December 16, 2017

Why I Just Can’t Hate Religion, Though I Love Jesus

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,[1] 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.[2] 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,[3] but also by early-church Christians.[4] 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.



[1] Read “religion” into Matt. 5:17.

[2] Hebrews 10:25

[3] See Rom. 9-11 and 2 Cor. 11:24-27.

[4] See 2 Cor. 10-13, or Gal. 2:11.

Comments

  1. Your article is a refreshing breeze in a world of dumb-downed definitions. I understand what our brother in the video was saying, and he clarifies it somewhat in the first sentence under the video that few will read.

    But, of course, there is nothing new in his title. It flows from the ‘evangelical’ mantra that “Christianity is not a religion, it is. a relationship.” This is a sad state of mind for those who cannot handle “the holy conjunction”=AND.

    Over a half century ago, Elton Trueblood described our culture as a cut-flower society. Cut off from its roots, it withers and dies. Anyone who is rooted in the history of the first two millenia of Christianity knows that those from Augustine to Wesley to Trueblood, wrote of true religion versus false religion. But today, many have abandoned truth and smothered it with experience.

    This points to a major ‘disease’ of our day. C.S. Lewis provided an antidote for the spirit of our times, for any who wish to take the medicine, with his rule for reading:
    “…after reading a new book, never allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one…keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds…”

    • The religion/relationship line can be heard from both fundamentalists and liberals alike and everything in between for that matter. I’ve thought of changing my religious views on facebook to “Religious but not Spiritual” just to see what kind of response I’d get.

      • Now, that’s an idea. LOL

      • Richard Hershberger says:

        “The religion/relationship line can be heard from both fundamentalists and liberals alike…”

        I don’t think this is quite right. Liberals do not tend to talk about it in relationship terms. Your comment about your Facebook page is more on point for liberals, who are prone to claiming to be “spiritual but not religious”. This is even mushier than the “relationship” crowd. That at least states who the relationship is with, even if the practical implications of the relationship are carefully vague.

      • There was a facebook group called Religious not Spiritual. It had a series of pictures contrasting the two in a humorous fashion that would just crack me up.

  2. I recently read “End Of Religion” by Bruxy Cavey. It all depends how we define religion. Bruxy states: “By religion people tend to refer to established systems of belief about Ultimate Reality and the institutions that maintain them. I use the word religion in a similar way, to refer to any reliance on systems or institutions, rules or rituals as our conduit to God”.

    He then makes a decent argument that Jesus actually came to put an end to this type of Religion.

    I love James 1:27. I think it’s the most positive reference to the word Religion in the New Testament. And it has nothing to do with established systems of beliefs, institutions or rituals. If the Christian Religion was simply what we see in James 1:2 , I don’t people would be having this discussion.

    In this discussion we must also deal with the definition of ‘church’. To Jesus and the NT believers, ‘church’ was simply believers, and when they got together.

    I have no problem saying I’m not a fan of religion (as defined above), but I love Christ’s church (people).

    • Amen, and amen. Tim Keller’s take on Counterfeit Gods comes to mind–we make an idol even of the systems, institutions, rules, or rituals . . . anything to sbustitute direct worship of God–even those things designed to be about worship of and relationship with the one true God.

      I think maybe your concluding line is a key symptom of authentic religion–loving neighbors, and in partiucalr loving Christ’s church (people) is a powerful indicator of the real kind of religion (thus James 1:2 . . . there is such a thing as “true religion”).

      thx

    • “…simply believers, and when they got together…” Don’t forget, though, this assembly wasn’t just a social event or potluck: It had specific characteristics through which the community expressed and formed its identity, i.e. Acts 2:42. Here we have a structure of organized religion just beginning to take form. I think this idea of un-systematized spirituality was completely foreign to the first century world, and even if we can project that onto the ministry of Jesus, it wasn’t explicitly in His teaching. No matter how badly we try to shake convention, there is no such thing as a non-religious person. You can be a religious weight lifter. People who devote themselves to and center their lives around the love and worship of God and communion with his people quickly find themselves knee deep in religious forms. While the forms may not be the church, I don’t think the church has ever existed without them. I’m kinda stuck between defining the church [organism] as believers, and the church [organization] as the reformers did: Where the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered.

    • Kenny Johnson says:

      He posted a couple things on FB today:
      I’m glad the use of the word “religion” as an English word to describe the faith and faithfulness of Jesus is a discussion the Church is having these days. While we should avoid “arguing over words” (2 Tim 2:14) a constructive conversation is always healthy and helpful for Christ-followers to clarify our message, THE message of the Gospel. That being said, I wrote two appendices on this issue at the end of The End of Religion back in 2007. I’ll post them here. I hope it’s helpful.

      Appendix A
      Origins of the Word Religion
      Christianity is not a religion. Christianity is the proclamation of the end of religion, not of a new religion, or even of the best of all religions. . . . If the cross is the sign of anything, it’s the sign that God has gone out of the religion business and solved all of the world’s problems without requiring a single human being to do a single religious thing. What the cross is actually a sign of is the fact that religion can’t do a thing about the world’s problems—that it never did work and it never will.
      —Robert Farrar Capon
      There are always some people who feel like you’ve really made your case once you delve back into the ancient languages that the Bible was first written in. Without that, they feel like the story is incomplete. So for those of you who like that stuff, I offer this appendix.
      The writers of the documents that we now call the New Testament wrote in first-century Greek—the most common written language for the known world at that time. They obviously wanted their message to be received by as many people as possible. There are two Greek words they used that we sometimes translate “religion” or “religious” in our English Bibles. Each one is used in a derogatory or a highly qualified sense.
      Deisidaimonia means literally “dread of demons” and is used to refer to pagan religion. It might be better translated superstition or superstitious and is certainly not intended to be a complimentary word.
      Threskeia primarily refers to the ceremonial worship of a deity and can be used to identify any externalization of someone’s internal beliefs, whether positive or negative. Threskeia, then, refers to the outward trappings that may or may not be associated with any genuine faith. It is this word that James plays with in James 1:26-27, reframing it in terms of the love ethic of Jesus.
      Jesus never calls people to threskeia religion (and certainly not deisidaimonia religion), but always emphasizes faith itself. The Greek word for “faith” is pistis in noun form and pisteuo in verb form, which is usually translated “believe” and sometimes “trust,” because we do not have a natural verb form of the word “faith” in English.
      How about our English word “religion”—where does that come from? The etymology of “religion” seems to have two Latin possibilities: relegere, meaning to read something over and over again; or religare, which is a combination of re (to return or to repeat) and ligare (to tie or to bind). Following this second option, religion can mean a returning to restraint; a fastening of the self to something that is considered important; a kind of anchoring or reconnecting. Positively understood, then, religion is “a reconnecting to something important.” Negatively understood, religion simply means “a return to bondage.” Obviously, I am referring to this negative usage in this book.
      I understand that some people use the word “religion” to refer to a healthy outward expression of their inner faith, and that is wonderful. For the most part, when I look around me today, including looking over my shoulder at thousands of years of religious history, what I most often see in the name of religion is a ritualized return to bondage. The concept of religion has been closely associated with the repetitious tying of oneself to inherited beliefs and behaviors, traditions and theologies. Too often this leaves people mindlessly committed to the institution or clan that stewards the traditions, rather than the God who surrounds each of us with his love. Religion ties us down. Jesus came to set us free.

      Appendix B
      Language Today
      Those who lack discrimination may quote the letter of the Scripture, but they are really denying its inner truth.
      —The Bhagavad Gita
      A book is written in words, but the words are not the important thing. What matters is the message, the meaning conveyed through the words. When people don’t understand the message, they often fixate on the words themselves. In this appendix, I want to challenge us all to avoid this divisive tendency.
      Certainly, many people use the word “religion” today to refer to a genuine, deeply rooted faith. Some people might talk about having a “religious experience” as a way of referring to a spiritually transforming encounter with God. Now when someone tells me they are religious, I listen for the meaning and spirit behind their words rather than argue about the words themselves. You would miss the intention of this book if you used The End of Religion to fuel harsh judgment toward anyone who called himself or herself “religious.” All of us must listen to the meaning behind the words people use, and I hope you are doing the same with this book. Every conversation demands a certain amount of translation, because of the simple fact that people use words differently.
      So watch out. It is possible to get into discussions, debates, and arguments that are not really about anything of substance but are more about the labels we use to describe our opinions. These arguments about words divide people needlessly and distract us all from our primary quest for truth.
      The apostle Paul wrote words of advice to his co-worker Timothy about this very issue. He counseled Timothy that one of his jobs as a spiritual leader should be to help people “stop fighting over words. Such arguments are useless, and they can ruin those who hear them” (2 Timothy 2:14, NLT; also see 1 Timothy 6:4; 2 Timothy 2:23; Titus 3:9).
      Stop fighting over words. Pay attention to the meaning, to the substance of what people say, and then agree or disagree with that. I hope that you apply this principle while reading this book, or when engaging in spiritual discussions with others.
      Words are human attempts to wrap labels around reality, and we must admit the imprecise nature of the enterprise from the outset, especially when talking about ultimate reality. This means we should approach spiritual discussions with large amounts of grace for others who might be struggling in their use of words to communicate their point of view.
      “God is spirit,” says Jesus (John 4:24) which means, among other things, that he is beyond form. Words are form. They compose information (in-form-ation). Our task is to use words as servants of our pursuit of truth without allowing words to become the master.
      Perhaps this is one reason why Jesus commonly taught through storytelling rather than theological discourse (and why the Bible as a whole is a grand meta-narrative of human spiritual discovery). In the words of Madeleine L’Engle, “Jesus was not a theologian; he was God who told stories.” Through parables, Jesus used narrative to show us truths about God and ourselves in a way that refuses to support our religious temptation to fixate on specific theological words.
      Religious people like to hear certain words used in particular ways to make them feel secure and at home. Often, religious people emotionally bond with words as though they were the reality they label.
      A man who heard me speak only once approached me afterward to say that I didn’t talk about God’s sovereignty enough. In the one sermon he heard, I had spoken about God’s kingdom, God’s authority, and his loving guidance (what the word sovereignty refers to), but this man needed to hear the specific word sovereignty to feel good about the message.
      Some people emotionally bond with words like sin (which means to miss the mark or fail to hit the intended goal) or repentance (which simply means to change your mind about something) or holiness (which means being set apart for a special purpose). Hearing these words used in books or sermons gives these people the emotional cues they need to feel good about what is being communicated. Synonyms will never do, nor would more literal translations of the original Bible word.
      For the record, I don’t make a practice of avoiding words like sovereignty, sin, repentance, or holiness. But neither do I feel the need to inject them into sermons or conversations in order to prove my biblical orthodoxy. Between you and me, I think these word-fixated people need to repent of their sin and live a holy life that is honoring to our sovereign God. (There, feel better?)
      After a while, religious people can allow the words themselves to become part of the nonnegotiables of their faith, and when this happens, arguments ensue, usually about words rather than about reality. Take a course on the history of the Christian religion and you will see this principle in action over and over again, a legacy of division, persecution, and violence. At the very least, a religious obsession with theological phraseology can turn a thriving spiritual life into one that is dysfunctional and detached, deadened by an overdose of mental abstraction.
      Growing up in church circles, I have heard many Christians argue intensely for a specific interpretation of Scripture because Jesus uses this word and not that word to make his point in a particular Bible passage. Unfortunately, only a small minority of Christians thinks through the implications of the fact that Jesus likely spoke Aramaic, but his followers wrote down his teaching in Greek. We don’t have the words of Jesus; we have the Word of Jesus. In other words, we have Christ’s message, preserved in his teaching and example, but we don’t have the specific words he used to communicate that message.
      Why did the New Testament authors write in Greek at the cost of recording the exact words of Jesus? The reason seems pragmatic. Quite simply, Greek was the most widely read language of their day. For the writers of the four biblical Gospels, it was more important to get the message out there than to have the exact words of Jesus known by all. Obviously, it was the message they wanted us to focus on, not the specific words.
      Unfortunately, religious people often bond with certain words as though they hold magical power to produce spiritual results. The consequence is a strange form of linguistic idolatry that is expressed in a religion of pseudo-academic debates rather than brotherly and sisterly love. By writing the Gospels in Greek, the first followers of Jesus help us understand that it is the message that matters, and not the magical use of specific religious words.
      Through stories and word pictures, Jesus calls all listeners to consider the meaning of his message. In reflecting on its meaning, he invites us to discover the God who loves us beyond anything words could ever express.

      • Yes. It all depends how we define religion. If we don’t understand what religion means to someone, we won’t understand when they say they love or hate religion.

      • Thank you, I find this to be lucid and helpful. And I thought of that quote from Farrar Capon as soon as this topic came up; he said that Christ was the end of religion, but only under a specific definition of religion, which he was careful to give.

  3. I’m guessing you meant Hebrews 10:24 there. “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. ” (24 – 25)

    Should this passage really be used to support attendance at a traditional church gathering? Note the two occurrences of “one another”. Are most Sunday morning services set up in a way that believers can encourage one another to become more like Christ? Or is it mostly one encouraging the others? I find the best opportunities to encourage one another are actually outside the walls of what we typically call church.

    It comes down to semantics again. The word ekklesia seems to sometimes refer to a people of God, and sometimes also referred to an assembly. It was used when referring to the beginnings of democracy. But in the New Testament it never referred to a building, a Sunday morning event, or an earthly organization one belonged to. The term ekklesia was not used like we do today :
    “I believe in separation of church and state” (church organization)
    “Bob and Mary became recently became members of our church. ” (organization)
    “I didn’t see you at church yesterday?” (event or building)
    “What time is church?” (event)
    “I’ll pick you up at the church parking lot.” (building)

    What we mean by ‘church’ has changed. We now think institution when we think church. But that is not what the term ekklesia always meant.

    OK, I’ll step down from my pulpit now. 🙂
    God bless ya brother, even though we may not agree on this one.

    • Jon, didn’t the earliest Christians continue meeting in synagogues and even the Temple after Jesus’ ascension? i see what you’re saying, but it seems like the earliest Christians, especially those coming from a background in Judaism, would have gathered and worshiped in a formal structure comparable to the synagogue. i’ll admit i’m sort of taking a guess on this.

      i think we would agree, no matter the structure of the meeting place or how informal/formal the actual meeting is, it is important that Christians continue to gather to worship, communicate the faith, pray for one another, and share in the sacraments.

      • Yes they met in the synagogues. But I don’t think they broke bread in the synagogues. Meeting the Jewish synagogue would be similar to Christians meeting… well in a Jewish synagogue, or in any public arena. The synagogue or Temple was not their special designated building for Christian religious activities. The level of fellowship they had in their homes would have been special, but I believe the early church would have gathered with other believers in many venues. I agree, I don’t think they were concerned with where they met, but that the continued meeting together to build each other up to become more like Christ.

        • Aidan Clevinger says:

          I think you might have a point were it not for two facts: 1. Paul speaks of “official” teachers in the church, 2. The Sacraments are absolutely fundamental to the Christian life, and it’d be hard to conceive of celebrating them in a non-institutional way.

          • That probably depends on your church tradition/theology. Sometimes we ‘break bread’ in homes with friends. For me that is as valid as communion in church.

          • Aidan,
            I’m not sure which passage speaks of “official” teachers in the church. I think it comes down to how much we read into certain terms like episkopous, presbuterous, poimainó, episkopountes.
            I’ve tried to organize some thoughts in a series of posts on elders overseers shepherds: http://jonjourney.blogspot.com/2011/11/summary-on-elders-overseers-shepherds.html

            You are welcome to take a read if you are interested in understanding another point of view. I don’t think these terms need to carry any decision making authority. I don’t think New Testament styled leadership needs to be organized in a hierarchy like we see in governments and corporations. I don’t know if certain leaders needed to be present at baptisms, gatherings, or ‘Lords supper’ celebrations. I don’t know if anyone in the NT went by titles like Minister, Reverend, Pastor, Priest, Deacon, Archbishop, Cardinal, Pope, etc.

    • Jon–as far as I’m concerned, you can do well to stay up on that pulpit. 🙂

      I agree that the church is in no wise a place; it is the gathering of people–community, fellowship.

      Very good, beautiful things can nevertheless easily become idols, including the form, function, and facility of a church.

      By way of the analogy–it’s as if a marriage could end up for some being really about having the American dream of a suburban home, two cars, two kids, a dog, cat (well, maybe not a cat), a good job, and participation in a community that has all of the above, and a fairly healthy and consistent romantic/sex life.

      We can lament all of those misplaced motives and argue the solution is to be rid of them all (no good marriage should be characterized by suburban homes, two cars, two kids, no dogs, and . . . maybe a cat instead.

      For some, perhaps. Some of us need to not meet in church buildings.

      Regardless, committed and sacrificial love for the other is the motive both for authentic marriage and authentic church.

      • “Very good, beautiful things can nevertheless easily become idols, including the form, function, and facility of a church.”

        I think this is the crux of the whole firestorm about this video for me – good things can become corrupted. Christianity without religious trappings is foolish and reckless but consider Jesus’ worst enemies, they were unable to see God because of their religious bent. I came to a point in my life where I realized that had I lived in Jesus’ time, practicing my faith and reading the Scriptures as I did, I would have rejected Him as well. In this case religion can be a hindrance. Simple, non-theological folk (sinners) were able to see God clearly. This is probably why we are to be like children when it comes to faith.

      • Oh, and right re. incorrect citation . . . Heb. 10:25, not 10:27. Good call. And you’re right, forsaking is not merely about church attendance, it’s about forsaking the “gathering,” the community, the fellowship, in whatever form and wherever it may be. But the mere, regular gathering of such a people as the church will necessitate some degree of formality, structure, and ultimately . . . religion.

        • Craig,
          I regularly gather with family members. Typically ever other week. Usually at the grandparents place, but sometimes at one of the other family homes. Some organization is required, but doubt these gatherings will ever be viewed as religion. I think believers can also gather as family without forming a religion. We do it all the time… but we typically don’t call those gatherings ‘church’.

          • My qualification was the regular gathering of “such a people.” Not all groups that gather and are organized are religions; but all gatherings that are comprised of people who are the church are going to be characterized by some organization, structure, and form–even your most informal small group meeting at home will have such. The fault in organized religion is not in the organizing, and it’s not in its being a religion. I believe the fault is in the idolatry that makes the religion something between you and God.

            When the early church designated elders and then deacons, with particular duties and responsibilities (which Paul takes some pains to further define in his epistles), that’s organized, and that’s religion.

  4. Someone asked my pastor about this youtube video (the subject of the post here) and he had some interesting observations about it.

    You can hear them here:

    http://theoldadam.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/why-some-criticize-traditional-religion.mp3

    .

  5. Great thoughts….will be back here Sunday or Monday, as I am off to a silent retreat.

    PLEASE pray for my growth and learning if you can. Thank you, I-monks.

  6. Good points Craig, but I think the people who are trying to throw off the yoke of “religion,” at least in most cases, would argue that they still love the the church, just not religion, as Bethke does in his video. My thinking on this is “very well then, lets see your love for Jesus.” Because if you’re against what you should be against, the best evidence of that is you’ll be very much FOR what you should be for. Let’s analyze a minute: does Bethke’s video say anything of true depth or substance about Jesus: his prophesied coming, birth, baptism, teachings, Kingdom parables and announcement, works of compassion and forgiveness, Sermon on the Mount, prayers, disciple-making methods, Resurrection, Ascension, ongoing reign and presence with his people, return, his defeat of Satan, sin, death…? Anything? I mean lets just take the Resurrection…does he mention it? Not once. Conclusion: no Jesus content equals no encouragement to love Jesus. This is not just this one video, this describes most of what I get from “religionless Christianity.”

    I don’t need a 5 point teaching on Romans, given that the video is piece of poetry, but I do need Jesus-substance. It ain’t there. In fact, Bethke loads up on the law quite a bit. Which is religion. As Fisk astutely pointed out in his response video. Only Bethke doesn’t have Jesus fulfilling the law, just an angsty stare for those that are, in his opinion, breaking it.

    Which is to your point about how you can’t really disassociate from people we don’t like, the reason being that you fall under our own judgment. The big question is, what is this new content that is replacing “religion?” This would take care of all baby/bathwater worries, it seems to me, if we got this question right. The rhetorical answer for these folks is Jesus, of course, but in practice, he quickly fades away. I perused a book recently that triumphantly made a distinction between “authentic Christianity” and “the religion of Christianity.” It made very little mention of Jesus Christ at all, and when it did, it wasn’t Gospel. It had equally little to say about Jesus as Bethke’s video. Thick, thick irony.

    One who doesn’t fall into this trap might be Frank Viola, who doesn’t actually care to rip the institution out away from the church at all, but helpfully deconstructs the assumptions we have about the institution, and urges people to see Christ as their head, and follow him, even if that means staying in the institution. He has thorough and eye-opening things to say about the headship of Christ, rooted in passages like Colossians 1. This might address your question about how to distinguish between the institution and the people within it. I personally don’t feel like it’s too difficult to do that, when a magnificent view of Christ is provided for me.

    So yeah, I guess I’m ready for the reality check that their is no real expression of Christianity that isn’t religious. But more than that I’m waiting to see something a little more Christ-centered than the gobbledy-gook that gets passed off as anti-religion these days. The first mark of True Religion, or “no religion” if that’s your vision, is going to be an all-consuming attraction to Jesus Christ. That means mentioning him, in the flesh, in his identity as the Gospel-bringer. At least, you know, once or twice per book/sermon. Preferably more. I like the wider discussion on this though, it’s bringing up a lot of good points.

    • Agreed. I’d add as well that key to the Gospel Christ brought was summed up in his final parting prayer with his disciples, just before he was to consumate the Gospel with his death and resurrection. John 17 recounts Jesus’ focus and arguably primary concern for the fulfillment of the Gospel in terms of love for the brethren. In fact, per vv. 20-23, loving unity within the Church is a (if not the) foundational means of evangelism. That must the the consumation of our evangelical knowledge and wisdom and truth–the evangelical church of all things should be about loving unity and communion with one another. That, not form or structure or ritual, defines the church AND true religion.

      • True that. And that’s another, in my opinion, under-taught and under-discussed topic that would help keep the pendulum from swinging back and forth– the union Christ has with his church, the church’s unity in him, and that whole notion that when we love one another, we have actually loved him. That Christ indwells the church, that he is “with us always even until the end of the age.” That the Resurrection brings the real presence of Christ into our midst undeniably. That we look for him and await him as a dear friend and absent leader, and that from this reality springs the forms and the rituals that we call “religion.” I’d love to hear more thoughts on this from the Imonastery.

  7. I would agree that the church is an fundamentally organism not an organization, but the organization is that expression of to organism in the world,. like clothes are to the body. It is hard to express ourselves in the world without it.

    • Yes every intentional gathering will have some organization. From When to meet and who is bringing snacks on one end of the spectrum… to a the large scale organization of our mega-churches on the other end – or the RCC if you’d rather point fingers that way.

      How much structure is needed to express ourselves is the question? Is it best to express the body of Christ with a high level of our organization? Is there a danger that we are then reflecting man made systems (religion).

      When there is less structure what gets reflected is the people (good or bad). And the church is people. If the world see’s the church as people, and if the people are living in Christ, they will see Christ.

      Too idealistic?

      • I would say the problem is not so much the degree of organization as when the organization forgets its real goal and its goal becomes to perpetuate the organization. I have seen this tendency both in highly organized systems and informal groups. It is only as we put loving, worshiping and serving God in the center that the organization becomes a true expression of the organism which is the church.

        • Agree. But if I can add we may want to consider how our organization allows brothers and sisters to do all the “one anothers” in scripture that the New Testament both commands and models. What structures (or lack of structures) encourage believers to love each other, care for each other, teach each other, serve each other, pray for each other, submit to each other…. with the goal of building each other up to become more like Christ.
          I fear some structures handicap the majority from exercising their body parts. There are a few members who get a lot of exercise, and are strong and healthy, but many are left on the sidelines watching the show.

          • They may look strong and healthy but I question whether they really are when they are preventing others from properly participating.

    • Like I’ve said before, the only thing worse than organized Christianity is disorganized Christianity.

  8. The reality of life seems to be that there is only the visible church. One day I will see the invisible church, and that is when I die.
    Until then, all I have is what we see now.

    If we accept that, we can learn to love and move on in life. If we can’t, we will be forever frustrated that it does not live up to some imaginary ideal.

    • True. And I’ll add that I recognize we often spend too much time focusing on the church. Jesus actually didn’t seem to talk much about church. Consider that the gospel writers recorded over 100 verses where Jesus talked about the Kingdom. The term church (ekkl?sia) only shows up in two verses in the gospels. Jesus said He would build His church… I think we should let Him do that job as we keep our focus on the kingdom.

      • Aidan Clevinger says:

        …Isn’t the Church the Kingdom of God as it exists in this present world?

        Also, I have to confess that this is where I really love Lutheran ecclesiology. While the Church as a whole is invisible, it is also visible: you can find the Chuch wherever the Gospel is preached and the Sacraments administered. Perfect? By no means. But bound by the grace of Christ and sustained by His presence, in the midst of all troubles, sins, and persecutions.

        • I think that I am with you Aidan.

          For so many years I worked under the assumption that the true church is invisible and it was the way I dealt with the imperfection of the visible church. For me I could then hold to this ideal I could use to measure reality.

          So for most of the time I was disgusted by the reality. And I could actually hate the church, because the real church is invisible, which I loved!

          And now I am thinking that I was wrong. It was a convenient excuse for me to justify not dealing with reality, that is, the brokeness.
          All we really have is the visible church, and that is where the Kingdom is lived out.

        • “you can find the Chuch wherever the Gospel is preached and the Sacraments administered.”
          Do you think that is how ‘church’ ekklesia was defined by Jesus or the NT believers?

          • I wouldn’t know how they “defined” it, seeing as I am not Jesus or the NT authors. The best evidence I have to as what they mean is to look at the generation of believers immediately following them, and seeing how they did things.

          • What do I think church meant to Jesus or NT believers? Thanks for asking. 🙂

            When we see the word church in the new testament it comes from Greek ekklesia :

            ” ekkl?sía(from 1537 /ek, “out from and to” and 2564 /kalé?, “to call”) – properly, people called out from the world and to God, theoutcome being the Church (the mystical body of Christ) – i.e. the universal (total) body of believers whom God calls out from the world and into His eternal kingdom.”
            http://strongsnumbers.com/greek/1577.htm

            The word ekklesia sometimes also referred to an assembly, it was used when referring to the beginnings of democracy.

            We only have two passages with Jesus talking about church. One of them includes the “where two or three are gathered” part.

            There are some verses where church seems to refer to believers in a geographic area, and other verses that refer to a gathering of believers. So I think it is safe to say church is believers, and whenever they get together with other believers.

  9. Just when I was getting a handle on the religion/relationship with God vs. scaffolding/cathedral illustration, I’m afraid you’ve even outdone that one! Great thoughts! This is a tool I can definitely use when witnessing to my evangelical friends.

  10. Anything worth doing requires form.

    A painting has boundaries. A house has corners. Music has a rhythm. The tennis court has an “out of bounds.”

    To do anything well, we have to subject ourselves to institutions, traditions and rules. Or else it won’t work. You can’t spontaneously design a bridge. You can’t spontaneously do church.

    Form is important. Orientation is important. Gestures are important. How we behave before God is important.

    “It is futile to talk of reform without reference to form.” — G.K. Chesterton

    • While I agree that you can’t “spontaneously do church” — not wholesale, anyway — I do believe that some room should be allowed for spontaneity in the church and in church gatherings. If we’re too strict on the form side, then we end up micromanaging the Spirit clean out of our assemblies.
      Besides, I suspect God likes MIles Davis just as much as he likes Mozart.

      • I believe that there should be spontaneity in the service, because the Holy Spirit moves and leads as He will, I think that people make a mistake when they put God in another kind of a box. That box keeps the Holy Spirit from only acting within the bounds of “sharing time” during the service, at the expense of the minister’s time. Be careful that you don’t forget that the minister has spent much time in prayer and study of God’s Word throughout the week. Was the Spirit not at work there, during that process?

        This is not to say that He wasn’t at work during the week, or in the service in a layman’s heart, but there needs to be a balance there. There have been many times at our church during prayer time when one brother will stand up and say let’s gather around so and so for special prayer (if they are facing a particularly tough challenge or health problem) and we do, and we have the freedom to do this at our church.

        But God does not exclusively work through spontaneity (see the OT. He shows a lot of structure and order there, as He does in Creation).

  11. Isn’t “organization”, or structure an inherently human thing? No matter how “radical” or “out there” a rebel group is, once they come to power, or after they’ve been together for a time structure and order of some kind emerges. People can’t help it. Look at the American Revolutionaries. They created a structure, it just looked different from the British one.

    The person who says “I don’t like “organized” religion” and then leaves his or her church, will, invariably create some other alternate structure or organized pattern of behavior to take it’s place, and because they have organized it and structured it according to their desires and wants, they won’t recognize it as a structure. It’s a blind-spot that most every person has, but few recognize in themselves.

    It’s a myth to believe that relationships don’t have structure, at least healthy ones do. Even if it’s basic, there’s still boundaries and rules. My wife wouldn’t be very happy, and I wouldn’t be acting very lovingly if I just slept with whomever I wanted to. So even if I emphasize the relationship factor between myself and God, I will inevitably, create some sort of structure wherein I interact with God.

    So, declaring that you are against all structure, is an irrational statement, and untenable.

  12. There is a growing antagonism against all organizations. This is best described in efforts to deny corporations constitutional protections, as if corporations are not composed of people. There seems to be a revival of Skinner-esque behaviorism afoot: blame society; blame organizations; just don’t blame the individuals who compose society and institutions. Individualism without individual accountability. This is expressed in blaming the group but also in members hiding behind their affiliations without group self-critiicism.

  13. I gotta add, though . . . the image of the Teddy Bears (Jeff Dunn)–really? ;oP

  14. Craig, I appreciate this article and it’s very helpful to me as I think through this issue. One minor note though: this kid says directly that he loves the church. I think that’s an important thing to remember. The questions then becomes, how do we distinguish the church from religion.

    • Good point. I don’t agree with everything in the video either. But I certainly agree that I love church. To me church is people, and whenever they get together. When I look to Scripture to define Christ’s church, that is all I can come up with.

  15. Moonshadow says:

    Yes, exactly. Everything.

    “The answer to loveless marriage is not to deny marriage—so also with faithless religion.” But aloofness is so typically Protestant, as if possible misuse must indicate nonuse.

  16. I just found this blog this morning, and I’m so glad I did. I especially love this post. I just blogged about this very video yesterday, and the sentiments were pretty much in line with what is written here. I did include a video response I had seen that answered Bethke’s poem quite nicely. In this post, I especially loved the analogy comparing religion to marriage, and I totally agree that my faith in God causes me to believe in both. Also, I love the point about the difficulty of separating “religion” from its adherents. Since religion only exists in the minds and actions of people, it seems kind of impossible to separate “religion” from religious people (i.e. the church). And while I may not naturally call myself “pro-religion,” I most certainly am “pro-church.” Thus, while the video did resonate with me deeply, it also made me a little defensive of the body of Christ.