Why John MacArthur Is Wrong About MLK


When my grandfather died, a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. was hanging over his deathbed. His name was Bishop Thomas Lee Cooper, and he was part of the Black church’s now-fading civil rights generation, which King defined.

It’s no great mystery why he and millions of other Americans held King in such high regard. This confessing Christian leader literally sacrificed his life to exemplify love of neighbor. His prophetic dream was a clear application of the gospel, which gave his people reason to “keep on keeping on” while suffering under the sword of oppression. He modeled a tenacity and grace that challenged America’s wicked racial caste system without reciprocating the hatred or belligerence of those lynching his people. And King always pointed Black Americans’ hope toward Jesus Christ, not himself. It’s impossible to honestly honor him without acknowledging the role his Christian faith played in his social action.

Contrarily, in February comments more widely circulated this month, California pastor and theologian John MacArthur called King “not a Christian at all,” “a nonbeliever who misrepresented everything about Christ and the gospel.” He also called The Gospel Coalition (TGC) “woke” for honoring King in its MLK50 conference in 2018, implying this signaled the end of TGC’s faithfulness and orthodoxy.

MacArthur cast these condemnations casually, with an apparent air of self-righteousness that suggests his theological expertise is paired with an infantile understanding of neighborly love (Heb. 5:11–13). Deep knowledge of systematic theology, unfortunately, can exist alongside a desperate need for remedial instruction on the greatest commandments (Matt. 22:37–39) and a failure “to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14), including King’s good work of peace and justice informed by Scripture and motivated by the gospel.

I spoke at MLK50, and I don’t recall seeing any speakers who weren’t unambiguously orthodox. MacArthur’s accusations aren’t only too lightly made. They are plainly slanderous.

MacArthur may take issue with some of King’s early theological work, which did question Christian doctrine. However, as Mika Edmondson—himself a pastor and systematic theologian—insightfully explained, “King’s early seminary papers don’t reflect his final fully formed theology.” Not unlike Abraham Kuyper and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, King wrestled with theological liberalism but later seemed to “shift back toward the faith of his conservative Black Baptist upbringing.”

And notice, as Edmondson also mentioned, that Kuyper’s and Bonhoeffer’s salvation is never questioned. “They are given the benefit of the doubt.” Why is King held to a different standard? Even theologians who were slaveholders receive less scrutiny than King in some Christian circles.

But let’s be honest: The details of King’s theological journey have never been the principal concern of his detractors. J. Edgar Hoover and Bull Connor didn’t hate King because of his theology or even his indiscretions. They hated his audacity and how he called out America’s sins and exposed its fictional storylines. They hated that he didn’t know “his place” and was undermining their authority.

In Acts 5, the apostle Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel, warns fellow religious leaders against trying to kill the apostles based on their inconvenient testimony about Jesus. After reciting a brief history of past leaders and upheavals, he says: “Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (vv. 38–39).

The leaders to whom Gamaliel spoke had rejected the Messiah and had helped bring about his death, just as Peter and the apostles charged (vv. 29–32). Yet they were unwilling to accept the truth and repent. They thought they were close to God, but their behavior was at odds with his purposes.

To their detriment, many evangelical leaders (and others) rejected King’s righteous indictment of America’s injustices just as the religious leaders rejected the message of the apostles. God sent America a messenger, and some in the American church are still unable to reckon with his message. They remain too focused on justifying themselves to accept verifiable historical facts. They may find themselves fighting against the very thing they claim to uphold.

As for MacArthur, he might genuinely believe he’s defending the faith, but he’s actually defending a false narrative that has weakened the church’s credibility. People are walking away from the church in part because they can’t reconcile the double-mindedness of this type of evangelicalism. One cannot worship the Prince of Peace and refuse to be a peacemaker in the social context.

That said, though MacArthur’s concerns about the ideological Left’s impact on the church are often exaggerated, they are not completely unfounded. The far Left has distorted social justice and disfigured its redemptive form. It’s become more about individual autonomy and self-indulgence than equality under the law and social order. I too lament when Christian leaders imitate secular activists and academics in the public square and fawn for their validation.

But rejecting King is no solution to this problem; he is the model of the unabashedly, unmistakably Christian activism we need—the exact kind of public, Christian faithfulness that the dysfunctional corners of the Left have eschewed. Condemning King and evangelical groups who are trying to show contrition and repentance is a move toward “bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander” (Eph. 4:31), not redemption.

Ironically, those who are obsessed with political power and cultural domination are often the same as those who question King’s representation of the gospel. It’s telling that he’s known for self-sacrifice, and they’re known for resentment and self-interest. They pick up a cross and awkwardly try to use it as a sword, but King knew “the cross is something you bear and ultimately that you die on.” Their assessment of King is wrong.

And disparaging King is not enough to discredit the Christian social justice movement more broadly, as MacArthur has sought to do. To accomplish that, MacArthur would have to do more than smear King’s legacy and deny his faith. He’d have to tear the Spirit-filled prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos out of Scripture. He’d have to retroactively undo the eschatological motive behind God’s deliverance of the Hebrews. He’d have to go back and rip the heart of Jesus out of the chests of Christian abolitionists.

He will fail in that effort. Social justice, as practiced by Amelia Boynton Robinson and Fred Shuttlesworth, is the fruit of the gospel and is found wherever God reigns. And King’s vision and self-sacrifice rightly made him a symbol of the church’s call “to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:16–21).

Ultimately, the justice imperative comes from God, who sits on the throne of justice and righteousness, not from any person or organization. And inasmuch as MacArthur or any others reject or even obstruct the American church’s efforts to repent of injustice, imitate Christ, and heal our country’s racism, sexism, and economic inequalities, they will only find themselves fighting against God.

Justin Giboney is an ordained minister, attorney, and the president of AND Campaign, a Christian civic organization. He’s the co-author of Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement.





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