Eighteen million views and counting. Jefferson Bethke posted his well-crafted four-minute video on YouTube January 10. “Viral” might be an understatement.
Bethke uses rapper-like poetry to communicate his message in “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” He begins with the claim, “What if I told you that Jesus came to abolish religion?” He intends to challenge the hypocrisy that creeps into every organized religion, but his broad brush paints a confusing depiction of Jesus v Religion.
Bethke admits to playing this game, “acting like a church kid, while addicted to pornography.” He manufactured a “good” image, while hiding a corrupted life. This masquerade drives his critique of a “religious” church, where actors can fake piety by keeping the unwritten rules of the religious community. “See the problem with religion, is it never gets to the core. It’s just behavior modification, like a long list of chores.”
Reducing the definition of religion to “just following some rules” or an attempt to earn some form of self-righteousness oversimplifies it. This aberration of true religion deserves criticism and reformation, but equating religion with its aberration undoubtedly confuses people and promotes a fuzzy and misguided reaction to the problem.
It reminds me of a pastor who shared his story with me. He was converted in the heat of the countercultural movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s. His spiritual life flourished in a college Bible study. Like most Baby Boomers, these fledgling followers of Jesus blamed the institutional Church for failing to deliver the truth to them. As he said, “We hated the Church, but loved Jesus.”
College ministries in that period witnessed significant revival, with exciting transformations of many students’ lives. But college ends. Students graduate and leave the security of the campus ministries. The pastor told me that they had a serious problem. They did not want to return to their traditional churches, so they said, “I guess we should start our own church.”
In their hearts, they knew that they needed a church. Maybe not the ones they had seen growing up, where religiosity had replaced the gospel, and the Son of God became nothing more than a social reformer. But they could not escape that Jesus loved and had died for a Church, and a vibrant Christian life depended upon this Church. Xenos Christian Fellowship in Columbus, Ohio, stands today as a model of church life that makes a difference in individual lives and the surrounding community.
John Fitzgerald wrote a thoughtful piece for the Wall Street Journal, “Can You Come to Jesus Without Church?” He writes:
“Stating that religions build churches at the expense of the poor, as Mr. Bethke does, turns a blind eye to the single greatest charitable institution on the planet. Blaming religion for wars ignores the fact that the greatest mass murderers in the 20th century—indeed in all of history—killed for nonreligious reasons. And advocating for a kind of Christianity that is free of the “bondage” of religion opens the door to dangerous theological anarchy that is all too common among young evangelicals and absolutely antithetical to biblical Christianity.”
Pitting Jesus against religion does not work. As Fitzgerald points out in his article, Jesus was a practicing Jew. He challenged, no, condemned, the hypocrisy of the majority of Jewish leaders, but he never once criticized the heart of the Jewish religion. “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.” (Mt 5:17)
Suggesting that Jesus might somehow oppose the Church reaches new levels of naivete. Jesus loves the Church. He died for the Church. He is the cornerstone and head of the Church. Is it perfect? No. He is also working to mature and purify the Church through the ministry of his followers to one another.
John Armstrong wrote in his ACT 3 Weekly article, “Missiological Reflections on Churchless Christianity,”
“If you separate Christian conversion from Christian community then you have separated two absolutely vital things that God has joined together. The word church (ecclesia) was used to refer [to] a unique spiritual and visible community that Jesus inaugurated.”
What can we learn from this? First, postmodern youth view the Church with a critical eye, looking for lives that reflect the life of our Lord as recorded in Scriptures. Yet, their criticism seems to echo the complaints of their parents’ generation. More careful attention to recent history might encourage these youth to channel their energy into reforming the churches where Jesus resides.
Second, followers of Jesus must vigilantly resist the temptation to compromise the gospel with empty forms of righteousness earned by our own efforts. I appreciate what Bethke says about the church,
“Because if grace is water, then the church should be an ocean It’s not a museum for good people, it’s a hospital for the broken Which means I don’t have to hide my failure, I don’t have to hide my sin Because it doesn’t depend on me it depends on him.”
Grace should be the air we breathe in our faith communities. We don’t need to reveal every dark corner of our heart to the whole community, but we should not try to pretend that we are someone we are not, either. We must learn to accept one another with the same grace with which Jesus accepts us. We must fight our natural inclination towards hypocrisy and allow God’s Spirit to help us remember who we are, sinners saved by grace.