3 reasons John MacArthur is wrong about religious liberty

January 14, 2022

In 1778, David Barrow, a 25-year-old Baptist pastor, was invited to a residence on the Nansemond River in Virginia to preach to a gathered crowd of excited worshipers. Upon arriving at a makeshift stage erected under a grove of trees for the occasion, Barrow and his friend were seized by a gang of 20 men, dragged to a muddy pond, and dunked repeatedly. The gang shouted, “As you are fond of dipping, you shall have enough of it,” before nearly drowning the two men as they derided them for their convictions. 

These persecutors were not angry atheists; they were members of the Anglican Church — the established church of Virginia at that time. Under Virginia law, dissenters like Barrow could practice their faith according to their convictions but were forced to pay tithes in support of the Anglican church and its clergy. They were also despised and often persecuted.

Every Sunday morning for over 50 years, John MacArthur — a faithful pastor with many of the same convictions as Barrow — has ascended the pulpit of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, opened his Bible, and boldly preached God’s Word to the thousands assembled there to worship. In addition, MacArthur has freely travelled the United States as a sought-after speaker, and his sermons and books have been translated and distributed worldwide. He has courageously spoken his convictions during his fruitful ministry without interference from government and safe from the kind of persecution Barrow endured over two centuries ago. 

So, it was surprising to hear MacArthur, one of the most respected evangelical leaders in the world, call religious liberty “nonsense” in a sermon at Grace Community Church last January. A clip has recently circulated on social media. Since 1833, American citizens in every state have enjoyed the liberty to follow their own consciences in matters of religion without government interference. Since our nation’s founding, this legal right has been perpetually challenged, and yet, as journalist and former attorney David French has written, “People of faith in the United States of America enjoy more liberty and more real political power than any faith community in the developed world.”

In his sermon,  MacArthur said, “I don’t even support religious freedom. 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.” MacArthur’s voice has served conservative evangelicals as a trustworthy guide for many years, and I personally continue to benefit greatly from his ministry. But on the topic of religious liberty, evangelicals need to look elsewhere for a guide. Below, I provide three reasons why he is wrong about religious liberty, along with a few historical guides

Religious liberty supported by human nature

The Enlightenment of the 18th century often receives the credit for coming up with religious freedom, but historian Robert Louis Wilken in his book Liberty in the Things of God has recently demonstrated the Christian origins of the idea. The Christian apologist Tertullian was the first to articulate this truth in the third century. Tertullian understood that religion could not be coerced from the outside. In his Apology, he wrote, “It is only just and a privilege inherent in human nature that every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions; the religious practice of one person neither harms nor helps another. It is not part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by choice not coercion that we should be led to religion.”

As Wilken shows, Tertullian believed that being created in the image of God meant that human beings were created with the dignity to act according to conscience. The human conscience as articulated by Paul in Romans 2:15 bears witness to God’s law and serves as an interior tutor to guide the individual toward truth. God has not created human beings to be guided in matters of religious devotion by external coercion. 

When MacArthur says, “Religious freedom sends people to hell,” I can only conclude he means that a person who is given the freedom to choose his or her religion according to conscience often chooses the wrong religion. If that’s what he means, I’m curious as to what he would put forth as the alternative. To prevent people from going to hell, should we force them to believe in Christ instead? MacArthur himself writes in Faith Works that “faith is seeking and finding God in Christ, desiring Him, and ultimately being fulfilled with Him.” Certainly, he would never claim that such faith could be coerced. At the end of the day, religious liberty has never sent anyone to hell. Religious liberty merely recognizes that God has located the proper domain of religious response in the human heart. 

Religious liberty supported by the doctrine of original sin

The Baptist preacher John Leland was so elated upon Thomas Jefferson’s election to the presidency in 1801 that he led the members of his Cheshire, Massachusetts, church to construct a 1,200-pound block of cheese to present to the president as a gift. Leland had long been an advocate for religious liberty, joining forces with Barrow in Virginia before ending his career fighting the same battle in Massachusetts. The Republican Leland saw in Jefferson’s election the potential end of religious tyranny in the United States.

When Leland returned home, he preached a sermon called A Blow to the Root in which he presented his case for religious liberty. He began that sermon by demonstrating the scriptural doctrine of original sin, a teaching that Reinhold Niebuhr once called “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” Leland, like most of his contemporaries, did not trust power-hungry politicians to always make the right decisions in government. A government would only be qualified to rule over the consciences of its citizens in matters of religion, according to Leland, if those “rulers were infallible in wisdom and goodness.” Since no government meets those criteria, no government qualifies to rule over religious conscience.

Leland knew history well enough to understand that government rule over the church never ended well. In fact, he used the ever-changing religious laws of states that had established religion as evidence against establishment. Leland wondered why state governments with established churches had to keep changing laws, particularly laws regulating the Sabbath, since the God they worshiped never changes. Leland understood that the desire for pure worship was often superseded by the corrupt ambitions of rulers and based his argument for religious freedom on this belief.

Religious liberty supported by the gospel

Leland never tired of pointing out the explosive growth of Christian conversions and new churches in states like Kentucky where no religion had ever been established. If Massachusetts feared that disestablishment would result in reduced enthusiasm for the truth, they need only look to the frontier where revivals were resulting in exponential growth. For Leland, the gospel did not need government assistance.

He implored his opponents to “come forth upon the plan of the gospel, and trust God and his word for your support.” He believed that trusting the government to enforce religious observance displayed a lack of confidence in the gospel: “Convince the world that the religion of Jesus will stand upon its own basis, without law or sword.” In short, Leland’s plea for religious liberty was rooted in his confidence that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

MacArthur believes that supporting religious freedom is tantamount to supporting idolatry, lies, hell, and the kingdom of darkness. Leland and many others, both within the free church tradition of which MacArthur is a part and beyond, would counter that claim with the argument that supporting religious liberty is tantamount to trusting Christ to accomplish what no government ever could. The heart doesn’t change by government mandate. We need to preach the gospel for that.

Photo Attribution:

Irfan Khan / Getty Contributor

Casey McCall

Casey McCall is lead pastor at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church – Oldham County. He writes frequently for Prince on Preaching and the Oldham Era and has contributed articles to Radical, For the Church, ERLC, and the Journal of Andrew Fuller Studies. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24