Within the last few days, a video by Jefferson Bethke labeled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” has had over seven million views on YouTube. That’s quite stunning. Comments on Facebook about this video show that countless people identify with the sentiment that “religion is bad” and “Jesus is good.” I have numerous friends who have been judged, ostracized or treated unfairly by the church. I understand the pain that can come from these experiences.
I, myself, have been confronted, questioned, censored, and banned for challenging assumptions and suggesting solutions to problems within the church (here and throughout this post I’m referring to the church as a whole, not my local congregation). In fact, I’ve been placed on a “watch list” and know that some people will be reading this in an effort to keep an eye on me (peace and grace to you all). All of this has caused a significant amount of pain for me and my family. If anyone has a right to bash institutional religion, it’s me.
A common response when wronged by the church is to condemn the church and then withdraw from organized religion. But this is not the way forward. Isolation, dislocation, fear and hate of anything will not help anyone become a better follower of Christ. Unfortunately, it’s far easier to walk away from and condemn something than it is to stay and help make a change.
So, though I have a pretty consistent (and I think valid) critique of institutionalized Christianity, here are some reasons why I think a “why I hate religion but love Jesus” approach is simplistic, unbiblical and even dangerous.
- It is not possible to have a belief system without religion. An organized religion is a framework for understanding a particular faith, and includes beliefs, values and practices. A religion creates a whole culture in which one lives and worships. The notion that someone can have Jesus without having religion is a bit like the person who wants a contemporary music-driven worship service because he or she doesn’t like liturgy. Yet even the most charismatic and spirit-led church undoubtedly follows a pattern for worship that is repeated again and again on a weekly basis. This is precisely what a liturgy is—a way of “doing” church. Religion is a way of “doing” faith. It is the system which allows faith to be expressed and passed on to all of its adherents. Religion can be used for good or bad, but there is no escaping it if you believe in and follow God.
- It’s a very sad point, but this notion that one must make a choice between religion (which is evil) and Jesus (which is good) reflects a prevailing idea among Evangelicals: all that matters is my relationship with Jesus. Our narcissistic, individualistic and egocentric culture has led us to unconsciously believe the myth that the most important thing a person can do is make sure that he or she is right with God. Just in the last fifty years believers have turned worship into a desperate search for therapeutic healing, singing “I want you, I need you, I love you,” and “help me, save me, love me.” It’s the Jesus-is-my-boyfriend scenario. We think God exists simply to help us and make us feel better, and that’s how we judge our Sunday morning worship experience. On the contrary, the Christian life is one of community and the worship experience should not be a focus on the self but on the mystery, majesty, character and transcendence of God. Bethke argues that religion is for the self-righteous, but that argument backfires on him. It’s those who think they can exist outside of religious structures that are the most self-righteous and indulgent. Religion is the vehicle that brings us to the place of community and worship. To suggest that one can do without religion is to suggest that one can live apart from the body of Christ.
- The video does not present an accurate interpretation of scripture and Bethke contradicts himself multiple times. Here’s just one example. The opening line in this video states “Jesus came to abolish religion.” The idea is later repeated as “Jesus hated religion.” Is this true? If so, Jesus would have had to toss out the entire Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) and all the “law” within it. Due to a gross misreading of Paul, we often believe that the law is bad and that Jesus came to replace it. But, in Jesus' own words, “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 the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus affirms the law and tells his listeners to “go and do likewise.” The law of the Moses, essentially the code of Hebrew religion, was not something Jesus hated, nor did the Jewish people in general. The law guided, directed and freed the Hebrews to love their God, learn about their God and live for their God. The main point of Psalm 119, the longest chapter of the Bible, is exactly that—love for the law of the Lord. While it’s true that Jesus had harsh words for the hypocritical teachers of the law, he had the deepest respect and honor for his Jewish heritage. The Bible simply does not support any dualistic notion that Jesus and religion were in opposition to one another.
- Another problem with the “I hate religion” approach is that it never offers any answers. Those who withdraw from organized religion seldom have any hopeful suggestions or practical ways to positively work for change within religion. I teach and mentor a lot of young adults who are preparing for ministry at Fresno Pacific University where I am an associate professor of ministry. I see many students who are discouraged and frustrated by the institutional church, and in many cases rightly so. Unfortunately, the favored option is to withdraw from the established church, strike out on their own and plant a new church. And who can blame them? Working in an existing church, especially an historic church can be very hard. Patterns are often engrained and rigid. It’s simply easier to go it alone. There are many troubling issues about this scenario, but perhaps the greatest is this: we need the gifts, talents, skills and contributions of all people in the church, not just from those with which we agree. Church should be the safest place on earth to be different, to disagree and to offer countering ideas. True community encourages fresh ideas and new practices. If you are a young pastor, leader or member of a congregation thinking about leaving the institutionalized church because of disagreements, please don’t—we need you!
- Finally, while I recognize that organized religion has numerous faults and has hurt many people, the way forward might actually be through a renewed and revitalized interpretation of religion itself. Just as Jesus didn’t call for the abolishment of the law but its complete fulfillment, so we might find a correction to the church’s dysfunctions through a recommitment to its practices. Whatever we might call this culture we live in—postmodern, post-Christendom, post-Christian or other—and for all of our attempts to create new models of church, target new segments of the population, initiate new musical styles or flee our religious past, I believe the answers lie in the historic church. I’m encouraged when I see college students engaging in the ancient spiritual disciplines of the church. A new generation is finding deep meaning in lectio divina, silence, fasting, prayer labyrinths, historic creeds and so much more. These practices are the bedrock of the historic church. As we again discover these rich disciplines of a 4000-year old religion, we will draw together in communities that reimagine the role of the church while listening for the active presence of God in our midst. This isn’t a time for throwing religion out, it’s a time for rediscovering what it really is, working to right the wrongs and stepping into the great adventure that God has always intended for his people.
As I said earlier, I certainly have reason to be negative and judgmental of the church and organized religion. But condemning it is not the answer. Neither is expecting everybody to become like me and believe like I do. If you have been hurt, please consider that no church is perfect, nor are the people in it. Religion is not bad or good, though it can be used for both. In the end, the church is the biggest and best run volunteer organization in the world. Let’s not give up on the church, but let’s keep working, together, to shape it, change it and imagine what God could do through it to accomplish his purposes, just as he did through the chaos of the Spirit’s coming 2000 years ago to a frightened gathering of believers in Jerusalem.