1: “Religion”

I’ve been toying around with the idea for this blog for almost a year, but a recent viral video prompted me to begin now. On January 10th, Jefferson Bethke posted a video of a poem he recites called, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” At the time of this blog post, the video already has over 3 million hits and his been linked to and commented on from a variety of online sources.

Let me say at the outset, I am primarily satisfied with the message of the video and happy that it has reached so many people and caused us all to think.  I took  special notice of it the day after it went viral, in which many of my friends on Facebook were sharing the video, most favorably. Some other friends commented on the poet’s misuse of the word “religion,” and several discussions ensued.

Here is the video:

Before delving into the issue about the word “religion,” I want to note the things I enjoyed from brother Bethke’s poem.

One of the first things he says is, “Voting Republican really wasn’t his mission. . . ‘Republican’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘Christian.'” At first, this strikes me as off-topic. But it’s obvious who he’s trying to reach, and in doing so he’s spot on. The video, as I see it, was intended to dispel the notion that Christianity is an empty religion with its own set of rituals that makes it on par with every other religion. He’s trying to separate Christianity from all the stereotypes about political involvement, judgmentalism, and rote performance.  Bethke refers to the “mask” of religion as “perfume on a casket” and “behavior modification.” His candid testimony illustrates his desire to sincerely present the gospel (and he does highlight the grace of God in Jesus Christ in the poem) to a world seething in ignorance. One of my favorite lines includes an autobiographical statement about his  “whole life building a facade of neatness, but now that I know Jesus I boast in my weakness!”

If by “religion,” this brother means “vain tradition,” then this video is a tremendous blessing. If by “religion,” Bethke means “man’s attempt to cover his own sin,” then the adage he includes, “man searching for God vs. God searching for man” actually fits. If the poem meant to convey the idea that “religion” means “self-righteousness,” then I can say “amen” to the line, “Religion says ‘do’ but Jesus says ‘done.'”

I have no reason to doubt that’s precisely with this brother means to say. And I’m thankful for all the ears who have heard the message in this way. However, many have used his words to legitimize their own disdain for true religion.

In the video, Bethke states that “Jesus came to abolish religion,” a statement quite intriguing in light of Matthew 5:17, which states, ““Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” I wonder how such an oversight could have been made. Bethke calls religion a “man made religion” that “Jesus hated.” These are very strong words and can be taken in a variety of ways.

The Internet audience is diverse. Some may hear the poem and think, “Yes, that’s what I’m looking for! I’m tired of the empty traditions, the self-centered performance, and hypocrisy of organized religion – but I love Jesus!” In these cases, we rejoice. However, how many times has “I don’t believe in organized religion” been said to justify a downplaying of the church? (I realize at one point brother Bethke clarifies himself and says he loves the church, but his anti-religion message is too confusing). What concerned me were comments like this that I saw on social networks:  “I’m not a Christian I just have a relationship with Jesus.”

See, the problem goes way beyond this video. Had the video not been posted, I would have eventually come to the term “religion” because of how much it takes a beating today. I am convinced that one of the prevailing problems in Christianity today, and particularly in modern, Western evangelicalism, is rugged individualism. Church is unnecessary. All that matters is “me and my Bible” and/or “me and Jesus.” We don’t need religion but a relationship.

I submit to you that religion is one of the primary ways that God has given to us to build our relationship with Him!

And just what is religion anyway? Webster’s says,

Recognition on the part of man of a controlling superhuman power of powers entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship; a particular system of faith in and worship of a Supreme Being or a god or gods, an object of conscientious or encompassing devotion.

Biblically, religion is defined similarly to that above. In the Oxford’s Guide to the Bible edited by Bruce Metzger, “religion” is said to mean,

. . . (narrowly), actions, especially cultic or ceremonial, that express reverence for the gods. (Broadly), religion involved a complex of faith and conduct. . . Isaiah 11.2 translates is “fear of the Lord.”

The Apostle James has no problem talking about religion:

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
(James 1:26-27 ESV)

I find it interesting that James also includes things you do as part of “pure religion.” These words coincide nicely with the actions of our Lord and his apostles. After all, Jesus fulfilled the Law. He kept ceremonies and feasts and customs. In fact, he even celebrated Hanukkah (John 10:22-23). While it is true he rebuked the Pharisees for their self-centered, overzealous, hypocritical religion, Jesus did not shy away from religion himself. The fact that the very embodiment of the gospel is religious should teach us the truth that religion and relationship are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, as I said above, the Christian religion is the primary means by which we grow in our relationship with Christ. It cannot be stated strongly enough: God does not call any of his followers to be alone. The idea that we can live the Christian life in isolation is a devastating lie. You need the church. The church needs you. Believers need each other. And if we get together, we’ll need a common confession. And we’ll need some organization, too.

So, that leaves us with an organized group of devoted followers of God in fellowship, helping each other live out a common confession through encouragement, obedience, and practice.  Sounds like religion to me! Pure, biblical, Christian religion. We need the word “religion.” This is our word. Let us redeem this word!

I love Jesus, and I love his religion!

Check out a 2008 article by Voddie Baucham on the “religion” issue – worth your time!


6 Comments on “1: “Religion””

  1. Matthias says:


    I agree with what you have here. When I first saw the video, I appreciated his tone and his intention to distinguish between Christianity and empty religion. But that’s the distinction that I believe should have been made clearer: Worthy religion v. Empty religion. James 1:27 popped into my head immediately, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

    It was especially troubling when I saw a few friends posting the video on Facebook, one of whom was no longer in church though she essentially agreed with the video. I took it as this person’s excuse *not* to be involved in a church. I feel as if the video was formulated to communicate to those who were *outside* Christianity, but I also feel it communicated the wrong thing, as you stated above. It was, in essence, a capitulation to the world’s haphazard misuse of the language, when instead we should, as you also say, be attempting to redeem language.

    The point he makes about religion being a cause of war is legitimate, though it says more about the constituents of the particular religion than the religion itself (except in certain cases where war is mandated). Institutionalized religion may be full of hypocrites, but the world is full of hypocrites. Again, nothing remarkable there. In contrast, no true “relationship with Jesus” exists apart from participation in what the rest of the non-believing world would consider, “religion.”


  2. Dan says:

    Excellent post.

    For the most part I agree with your points and I appreciate the demeanor that you chose to share them with. There are a lot of hateful commentaries out there on this video and it is refreshing to see that you are not one of them.

    I would like to play devil’s advocate a bit, though. I agree that the Bible and the dictionary both give sound definitions of the word religion. But I would suggest that culture also has provided a definition for religion. And while it is glaringly off base, it is a definition. Culture changes language. And if there are people out there who do not read the dictionary or the Bible, and this is their definition of religion, do you think that there is validity in communicating with them in their own language?

    As to the following point: “I submit to you that religion is one of the primary ways that God has given to us to build our relationship with Him!” I would disagree with this statement also. While religion and a relationship with God are not mutually exclusive, and while a relationship with God will result in the outward actions of true religion, I would suggest that religions is focused on those around us (at least by James’ definition) and not necessarily on the God that has redeemed us. Religion, as i see it, is not equivalent with Ritual, but the two may coexist peacefully.

    Looking forward to your upcoming posts!


    • Thanks for the comments, Dan.

      Regarding words and culture, you have a point. I considered this problem, and continue to do so, as I work through this blog idea. Indeed, culture has created new definitions of words, and sometimes its best to deal with what we’ve got now. My “About the Blog” section offers the following disclaimer in light of this complex issue:

      “As a permanent disclaimer, this site is not an attempt to say ‘therefore Christians should use these words.’ Who am I to suggest such a thing? I understand the need to choose words carefully, and different contexts call for different terms.”

      I was thinking about this earlier today: for many years, the word “gay” had a totally different meaning than it does today, primarily through the changing definition given by culture. Should I then write a post redeeming the word “gay?” In that case, I don’t think it’s necessary, and it would not follow the intent of the site either because that would be the changing of a uniquely English word, but not necessarily a biblical word (except for the use of it in the KJV and other older English versions).

      Religion, however, is different. Yes, society has come up with its own idea, and the guy in the video seems to address them in their terms. But I think at this point we have a choice: do we settle for engaging on soiled ground, or do we chose to redeem the term and use it for what it’s truly worth? Obviously, I choose the latter. I think it’s far more helpful to bring out the proper definition and point to what it actually means for all of us. In addition, the culture’s definition of “religion” carries with it a certain disdain for any organization, any institution, and adherence to ritual whatsoever, and quite frankly, that’s an attitude from which I want to redeem the term “religion.”

      As for your disagreement with my statement that religion is one of the primary means God gives us to build our relationship with him, I see what you’re saying but I remain committed to that point. James isn’t the only time religion comes up in the Bible (perhaps I should have elaborated on this point in the post but I’m trying to remain committed to shorter posts – after all, the comment section exists for elaboration!):

      Acts 2:42 says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

      The word for “devoted” is similar to the definition of religion given above. The acts of fellowship and prayers and breaking of bread are all aspects of religious devotion. Jesus has given to us a religion called Christianity, and it’s designed to bring us closer to him.

      If you only go with James’ definition you have a point, but I’m thinking of the term as it’s historically been used. James corroborates this, but the definition is not limited to James. Besides, the sense of James is that those acts will flow from a person’s religious piety, not create it. Anyway, my major point is this false dichotomy of “religion vs. relationship’ is misguided and feeds the ruggedly individualistic tendencies of self-centeredness.

      The normative mode of growth for the Christian in his walk with God occurs within the fellowship of believers. It is there that mentors guide, fellowship encourages, sacraments are administered, the word is preached, and worship is exemplified. If we cut ourselves of from these religious practices, we are not following the New Testament’s prescriptions for growth in Christ.

      (that comment is just about as long as the post – sorry!)

  3. […] of Terms 1: “Religion” […]

  4. Roberto G. says:

    Good stuff Damien!

  5. Hey Bro. I am in 100% agreement. While this video is being celebrated, it distorts the Biblical meaning of religion and has become an enabler for those who want to have nothing to do with any religious practices (i.e., going to church, reading the Bible, etc). That opens the door to worshiping a “Jesus of your own choosing.”

    Pure religion is indeed a holy, good and beautiful part of our lives in Christ. Great post! God bless.

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