Friday, January 13, 2012

Can you Hate Religion and Still Love Jesus?

This video, entitled, "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus" has risen to fame via Facebook and YouTube, almost overnight. Jefferson Bethke is the author of the poem and is also the man performing a dramatic reading of the poem in the video.

Many of my friends on facebook are liking it and sharing it. If you haven’t seen it, you can view it here at this link

But again, I’ve been thinking about it more carefully.

Now it probably resonates with so many different people because first, no doubt many folks have been “burned” by their encounters with Christians and churches. No question. Hypocrisy and the bad practice of the religion of Jesus Christ. It’s the principle of what Gandhi said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

But second, I also think that this video resonates with folks sadly because it doesn’t take any obvious stances other than a basic rebellious attitude that claims the higher ground by supporting “Jesus” over “religion,” whatever “religion” is supposed to mean.

So let’s talk about this video. Yes, this is a strong artsy video with some great editing, good background music, a strong emotional appeal, a catchy rhyme. But it is a weak theological video. Don’t get me wrong. He makes some good points. Some denominations and individual churches do not do some of these things like feeding the poor and judging divorced people, etc. Some people assume your faith based on your political vote. And I do wish some would take “Christian” off their religious status on Facebook based on how their act. Again, I think I understand about encounters with bad and loveless Christianity and of the institutional church which in too many places only focused on “rituals” and often interferes with their personal relationship with Christ and does not changes the core of my heart and how I live my life. So yes, there are some things that he says that modern “Christians’ need to hear.

But (you knew that was coming) there are too many other false messages I take away from this video. I am not breaking down each point this guy makes but I do care, strongly on a few.

First, he says (and many others have said), that Jesus came to get rid of religion, Jesus didn’t. In fact he said the opposite if anything. (Read Matthew 5:17-19)

It is true that in the Gospels, the Pharisees and Sadducees are depicted as the representatives of organized religion at the time of Christ. Jesus constantly confronted them about their hypocritical lifestyles. But remember the definition of a hypocrite: a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings. Jesus actually told the disciples that they should DO what the scribes and Pharisees tell them...“…practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:3).

Now we are also read in many of the NT epistles how there were “organized groups” that mixed the gospel with certain lists of required works and rituals. They also sought to put pressure on believers to change and accept these “Christianity plus” religions. Galatians and Colossians give warnings about such religions.

So yes, it is true that in many cases, the end result of organized religion is a distraction from the intent of Jesus Christ.

However, the Bible does speak of organized believers who are part of His plan. God calls these groups of organized believers “churches.” Now the New Testament often refers to "the church" in a universal sense, encompassing the entire saved body or family of God throughout the world (Mt. 16:16-18; Eph. 1:21-22;19-22; 5:23-25) Also, the scriptures frequently refer to "the church" in a local sense (1 Cor. 1:2).
Furthermore, what do we do with Jesus’ declaration “on this rock I will build my church” if we think Jesus hated organized religion? (Matt. 16:16-18)

The Bible authorizes no organization for the universal church, except Jesus, who is the absolute ruler and head (Eph. 1:21-22) with absolute authority (Matt. 28:18). The New Testament does present Christ's plan for the organization of the local church. (Acts 14:23; Phil. 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1-12; Titus 1:5-11)

From the descriptions from the book of Acts and the NT letters clearly indicate that the church is to be organized and interdependent. The organization leads to protection, productivity, and outreach (Acts 2:41-47). In the case of the church, it could better be called an “organized relationship.”

So, again, yes, Jesus confronts religious people and challenges them, but he never does away with religion because of the people that are misguided. He actually comes to bring religion to its fullness, what it is really meant to be, steeped in relationship with Him. (cf. John 14:7)

Further Jesus did give further instructions on how we as His followers should actually live out our relationship with Him. You can say that the whole of the Sermon on the Mount is about how to live properly in “religion”.

So, no God doesn’t hate religion. Jesus didn’t come to throw it away. God made religion, Jesus is it’s fulfillment. (Mt. 5:13-16) God’s displeasure is not in religion, but its misuse, in religiosity that misses the point of using the system of religion to be in relationship with the One who created it.

Ultimately, as many others who have written a negative response to this video has said, there is a false dichotomy; you cannot love Jesus and hate religion. Jesus himself was VERY religious. Now the thing about religion is that it is composed of people. The thing about people is that they are not perfect. Therefore the people who practice the religion of their faith (the church) will never be perfect! Yet, God is still works through people and His church, every day!

Some other problems I had with this video.

In the video Bethke says that religion is just “behavior modification, like a long list of chores.” I think this speaks to a profound “don’t tell me what to do” attitude that dominates, if not defines, my generation. If you don’t what to be told that you’re not perfect and are in need of change, then Jesus is not the guy you want to speak to. To claim that “religion” is trying to tell you how to behave, but Jesus doesn’t want to tell you what to do demonstrates at best a profound ignorance of the Bible, in particular the Gospels themselves, and at worst a dangerous self-centeredness that is fundamentally antithetical not only to the Christian faith, but to Jesus himself. Jesus’ entire ministry was centered around how to live a particular way of life, or as Bethke said it “behavior modification.” To call it “a long list of chores” reveals a true lack of interest in fulling Jesus’ command to bring the kingdom of God “to earth as it is in heaven.”

And in this connection, where does James 1:27 fit in the hatred towards “religion?” James said, Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

Now, keep in mind that James 1:27 is NOT intended to be an exhaustive or comprehensive definition of true religion as some have mistakenly thought. But James clearly says that the real outward manifestioan of a genuine faith is in the practical life. True religion or worship will best express itself by action.

Here’s a side bar observation: I’ve noticed that one difference between emerging progressive and more traditional evangelical Christians is how they conceive holiness. Emergents seem to often more than not to see it primarily in terms of social action. A holy person is one who cares for the poor, and they tend to be less concerned about that person’s swearing, drinking, gambling, or sexual activity. By contrast conservative evangelicals tend to view holiness much more in terms of sin avoidance. Thus you can be considered “holy” by avoiding a long list of sins, but without ever lifting a finger to serve the needy.

James reminds us about the balanced definition of pure religion.

Now, also, Bethke promotes what is at the heart of modern Protestant doctrine and it’s idea that we are saved by “faith alone.” He says “which is why salvation is freely mine and forgiveness is my own. Not based on my merits but Jesus’s obedience alone.” Well, yes and no. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer would be quick to remind us “ye were bought with a price…and what was costly for God must also be costly for us.” Likewise, we don’t have ownership of our forgiveness. If we did then it would be something we purchased or earned which would be counter-intuitive to Bethke’s argument. And while he’s right that that forgiveness stems from the actions of Jesus and not us or what we do, nonetheless, we are saved by “grace through faith.” (Eph. 2:8-9) Grace is God’s part. Faith is our part. And true saving faith is obedient. (cf. John 3:36; Rom. 1:5; 16:26; 2 Thess. 1:7-9; James 2:22-24) Our obedience is the demonstration of our acceptance of that grace and forgiveness. The two are not as separate as soon many have come to believe.

Bethke also says, “See because religion says do; Jesus says done.” – So is he implying Jesus doesn’t want us to “do” anything? That he doesn’t want us to act a certain way? That he doesn’t want us to treat other as we would like to be treated? Your interpretation of Jesus as something that is already “done” implies that there is nothing left to do. That is a very dangerous assertion, and one that is very damaging to the church you claim to love. We can appreciate, love, and worship what Jesus has done without throwing our hands up in the air and saying “well, I guess that’s it then, let’s go do what we like!”.

Again, what about what James said about true and undefiled religion: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)

Sounds an awful lot like we’ve got something to “do.”

I like what J.F. Arnold wrote when he blogged about this video: “The problem with the ‘relationship’-exclusive language–particularly when it jettisons ‘religion’ language–is that we have a generation of people who ignore or deny the importance of church (be that fellowship or history or wisdom of old), which strikes me as problematic. It isn’t that I think we need to be extremely strict with how this plays out, but if we end up systematically opposed to all things that sound like ‘religion,’ then suddenly it doesn’t matter whether I have fellowship with other believers. All that matters is me and Jesus.”

Exctly. We hear a lot of the popular sentiment, It’s not a religion, but it’s a relationship” from people are not active or apart of local congregation of Christians. But when we seperate Jesus from the religious community then we are left with a Jesus out of context whom we are free to shape and mold in any way we see fit.

So for me this video is a mixed bag of some good but too many erroneous thoughts. And I do care when Christians do not know the Bible enough to even recognize when a lot of this is questionable.

Now let me say I hope that some of the good things he does say in this video will be remembered and taken to heart and even the errors make the truth to shine all the more brightly.

I’d also encourage you to check out Trevin Wax who works as managing editor at LifeWay Christian Resources and his excellent review of this video at:

Robert Prater

1 comment:

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