Jesus v. Religion?

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)

Both Marc Barnes and Brock Smith have great posts explaining why Bethke’s anti-religion poem is wrong.  Brock, for example, writes:

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.

Update 3: Yet more responses, this time from Brandon Vogt and Marcel LeJeune.  That’s just about everybody, I suppose.


  1. Yea uh…my brother put that up on his facebook…i tried to approach it first with a compliment (the originality of the poem was decent) and then to follow up with truth…

    Pray, Holy Spirit enter his heart and show him the truth Christ was sent to bring…


  2. In a sense, to frame the issue as “Jesus v. Religion” is the logical culmination of the individualistic deconstruction of Christianity that was initiated with the Reformation.

    And as the word “religion” derives from the Latin “religare” . . . to bind together or place an obligation on . . . it seems that, rather than Jesus and religion being incompatible in an either/or sense, we are, in fact, bound together through Him, with Him, in Him . . . and not to wander about in our own state of spiritual searching. Therefore, to frame it as “Jesus v. Religion” is to assume a false dichotomy.

    However, it is clearly true that some people misuse, misrepresent, or misinterpret Jesus Christ in the name of religion.

  3. Tom,

    I agree. Protestantism’s push was largely for (lacking a better term) the “deinstitutionalization” of the Christian religion: the triumph of individual conscience and individual reason over that collective known as the Church.

    But this “deinstitutionalization” is de-Incarnational, in the sense that it severs the visible signs of the invisible God (the Church first, but the sacraments necessarily followed). And the triumph of individual conscience and individual reason has not only trampled the Church, but ultimately, the Bible, and all other manifestations of the revealed will of God.

    I don’t think that the Reformers intended that, nor do I think all Protestants of guilty of what I just described. But I do think that the Reformers unwittingly opened a rather nasty Pandora’s box, and that “spiritual but not religious” is one of the manifestations of that.



  4. Joe, your comment about “deinstitutionalization,” individual conscience, and individual reason sounds a lot like a form of pietism . . . a movement in later Protestantism, I think, toward private devotionalism and practical matters, and away from doctrine and “institutions.” This is what I think many people mean when they speak against “religion” today, religion being a particular, negative description, for them, of institution and doctrine, which is believed and forwarded by them for many reasons.

    As for what the Reformers intended, I am no expert on Church history, but have always been under the impression the Luther did not intended to form a new church, merely to correct abuses and corruption within the Catholic Church (obviously, much more complicated than this, as there were theological issues too), and it was his followers, Melancthon among them, that provided the impetus for the formation of the Lutheran Church. Once that disunifying process was initiated, what we have today was inevitable, given human nature.

  5. Looking at the Statement of Faith from:

    I’ve come across something that’s always bugged me about Protestantism, even back when I was still a Protestant…

    There’s first item on their statement of faith is on “The Word of God”. They just, without any evidence, state that the “sixty-six books of the Bible” are from the Holy Spirit. They never state that they use those books because those are the books that the Early Church used in their Bibles.

    One of the (out of the many) aspects of Catholicism that attracted me was the Creed. RIght out of the gate its “Credo in Unum Deum…” “I believe in one God…” God is right at the front, where he was, is, and always shall be.

    They also believe in the nonsense of “The Rapture” proving once again that without the Church to properly interpret what one is reading than you’ll fly off the handlebars into Yo-Hoo-Land that would confuse even Salvador Dali when you get to Revelations. If you don’t believe me, read “Left Behind” then watch the DVD with Kirk Cameron, and then get back to me.

    And finally, on their section of “How to become a Christian” they never once mention being Baptized. One would think that if Jesus himself was Baptized, and that Jesus himself says: “…unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5) that they would take his words seriously.

    If God Almighty says that unless you do “X” you won’t get “Y”, it should logically follow that if indeed you want “Y”, whatever that may be, you would go out of your way, risking life and limb to get “X”.

    But if you take Jesus seriously on Baptism, one would also have to take him seriously on the forgiveness of sins, and who Jesus gave the power and authority to retain and absolve sins, as well as numerous other aspects of the Bible that make Protestants uncomfortable.

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