This week I saw my Facebook flooded with a certain video, so I watched it. I knew where Jefferson Bethke (the author of the poem and individual in the video) was coming from and what he meant by his words, yet I was a little unsettled by this video.
Many individuals, evangelical in disposition, seem to be rejoicing in this video (even “The Resurgence” posted it on their site, see here). On the other hand, I’ve noticed a much different reaction from the Catholic crowd (i.e., various Catholic facebook friends of mine as well as various Catholic blogs that have written critiques, such as what I am now doing), as one might expect. And to be honest, in many regards, I agree with these Catholics in their criticisms. Allow me to share some of my brief thoughts on the video.
Here is the video that has sparked so much attention and controversy:
What is Bethke referring to as “religion”?
He doesn’t define religion, which is very detrimental to his purpose. Now obviously defining “religion” would have been an awkward addition to the beginning of his video, but my criticism remains valid. What does he mean by “religion”? Because if he means the belief that one’s relationship to God is based on his performance, than much of what he says is correct. But if he means the true Church and its doctrine, then he is incredibly wrong. By his own words in his YouTube post I know he means the former.
A poem I wrote to highlight the difference between Jesus and false religion. In the scriptures Jesus received the most opposition from the most religious people of his day. At it’s core Jesus’ gospel and the good news of the Cross is in pure opposition to self-righteousness/self-justification. Religion is man centered, Jesus is God-centered. This poem highlights my journey to discover this truth. Religion either ends in pride or despair. Pride because you make a list and can do it and act better than everyone, or despair because you can’t do your own list of rules and feel “not good enough” for God. With Jesus though you have humble confident joy because He represents you, you don’t represent yourself and His sacrifice is perfect putting us in perfect standing with God!
Notice he says “false religion.” So when he talks about religion in this video, it appears he is referring to false religion and not true religion. (Instead of specifying this he simply says he hates religion–period.) And by much of what he says in the video, it appears his attack on “religion” is really an attack on the dead religion often modeled by the Israelites in the Old Testament, the Pharisees in the New Testament, and many contemporary churches. But none of this is true religion. Therefore, when he states “religion” what he means is hypocrisy, legalism, dead faith, and the like. These things, that often look religious are not pure and undefiled religion (James 1:27) and are certainly things we as Christians must condemn.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t communicate any of this specification of what he is referring to as religion in the video. Consequently, many have gotten the wrong idea about what he is criticizing (and I don’t blame them). And more so, his definition of religion seems to change throughout the video, depending on the criticism he is making at that moment in the video, which makes his use of “religion” even more confusing. In summary, his use of “religion” exemplifies poor diction and word choice. Religion “is” a loaded word that needs defining. He could have delivered this message more effectively if he had used different words. (But of course saying you hate religion helps make your video more popular on YouTube and Facebook–I understand).
People use “religion” in various ways. In many senses true Biblical Christianity is a religion–it has doctrine, morals, and organization. Just in comparison to most other religions, which tend to be performance based (as opposed to being based on grace like true Biblical Christianity), Christianity appears as a very distinct religion. So in another sense, Christianity is not a religion if you define religion as by nature being performance based (but such a definition is unusual). Further, in our postmodern world, “religion” is often view as something simply cultural. This view says that truth is relative and so all religions are essentially the same. True Christianity disagrees with this definition of truth and therefore would not be a religion of that type. And lastly, if one defines religion as false, man-made belief systems as opposed to the one true teaching of the Bible, than obviously Christianity is not, by that definition, a religion either.
“Jesus came to abolish religion”?
“Jesus came to abolish religion” is a theological loaded phrase that surely would spark debate among theologians. When he says “abolish religion,” is he referring to Judaism (which was certainly a God established religion—just read Leviticus) or is he referring to his own interesting definition of “religion” which is essentially synonymous to the belief that one’s relationship to God is based on his performance? If he is referring to the former, he just opened a can of worms I am not going to address at this point. If the later, than I suppose Bethke is correct, but his word choice, soecifically “abolish,” is a bit odd. I wonder what Bethke thinks of Matthew 5:17 when Jesus specifically says “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”? Further, saying that Jesus came to abolish religion and is opposed to religion seems to go against Jesus words in Matthew 16:18 when Jesus talks about how He will build His Church (which is something religious, depending on how you define “religious” of course). Bethke does state he loves the Church and what it believes (i.e., sin). Is this not religion by many people’s definition?
Interesting logic and argumentation
By “interesting” I really mean unsatisfactory and strange. For example, I’m unsure how “Because my salvation doesn’t depend on me, it depends on Him, because when I was Gods enemy and certainly not a fan, God looked down on me and said, ‘I want that man!'” leads Bethke to reason in his next words, “Which is so different from religious people, and why Jesus called em fools.” God’s saving him is different than religious people and is the reason Jesus called them fools? Maybe I’m just misunderstanding Bethke–but he sure makes it easy. At another point he said, “Remember He [Jesus] was called a drunkard and a glutton by ‘religious men,'” which leads Bethke to somehow conclude, “But the Son of God never supports self-righteousness, not now, not then.” I don’t see how those two contrast. Again Bethke states, “In every other aspect of life you know that logics unworthy.” I honestly have no idea what he means by that. I know it’s poetry; but it ought to actually make sense and develop logically (although I’m sure Bethke has an explanation as to what he meant in these incidences).
The church: hospital, museum, or both?
At one point Bethke states that “the church is not a museum for good people but a hospitable for the broken.” But is it not true that the church in many senses is to be both? Could it be that the church is a hospitable for the broken, and than it takes the once broken people and sees them built up so that the church can become a museum of good people? I have a problem when the church closes its doors to sinners. Certainly Jesus didn’t model such behavior. He reached out to the social and religious outcasts (i.e., prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors). But these people were not right before God and acknowledged it. They were not professing believers. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul reveals that how we as Christians treat unsaved people ought to be much different than how we treat professing believers who are living in unrepentant sin (and may or may not be saved). Therefore, I have big problems when people neglect the fact that the church is called to high standards of purity. And although its members are imperfect, moral laxity and unrepentance must be unacceptable within it (key word–“within”). The doctrine of church discipline necessitates this. Therefore, yes, the church is a hospitable for the broken, but it is also the salt and light of the world (Mt 5:13-16), a people set apart and called to be holy as their God is holy (1 Pet 1:15-16), and a community that ought not and is commanded not to have any association with those whose mouths professes Christ but whose lives professes the opposite (1 Cor 5).
“Jesus said ‘done’; religion says ‘do'”?
Scripture is blatantly clear that salvation was accomplished by Christ once and for all at the cross (aka, the “done” Bethke refers to). But this is not mutually exclusive from the load of commands given by the apostles and other New Testament authors (aka, several “do” statements) post-Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection (aka, “done”). Therefore, the “done” does not exclude the “do.” In many sense, the “done” is what motivates us to “do”! However, I believe Bethke makes his statement in regards to justification, which in that case, is both valid and a vital doctrine.
“Religion says ‘slave'”?
Actually Paul said in Romans 6 that both the unsaved and saved are slaves. They just have different masters (one’s master is unrighteousness the other is righteousness).
He has some interesting comments about Republicanism in the beginning of his video that don’t really seem to serve his purpose or theme. They are true, just odd comments to make.
In general, the message he intended to present is a good one. However, how he presented it could have been improved and thought through. The whole video sounds very emergent church-ish—a postmodern approach to Christianity which essentially, among other things, tries to strip any religious flavor out of Christianity (such as doctrine and the importance of being involved in a church). I don’t believe that is what Bethke is trying to promote since he does say he loves the Church and what it teaches (i.e. sin). But in general, as Christians we have to be careful with what we say and how we say it (myself included), taking note of how those around us will understand us (i.e., what is their understanding of the word “religion”?)
To make application to ourselves, I often hear people say, “I have a relationship, not a religion.” Although I understand what people mean by this, caution should be taken because not everyone will understand this the way it’s intended to be understood.
See the sequel to this article, entitled, “Why I Don’t Hate ‘Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.'”