Is Jesus Christ opposed to religion?
That question centered a recent conversation I shared with my colleague Niccie Kleigl on her radio program, Living in the Sweet Spot.
Our dialogue pursued a number of comments Niccie had received from concerned listeners. The thrust of these communications: There is a pronounced disconnect between organized Christianity and the Jesus of the Bible. While the Christ of the Gospels expresses love, reconciliation, and encouragement, structural Christianity remains rigid and hostile.
Jefferson Bethke’s now-famous Youtube presentation Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus gives voice to many who see the biblical Christ at odds with institutional religion. Feel free to join with the 33 million others who have watched, then we’ll talk about it:
It’s not hard to see why a presentation like this would go viral. Jeff Bethke is clearly a talented preacher, and his freestyle lyric functions well as a medium for his protest. Even the hip-wardrobe/stark-backdrop contrast works to reinforce his case.
Based on the comment section, Why I Hate Religion obviously resonates with many who have been abused or overlooked by the church.
And I’m happy to affirm much of what Mr. Bethke says. Jesus, of course, wasn’t a member of the Republican party. Behavior modification is not the main point of the gospel. And – while I don’t know any pastors who would say such a thing – telling a divorced mom that God doesn’t love her represents a heinous miscarriage of Christian witness.
Indeed, Bethke’s closing flourish – Religion is man’s searching for God//Christianity is God searching for man– gets at the core of Christian soteriology. These lines – evocative of Francis Thompson’s epic The Hound of Heaven – aptly distinguish Biblical faith from many other global religions.
For much of the clip’s four-minute runtime, Bethke spins well-established concerns about institutional Christianity into provocative and punchy rhymes. Many of complaints are valid, even if they aren’t new (Recall Ghandi: “I love your Christ; your Christians not so much”).
Unfortunately, what Mr. Bethke’s presentation owns in verse and vibe, it lacks in careful theological reflection.
We can all agree: Christian religion has problems. It’s always had problems. The institutional church, like each of its constituent members, has a heart of wheat and weeds.
This has meant that down the centuries, the church has acted in manners totally opposed to the ways of Jesus: The Crusades. The Thirty Years’ War. Conjuring up biblical support for slavery. Bedding down with totalitarian leaders.
And let’s be honest; grave concerns continue today. Sex abuse scandals in the priesthood have wrecked trust in professional clergy. Greedy televangelists have purchased luxury homes with tithes intended for other ministries. Some sectors of evangelical Christianity have turned a DQ Blizzard with right-wing politics. The stains are deep, wide, and dark.
There can be no doubt that Jesus hates this kind of religion. When it comes to contemporary Christian practice, there are plenty of tables that need to be tipped over.
But is it all a lost cause? Did Jesus actually come to “abolish religion” as Jeff Bethke seems to suggest?
It’s ironic – and more than a bit strange – that Mr. Bethke begins his protest with that particular verb. It was Jesus himself who, in response to assumptions that he had come to upend the Old Testament’s religious authority, said this:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.Matthew 5:17
In his own words, Jesus’ mission was to accomplish and recenter religious practice. Jesus came to culminate – not to terminate – Old Testament religion.
Perhaps that’s because Jesus recognized that total religious abolition is, in a certain sense, impossible.
Etymologically, the word religion derives from the Latin verb religare, which means “to tie together” or “to hold fast.” To be religious, therefore, means to be bound up in something more than yourself.
Religion – for all the negative connotations Bethke raises – isn’t mostly about dominance or oppression. It’s about participation and community. Religion is the web of culture, ideals, and beliefs to which one feels most closely connected.
By this definition, everybody has a religion. It’s just a matter of which one. Sports. Politics. The scientific method. Your online gaming community. Rock climbing. Sure, Konmari.
Point being, you can’t ever really rid someone of religion.
You can change religions, sure. You can become a better or worse practitioner of your religion. But you will have a religion. Something – some constellation of people, stories, convictions, and outcomes – will stand at the center of your worldview.
With those who trust Jesus’ promise of final victory, I believe that the Christian Church remains the best of all of religious options. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, there’s hypocrisy. And yes, the challenge of life in community sometimes feels like more trouble than it’s worth. But it’s the bride of Christ. And I’m thankful to be part of it.
It’s an incredible thing, really, that Jesus sticks with all of us. With the church. Because from the beginning, he’s had reasons not to.
Read the Gospels closely and you’ll see that Jesus got as many gray hairs from his disciples’ foibles as he did from the Pharisees’. Members of Jesus’ inner circle were self-righteous. They fought with each other. They wanted political power. Simple teachings went right over their heads. In a fit of racism, James and John offered to blast Samaria with napalm. If ever a religion deserved abolition, it was the Religion of the Twelve Disciples.
Yet Jesus didn’t disband the group. He didn’t abolish his obviously-incompetent organization. He didn’t throw up his hands and go it alone (Cool trivia note: Moses was presented with this very option).
Why? Because they were better together. Religare. Brothers. Sisters. Holy Spirit, Word. These believers were bound up into something bigger than themselves. And they kept at it.
Their religion was battling poverty. Caring for widows and orphans. Reading scripture. Praising in the temple. Reconciling differences. The Law and the Prophets had been fulfilled, and the church was celebrating the astonishing implications.
Despite a laundry list of offenses and bad decisions, today’s church continues to be salt and light in many ways. And it works because we are bound together. Bethke protests a lack of care for the poor and broken but seems to miss that these ministries require united effort and shared vision. It’s disingenuous to be against religion in the abstract but in favor of practices like Bible study, which requires community, or caring for the dispossessed, which takes partnership.
The bathwater needs to be changed. But the baby’s still beautiful.
I hope that more time in the New Testament will reveal to Bethke – as it did to Luther – that the church needs perpetualreformation more than singular abolition.
I’m a pastor. I’m aware of the great pain that the church has brought on the world. We condemn others when we should be carefully inviting them to put on the new self. We turn scriptural teachings into levers of power rather than pointers to grace. We make selfish choices about money when more offerings should go to those with basic needs. There’s a million ways we need to get better.
But Jeff Bethke’s wrong. When Jesus said “It is finished,” he wasn’t talking about religion. Jesus wasn’t talking about the church. He was talking about the penalty for the sins of the church.
As Paul would later write:
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.Ephesians 5:25-27
Christian religion isn’t finished, Mr. Bethke. For the religious people that Jesus died to save, the best days are yet to come.