If I love Jesus, do I really need to hate religion?

You may say that I’m simply quibbling over semantics here… and that’s precisely what I’m doing.

In the last week or so, the video for Jeff Bethke’s poem “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” has been blowing up. As I post this entry, the video has over 14.7 million views and over 255,000 “Likes.” This provocatively titled video has clearly struck a chord with many people. And there’s reason to applaud for the video, i.e., Bethke clearly and forcefully talks about people’s need for Jesus. Even so, there’s more about the video that leaves me… unsettled.

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that by discussing, and even criticizing his video, I am not trying to impugn Bethke’s faith, motives, etc., in any way whatsoever. Nor is it my intention to simply make some snarky comments. Unfortunately, as I’ve read other critiques of the video, people seem all too willing to throw unnecessary jabs at Bethke in the midst of otherwise thoughtful commentary. This is something I want to avoid. Not only does such a tactic distract from an honest discussion, but it’s disrespectful to a brother in Christ. In other words, I hope the spirit of this post is similar to Kevin DeYoung, who wrote a solid critique of the video and has since engaged with Bethke.

If I had to boil down my issues with the video to one thing, it would be Bethke’s use of the word “religion.” In this day and age, “religion” is a term that is both highly charged and very malleable. As such, the mere mention of it tends to put people on edge, particularly because it can mean so many things to so many people — which doesn’t exactly help Bethke’s case here.

When Bethke says “religion,” is he referring to, as Dictionary.com defines it, “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs”? Is he referring to a specific religion (i.e., Christianity), or to a specific strand or tradition within a specific religion? Is he referring to a certain organized, hierarchical power structure and its attendant rituals and traditions? Or is he, as many of his fans and defenders say, simply referring to hypocrisy, legalism, and self-righteousness? And if that’s the case, then why not use those terms instead of “religion”? Or is he using “religion” precisely because it’s such an emotionally charged term, and therefore, he was able to easily maximize the impact of his words?

The confusion doesn’t lessen with a closer reading of Bethke’s poem (read Bethke’s transcript). For example, Bethke says “I love the [C]hurch, I love the Bible,” but is the Church not a religious institution? Or does he mean something else by “[C]hurch”? And of course, as others have pointed out, we wouldn’t have the Bible as we know it today without the work of a religious institution, so one could argue that the Bible is itself a religious product (which I don’t think is a bad thing). Later, he says “Religion is man searching for God, Christianity is God searching for man,” but what is Christianity if not a religion?

By now, you might be rolling your eyes and thinking that I’m simply quibbling over semantics… and that’s precisely what I’m doing. Why we use the words we use, and what we mean by them, is so very important, and even moreso with charged words like “religion” and “church.” (And if our usage can cause confusion within the Church, think of the confusion amongst people outside of the Church.)

But let’s assume that, by “religion,” Bethke is really talking about hypocrisy, etc. (I think this is plausible given the part of the poem where he openly discusses his own sin.) If so, then he seems quite content with throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Religion becomes synonymous with hypocrisy, legalism, self-righteousness, and a host of other bad things, and so Christians ought to get rid of the whole thing and be done with it.

In doing so, Bethke seems to be espousing a certain trend that has become rather popular in the modern Church, at least here in America. This trend has several aspects, including:

  • A general distrust of any sort of strongly hierarchical Church body, hence the rise of non-denominational churches that — proudly, in some cases — claim their independence from any central authority to be foundational to their identity.
  • An ambivalence regarding Church history that results in both a myopic view of the early Church and a sense that modern Christians have nothing to learn from those that came before them.
  • An emphasis on Christianity as a personal and individual relationship. As such, my walk with Christ is my walk with Christ, i.e., a highly individualistic experience that doesn’t really need to be judged, evaluated, or called into account by an authority.
  • A low view of ritual and tradition that sees such things as stodgy, boring, and restrictive. Instead, an emphasis is placed on emotionally engaging worship experiences (e.g., seeker sensitive churches, upbeat contemporary worship music).

I’m not trying to put words in Bethke’s mouth, and yet when I read his words, that is the sentiment that I detect. I hear it, too, when people say “I’m spiritual but not religious,” when they say they’re a “follower of Christ” but not a Christian, and when they define their Christian faith as a “relationship, not a religion.” There’s this notion that “religion” is somehow a dirty word and a concept to be avoided. Admittedly, it’s a word that has a lot of baggage associated with it, but I don’t think that’s any reason for giving up on it.

My question is this: If we, as Christians, ditch the concept of religion, what are we left with? “Jesus” is the likely response. But what does that even mean, exactly, given the reality that when Jesus came to Earth, died on the cross, and rose from the dead, He didn’t merely set in a motion a plan to redeem the lives of individual human beings. He also came to establish a Church — a collective of believers with its own doctrine that adheres to a unique set of sayings and observes a unique set of rituals and traditions. In short, Jesus did, for all intents and purposes, establish a religion… and it was a Good Thing.

For reasons that will remain ultimately mysterious this side of eternity, Jesus saw fit to entrust this religion to broken, fallible, selfish, and deeply sinful human beings. Not surprisingly, we have made a royal mess of things. And yet, just as the Fall doesn’t diminish the image of God that exists within each of us, so too do our foibles and mistakes fail to obscure entirely the goodness in the religion, and the Church, that Jesus instituted. Does that mean that we don’t need to reevaluate and reform the ways in which we observe, promote, and spread this religion? Of course not. Does that mean that we should turn a blind eye to legalism, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness? God forbid.

But just as we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to legalism, etc., we also shouldn’t shrink away from words that we feel have become unpleasant, or use them as placeholders for truly distressing terms. We shouldn’t engage in semantic games to make our belief system more palatable and presentable. We shouldn’t throw out over-simplifications that cloud the issue, nor should we present false dichotomies that make for nice sentiments but ultimately come across as nonsensical… especially to those that we may be trying to reach.

Though I’m not a fan of Bethke’s video, there is a sense in which I’m glad that it’s become so popular: it has caused people to begin talking about our terminology, about the words we use to describe our religion. It’s a shame that Christians have come to perceive religion as something antithetical to Jesus, and that they feel the need to water down their language so as to not offend or put off others (though our speech should always be seasoned with grace and humility). It’s a shame that the word “religion” is so easily associated with hypocrisy, legalism, etc., rather than the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ. And Christians have certainly done a lot to bring about this sad state of semantic affairs. But as my friend Chad puts it, “misuse of a word is not straightforwardly an argument for its nonuse, much less for its abuse, but for its right use.”

Read more about Jeff Bethke.
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