• Love Jesus and Love [Pure] Religion! (A response to a YouTube phenomenon)

    Posted by Matt

    10 April, 2012

    I’m unashamedly proud of my local church. We have an incredible impact on our local community, from cell groups that gather people together to share meals and fellowship in homes, to our op-shop-come-food-bank that gives real help to our marginalised neighbours, and our RESPONSE program connecting new refugee arrivals from the Congo with an Australian partner family. I’m also passionate about the global Church’s impact on the world’s most stubborn issues; things like racism, global poverty, human trafficking. When the Church unites, she is an unstoppable force for good that no one can stop.

    That’s why when I saw Jefferson Bethke’s YouTube sensation Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus, something didn’t sit right.

    Are you one of the 20 million people who have watched the compelling video posted by 22-year-old Jefferson? What did you think? How did it leave you feeling? Pumped up? Justified in your own discontent with “the Church”? More in love with Jesus? Or perhaps confused ...  wondering if you should hate religion too? Or what he means by “religion”? Organised religion? Other religions? False religions? Our religion? The Church? My church?

    Personally, I liked Jefferson’s clip. It was passionate, spoken from the heart and declared God’s righteousness and lordship over all. Still, I felt it was missing something: a defence of the kind of “pure religion” claimed by James in James 1:27. This is the kind of religion prevalent where the Church is standing toe to toe with injustice and oppression—and often winning out.

    Now, from the outset I want to make something crystal clear. I am repulsed by the quick willingness of so many in the Church who take pot-shots at other pastors, Christian writers and even entire denominations. Philippians 2:2 calls us to unity above all else. So this article is not a critique of Jefferson himself or his ministry, but rather the continuation of a fantastic opportunity for discussion that has been opened up by the wildfire spread of his video.

    Jefferson’s opening line sets the tone for what follows: “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?” It’s piercing, thought provoking and confrontational. But is it right? “Kinda, sorta, but not really,” is the answer of Kevin DeYoung from the Gospel Coalition, who has written a thorough article addressing the definitions and biblical underpinnings of Jefferson’s poem. As DeYoung says, “Whether this argument is fair depends on your definition of religion,” because what Jefferson is really attacking is “false religion” in the form of Christians and churches who may preach the love of Jesus but exhibit judgmentalism, condemnation and hypocrisy.

    It is entirely correct to assert that Jesus truly did hate this form of religion–He rebuked the Pharisees for being “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead peoples bones and uncleanness ... hypocrisy and lawlessness.” However, to make the blanket statement—as Jefferson does—that “Jesus hates religion” is not only unhelpful but potentially tragic. It covers over all the good the Church has done in the world.

    We live in a society where it is popular to dismiss and reject the Church, but remain open to experiences of “spirituality” and even Jesus—as long as He comes without strings attached. But the Church is Jesus’ bride and the two cannot be separated. I’ve certainly been guilty of marring her with my own grumblings and accusations. But the more I invest, serve, mourn and celebrate in the Church, the more I am drawn to protect and uphold her.

    Yet, people have been hurt by “the Church” and our history is tainted with some moments we wish we could erase. Jefferson is right—sometimes we get caught practicing “false religion”, the hypocritical kind that, in his words, “likes to dress up on the outside and look nice and neat … funny, that’s what they use to do to mummies while the corpse rots underneath.” It’s a sharp contrast from the picture of “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless” we are given in James 1:27—“to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” If we unite this vision of “pure religion” with John’s description of “pure love” in 1 John 3:16 as the kind that is willing “to lay down our lives for our brothers”, we get a clear and beautiful picture of a Church bound to pursuing justice and mercy at any cost—nothing mummy-like about it. It’s a Church that can—and in so many ways, is—restoring hope and life to a broken world in the name of Jesus. It’s a Church we should celebrate, not denigrate.

    It is this Church that I see in movements like Micah Challenge. Micah Challenge unites Christian agencies, churches, groups and individuals from a broad and expansive background of perspectives and theologies to inspire the Australian Church to find its collective voice in challenging our government and community on behalf of the poor. And the results are nothing short of incredible. Since Micah Challenge Australia began in 2004, more than 114,000 people around Australia have signed the Micah Call to show their support for Micah Challenge and the Millennium Development Goals. And as a result of hundreds of face to face meetings held by Micah Challenge advocates with their local federal politicians, thousands of letters written in churches, and hours and hours of painstaking research to make policy recommendations, literally millions of extra dollars have been contributed through Australia’s foreign aid budget and thousands of lives have been saved.

    That’s “organised” religion by any definition—and the sort I’m proud to call my own.

    Matt Darvas is a former Political Engagement Intern with Micah Challenge and now works for Compassion Australia's Advocacy Network.