindness the way Paul and Jesus did, if by any means you might save some? Unless we are willing to be “all things to all people” and be out in the public sphere engaging all people, we are in danger of losing our preservative and savouring function of salt that remain in the salt shaker.


Dr. William Wan is the General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement. He is also a winner of the Active Ager Award (Council of the Third Age) 2011. Prior to taking on this role as General Secretary, he was practising law and managing a psychometric company. Dr Wan also sits on the advisory panel of The Bible Society of Singapore.

Augustine and Christian Education

May 2019 Credo

One of the most important features of Christianity is its emphasis on teaching, or, to put it differently, its didactic character.

Writing to his protégé Titus, Paul exhorts him to ‘teach what accords with sound doctrine’ (Titus 4:1). In similar vein, Paul admonishes another young pastor, Timothy, to ‘follow the pattern of sound words (or sound teaching) … in the faith and love that are in Jesus Christ’ (2 Timothy 1:14).

The Commission that Christ gave to his disciples does not only involve baptising converts in the name of the triune God, but also ‘teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:20).

Teaching is central to Christianity because it is a religion that is established on the truth that God has revealed in Jesus Christ, truth concerning the world, the human predicament, and God’s eternal plan for the creation he has brought into being. The Church has always seen teaching as an essential part of her mission to the world.

Christian instruction can come in many forms – preaching, the exposition of the Bible, catechisms, seminars – and it can take place in very different settings – Sunday worship, Sunday schools, Bible study groups, and small groups. But the fundamentals of Christian education remain the same.

What are these fundamental principles? What is Christian education for? And how should it be conducted? We turn to the great bishop and theologian of the fifth century, Augustine, arguably the most eminent Doctor of the Latin Church, for illumination and guidance.

Augustine was a prolific author whose writings have influenced both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions. Although we can learn much about Christian education from his vast oeuvre, Augustine’s views on teaching the faith are clearly set out in three important treatises: On Catechising the Uninstructed (De catechizandis rudibus, AD 405), On Christian Doctrine (De doctrina Christiana, AD 397), and On the Teacher (De Magistro, AD 389).

For Augustine, the chief goal of Christian education is to enable the Christian to love God more deeply and, by natural consequence, to demonstrate authentic love towards one’s neighbour. In On Christian Doctrine Augustine puts this across plainly but compellingly: ‘Let it ever be your supreme thought that you must love God and your neighbour: God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself’.

The Christian should never see the mere acquisition of knowledge – even theological and spiritual knowledge – as the chief end of education. The knowledge of God, if it remains only at the cognitive and intellectual level, is, in Augustine’s understanding, deficient and incomplete – it is in fact not even true knowledge. True theological knowledge has to do with the kind of knowing that brings us ever deeper into a transforming relationship with the God whose very nature is love.

Christian education is about the pursuit of the truth which Augustine repeatedly emphasised can ultimately be found only in Jesus Christ, the supreme revelation of God. For Augustine, then, faith is the means by which the Christian appropriates truth concerning God, the world and salvation. True faith has a noetic aspect in that it is creates a faculty that enables the believer to perceive God’s revelation and trustingly accept it to be true.

This, however, does not mean that reason has no role whatsoever to play in our knowledge of God. Augustine presents a profound relationship between faith and reason in his writings premised fundamentally on his theological anthropology, that is, his understanding that God has created man in the divine image as rational beings.

Thus, while human beings come to know God by faith (Credo ut intelligas – I believe in order to understand), there is also a profound sense in which they are able to find God in the truths that they encounter in the world by the use of reason (Intellige ut credas – I understand in order to believe).

This conception of the relationship between faith and reason in our knowledge of God – which privileges the former without in any way denigrating or marginalising the latter – is the basis for Augustine’s understanding of the place the Bible and what may be broadly described as ‘pagan’ literature in the education of the Christian.

There can be no doubt that Augustine recognises the infallible authority of Scriptures in which the doctrines and practices of the Church must be grounded. In his famous letter to Jerome (Letter 82, dated 405), Augustine declares quite categorically that ‘I have yielded this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error’.

However, Augustine emphasises that the Christian’s reading and interpretation of Scripture must always be done under the tutelage of the Church. In On Christian Doctrine, he writes:

As to those who talk vauntingly of Divine Grace, and boast that they understand and can explain Scripture without the aid of such directions as those I now propose to lay down … I would such persons could calm themselves so far as to remember that, however justly they may rejoice in God’s great gift, yet it was from human teachers they themselves learn to read …’

What about the writings of pagans like Plato, Plotinus and Aristotle? Is there a place for them in the education of the Christian that is primarily grounded in Scripture and the authoritative teaching of the Church?

Augustine’s answer to this question is a qualified ‘Yes’.

We recall the fact that before his conversion to Christianity, Augustine was a philosopher and rhetorician. Following theologians who have written before him – Clement, Origen and Athanasius – Augustine believed that all truths come of God, and that secular or pagan philosophies do contain some nuggets of truth, albeit always commingled with and obfuscated by error.

The Christian, Augustine insists, must take an interest in these truths and excavate them regardless of whether they come from the pen of Plato or Cicero. ‘Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to the Master’, he writes.

But Augustine never tires of stressing that the Christian’s perusal of pagan literature should never be naïve and uncritical; it should always be marked with caution and sound judgement. He writes:

I think that it is well to warn studious and able young men, who fear God and are seeking for happiness in life, not to venture heedlessly upon the pursuit of branches of learning that are in vogue beyond the pale of the Church of Christ, as if these could secure for them the happiness they seek; but soberly and carefully discriminate among them’.

Such judicious sobriety is needed because Christian learning is not to satisfy our intellectual curiosities or carry us on flights of speculation, however titillating they may be.

For Augustine, the purpose of Christian education is spiritual formation, which is here defined as a life of holiness and obedience that flows out of the Christian’s ever-deepening knowledge of and relationship with his Creator.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Words That Offend

May 2019 Pulse

In his recent ministerial statement on hate speech, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam stressed that society must not only condemn hate speech, it must also shun speech that is offensive. This is because if offensive speech is not checked, over time it would create an environment that is ‘conducive for discrimination and eventually violence.’ ‘If we normalise offensive speech,’ the Minister explains, ‘after a while, the tone, texture of public discourse will change. Giving offence to others will become normalised.’

What constitutes offensive speech has been a subject of much discussion and debate. Some commentators have suggested that there are at least two types of offensive speech.

The first type of offensive speech is described as speech that is objectively offensive. An example of objectively offensive speech is telling falsehoods or lies about people that can harm them by damaging their reputation and causing trust in them to erode. This would of course include online falsehoods about a racial or religious group that could generate public animosity against or create suspicion of the group in question.

Objectively offensive speech is in many ways closely related to (although not always synonymous with) hate speech. In some ways, speech of this nature is in most (although by no means all) cases slightly easier to identify and the laws that are already in place in Singapore are, broadly speaking, quite sufficient to deal with them. New laws may be introduced to supplement existing ones by filling the gaps in current legislation.

The second type of offensive speech is speech that is deemed to be subjectively offensive. This is speech that hurt someone’s feelings but otherwise does no real harm to that person. Subjectively offensive speech includes insensitive words or actions that cause displeasure or anger, even outrage.

Speech that may be categorised as subjectively offensive, however, is of a remarkably wide range. At one end of the spectrum, there is the hurtful language that we sometimes use in everyday conversations (including slangs and colloquialisms) or during a heated argument with someone.

For example, we say that this individual is ‘a retard’ or ‘an imbecile’ when venting our frustration at not getting through to him or in expressing our disappointment at him for his unwillingness (or inability) to see things the way we do. These and similar monikers are also sometimes used to mock an ethnic or religious group.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have publications or artwork that are offensive to people who belong to a particular religion or racial group. For example, recently the Ministry of Home Affairs instructed the Info-Communications Media Development of Authority to cancel the concert of metal rock band Watain because the lyrics of their songs are offensive to Christians. The most radical instance of subjectively offensive publication is the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that denigrate Islam and the Prophet Mohammed.

Although these materials are deemed deeply offensive and hurtful by the respective faith communities, some commentators have argued that they cannot be said to have inflicted actual harm on those communities. Much depends on how narrow or broad is one’s definition of harm. Be that as it may, what is of moment is that between the black-and-white instances of offensive speech lies vast swathes of grey.

And it is here (in this grey territory) that there will be profound disagreement and conflict. There will be debates not only on whether the speech in question is indeed offensive, but also whether it is offensive enough to warrant government intervention or legal action. There will also be disagreements on how the prohibitions of some forms of offensive speech (and the fear of transgressing these prohibitions) could encroach on free speech, and debates on how candid opinions should be distinguished from deliberate slurs. There will be disputes about who gets to decide where the proverbial bright-line, beyond which satire must never be permitted to cross, should be drawn.

But there also lurks the danger that the responses to different instances of offensive speech – by the targeted community or even by the Government – may be seen as being inconsistent and therefore construed as being biased or unfair. In such cases, subjectively offensive speech and the response from the targeted community and by the Government can easily be politicised and exploited by parties with the malicious intention of pitting one group against another. And this may result in more conflict and tension than the offending speech itself, making the situation more complex than it already is.

The Singapore Government has taken a practical approach to handling offensive speech.  In his interview with the press, Mr Shanmugam has explained the approach thus: ‘First, we look at the words, the material – how offensive are they? Second, we look at what is the likely impact of the speech? How would, for example, the community which is target of the offensive speech react?’ Then, there are also security considerations and whether the offense would escalate tensions or deepen existing fault lines.

Mr Shanmugam is right to maintain that it is not only impossible but also undesirable to ban everything. ‘Ban everything that is deemed insulting, offensive by anyone, or allow everything that is insulting, offensive. I have explained why that will eventually lead to trouble. I think Members will see that the absolute approach is undesirable.’

In similar vein, it is perhaps also not desirable to use the law to deal with every instance of offensive speech. Here, the principle of subsidiarity, especially in the way in which it is envisioned by the Christian tradition, can be employed in dealing with certain forms of offensive speech, particularly those that belong to the subjective variety.

Although this principle has been employed by Christians of all stripes, it was Pope Pius XI who articulated it most clearly in his social encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno (‘On Reconstruction of the Social Order’, 1931):

It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance to the right order to transfer to the larger and higher collective functions which can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies. Inasmuch as every social activity should, by its very nature, prove a help [subsidium] to members of the body social, it should never destroy or absorb them.

In a helpful summary, Andrew Murray explains that the principle of solidarity states that while ‘the government should intervene in the affairs of citizens when help is necessary for the individual as well as for the common good … [it] insists that all functions than can be done by individuals or by lower level organisations be left to them.’ ‘The government, therefore, has a subsidiary or helping role in relation to lower organisations or individuals,’ adds Murray.

The origins and the complex applications of the principle of subsidiarity as an approach to social organisation need not detain us. What is of moment is that this principle can and should be applied wherever possible in dealing with subjectively offensive speech.

In addressing this type of offensive speech, the principle of subsidiarity recommends that government intervention should not be the immediate first step. Instead, the different racial or religious communities should be allowed to resolve the issue on their own, through dialogue, mediation and other social and communal avenues and mechanisms.

For example, if a Christian pastor were to make derogatory remarks in public about Muslims or Buddhists that are deeply offensive and hurtful to the Muslim or Buddhist communities, the leaders of those communities should bring this to the attention of the pastor (and perhaps the leaders of the pastor’s church or denomination) and try to resolve the matter amicably and civilly. The same approach should be taken if the offensive speech or action has to do with race.

The distinct advantages of such an approach are many. In addressing offensive speech in this way, the racial or religious communities are able to negotiate conflicts on their own and in the process (it is hoped) grow in sensitivity and respect for each other.

Thus, in contradistinction to what may be described as ‘legalist’ or ‘statist’ approaches, the communal approach to dealing with certain types of offensive speech – inspired by the principle of subsidiarity – can deepen and strengthen the relationships between the ethnic and religious communities which provide the social ballast for a multi-religious and multi-cultural society like Singapore.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.