Last week an old video resurfaced on Twitter in which John MacArthur, pastor of Los Angeles’s Grace Community Church, announced he did not support religious freedom. In the clip, MacArthur argued that supporting religious freedom promotes idolatry and enables the kingdom of darkness—that “religious freedom is what sends people to hell.”
Some reports contend that quote is out of context, fitting as it does in a larger argument. Even so, this kind of argument against religious freedom is a familiar one—usually in reference to somebody else’s religion.
Years ago, a pastor told me that religious freedom is essentially the affirmation of the words of the Serpent, “Ye shall not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). To grant religious freedom for false religions, this person contended, is the equivalent of allowing the prophets of Baal have a place of their own on Mount Carmel.
These are certainly statements of strong conviction—like propositions of biblical truth to which the only appropriate response should be a loud “Amen!” That is, until one actually listens to what is being said and hears it for what it is: theological liberalism.
Religious freedom, after all—whether as articulated by the early British Baptists, the persecuted Anabaptists of the Reformation era, or the colonial American evangelists and their allies—has never been a “You believe in Baal; I believe in God; what difference does it make?” kind of pluralism.
The question of religious freedom is who should have regulatory power over religion. If you believe religion shouldn’t be regulated by the state, then you believe in religious freedom.
That’s why denominations with “free” in their name (like the Free Methodists, for instance)—along with those who believe in the necessity of personal repentance and faith—have been the most dogged supporters of religious freedom for all.
These groups of people understand that the gospel according to Jesus is not an external affirmation of generic belief, from a heart still untransformed. It is not accepting Christianity as a ticket of admission into society.
Rather, the gospel according to Jesus means that there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5). One can stand before God at judgment only by union with the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ. And one can only come into union with Christ by grace through faith (Rom. 3:21–31).
That faith—as defined by Jesus and his apostles—does not come through the proxy of a nation or a ruler, or even a religious structure. If that were the case, John the Baptist would not have needed to preach repentance to the descendants of Abraham (Matt. 3:10). Moreover, the apostle Paul could have found no fault in those who served the false gods chosen for them by their national or family traditions (Acts 17:22–31).
Instead, the gospel addresses each person—one by one—as an individual who will stand before the judgment seat of Christ, who will give an account, and who is commanded to personally believe the gospel and repent of their sin (Rom. 10:9–17).
As Jesus said to Nicodemus by night: “Truly truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, ESV).
And how does this new birth, this personal receiving of Christ by faith, occur? It does not happen by the changing of a family crest or by a vote of the city council, but through the Spirit opening the heart—through an “open statement of the truth” commending itself to each conscience (2 Cor. 4:2).
Some of the old liberalisms and social gospels of various sorts preferred a different message—a gospel that changed externals and did not demand personal repentance and faith. Under such a gospel, if a country was “Christian,” then its citizens were Christian too. As long as one’s ruler was “Christian,” then one could count themselves a part of the church. If one’s morality was adequately regulated, whether by law or by social custom, then one was a good Christian.
That’s all well and good—unless there’s a hell. If Jesus is telling the truth that there is a judgment to come, and that no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6)—that “coming to him” means not just external behavior but faith in him (6:40)—then no legal edict or social pressure could regenerate a human heart. Such things cannot make a person into a real Christian. That is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Religious freedom is a restriction on the power of the state to set itself up as a mediator between God and humanity. It is not an affirmation of idolatry, just as saying, “The government shouldn’t take your baby away and raise your children” is not an affirmation of bad parenting. Saying parents should raise their children, instead of the government, does not mean everyone’s parenting is good. It just means that—except in very dire and unique situations—parents should raise their children, rather than the state.
Religious freedom does not mean that everyone’s religion is true. All it means is that God judges the heart and that people must really believe in their heart that Jesus is Lord, instead of saying, “Lord, Lord” merely because they are required to do so by law.
If there is no religious freedom, then ultimate matters aren’t up for consideration by persons—only by majorities. If you’re in 19th-century Denmark, it’s already decided for you that you are Lutheran. If you’re in the 20th-century Soviet Union, it’s already decided that you’re a Marxist atheist. If you’re in 21st-century Saudi Arabia, you’re a Muslim—no questions asked. That might be a way for the state to indoctrinate its citizens, but it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If religious freedom is wrong, not only do majorities decide religious affiliation, but they also dictate the scope of what’s permitted in deviating from that religious affiliation.
Does anyone really believe that Los Angeles would adopt Calvinistic dispensationalist Christianity? No one believes that, including, or maybe especially, John MacArthur—who just spent almost two years going back and forth in court with the state of California about the freedom of his church to meet in spite of COVID-19 regulations, arguments he made on the grounds of religious liberty.
If California were to decide that the official state religion is Zen Buddhism, I would be willing to wager that Grace Community Church would not stop preaching the gospel. Nor should they. That’s religious freedom. And I would further wager that if the state of California were to vote in its legislature that every citizen of the state is a good Christian, Grace Community Church would not stop calling their neighbors to repent and believe, personally, in Christ. That’s religious freedom.
We believe in religious freedom not because we believe in freedom on its own terms, but because we believe in the exclusivity of Christ and in the power of the gospel. We believe there is one name under heaven whereby we must be saved—and that name is not “Caesar” or “Ayatollah” or “assistant secretary for civic affairs.”
We believe in religious freedom because we know what Jesus has given us to fight against the kingdom of darkness—the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. We believe in religious freedom because there’s no civil substitute for the gospel of Christ.
We believe in religious freedom because we want to persuade our neighbors to be reconciled to God—not so they won’t be fined by the earthly government, but so they will find eternal life in the heavenly kingdom. So that they won’t end up in hell.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.