Why I Love (Pure) Religion, But Hate False Dichotomies

Posted: January 13, 2012 in christianity, church, current events, evangelicalism, god, gospel, grace, history, Jesus, theology

As I’m sure everyone who has Facebook knows, Jefferson Bethke’s “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” video is lighting up the internet.  Currently, his video has over 6.5 million views on YouTube.  Clearly, something about his message is appealing to many people (it also helps to get a shout-out from The Resurgence).

In light of the way it has gone viral, I thought I might offer a brief response.  Below are four reasons why I love (pure) religion, but hate false dichotomies.

  1. Jesus was highly religious.  He was a devout, Torah-observing Jew, profoundly concerned about living a pure, God-honoring life.  When Jesus criticized the Pharisees and teachers of the Law – the self-proclaimed “religious people” of his day – he was not criticizing their “religion” but rather their lack thereof (cf. Jam. 1:27)!  It’s not that the Pharisees were too careful or strict in their observance of the Law.  Rather, they felt the freedom to pick and choose what they would follow, preferring to puff up their self-righteous hearts by (rightly) tithing out of their spice racks while (wrongly) neglecting justice, mercy, and faithfulness (“the weightier matters of the Law“).  Pitting Jesus against “religion” is inconsistent.
  2. Religion isn’t the problem.  Prideful works-righteousness is.  Do we really want to give up the word “religion” to a few self-righteous legalists who don’t understand the glories of grace?  I don’t.  The real issue is the way we all (not just the grumpy Baptist fundamentalists down the road) tend to confuse God’s grace with our merit.  You don’t have to be wearing a suit and tie to be brimming with self-righteousness.  The contrast isn’t “religion” vs. Jesus.  Rather, it’s mandated obedience in order to please a heavenly Dictator vs. a vital, Spirit-formed relationship with our benevolent Father. Christianity is fundamentally about the latter, not the former.  Pitting Jesus against “religion” just isn’t helpful.
  3. Christianity is a religion.  From a historical perspective, to abstract Jesus from the religion that he started is kind of silly.  By any normal definition, Christianity is a religion.  We can repudiate religion based on works-righteousness without disparaging religion based on Jesus.  Additionally, your “I follow Jesus, not a particular religion” line will only go so far.  Sooner or later, your unbelieving friends will realize that you’re simply a Christian who loves Jesus, and your false dichotomy will just end up making you look dumb and/or insincere.  Pitting Jesus against “religion” is simply silly.
  4. Jesus loves His church.  I worry about the conclusions that many will draw from rhetoric like this.  Many who dislike “religion” also dislike “the church,” thinking it’s full of disingenuous, self-righteous people.  And they’re right – the church is full of disingenuous, self-righteous people because the church is full of sinners!  But Christ loves His church.  He created it, sustains it, and is Lord over it.  And He desires that His people live, worship, and evangelize the world in community.  There’s no such thing as a “lone ranger” Christian.  We were (re)created for Christian community (aka, the church).  Additionally, the New Testament clearly outlines a certain organization, structure, and authority for the church.  Yes, it can be abused, but that doesn’t mean we have the right to throw it out.  Pitting Jesus against “religion” is potentially dangerous.

All that being said, I understand the “heart” of the video’s message and agree with it. Christianity is first and foremost about the God who, in love, sovereignly reached out to wayward men and women for their salvation and joy. It’s not about what we need to do for God, but what He has already done for us.  Amen and amen.

I just think there are more helpful ways to go about accomplishing what Bethke and millions of other Christians really want: the faithful proclamation of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.

For more good thoughts on this, check out Jared Wilson’s blog.

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Comments
  1. tiff says:

    I appreciate your comments on this matter and agree with you, except for your point, “to abstract Jesus from the religion that he started is kind of silly.” I understand the argument you are trying to make, but Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion. He came in fulfillment of the Hebrew prophecies, to fulfill the laws and promises of God and the early Christians weren’t really Christians, they were Jews that believed in Him as Messiah. The split between Judaism and Christianity came later (also, Christianity was seen as a sect of Judaism at that time).

    • Matt Tully says:

      True. But, as you note, the split between Judaism and Christianity did occur, and rather early at that (you could probably date it around the time of the Jerusalem Council in A.D. 48). Indeed, the New Testament attests to this division, which was undoubtedly encouraged by the increasing number of Gentiles who quickly came to follow the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles.

      Also, the New Testament itself records the first time that the term “Christian” was applied to those who followed Jesus (Acts 11:26). From a redemptive-historical perspective, Christians are simply the people of God, part of the history of redemption that began in the Garden and will continue on into the new heavens and new earth. However, for historical purposes, Jesus’s life and ministry inaugurated a “new” religion, since the vast majority of Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah.

  2. MR. T says:

    Mmm. Interesting. Coffee and consideration required.
    It’s difficult. The church who loves Jesus wants to distance themselves from the negative perceptions of “religion”. I think that the popular understanding and usage of “religion” has been a reaction to the Institutionalized church. The institutions – having been part of the fabric of secular society in recent history have become places often devoid of people who know Jesus or his gospel (which funnilly makes it not really “church” anyway). It’s this unattractive (hollow) and bad representation of God’s church that has disciples of Jesus such as Jefferson Bethke wanting to distance themselves (understandably) and say in effect “hey – that’s not the Gospel….. it’s much better than that! Really, it’s an indentity crisis for the church isn’t it?
    blaise

    • Matt Tully says:

      You’re absolutely right: it seems that, at the heart of Bethke’s message, is a concern for the true Gospel of grace. And I agree that there are definitely negative perceptions regarding Christianity out there. However, I just don’t think it’s helpful to say we’re not “religious” or even “Christians” (as some do). Instead of giving up those words (both are biblical), let’s rehabilitate them insofar as they have been distorted.

      All that being said, sometimes I wonder if the problem of “negative perceptions” tends to be overblown. I also would question your statement, “The institutions … have become places often devoid of people who know Jesus or his gospel.” That certainly can be the case, but it’s not necessarily (or even most often) the case. The problem is not the fact that churches are organized and have a leadership structure (all of which I believe are, at least in principle, biblical). The problem is that churches are made up of sinners. So, whether or not your church is simply an informal small group meeting in your living room or 400 people meeting in a large building, Christians will continue to sin against each other and abuse whatever authority they have. We should undoubtedly fight against this, striving for the unity and love that God desires among his people (indeed, our unity is a powerful witness to the world, Phil. 1:27-28). But let’s be clear on what the real problem is: it’s our (not just those other guys’) self-righteousness, not “religion”.

      • MR. T says:

        Yes, it’s very easy to deflect the blame to “them” or “those” in the church instead of me. Completely agree. I am a sinner saved by grace alone.

        The dictionary definition of “religion” or “religious” is, in my experience, outdated and common usage has shifted. It is now an emotional word and certainly not objective. Neither is it positive but definitely negative. Frustratingly, my experience is that the negative reaction to “religion” isn’t to the gospel but to what we might call ‘religious moralism’ – Western morality with historical roots in Judeo-Christian ethics but not anchored in the Cross of Christ. Of course this is a generalisation.
        So, we need to work out how to fix this and bring the Gospel back to the centre. Sadly, the Christian “religion” and “church” are not known or necessarily equated with “Jesus” or “Gospel”. Also, the rejection of “church” and “religion” is often NOT a rejection of the Gospel b/c sadly, the church isn’t particuarly KNOWN for the Gospel!

        What do you do if you are a Jesus-loving member of a church that doesn’t effectively know or teach the Gospel? Do you stay in the name of love and hope, pray and work toward reform? Or do you leave in order to bear fruit more effectively elsewhere? This is perhaps a small scale picture of the huge scale thinking behind the video in question.
        Tough questions. Important.

  3. David Cederquist says:

    Great post Matt. I had a very real disagreement with the author the first time I watched the video. You have summed up a disagreement well. Thanks for your faithfulness to the Gospel. Blessings!!

  4. […] Why I Love (Pure) Religion, But Hate False Dichotomies – Jesus loves His church. I worry about the conclusions that many will draw from rhetoric like this. Many who dislike “religion” also dislike “the church,” thinking it’s full of disingenuous, self-righteous people. And they’re right – the church is full of disingenuous, self-righteous people because the church is full of sinners! But Christ loves His church. He created it, sustains it, and is Lord over it. And He desires that His people live, worship, and evangelize the world in community. There’s no such thing as a “lone ranger” Christian. We were (re)created for Christian community (aka, the church). Additionally, the New Testament clearly outlines a certain organization, structure, and authority for the church. Yes, it can be abused, but that doesn’t mean we have the right to throw it out. Pitting Jesus against “religion” is potentially dangerous. […]

  5. […] This article was originally posted at Huiothesian. […]

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