Many of you may have already seen this viral video originally posted by The Resurgence website. A co-worker told me about it and it linked (at that time) to The Resurgence. At that point it had three million views. By the time I got home Friday morning and pulled it up again (about four hours later), it had six million views! Now it’s plateaued at over seven million. It’s effective, because it’s edgy. It’s edgy because it features a misdefinition of the word “Religion.”
Watch the video, before we move on:
Another friend of mine shared it on his Facebook page, with a lengthy discussion in which I just had to participate. Here’s what I wrote:
This forty-something Republican is down with most of this. But the “semantic” issue is that by “religion” he does mean legalism, but I’d like to submit that he’s also talking about hypocrisy. But I guess if he used the right words, it wouldn’t have been nearly as edgy and would have gotten a couple million fewer views on YouTube. At first I thought he was coming too close to advocating “don’t go to church, be the church” like Barna’s “Revolutionaries,” but I rewatched it and retained his clarification about “loving the church” which I suppose means he doesn’t advocate dropping out. He’s just, again, challenging legalism and hypocrisy.
Fortunately, a trained professional has now written a lengthy and helpful critique, which is not uncomplimentary, about this latest YouTube phenomenon. Kevin DeYoung, co-author of Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion (2009?, Moody Publishers) writes “Does Jesus Hate Religion? Kinda Sorta, Not Really.” Here’s DeYoung’s comments on the poet’s misleading use of the word “religion,” how religious Jesus was, and how religious he wants his followers to be:
More important is Bethke’s opening line: “Jesus came to abolish religion.” That’s the whole point of the poem. The argument—and most poems are arguing for something—rests on the sharp distinction between religion on one side and Jesus on the other. Whether this argument is fair depends on your definition of religion. Bethke sees religion as a man made attempt to earn God’s favor. Religion equals self-righteousness, moral preening, and hypocrisy. Religion is all law and no gospel. If that’s religion, then Jesus is certainly against it.
But that’s not what religion is. We can say that’s what is has become for some people or what we understand it to be. But words still matter and we shouldn’t just define them however we want. “Jesus hates religion” communicates something that “Jesus hates self-righteousness” doesn’t. To say that Jesus hates pride and hypocrisy is old news. To say he hates religion—now, that has a kick to it. People hear “religion” and think of rules, rituals, dogma, pastors, priests, institutions. People love Oprah and the Shack and “spiritual, not religious” bumper stickers because the mood of our country is one that wants God without the strictures that come with traditional Christianity. We love the Jesus that hates religion.
The only problem is, he didn’t. Jesus was a Jew. He went to services at the synagogue. He observed Jewish holy days. He did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). He founded the church (Matt. 16:18). He established church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20). He instituted a ritual meal (Matt. 26:26-28). He told his disciples to baptize people and to teach others to obey everything he commanded (Matt. 28:19-20). He insisted that people believe in him and believe certain things about him (John 3:16-18; 8:24). If religion is characterized by doctrine, commands, rituals, and structure, then Jesus is not your go-to guy for hating religion. This was the central point behind the book Ted Kluck and I wrote a few years ago.
The word “religion” occurs five times in English Standard Version of the Bible. It is, by itself, an entirely neutral word. Religion can refer to Judaism (Acts 26:5) or the Jewish-Christian faith (Acts 25:19). Religion can be bad when it is self-made (Col. 2:23) or fails to tame the tongue (James 1:26). But religion can also be good when it cares for widows and orphans and practices moral purity (James 1:27). Unless we define the word to suit our purposes, there is simply no biblical grounds for saying Jesus hated religion. What might be gained by using such language will, without a careful explanation and caveats, be outweighed by what is lost when we give the impression that religion is the alloy that corrupts a relationship with Jesus.
Update: Poet Jefferson Bethke responds on his Facebook page to those using his video to “bash the church”:
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.