Jesus ≠ Religion – A Stumbling Attempt at a Response
(Be forewarned that this post is long. If you’re brave enough to tackle it, you may want to stretch and hydrate first)
Jesus ≠ Religion…
Please don’t misunderstand me – I thoroughly and completely believe that Jesus is, indeed, greater than (>) religion. Much greater. So much greater, in fact, that I feel it is almost frivolous to make the comparison. But not entirely.
If you haven’t yet clothed yourself in sackcloth over the anguish my words have caused, please feel free to read on with the understanding that this is merely one man’s feeble attempt at articulation. God has spoken, the rest is just commentary, right?
Otherwise – my condolences to your soon-to-be-very-itchy skin.
There’s a video by a chap named Jeff Bethke that’s been blowing up the interwebs this last week, and if you have even one moderately gregarious Christian friend in your life – it’s likely you’ve already seen it. If not, grab your typographical caps, a bowl of fair-trade popcorn, and have yourself a gander.
As I’m sure you could guess, this video has sparked just a splash of controversy among – well – everyone, it seems. Bloggers, poets, theologians, journalists, hipsters, power-walkers, dental hygienists, and interpretive dancers have jumped at the opportunity to discuss the contents of this video and, in some cases, drive their theological stake deep in the social soil as well.
Normally I wouldn’t feel in any way compelled to join the symposium for a situation like this, but for some reason I simply cannot shake the urge to respond in some way. I did want to wait, however, until the dust had settled a bit to ensure that my response wasn’t simply a knee-jerk or merely adding to the tumult surrounding this debate. I hope that I have succeeded in this.
First – I need to be clear and state that my desire in responding is to help catalyze (or continue) and facilitate healthy, edifying, and respectful conversation. I’m not interested in a bash-session nor am I loading my quiver with flaming arrows. I feel there is already far too much “blood on our hands” as brothers and sisters and I have no desire to contribute another tally mark in the record book. Ultimately, my deep hope is for greater unity, stronger clarity, and a deeply propagating love as, I awkwardly try to stumble towards what it means to be Christ-like. Love must permeate all that we pursue and engage. In my opinion, if we aren’t willing to first assume that posture, we have no right (as believers) to join in the debate. May all we say and do flow from a heart and position of love.
Unconditional love, however, sometimes also requires rigorous discernment. A good friend of mine keenly responded to the buzz around this video in this way:
These types of reactions are a result of a group of people (Christians) desiring to seek and know the truth. If we blindly accept anything with a Christian label on it, we compromise that pursuit of truth. And that ultimately hurts us. – DW
Our disposition must be rooted in love, but that in no way means that we need to throw out our brain in the process. I think far too many people swing to either extreme and the danger there is unmistakable. The principles of grace and truth are joined for a reason.
Second – I want to be diligent and forthright in acknowledging this video for what it is – poetry. The argument could be (and has been) made that “art” follows a different set of rules with regard to content and the empirical inerrancy of its composition. As my dear friend said of this very theme:
Sometimes artistic expression is not always based on absolute truth, but on a felt reality. And our realities shift, and sometimes our expressions of such are more visceral than objective- as I think the poet’s was. In summation, I think discussion of such matters can be a very important and exciting necessity to promote deeper understanding. – AE
This is an important and necessary foundation from which a fair dialogue can sprout. I think the old adage; “our perception becomes our reality” is very much in play here as we seek to understand and make sense of this “lightning-rod” of a video, and is an expedient starting point. One can’t perform surgery until he/she understands what the need truly is. Art or not, though – capital “T” Truth is still Truth and we have the responsibility of accountability when we feel it is challenged or misrepresented. Scripture is our authority – the blogosphere is not.
A strong and intriguing discourse could be launched from here pertaining to the issue of excellence in Christian artistry and the predominately parodic nature of the Christian marketplace in general, but I’ll retain that discussion for another time.
That said – it is also not my aspiration to develop a tenacious rebuttal (in the traditional sense), or dissect every idiom and nuance of either “camp.” The internet is already chock full of “blow-by-blow” exegesis and dramatic confutations (i.e. “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus – The Smackdown”). While I see some benefit to these methods, I observe many (certainly not all) of these attempts as primarily divisive, combative, and narcissistic in nature. I hope and pray my response is as free from those attributes as possible. Lord – save us from ourselves.
While I may disagree with some of the theology stated in Bethke’s video, there is much that I love and agree with as well. I sincerely believe that he is a brother who loves Jesus and longs for the world to know of God’s scandalous grace. As Paul rejoiced when the message was preached anyone, I too rejoice that these conversations are taking place and that people are interacting with these dep truths for the first time. What an incredible blessing.
Bethke ends this poem with a profoundly poignant proclamation of the cross and invites those listening to come to Christ. I do not believe he hates the Church or even despises orthodox Christianity. In my humble opinion, the strengths of this video certainly outweigh the weaknesses. In fact, he posted this statement on his Facebook page just a few days ago:
If you are using my video to bash “the church” be careful. I was in no way intending to do that. My heart came from trying to highlight and expose legalism and hypocrisy. The Church is Jesus’ bride so be careful how you speak of His wife. If a normal dude has right to get pissed when you bash His wife, it makes me tremble to think how great the weight is when we do it to Jesus’ wife. The church is His vehicle to reach a lost word. A hospital for sinners. Saying you love Jesus but hate the Church, is like a fiancé saying he loves his future bride, but hates her kids. We are all under grace. Look to Him. –Jefferson Bethke
So, to get to the core of the commotion, I will attempt to focus my efforts. It appears that the crux of both criticism and praise for this video is stated in Bethke’s opening line:
What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?
It’s been said that this is merely an issue of semantics and explication – that Bethke really just means “legalism” or “hypocrisy,” but I’m not entirely convinced that such an answer will fully suffice nor do I believe it to be the most helpful route to take. I do want to be particularly careful to avoid the type of trap that another friend observed a couple of days ago in response to the many blog posts and articles flooding the internet:
I believe the sloppy semantics might unfortunately create a whirlwind of criticism in the Christian circles that will once again unnecessarily make us all look like an in-fighting bitter family instead of one that loves each other – RG
And, as another wise friend said:
The nitpicking I think is at least one of the negative points that outsiders see in our American Church today. I don’t think that the video does any damage to Jesus, and I certainly don’t think that it could possibly lead someone down a bad path. Sometimes I think that we as seasoned Christians need to understand that things like this may not be intended for us, but for a different demographic, perhaps someone who isn’t a theological scholar. – SW
That said – I want to try and keep scholarship and accessibility in essential tension and respond with the love, grace, and truth that I believe we are called to always model and emit – even when it is difficult to do so.
Phew – okay. Still with me? Here we go.
The most common scriptural rebuttal I’ve seen in reaction to the first verse of Bethke’s poem comes from the first chapter of the book of James (which, I think pseudo-ironically speaks to many of the complications surrounding this issue in general):
27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. – James 1:27 (ESV)
Now, one commentator defines “religion” as “the outward practice, the service of a god” while Webster’s defines it this way – “a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.”
Herodotus (2:37) uses the very same word of various observances practiced by the Egyptian priests, such as wearing linen, circumcision, shaving, etc. The derivation is uncertain.
But there are some issues I see with offering this as a blanket retort to Bethke’s poem in defense of the legalistic structure I believe he is opposing in this video.
The word “religion” in this passage is the Greek word thrēkeia and it appears only five times in all of the New Testament – three of which are here in James 1.
The two other occurrences are:
18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship (thrēkeia) of angels, going on in detail about visions,puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind – Colossians 2:18 (ESV)
5 They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion (thrēkeia) I have lived as a Pharisee. – Acts 26:5 (ESV)
It is apparent to me from James that God’s emphasis is not on religious ritual but right living. Pure religion has nothing to do with ceremonies, temples, or special days. Pure religion means living out God’s Word and sharing it with others through:
- Service, and
Now, there are many references to speech in this letter, including verse 26 – giving the impression that the tongue was a serious issue in this particular assembly. It is the tongue that reveals the heart. As Doctor Luke put it – “What you say flows from what is in your heart” (Luke 6:45 – NLT).
By this same standard, we cannot simply excuse what we believe to be doctrinally specious or theologically counterfactual. Some have stated that it is not so much what is said in this video that they take issue with, but the manner in which it is said – and in some sense I agree. I would ask Bethke, “Is a proclamation of rebellion the most helpful, most edifying, and most God-honoring method available?” And at the same time, as many of us attempt to articulate a response, I believe we should ask ourselves the same question. Are our words and approach the best way to honor God and usher in His Kingdom? We must be extremely careful to not fall into the same kind of omission many are accusing Bethke of.
According to James 1 – after we have seen ourselves and Christ in the mirror of the Word, we must see others and their needs. Isaiah first saw the Lord, then himself, and then the people to whom he would minister (Isaiah 6:1-8). Words are no substitute for deeds of love (James 2:14-18; 1 John 3:11-18). God does not want us to pay for others to minister as a substitute for our own personal service. As noted by Christ’s familiar invitation of, “Come, follow me” we should observe that he is a Rabbi of physicality – of movement. We have a model we are to follow and a road to walk. As some ancient writers put it, we are to be “covered in the dust of our Rabbi’s feet.” There is absolutely a “do” aspect to the Gospel, and to imply that there isn’t is misleading.
For example, a (usually sarcastic) Greek historian and satirist named Lucian, who lived between 120 and 200 AD, and despised the Christians of his time wrote-
“It is incredible to see the fervor with which the people of that religion help each other in their wants. They spare nothing.”
In fact, what James is saying in this chapter is that mere knowledge without action is not only useless – it’s self-deceiving.
This is one of the sharp distinctions between the “cheap grace” being taught in many of the neo-evangelical and emergent churches today and the “free grace” of the New Covenant. We must be careful not to confuse the two.
When Bethke states that Jesus came to abolish religion, I would say that it really depends on how one defines religion. It appears that he sees it as purely man-made – a feeble, oppressive method of trying to earn God’s favor. This definition carries with it a stench hypocrisy, smug moralism, and subjugation that I would be inclined to agree with as well. Some of Jesus’ harshest criticisms were directed towards those who observed strict adherence to the law, but with a total absence of faith, love, and action. As Kevin Deyoung observed, “(According to Bethke) religion is all law and no gospel. If that’s religion, then Jesus is certainly against it. But that’s not what religion is.”
I would agree with Bethke that perhaps this is what religion has become or even what many have observed it to be, but I would also agree with Deyoung who says that we must be extremely careful about the words that we choose to use. In the age of what Christian Smith calls moralistic therapeutic deism (a belief system that elevates human effort as the means of salvation, healing, and appeasement in the eyes of a distant therapist in the sky), we as believers have an enormous tasks of exposing this type of misguided teaching for what it is. Not only exposing, however, but walking with our brothers and sisters to healing and restoration as well.
The thing is, words matter and it is risky to define them however we please. A Jesus that hates religion is sexy and controversial – something my generation is growing increasingly obsessed with. But there are some fundamental observations about Jesus’ religious interactions from Scripture that I don’t think we can ignore (adapted from Deyoung’s post):
- Jesus went to services at the synagogues
- Jesus solemnized holy days
- Jesus said that he did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets, but fulfill them (Mt. 5:17)
- Jesus established the church (Mt. 16:18)
- Jesus instituted church discipline (Mt. 18:15-20)
- Jesus inaugurated a sacramental meal (Mt. 26:26-28)
- Jesus commissioned his believers to baptize and teach (Mt. 28:19-20)
- Jesus insisted that believe in him and believe certain things about him (John 14:6)
Jesus said things like:
Whoever says, “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him– 1 John 2:4 (ESV – emphasis added)
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me – John 10:27 (ESV- emphasis added)
In fact, Peter writes in 1 Peter chapter two:
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. – 1 Peter 2:21 (ESV – emphasis added)
The words “an example” is the Greek word hypogrammon – which literally means, “an underwriting.” In Jewish schools, students would have a sort of tracing paper placed over a document the teacher had prepared ahead of time, and the student would very carefully trace the characters written previously by the instructor as they learned to write. We are to “do as he did”, following closely in his steps. There is most certainly a deep sense of mobility in the Gospel message. Jesus says both, “it is finished” and “it is only just beginning.” We cannot continue to glorify our brokenness and fail to acknowledge the regeneration that God longs to impart. As Deyoung stated, “the grace that forgives is also the grace that transforms.”
He goes on:
“…there is no inherent dignity in being broken. Jesus likes the honesty that acknowledges sin, hates it and turns away, but he does not love authenticity for its own sake. We have to be more careful with our language. When Paul boasted of his weakness, he was boasting of his suffering, his lack of impressiveness, and the trials he endured (1 Cor. 2:3; 2 Cor. 11:30; 12:9). He never boasted of his temptations or his sins—past or present. That’s not what he meant by weakness. Being broken is not the point, except to be forgiven and changed”
As a mentor used to tell me:
“God loves you exactly how you are, and too much to let you stay that way” –DS
To me, a misunderstanding of this reality is a misunderstanding of a much bigger concept than mere weakness or works.
Which I think ultimately boils down to an issue of justification.
“Justification by faith” was the watchword of the Reformation, and it is important that we understand this doctrine.
It is a legal term, borrowed from the ancient legal courts and means “to declare righteous.” Its opposite is “to condemn.”
But what is justification? Justification is the act of God whereby He declares the believing sinner righteous in Jesus Christ. Every word of this definition is important. Justification is an act and not a process.
In other words, no Christian is “more justified” than another Christian (Romans 5:1). How beautiful is that?
Since we are justified by faith, it is an instant and immediate transaction between the believing sinner and God. If we were justified by works, then it would have to be a gradual process.
In justification, God declares the believing sinner righteous; He does not make him righteous. (Of course, real justification leads to a changed life, which is what James 2 is all about.) Before the sinner trusts Christ, he stands guilty before God; but the moment he trusts Christ, he is declared not guilty. Truthfully – this still blows my mind…
Justification is also different from “pardon,” because a pardoned criminal still has a record. When the sinner is justified by faith, his past sins are remembered against him no more, and God no longer puts his sins on record
It’s also important to note that God justifies sinners, not “good people.” Paul declares that God justifies “the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5). Sinners are the only kind of people Jesus Christ can save (Matt. 9:9–13; Luke 18:9–14).
It’s out of this heart that I believe Bethke says, “Religion says do, Jesus says done” but even that can be a bit misrepresentative. Many in my own sphere of influence like to say of Christianity things like, “There’s no rules – just a relationship”, but we know that Jesus commissions us to do everything he has commanded (Matt. 28:20). However, if Bethke interprets “do” as “do this in order to earn God’s forgiveness and favor” then I would say the juxtaposition is quite fitting.
Gospel truth says that we worship God, not so that he’ll accept us, but because in Jesus he already does. We serve him not so that he’ll redeem us, but because in Jesus he already does (Romans 3:22). Paul recognized that, once he met Jesus – everything changed for him. His entire pious religious track record was like garbage compared to the scandalous grace of Jesus Christ. His response was both thankfulness, and action. His response was so radical, in fact, that many doubted it’s legitimacy.
Religion then, is not our attempt to earn God’s favor, merit, or blessing. Quite the contrary. It is an effort to bring greater glory to God and edification to one another as response to the immeasurable mercy, grace, and love of a perfectly omnipotent God poured out for sinful, separated man. It is a commitment to love as he first loved us. It is a pledge to enter into the messiness and despair of humanity as Christ modeled in the incarnation, and walk in restoration, to the glory of God.
Religion is not the enemy. Satan is. The Church has most certainly made more mistakes than any of us are even aware of and I have no doubt that Satan is still at work through many of those in positions of influence within the church. But she is still Christ’s bride.
As pastor and author David Platt has said, “Church, we are Plan A – and there is no Plan B.” St. Augustine has been attributed with coining the phrase “The church is a whore, but she’s my mother.” Because of the cross we have the freedom to disagree, but we must be careful what position we take on Christ’s bride.
Ultimately, none of us are completely right. Truth is a person – not a doctrinal statement, denomination, or theological position. We need Jesus more than we’ll ever realize this side of eternity. Our deficiency is greater than we can ever hope to measure.
With patience in His love I’ll rest,
And whisper that He knoweth best,
Then, clinging to that guiding hand,
A weakling, in His strength I’ll stand.
My prayer is that this discussion spurs a joining of hearts in greater unity instead of contention. May we be committed to harmony in the primary and not divisive in the secondary.
May our eyes be open enough to enter into the pain around us, may our hearts break for the things that break God’s heart, may our feet join in the dance of liberation, and may we never cease to speak love to one another.
May our words carry life.
A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing. —Martin Luther