There’s a YouTube video making it’s way through my Facebook news feed lately. It’s called “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus“; it features a poem written and performed by Jeff Bethke. The title made me bristle a little bit, but I decided I’d give it a look-see to know what all the fuss was about.
I couldn’t get past the first line.
Bethke asks, “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?” With that, he echoes the sentiment I’ve heard FAR too many of my friends trumpet when they want to stir something up: “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship!” And I just need to say one thing about that; while it’s a nice thought, and I understand where you’re coming from, it’s flat-out not true.
EDIT: I did decide to go back and watch that video, so that I could form a more informed opinion, but I still couldn’t get very far. Plus, a point-by-point critique of that video is not really the point I’m trying to make here. However, I will share a couple of thoughts on what Bethke has to say.
1. “Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor?” Now, when I heard this, I assumed (safely, I think), that he says “religion” here, but really means “Catholics”. What he conveniently ignores is that Catholic Charities USA gave $2.67 billion in charitable donations in 2005 (the most recent data I could find)…to say nothing of worldwide. So that’s debatable at best.
2. “Tells single moms God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever been divorced…” What? Who the hell says that? The Westboro Baptist Church, maybe. But I think EVERYONE can agree that the fine folks at the WBC are insane, disgusting hypocrites. What they are not, however, is “religion”.
3. “Religion preaches grace, but another thing they practice…” True enough, sort of. Religion (at least, Christianity) does preach grace when it’s being preached right. So why do you hate it? And who is “they”? It’s not religion. Religion is not a “they”. It’s the people preaching religion hypocritically who are the problem, not the religion itself.
Anyway, back to the point…
If I had to answer the question, “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?” I’d answer back, “Then I would say you haven’t read your Bible very carefully.” Jesus says pretty plain and simple in Matthew 5, “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.” Jesus didn’t come to abolish religion, and he certainly didn’t hate it; after all, He (being God) created one back in the days of the Old Testament (and fulfilled it to its full potential in the New). He even told Joshua, “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful”–something we’d be wise to keep in mind.
Of course, even if we ignore the Old Testament, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Jesus was really into the whole following-religion thing. Here’s a short, non-comprehensive list of evidence:
“He went to Nazareth…and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.” (Luke 4:16)
“There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” (Matthew 19:17)
“Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19)
Not to mention lots of instances where Jesus observes Jewish feasts and traditions (Passover, Hanukkah, etc.). Plus, he went ahead and established rules, rituals, and traditions of his own, that his disciples kept close to and had their followers keep as well: baptism, communion, and the like.
Now, when people use the word “religion”, what they usually mean is “religiosity”, or legalism. And those are perfectly legitimate things to protest against. We should strive to be loving, caring, and un-hypocritical in practicing our faith. Following the rules should never supersede loving Jesus and others. But why should it go the other way? Jesus himself said, “If you love me, keep my commands.” You can’t truly follow Christianity without doing both.
And it’s true, of course, that the people Jesus railed against in his day were the most religious people of the time. But he didn’t denounce them because they were religious. he denounced them because they had taken the religion they had been given and turned it into something ugly and hypocritical: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!”
All this is to say, Christianity is a religion and a relationship. You can’t hate religion and love Jesus. He loved religion. If you want to be like him, do as he did. Just make sure you do it the right way.