John MacArthur: Religious freedom “meaningless”
Religious liberty experts question the pastor’s recent sermons
In the wake of a court case defending his congregation’s right to worship as it sees fit, Los Angeles–area pastor John MacArthur compared religious liberty to idolatry. His comments have drawn consternation from some religious liberty advocates even while they admit that he may have made a good point in context.
In a Jan. 24 sermon, MacArthur told Grace Community Church that supporting religious freedom violates the Biblical commandment to have no other gods. He reiterated the point in a Feb. 28 sermon acknowledging criticism of his earlier comments. And in a state-of-the-church address on Wednesday, he encouraged evangelicals not to partner with non-Christian groups promoting religious freedom, The Christian Post reported.
“You say, ‘Well, isn’t religious freedom important for Christianity?’” MacArthur said in the second sermon. “No, it’s meaningless. It doesn’t matter what law governments make or don’t make. They have no effect on the kingdom of God.”
Critics might find MacArthur’s comments ironic, given ongoing litigation between Grace Community Church and Los Angeles County over COVID-19-related worship restrictions. Except for a few months at the inception of the pandemic, the church has continued to meet for indoor worship. MacArthur preached to a packed house with little evidence of social distancing or face coverings—even after a judge barred the church from indoor gatherings in September. At the time, MacArthur vowed to “fight to protect religious freedom for the church.”
Grace Community has continued to contest the worship ban. County health officials asked the court to hold the church in contempt for violating the September order, but no hearing on the motion is scheduled. The state now allows indoor worship at 25 percent of capacity after the Supreme Court struck the ban on indoor worship in early February. But social distancing guidelines, face mask requirements, and a ban on singing remain—meaning the church is still not in compliance.
Andrew Walker, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said the sermon reflects a fundamental confusion: “Religious liberty is not about defending the right to idolatry per se; it is, rather, about defending the cognitive faculties that come to grasp religious truths.” Walker professed deep respect for MacArthur and his ministry but expressed concern that the comments may be misunderstood.
Becket attorney Luke Goodrich, author of Free to Believe: The Battle Over Religious Liberty in America, one of WORLD’s 2019 books of the year, said MacArthur was trying to make a valid point: The church can advance even in the face of adversity. But saying Christians should be indifferent to violations of religious freedom would be wrong, Goodrich said, noting that Paul in the Bible asserted his rights as a Roman citizen and Daniel negotiated with governmental officials to follow his conscience.
In the second sermon, MacArthur addressed the benefits of suffering for the church: “The higher the price and greater the cost, the more Christ is put on display.” In context, MacArthur may have been using hyperbole for emphasis—accentuating his point that the kingdom of God advances with or without governmental protection or assistance.
“I think he’s being deliberatively provocative,” Goodrich said.
I reached out to MacArthur’s assistant, as well as his attorney, Jenna Ellis, seeking clarification of his comments but received no response.