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Fighting for religious freedom is not fighting for idolatry

Pastor John MacArthur states that he would not fight for religious freedom because he would not fight for idolatry, as reported in a recent media title. His statement highlights how difficult it is to grasp certain categories, especially if they can have various meanings and interpretations.

John MacArthur
Pastor John MacArthur speaks at Grace Community Church's Shepherd's Conference in 2020. |

MacArthur conceptually confuses fighting for the right of Christians to worship God and preach the Gospel, with endorsing pluralism of worship as the norm for all. If Christian evangelicals are fighting for the spread of Islam, under a pretext of “defending freedom of religion,” his argument may make sense.

Religious Freedom is Not the End Goal but Can be Helpful. It is one thing to see religious freedom as the end goal, but it is a completely different thing to use religious freedom to help Christians freely worship and to further the Gospel. MacArthur should consider that he unabashedly used the services of lawyers, working for free for his church, to claim that under the First Amendment, the secular law of the land, the government has no right to shut down his church on a coronavirus pretext. Was he then relying on the “idol worship” that religious freedom affords in that case?

An Issue in the Ministry of the Church. In Acts 4 and 5 the apostles establish the idea of religious freedom, freedom of conscience and the proper view on church-state relations. Actually, in all of the Bible freedom of conscience and religion is a central issue. There are numerous examples but the prophets Elijah, Jeremiah and Daniel come to mind as instances in the Old Testament. We read in Acts 4 and 5 that it is more reasonable to follow God, not men, as the apostles set the standard. It is also a theme in Jesus’s teachings: give to God what is God’s and to Creaser what is his. The illustration with a coin shows that Caesar is due taxes but not worship. Later in history legal and philosophical developments, from a humanistic perspective on the subject matter, only further add to the apostles’ original work.

An Opportunity for Witness. The apostles testified of their commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ before the authorities who actually denied them their right to witness publicly. Contemporary arguments for Christians to be afforded the right to worship God and spread the Gospel also allow for a witness for that Gospel, be it in court, in the media, or in any form in the public square. Therefore, arguing for religious liberty allows for a freedom to witness about Christ.

That is exactly what Grace Community Church accomplished by standing up for the right to gather for public services. People started talking about the church, its message, its meetings. Grace Community did the right thing according to the New Testament. We translated their page, titled “Christ is the Head of the Church, Not Caesar,” to help pastors and minsters in Eastern Europe with this perspective.

In addition, while contending for freedom we can witness by respecting the other’s dignity even in disagreement. Such attitude is an embodiment of the Golden Rule, “do to others as you want it done to you.” Treating others with undeserved respect is not accepting their false religion. Just the opposite, it is showing the superiority of ours.

No Requirement to Defend Other Beliefs. If MacArthur means he will not fight for the freedom of other religions to worship and have freedom of religion, his statement makes sense. He should not feel pressured to defend other religions if he is a faithful follower of Christ. Religious freedom is “freedom” namely because one is not forced into certain beliefs or religious practices. However, if pastor MacArthur won’t fight for freedom of religion even for Christians, and not even for those who are persecuted for their faith, as I said in the beginning, he would be quite hypocritical. After all, he wanted his church to have the right to meet and did not move to underground gatherings.

Persecution of Faithful Followers of Christ is a Gross Injustice. If persecution and unjust treatment for being a follower of Christ had some intrinsic value in and of itself, and was not only an opportunity for God’s grace and truth to shine, then the beheaded martyrs in Revelation would not cry out for the Lord’s vengeance. Even if God’s grace is sufficient for Christians under persecution, it does not mean that persecution is wonderful and is to be desired. Religious persecution against Christians is a gross injustice and it should be called out. Yet, we have the hope that even in persecution God is glorified.

The Sovereignty of God and the Uniqueness of Christ Do Not Suffer from Arguing for Freedom of Religion. It is noteworthy that Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism, communism, and other major belief systems generally do not have a clear concept of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. Their gods require undivided allegiance and even their pluralism of gods is accepted so long as the claim of Jesus as the only God is not introduced. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy do not fully embrace the idea of religious toleration, even for fellow Christians, and on not so significant theological issues. In a sense, banning freedom of religion for all but only for Christians we approve of, a position derived of MacArthur’s statement that freedom of religion is idolatry, seemingly seeks to impose some form of a doomed-to-fail theocracy where the Gospel must advance by secular law, not by the power of the truth and the grace of God. However, freedom of religion has a lot to do with man’s free will and the dignity of freely choosing the truth, rather than being forced to accept a cultural normative for (false) worship.

Legal Protection of Conversion to Christ Can be Helpful to Evangelism. Freedom of religion is a complex right which includes freedom of thought, of expression, of assembly, and of association. It is also the legal rule that guarantees that one has the right to convert from one religion to another. Many new Christians in Hindu or Islamic cultures are threatened with their life and limb when they leave their respective religion and turn to Christ. While the existence of such legal protections should not be the sole motive to turn to Jesus, it may well help those who choose to follow the Lord in hard circumstances.

Not Ultimate Freedom. Freedom comes from the truth, and the Truth is the Person of Christ (John 8:31-32; 14:6). Freedom of religion is not the truth. It is just a form of a legal guarantee that people will be allowed to explore the truth and they will not be beaten into submission to believe lies.

I became a Christian after missionaries came to my post-communist country and shared the Gospel with me. I was of the generation in which many turned to Jesus and became the fruit of the post-communist revival in those lands. That would have been impossible if the Iron Curtain had not fallen, and freedom had not come to Eastern Europe.

The one most fundamental human right is the right to hear the good news about Jesus Christ. Freedom of religion may help that right bring the real freedom which is found in the Gospel. Freedom of religion is a tool to advance the Gospel, it is not the Gospel itself. With all due respect for standing against the Caesars of quasi-medical tyranny, MacArthur, in his zeal, should consider that simple truth as well.

Viktor Kostov, Ph.D. is a missionary and freedom of religion lawyer working in Eastern Europe. His doctoral research focuses on the role of church-state relations and religious freedom in the mission of the church. View his website at www.truthministry.us.

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