There is an increasing sentiment, especially among younger Christians, that is not only apathetic toward organized and formally structured religion (read “church”), but is antagonistic and opposed to it. So when I came across this hugely popular You Tube video (over 15 million views and counting), I found myself ambivalent. There is a core angst about it that I can really relate to (I mean, really). I’ll admit, in recent years I’ve found myself happily becoming a theologically evangelical man without an evangelical culture.
But we, the disenfranchised, have to ask ourselves: when we boast in hating religion, how do we go about distinguishing the church, whom Jesus loves? I’m not so sure. I think maybe I at least am finding it a bit too convenient to draw cavernous lines between abstractions of “religion” and the people who comprise it. (It reminds me a little too much of the oft contrived dichotomy between loving the sinners, but hating their sins.) Can I legitimately claim to love God and yet hate his church . . . his church, made up of and organized by his people?
An analogy occurred to me as I mulled. I find it helpful. (You’ll find it to be not particularly original, as it’s biblical). The Christian religion is much like marriage.
Consider: one’s love relationship with God through Christ is to Christian religion as love is to marriage. Accordingly, some will want to argue that the “institution” of marriage is similarly to be hated (or at least feared), as it is a lie and even antithetical to love.
Honestly, if you think about it, they don’t have to look too hard or too far to find plenty of anecdotal support for such a view. Indeed, for far too many, loveless and dead marriages-in-name-only are all they’ve ever seen or known. You can empathize with why they oppose marriage, even when they fall in love. From their standpoint, marriage seems to ruin or kill authentic love.
I could easily imagine an identical video to this that is all about true love vs. marriage, with the implication being that people who are truly in love should avoid and resist marriage. And a lot of people who have had bad experiences with marriage or married people would applaud and agree. Marriage is man-made; it is cultural—people can love without getting married; they can even be very committed and monogamous in that love.
It’s hard to argue contrariwise to observable experience, except to insist one’s own experience is contrary. (And for the record, mine is.) So then it’s tit for tat—one says marriage kills as a rule, the other says he or she has experienced great marriage and retained love. And the same is argued on both sides of religion.
Be that all as it may . . . I know the institutions of marriage and the Christian religion are true—no matter how they are abused and corrupted, the hope they promise is real (and even realized by many). I’m certain of this because I’m a romantic. The reason true marriage and religion must both win out is going to be more than reason (and I’ll admit readily, being a romantic tends to be unreasonable).
As with all things profoundly true, it’s necessarily a matter of faith. You must in the end choose to believe what God’s word has said about either marriage or religion. You choose to trust that though Christ and his apostles (including Paul) were continually running afoul of organized (Jewish) religion, they were nonetheless committed adherents to it (religiously so). You accept that, while Jesus did come to fulfill the law, he did not come to destroy it.
The regular and consistent (i.e., organized) gathering of God’s people is something Hebrews calls believers not to forsake. But forsaking isn’t just about failing to show up. This is the hard question I have to constantly be asking myself as I revel in my antipathy: can it be anything other than forsaken when I would characterize my religion as an institution to be hated? Paul too was continually about the organized and institutional church, such as it was in his day, affirming what Jesus taught—that Christians should be committed to and consistently fellowshipping with brothers and sisters who comprise Christ’s body.
Many of us can attest, of all things in life, this loving the unlovely body of Christ is where the good-works rubber most directly meets the road of faith. Loving unlovely religious hypocrites with their institutions and rules is the real test of holiness, especially when it comes to accomplishing the unreasonable and impossible only through the power of God’s indwelling Spirit. By our own means, it’s just not reasonable or possible to suffer the folly of, let alone love, the hateful religious jerks.
And I catch myself mid-sentence. Because isn’t that just exactly what sin (“original” especially) is all about—“by our own means”?
This is why it’s a matter of faith that we are to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, though they with their institutions and religiosity can be so brutal and abusive. The Apostle Paul endured no less: he was abused and betrayed not only by his brethren Jews, but also by early-church Christians. Never mind Jesus Christ himself being abused and betrayed by the religion that ironically should have been all about him.
Faithful believers are called to not forsake the community because it is religion. It’s easy to dismiss the Christian religion as man-made; but in truth, just what in human affairs wouldn’t be man-made? And more to the point, what that is man-made can claim to be independent of God’s sovereignty, or other than God-made?
This is really the question: whatever you create and do (religion included), is it created and done in right relationship to God? That is, if a work or institution is originated from God’s Spirit, though it be man-produced, it need not be less God-inspired or less God-empowered.
What this video is legitimately lamenting is works-driven religion, vs. Spirit-driven religion. I get that. But much of our counter-religious culture is similarly distracted, and we risk tossing out romance and faith with their respective bathwaters. The answer to loveless marriage is not to deny marriage—so also with faithless religion.
We should all agree: when religion becomes other than about (or a distraction from) love for God and love for one’s neighbor, it becomes a loveless and false marriage . . . a profoundly and bitterly ironic witness against true marriage, against true religion. Nevertheless, there is true religion, just as there is true marriage (and all of us romantics echo, just as there is true love).
So while I resonate a little too much with the sentiment of this hyperbole, it is hyperbole (perhaps dangerously so).
Jesus did not come to abolish religion. He came to fulfill it.