Christian conservatives respond to John MacArthur comparing 'religious freedom' to 'idolatry'

John MacArthur, the pastor of California’s Grace Community Church, delivers a sermon to his congregation, January 2021.
John MacArthur, the pastor of California’s Grace Community Church, delivers a sermon to his congregation, January 2021. | Screenshot: YouTube/Grace to You

Prominent pastor and theologian John MacArthur has come under fire after a video resurfaced of him taking issue with the idea of “religious freedom," with some Christian speakers debating whether his comments were taken out of context. 

A video of one of MacArthur’s sermons from early last year at California’s Grace Community Church resurfaced over the weekend after Matthew Sheffield, who describes himself as a “former right-wing activist, now working to elevate new topics & voices against fascism,” shared it on Twitter.

“Extremist Christians love to claim they’re all about ‘religious freedom,’ but the truth is that they hate the idea,” Sheffield, the editor of The Flux and host of the “Theory of Change” podcast, wrote.

“Sometimes when they’re in a safe space, they admit this,” he added. Sheffield cited the video, taken from a January 2021 sermon, as an example of what many Christians “really think” about the topic of religious freedom.

In the video, MacArthur asserts that “I don’t even support religious freedom.” He went on to allege that “religious freedom is what sends people to Hell.”

“To say I support religious freedom is to say I support idolatry. It’s to say I support lies. I support Hell. I support the kingdom of darkness. You can’t say that. No Christian with half a brain would say ‘we support religious freedom.’”

MacArthur suggested that Christians should proclaim that “we support the truth” as the crowd erupted into applause. He warned his congregation that “if the new administration supports religious freedom, get ready.”

“Persecution will be ramped up because the more supportive they are of the devil’s lies, the less they’re going to tolerate the truth of scripture.”

He vowed that “We’re not going to lobby for freedom of religion,” asking, “what kind of nonsense is that?” The clip concluded with MacArthur maintaining that “we are in the world to expose all those lies as lies.”

Prominent Christian commentators quickly condemned MacArthur’s remarks, including former National Review writer and senior editor of The Dispatch David French.

Lamenting MacArthur’s analysis as “disturbing,” French took to Twitter to slam “the astonishing arrogance in his statements and an astonishing lack of respect for dissent from his version of the truth.”

French pushed back on the idea that MacArthur’s words were taken out of context.

“My recent tweets critiquing MacArthur referenced his words in context, and in context he really did say ‘I could never really concern myself with religious freedom. I wouldn’t fight for religious freedom because I won’t fight for idolatry.’”

Brooke Medina, vice president of the conservative think tank John Locke Foundation, reacted to MacArthur’s comments by tweeting that “Christian martyrs over the past two millennia would beg to differ, John.”

She alleged that by stating opposition to the idea of religious freedom, the pastor does not “believe your fellow image bearer is worthy of agency.”

“It means you think so little of the kindness of God, which leads us to repentance, that you would prefer the force of the State. It also means you prefer outward conformity over inner charge. History is littered with bloody, heinous examples of powerful people who used their opposition of religious freedom to imprison and kill their detractors.”

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Adam Greenway shared the Southern Baptist Convention’s teaching on religious liberty, emphasizing that “few commitments are more intrinsic to our Baptist identity than this one.”

The teaching cites more than a dozen Bible passages when asserting that “The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends.”

“In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others,” Greenway wrote. 

After viewing MacArthur’s entire sermon, conservative radio host Erick Erickson offered his interpretation of MacArthur’s analysis.

“He was not talking about the ability of different faiths to worship in a multi-ethnic country of different faiths. He was talking about Christians believing Christianity is true and all other religions are false and don’t really give you freedom.”

“More specifically, he was talking about the habit of secular governments to up the persecution in this country every time those governments claim they support religious freedom,” Erickson continued. “[Former President Barack] Obama was big into ‘religious freedom’ while he was suing nuns. Gavin Newsom loves him some religious freedom and shut down churches.”

MacArthur lamented the coronavirus worship restrictions Erickson was referring to early in his sermon, which primarily reflected on how the coronavirus pandemic and the events of the preceding year provided him with “2020 Clarity.”

MacArthur’s church relied on religious freedom and First Amendment arguments when it sued California in 2020 over the state’s restrictions on in-person, indoor worship. Last September, Grace Community Church settled with California and the city of Los Angeles, with both governments agreeing to pay the church $800,000 in legal fees. 

Erickson summarized MacArthur’s point on religious freedom as “When the world starts talking about ‘religious freedom’ it tends to mean ‘we’re coming for you, Christians.’”

The radio host defended that claim as “just true,” adding “that is what MacArthur was talking about — the ‘religious freedom’ platitude masks the persecutor of Christ’s church.”

Responding to French, Allie Beth Stuckey, a conservative commentator and podcast host with The Blaze, stated that she disagreed with MacArthur’s comments but not for the same reasons as French. 

“Anyone who knows anything about MacArthur knows he is not arguing for implementing theocracy,” she tweeted. “He’s actually saying... that Christians shouldn’t completely concern themselves with fighting for religious liberty, because even if Christian worship became illegal, the church would continue to do what she has always done: obey God. I do disagree that supporting religious liberty is supporting idolatry.”

The January 2021 sermon where MacArthur made the comments in question lasted for more than an hour, far longer than the nearly two-minute-long video clip shared by Sheffield.

MacArthur elaborated on his concerns with “superficial Christianity,” specifically decrying the efforts of other Christian leaders to affiliate themselves with social justice movements. 

In the time between MacArthur’s warning that “persecution will be ramped up” and his insistence that “we’re not going to lobby for freedom of religion,” MacArthur told his congregation that “we condemn every lie and we call every person to this. There is one true God, love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.”

After stating the first commandment’s mandate that “you’ll have no other Gods before me,” MacArthur proclaimed that people can find their salvation “in one name and one name only, that’s Jesus Christ.” These remarks were not included in the clip shared by Sheffield.

In his newsletter, former Southern Baptist Convention ethicist Russell Moore, who headed the convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission until last year, argued that even if MacArthur’s message was taken out of context, his line of argument is “usually offered when religious freedom refers to someone else’s religion.”

“Religious freedom is a restriction on the state’s power to establish itself as a mediator between God and humanity,” Moore contended. “It is no more an affirmation of idolatry than, say, claiming parents’ freedom to raise their own children is an affirmation of bad parenting. Stating that the government should not take children away and raise them doesn’t mean that everyone’s parenting is good. It just means that, except in dire and unique situations, parents, not the state, should raise their own children.”

“Religious freedom does not mean that everyone’s religion is true,” Moore added. “It contends that God judges the heart and that people must truly believe with their hearts that Jesus is Lord rather than merely say ‘Lord, Lord’ because the law requires them to do so.”

In a statement shared with The Daily Wire, Phil Johnson, an executive with MacArthur’s “Grace to You,” confirmed that MacArthur is “not advocating the theonomic notion that Christians today should commandeer governments in order to force Christianity on the world.” He insisted MacArthur argues that Christians should not be looking to the government for protection but rather to God. 

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at:

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