Why MacArthur is wrong about religious freedom
Dr. John Macarthur recently spoke in opposition to religious freedom. As a pastor in California and a graduate of The Masters Seminary, this is a rare instance where I disagree profoundly with Dr. MacArthur.
The essence of his argument seems to be as follows:
False religion is bad.
Religious liberty promotes false religion.
Religious liberty is therefore bad and should not be supported by Christians.
The keen observer will notice an immediate problem with the soundness of the middle premise: Religious liberty does not, in fact, promote false religion. Religious liberty does not promote religion any more than gun companies promote suicide by making guns that are routinely used by individuals to commit suicide. Being against suicide by gun no more requires that you oppose gun companies than being against idolatry requires that you oppose religious liberty.
Religious liberty is the view that citizens should be free to make individual decisions in regard to lawful worship (i.e. whether they worship, what they worship, and how they worship) and that such decisions should be governed with equal protection under the law. Religious liberty implies the inherent religiousness of humans; a position found in the Bible (Ecc. 3:11) that dates back to Cicero and was popularized most recently by Mircea Eliade’s notion of homo religiosus (e.g. that humans are religious by nature).
What about MacArthur’s claim that Christianity has flourished without religious freedom and that Christians don’t need any help from government? Well sure, Christianity doesn’t need any help from Utility Companies, either, but I am guessing Grace Community Church is kept cool in the summer and warm in the winter thanks to Southern California Edison (or some other provider). It simply doesn’t follow that if something is not needed that something is not good.
In fact, as Jonathan Edward says: God ordains the ends and the means. Historically, religious freedom has often been the means by which Christianity has flourished. Rome allowed religious practices that were not perceived to threaten the Empire. In fact, early Christian apologists like Justin and Athenagoras wrote letters to the Emperor arguing, in fact, that Christianity should be one of the religions allowed to be freely exercised in Rome. In effect, they were arguing for religious liberty.
Christianity can spread in China, where Xi Jinping has cracked down on religious freedom. It can also spread in South Korea, where religious liberty is a constitutional right (see Articles 11 and 20).
MacArthur thinks that religious freedom amounts to the promotion of false religion, but this is empirically false. Many false religions have diminished and died in the marketplace of religion where the free exchange of religious ideas and religious competition have corresponded to the growth of Christianity. Again, religious liberty in Korea has corresponded to the meteoric rise of Christianity and the decline of Buddhism in Korea over the same time period.
I suspect a theological argument will have the most positive impact on MacArthur and on those who respect him (a group of which I strongly consider myself to be a part, in fact). Having critiqued MacArthur’s argument, allow me to offer my own:
God is free, and his freedom is expressed in absolute consistency with His character and will.
Human freedom is a good thing when practiced in consistency with God’s character and will by the power of the Spirit.
Religious freedom provides an environment for the free practice of religion consistent with God’s character and will by the power of the Spirit.
Therefore, religious freedom is good.
Notice that my argument is not that religious freedom is necessary. But something can be unnecessary and still be good. Again, church buildings are not necessary for the faithful practice of Christianity, but they are good. Christian universities and seminaries, such as are owned and operated by Grace Community Church where MacArthur is pastor, are good but unnecessary.
Notice also that my argument seeks to connect human freedom to image bearing. Regardless of the theory of freedom that you hold, humans are meant to be free as opposed to whatever you consider to be the opposite of freedom. For instance, a Christians lives freely under the Lordship of Jesus if their will and affections are aligned with God and His purposes in Christ. Religious liberty is something Christians should support because God desires free worship, regardless of your theory of freedom.
Religious freedom is also implicit in Scripture (Mark 9:38-41 and Mark 13:34-3). In these passages Jesus says (speaking of a person engaged in false religion) “Don’t stop him”; and speaking of false religion in a religiously pluralistic society, Jesus says “Let them grow together until the harvest.” As a committed pre-millennial dispensationalist, Dr. MacArthur should recognize the importance and application of these (and other) passages to the church in the age preceding the coming of the heavenly Kingdom. For it is only after this point that there will be only one religion practiced on a new earth where Christ Himself reigns bodily.
Adam Groza (Ph.D.) is Vice President of Enrollment and Student Services and Associate Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Gateway Seminary. He is the author of Faith Wins: Overcoming a Crisis of Belief (New Hope, 2020) and a contributing author to Idealism and Christian Philosophy (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). He serves as a research fellow for the ERLC and a teaching fellow for the Agricola Theological Institute.