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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.