UPDATE: Since I posted this article, Jefferson Bethke and I have had a chance to talk by email and over the phone. I included some of our conversation in a follow up post. I hope you will be as encouraged by the exchange as I was.
There’s a new You Tube video going viral and it’s about Jesus and religion.
Specifically how Jesus hates religion.
The video—which in a few days has gone from hundreds of views to thousands to millions—shows Jefferson Bethke, who lives in the Seattle area, delivering a well-crafted, sharply produced, spoken word poem. The point, according to Bethke, is “to highlight the difference between Jesus and false religion.” In the past few days I’ve seen this video pop up all over Facebook. I’ve had people from my church say they like it. Some has asked me what I think. Others have told me there’s something off about the poem, but they can’t quite articulate what it is. I’ll try to explain what that is in a moment. But first watch the video for yourself.
Before I say anything else, let me say Jefferson Bethke seems like a sincere young man who wants people to know God’s scandalous grace. I’m sure he’s telling the truth when he says on his Facebook page: “I love Jesus, I’m addicted to grace, and I’m just a messed up dude trying to make Him famous.” If I met him face to face, I bet I’d like Jefferson and his honesty and passion. I bet I’d be encouraged by his story and his desire to free people from the snares of self-help, self-righteous religion.
And yet (you knew it was coming), amidst a lot of true things in this poem there is a lot that is unhelpful and misleading.
This video is the sort of thing that many younger Christians love. It sounds good, looks good, and feels good. But is it true? That’s the question we must always ask. And to answer that question, I want to go through this poem slowly, verse by verse. Not because I think this is the worst thing ever. It’s certainly not. Nor because I think this video will launch a worldwide revolution. I want to spend some time on this because Bethke perfectly captures the mood, and in my mind the confusion, of a lot of earnest, young Christians.
What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion
What if I told you voting republican really wasn’t his mission
What if I told you republican doesn’t automatically mean Christian
And just because you call some people blind
Doesn’t automatically give you vision
Okay, so the line about Republicans is a cheap shot (if you vote GOP) or a prophetic stance (if you like Jim Wallis). While it’s true that “republican doesn’t automatically mean Christian” and in some parts of the country that may be a word churchgoers need to hear, I doubt that putting right-wingers in their place is the most pressing issue in Seattle.
More important is Bethke’s opening line: “Jesus came to abolish religion.” That’s the whole point of the poem. The argument—and most poems are arguing for something—rests on the sharp distinction between religion on one side and Jesus on the other. Whether this argument is fair depends on your definition of religion. Bethke sees religion as a man made attempt to earn God’s favor. Religion equals self-righteousness, moral preening, and hypocrisy. Religion is all law and no gospel. If that’s religion, then Jesus is certainly against it.
But that’s not what religion is. We can say that’s what is has become for some people or what we understand it to be. But words still matter and we shouldn’t just define them however we want. “Jesus hates religion” communicates something that “Jesus hates self-righteousness” doesn’t. To say that Jesus hates pride and hypocrisy is old news. To say he hates religion—now, that has a kick to it. People hear “religion” and think of rules, rituals, dogma, pastors, priests, institutions. People love Oprah and the Shack and “spiritual, not religious” bumper stickers because the mood of our country is one that wants God without the strictures that come with traditional Christianity. We love the Jesus that hates religion.
The only problem is, he didn’t. Jesus was a Jew. He went to services at the synagogue. He observed Jewish holy days. He did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). He founded the church (Matt. 16:18). He established church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20). He instituted a ritual meal (Matt. 26:26-28). He told his disciples to baptize people and to teach others to obey everything he commanded (Matt. 28:19-20). He insisted that people believe in him and believe certain things about him (John 3:16-18; 8:24). If religion is characterized by doctrine, commands, rituals, and structure, then Jesus is not your go-to guy for hating religion. This was the central point behind the book Ted Kluck and I wrote a few years ago.
The word “religion” occurs five times in English Standard Version of the Bible. It is, by itself, an entirely neutral word. Religion can refer to Judaism (Acts 26:5) or the Jewish-Christian faith (Acts 25:19). Religion can be bad when it is self-made (Col. 2:23) or fails to tame the tongue (James 1:26). But religion can also be good when it cares for widows and orphans and practices moral purity (James 1:27). Unless we define the word to suit our purposes, there is simply no biblical grounds for saying Jesus hated religion. What might be gained by using such language will, without a careful explanation and caveats, be outweighed by what is lost when we give the impression that religion is the alloy that corrupts a relationship with Jesus.
I mean if religion is so great, why has it started so many wars
Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor
Tells single moms God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever had a divorce
But in the old testament God actually calls religious people whores
These claims say very little because they try to say too much. Have there been religious wars in the last two thousand years? Yes. Have there also been wars over money, land, ego, women, slavery, democracy, freedom, communism, fascism, Nazism, terrorism and just about everything else you can imagine? Yes. Furthermore, if you want to blame conflict on religion, you can’t neatly excise Jesus from the equation. You may not like the Crusades, but many of the Crusaders thought they were sincerely fighting for Jesus by trying take back the Holy Land from the Muslims.
More to the point, Christians need to stop perpetuating the myth that we’ve basically been huge failures in the world. That may win us an audience with non-Christians, but it’s not true. We are sinners like everyone else, so our record is mixed. We’ve been stupid and selfish over the years. But we’ve also been the salt of the earth. The evangelical awakening in England in the eighteenth century is widely credited for preventing the sort of bloodbath that swept over France in the “enlightened” French Revolution. Christians (and conservatives in general) give more to charitable causes than their secular counterparts. Christians run countless shelters, pregnancy centers, rescue missions, and food pantries. Christians operate orphanages, staff clinics, dig wells, raise crops, teach children, and fight AIDS around the globe. While we can always do more and may be blind to the needs around us at times, there is no group of people on the planet that do more for the poor than Christians. If you know of a church with a dozen escalators and no money and no heart for the hurting, then blast that church. But we have to stop the self-flagellation and the slander that says Christians do nothing for the poor.
As for divorce, it is often (but not always) wrong. Even when it is wrong, there is forgiveness when people repent. Shame on any church that doesn’t think or demonstrate that there is room at the cross for unwed or divorced moms.
And about the harsh language in the Old Testament—it cuts both ways. All people in the Old Testament, and in the entire ancient near east for that matter, were religious people. Some of them were fakes and hypocrites and whores. Some were idolaters and adulterers. Some performed their rituals and went on to ignore the weightier matters of the law. And some of the religious people were God’s remnant, God’s holy people, and God’s friends. In both Testaments, God has no problem rebuking religious people and no problem loving them either.
Religion might preach grace, but another thing they practice
Tend to ridicule God’s people, they did it to John The Baptist
They can’t fix their problems, and so they just mask it
Not realizing religions like spraying perfume on a casket
See the problem with religion, is it never gets to the core
It’s just behavior modification, like a long list of chores
Like lets dress up the outside make look nice and neat
But it’s funny that’s what they use to do to mummies
While the corpse rots underneath
I’ve already said that I don’t think “religion” is the right term for what Bethke is talking about. But he has done a great job here of describing false religion. Jesus blasted the Pharisees for being “whitewashed tombs,” for looking beautiful on the outside and full of dead people’s bones on the inside, for appearing righteous but being full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matt. 23:27-28). It is possible for churches and churchgoers to have the reputation for being alive, but actually be dead (Rev. 3:1). Some churches claim to love grace, but all they give you is legalism. Bethke is hitting on a real problem.
Now I ain’t judgin, I’m just saying quit putting on a fake look
Cause there’s a problem
If people only know you’re a Christian by your Facebook
I mean in every other aspect of life, you know that logic’s unworthy
It’s like saying you play for the Lakers just because you bought a jersey
You see this was me too, but no one seemed to be on to me
Acting like a church kid, while addicted to pornography
See on Sunday I’d go to church, but Saturday getting faded
Acting if I was simply created just to have sex and get wasted
See I spent my whole life building this facade of neatness
But now that I know Jesus, I boast in my weakness
I wish Bethke, and critics like him, would admit that they are “judgin.” He is evaluating Christianity. He is criticizing church as he sees it. The whole poem is a harsh judgment on religious people. Granted, judging is not the same as judgmentalism. After all, I’m judging this poem. So I don’t think what Bethke is doing is wrong. I just wish he wouldn’t try to claim the moral high ground.
Other than that, this is another good verse. Bethke tells his own story to prove that we can be real good at fooling everyone, including ourselves. We need to realize that there are plenty of people in many of our churches who seem to have it all together but don’t. They are kidding themselves and we should not encourage such self-deception.
Because if grace is water, then the church should be an ocean
It’s not a museum for good people, it’s a hospital for the broken
Which means I don’t have to hide my failure, I don’t have to hide my sin
Because it doesn’t depend on me it depends on him
See because when I was God’s enemy and certainly not a fan
He looked down and said I want, that, man
Which is why Jesus hated religion, and for it he called them fools
Don’t you see so much better than just following some rules
Now let me clarify, I love the church, I love the Bible, and yes I believe in sin
But if Jesus came to your church would they actually let him in
See remember he was called a glutton, and a drunkard by religious men
But the Son of God never supports self righteousness not now, not then
There is much that is good and a few things that are confused in this verse. The church should be an ocean of grace. We don’t have to hide our sins before God. It doesn’t depend on us. We should love the church and the Bible and believe that sin exists. Jesus died for us while we were yet sinners. Jesus never supported self-righteousness. All of that is wonderfully and powerfully true.
But let me raise a few other points.
One, we have to remember that the purpose of a hospital is to help sick people get better. I’m sure Bethke would agree with that. But there is no indication in this poem that the grace that forgives is also the grace that transforms. Following Jesus is more than keeping rules, but it’s not less. In one sense, loving Jesus is also all about keeping rules (John 14:15, 21, 23-24). I’m not sure how the Jesus of John 14 fits in the world of Bethke’s poem.
Two, there is no inherent dignity in being broken. Jesus likes the honesty that acknowledges sin, hates it and turns away, but he does not love authenticity for its own sake. We have to be more careful with our language. When Paul boasted of his weakness, he was boasting of his suffering, his lack of impressiveness, and the trials he endured (1 Cor. 2:3; 2 Cor. 11:30; 12:9). He never boasted of his temptations or his sins—past or present. That’s not what he meant by weakness. Being broken is not the point, except to be forgiven and changed.
Three, as I’ve mentioned before, the religious leaders hated Jesus, first and foremost because they thought he was a blasphemer who dared to make himself equal with God (Matt. 26:57-68; Mark 14:53-65; Luke 22:66-71; and less clearly in John 18:19-24). It’s true that many of the religious elite found Jesus too free with his meals and his associations. They called him a “glutton and drunkard” (Luke 7:34), though he wasn’t either. But they also said John the Baptist “has a demon” (Luke 7:33). They were just as opposed to John’s asceticism as they were upset with Jesus’ liberty. More than hating grace, the Jewish leaders hated the truth about Christ and found ways to reject God’s messengers.
Now back to the point, one thing is vital to mention
How Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums
See one’s the work of God, but one’s a man made invention
See one is the cure, but the other’s the infection
See because religion says do, Jesus says done
Religion says slave, Jesus says son
Religion puts you in bondage, while Jesus sets you free
Religion makes you blind, but Jesus makes you see
And that’s why religion and Jesus are two different clans
I won’t repeat my initial comments about religion and Jesus and whether they are really “on opposite spectrums.” I don’t think they are. That point notwithstanding, Bethke speaks the truth in this section. The differences between slavery and sonship, bondage and freedom, blindness and sight are all biblical themes.
I think the line about “religion says do, Jesus says done” can be misleading. Too many people hear that as “relationship not rules” when we’ve already seen that Jesus wants us to do everything he has commanded (Matt. 28:20). But if “do” means “do this to earn my favor” then the contrast is very appropriate.
Religion is man searching for God, Christianity is God searching for man
Which is why salvation is freely mine, and forgiveness is my own
Not based on my merits but Jesus’s obedience alone
Because he took the crown of thorns, and the blood dripped down his face
He took what we all deserved, I guess that’s why you call it grace
And while being murdered he yelled
“Father forgive them they know not what they do.”
Because when he was dangling on that cross, he was thinking of you
And he absorbed all of your sin, and buried it in the tomb
Which is why I’m kneeling at the cross, saying come on there’s room
So for religion, no I hate it, in fact I literally resent it
Because when Jesus said it is finished, I believe he meant it
There is a lot to like with this final section. Great affirmation of Jesus active obedience. Great focus on the cross. Great invitation for sinners to come to Christ. I think Bethke understands justification by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone. I would have liked to have heard something about the wrath of God being poured out on the cross as opposed to simply “absorb[ing] all of your sin.” But given Bethke’s previous video criticizing Love Wins, it’s best to give him the benefit of the doubt. Similarly, I’m not sure it’s best to so emphasize that Jesus was thinking of us on the cross. The “joy set before” him in Hebrews 12:2 was the joy of being seated at God’s right hand, not the joy of being with us as Bethke advocates in another video. But these are smaller points that do not negate the strong message of grace and forgiveness.
I know I’ve typed a bunch of words about a You Tube video that no one may be talking about in a month. But, as I said at the beginning, there is so much helpful in this poem mixed with so much unhelpful—and all of it so common—that I felt it worth the effort to examine the theology in detail.
The strengths in this poem are the strengths I see in many young Christians—a passionate faith, a focus on Jesus, a love for grace, and a hatred for anything phony or self-righteous. The weaknesses here can be the weaknesses of my generation (and younger)—not enough talk of repentance and sanctification, a tendency to underestimate the importance of obedience in the Christian life, a one-dimensional view of grace, little awareness that our heavenly Father might ever discipline his children or be grieved by their continued transgression, and a penchant for sloganeering instead of careful nuance.
I know the internet is a big place, but a lot of people are connected to a lot of other people. So who knows, maybe Jefferson Bethke will read this blog. If you do, brother, I want you to know I love what you love in this poem. I watched you give your testimony and give thanks to God for his work in your life. I love the humble desire to be honest about your failings and point people to Christ. I love that you love the church and the Bible. I love that you want people to really get the gospel. You have important things to say and millions of people are listening. So make sure as a teacher you are extra careful and precise (James 3:1). If you haven’t received formal theological training, I encourage you to do so. Your ministry will be made stronger and richer and longer lasting. I encourage you to speak from the Bible before you speak from your own experience. I encourage you to love what Jesus loves without tearing down what he also loves and people are apt to misunderstand. I encourage you to dig deep into the whole counsel of God.
Thanks for reminding us about Jesus. But try to be more careful when talking about religion. After all, there is one religion whose aim is to worship, serve, know, proclaim, believe, obey, and organize around this Jesus. And without all those verbs, there’s not much Jesus left.