A common trend in Evangelical circles these days is to pit Jesus against religion, or Christianity, or the Church. Evangelicals are latecomers to this fad: liberal “spiritual, but not religious” types have been doing it for ages. But Evangelicals are definitely feeling it these days. Steve McCranie, pastor of “The Church Without Walls,” authored a book called Love Jesus, Hate Church, and the fact that there’s even a market for that book is telling. And Jefferson Bethke’s poem, “Why I hate Religion, but Love Jesus” has been making waves on the Internet. These critiques always sound a similar chord: the problem in Christianity is always other people. They’re the ones not living the Faith out right. They’re the hypocritical sinners. Of course we’re not to blame.
Anyways, both McCranie and Bethke point out real problems in Christianity. Christianity today (and yesterday, and tomorrow) is wounded by the Fall. Or more specifically, we Christians are wounded by the fall. Becoming a Christian doesn’t miraculously remove the temptation to be a jerk (although it actually does help, a discussion for another time). And plenty of people call themselves Christian without living out their faith: they’ve got faith without works, a dead and worthless faith (James 2:20-24), which lacks “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5).
But here’s the core problem with McCranie and Bethke: the solution isn’t to attack religion, or Christianity, or the Church. The problem is within each one of us: we need to ensure that we don’t just know about Jesus, but that we know Him, and that we’re not just going through the motions (whether those are Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox motions). If you want to bash spiritual lukewarmness and hypocrisy, I’m all in. But if you jump from there to claiming (as Bethke does), “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion,” I start to head for the exits. Because that’s totally wrong, and contradicted in pretty explicit terms by Scripture.
|Hans Holbein the Elder,
Presentation of Christ at the Temple (1501)
I want to examine the claim that “Jesus hated religion and called the religious fools.” Is it too simple for me to respond that Jesus was a practicing Jew? He loved his religion! He had the ability to see through the actual law and into the heart of the law. He fulfilled the law (Romans 8:3). The law’s goals were to bring people closer to God, and more in line with love. The “fools” practiced their law to a T, but were standing in the presence of God and failed to realize it!
Since those guys already addressed most of the specific claims made by Bethke, I wanted to take a few steps back and point out what Scripture actually says about the Christian religion, and the Church:
- “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Jesus, in Matthew 16:18).
- “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:25-27)
- “If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:26-27)
- “If a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn their religious duty to their own family and make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God.” (1 Timothy 5:4).
So yes, Christianity has always been a religion, from the very beginning, with religious duties and everything. And that’s good, because these duties include things like caring for the less fortunate. And no, the Church isn’t the enemy of Christ. She is His Body, and His Bride. He built Her Himself. He died on the Cross for Her. St. Cyprian of Carthage, back in 251 A.D., summarized the Scriptures well: “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” Assail Her at your own risk.
Update: There’s another great response here; it’s an analysis by an Orthodox priest explaining the problems in the poem line-by-line. I think that’s probably enough for now.
Update 2: Nicholas Hardesty at Phat Catholic jumps in, doing a good job of drawing out areas of agreement as well as disagreement.