In 2000, John MacArthur wrote a book with the title Why Government Can’t Save You. ((John MacArthur, Why Government Can’t Save You: An Alternative to Political Activism (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 2000).)) When this book first appeared, I wrote that I didn’t know any Christians who believed government can or should save us. The subtitle led the reader to believe that getting involved politically was not an option for Christians. The book proposed to offer An Alternative to Political Activism.
While MacArthur did not “believe we should remove ourselves from the political process,” he did object to “the prevailing mindset that makes political and social activism the primary business of Christianity and reduces faith in Christ to just another political force.” If that’s the nature of today’s Christian political activism, then I will join MacArthur in opposing it, but that’s not why Christians are involved in politics.
MacArthur creates an either/or option for Christians: It’s either evangelism or political activism. Let’s position his argument using some analogies:
- It’s either evangelism or changing the tax structure to put more money in the hands of consumers.
- It’s either evangelism or working to overturn laws supporting slavery and racial discrimination.
- It’s either evangelism or working to change laws that allow a woman to kill her preborn baby.
- It’s either evangelism or stopping laws legalizing homosexual marriages.
Neither the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29–37) nor James (James 2:14–26), the brother of Jesus, made such a dichotomy. Our faith should manifest good works. If people are being hurt by bad governmental policies, we are obligated to work to change them. If people are being enslaved by programs promoting dependency and pre-born babies are being killed by the legalization of abortion, how can any Christian say we shouldn’t be involved in politics?
Why can’t we do evangelism and be politically active? We do evangelism and work. We do evangelism and educate our children. We do evangelism and a lot of things, so why not evangelism and politics, especially since the Bible describes a civil governor as “a minister of God” (Rom. 13:4)?
Isn’t part of the discipleship process teaching new Christians “the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27)? MacArthur writes that “believers are certainly not prohibited from being directly involved in government as civil servants, as some notable examples in the Old and New Testaments illustrate. Joseph and Daniel in Babylon are two excellent models of servants God used in top governmental positions to further His kingdom.” ((MacArthur, Why Government Can’t Save You, 8–9.))
Pastor MacArthur is still uneasy about promoting politics as a Christian necessity. You can tell when he says that “believers are certainly not prohibited from being directly involved in government as civil servants.” The Bible requires Christians to be involved in every area of life, and that includes politics, because politics is about good and evil.
“For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Rom. 13:3–4).
How do rulers determine what’s good and evil so they can effectively “minister”?
Since writing Why Government Can’t Save Us more than 12 years ago, it seems that Pastor MacArthur has been more outspoken on what is going on politically. Consider the following brief introduction to a four-minute clip from Pastor MacArthur’s September 16, 2012 message titled “Abortion and the Campaign for Immorality” that’s posted on the Grace to You website. You can read and/or listen to the entire sermon here:
“If you’ve followed John MacArthur’s teaching for any length of time, you know he rarely says much about politics, culture, or society.
“It’s not that he’s uninformed on those topics. It’s that they’re often an intrusion upon the teaching of God’s Word. Evangelical Christians are already too easily distracted from the Great Commission in order to engage in partisan politics. Our corrupt culture will not be transformed for the better by political movements or pop culture anyway. That is the work of God’s Word — the gospel in particular. That’s what our ministry is devoted to (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:1–5).
“In this current campaign season, however, politicians have stepped — overstepped — into spiritual and moral areas, promoting horrific wickedness and blasphemous immorality.
“As John MacArthur made clear on a recent Sunday morning, these are not areas where God’s Word is silent or ambiguous.”
You can tell from the above that the folks at Grace to You are jumpy about the whole political thing. While Pastor MacArthur is said to be informed on politics, culture, and society, he rarely discusses them because “they’re often an intrusion upon the teaching of God’s Word.” It’s hard to imagine that anyone who is familiar with all of God’s Word would write such a thing. All one has to do is read Isaiah through Malachi to know that the prophets spoke almost exclusively about politics, culture, and society in terms of God’s law.
So for all the schizophrenia at Grace To You and their reluctance to come right out and say that the Bible has a great deal to say about worldview issues, Pastor MacArthur does a good job in evaluating the current state of politics.
The following is from the four-minute audio clip that was mentioned above. It’s quite good, although there is no action directive:
“While we were gone the last couple of weeks, we were exposed to the two conventions that were held: the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention. And I know that politics is the topic among many people today, and I suppose that’s natural since it is such a huge part of media exposure. And as you know, I’m not one to talk about politics as such, but I was essentially amazed that one of the historic parties here in the United States adopted the sins of Romans 1 as their platform. This is a new day in our country. Parties which used to differ on economics now differ dramatically on issues that invade the realm of God’s law and morality.
“In an ideal situation, their platform would mean that the government passes out condoms so people can fornicate at will. For those who happen to get pregnant in the process, platform advocates that you kill the baby at the will of the mother, up and including the ninth month.
“At the same time, it advocates a homosexual marriage, which is an oxymoron, an utter impossibility, and a gross violation of the law of God. And then to add to that, the murder of abortion, and then a platform originally leaving God out. All of that’s Romans 1. Romans 1 says God will judge, God has judged throughout human history, nations that experience sexual freedom. Romans chapter 1 lays that out clearly: the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against those who advocate sexual freedom, sexual conduct outside of marriage. And that’s an indication of the demise of a nation.
“And then Romans 1 also says that God will judge those nations that advocate homosexual behavior, men with men, women with women, doing what is unnatural. They are also haters of God, haters of God — leaving God out, advocating abortion, advocating homosexuality, advocating free sexual conduct and government-provided condoms so that everybody can do what they want. That is literally creating a platform out of what God hates.
“This is not about politics, although there are things we could talk about. You’re not voting for a pastor, you’re not voting for a spiritual leader, you’re voting for someone who has some sense of morality. Since the Bible says that the role of government is to punish evil doers and protect the good, you better have somebody in power who understands what is good and what is evil. And if you think homosexuality, abortion, sexual freedom, hating God are not evil, then you better go back and check your Bible again. How can people with that kind of agenda protect those who do good and punish those who do evil? That’s Romans 13’s definition of the role of government. We could talk about foreign policies, should we protect as many defenseless people from evil aggressors as possible? We could talk about economics, Is it right to get into irreparable debt? Is that responsibility? We could talk about that.
“We could talk about the economics of if you don’t work, you don’t eat, which is what the Bible says. But those things are not what concern me. And I’ve seen something happen in these conventions that is just stunning — the adaptation of a Romans 1 platform, sexual freedom, homosexuality on an equal level with marriage, the murder of infants, and the elimination of God.
“And by the way, I didn’t like it any better when they put God back in because that’s blasphemy. To connect God with that agenda is a horror, it’s a horror. It’s taking His name in vain. In fact, I don’t think God should be in either agenda (applause). But when you have an advocacy of support for the slaughter of infants and homosexuality, complete sexual freedom, you have a formula for divine judgment. If we have any sense of justice, if we have any sense of righteousness, if we want to make a little bit of a voice heard about what is right and about the role of government being to punish evil doers and protect the people who do right, then we better step up. I’m not sure what God has in the future, but I do know we can take His side and give Him honor.
“To me it is ironic that those who pride themselves on defending the rights of the weak, murder them in the womb when they are the most weak. What kind of hypocrisy is that? Self-congratulating pseudo-humanitarians advocate a deadly force of violence unleashed against infants that makes the Nazi Holocaust look mild by comparison. In our world, we’re slaughtering between fifty and sixty million babies a year. In the United States on record is 1.5 million abortions a year. Every third baby conceived is murdered in the womb. Four thousand a day plus, 170 an hour — Planned Parenthood alone kills one every ninety-five seconds.”
The following week Pastor MacArthur had to answer an objection that is common in Christian circles:
“I know from last week’s message that there was some response from people who said, ‘Why are you getting political?’ Romans 1 is not politics. The Bible is not politics. This has nothing to do with politics. This has to do with speaking the Word of God through the culture in which we live. It has nothing to do with politics.”
Here we see Pastor MacArthur trying to mollify long-held theological concerns that are typical of dispensationalists. As much as Pastor MacArthur wants to deny it, Romans 1 is about politics if politicians are passing laws promoting and sanctioning homosexual marriage and abortion on demand. The Bible is about politics if politicians pass laws that debase our currency (Isa. 1:22). The Bible specifically singles out “rulers” (v. 23) since they have control of the money supply.
Pastors shouldn’t be afraid to mention politics. If Christians have an aversion to the word “politics,” then use “civil government” which is a God-ordained parallel government with “ecclesiastical (church) government.” God designed both of them to have limited jurisdictional authority.
Pastor MacArthur is caught between a rock and a hard place. He knows the Bible addresses these issues, but he’s reluctant to address them because it sounds like the “social gospel,” and the “social gospel” leads, some will argue, to liberalism. This is nonsense. I won’t take the time here to discuss the many objections that Christians have for not getting involved socially, politically, and culturally. I’ve done it already in my book Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: How Misreading the Bible Neutralizes Christians and Empowers Liberals, Secularists, and Atheists.
Pastor MacArthur won’t be able to “halt between two opinions” much longer. In fact, his two sermons indicate that he has hopped the fence and joined with those of us who have been teaching that even politics — civil government — is under God’s government and needs to be addressed.
I applaud Pastor MacArthur for treading on unfamiliar ground. We’re all better for it.