Over the last two days, a video by spoken word artist Jeff Bethke called “Why I hate religion but love Jesus” has gone viral on youtube.
It’s been interesting to see the wide range of people who have hyped up this video on Facebook, from über-committed Christians who study the Bible 7 days a week to people who say they believe in Jesus but won’t go to church. It probably resonates with so many different people because it doesn’t take any obvious stances other than a basic rebellious attitude that claims the higher ground by supporting “Jesus” over “religion,” whatever “religion” is supposed to mean. Some of my fellow Christian bloggers and seminary-educated folk weren’t all that impressed and got a little hot with me for sharing the video on my Facebook page. Check out this prickly review from Jonathan Fitzgerald.
In any case, I wanted to offer my own take on the problem addressed by this video: why do Christians end up acting exactly like the religious elites, or Pharisees, who were Jesus’ enemies when He was alive, if the whole point of Jesus coming was to make us different? This issue that Bethke highlights in his video is a paradox at the core of Christian identity: we are inherently the religion that seeks to end “religion” (at least in the sense of following a checklist of rules to stay on good terms with God). Religion at its worst amounts to people doing the right things because they want to be right about everything, which makes them self-righteous jerks who are always looking for heretics to crucify. An authentic relationship with Jesus Christ makes it possible to do right without needing to be right, because Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins makes it safe to admit that we’re wrong and God is the only one who’s right. Accepting Jesus’ death for our sins makes it possible to be grateful, inspired ambassadors of God’s love (good religion) instead of embittered, judgmental rule-followers (bad religion).
The reason Jesus had so much conflict with the Pharisees was because they followed the letter of the Jewish law but not the spirit of it, and they used the Bible to give themselves power and oppress other people. Bethke is protesting the way that too many Christians do precisely the same thing today. But I don’t think “religion” is the right word for the problem, because I don’t see Christians getting judgmental and nasty with each other for not doing communion every week or not using the right-colored candles in their church services. I’m going to use the word “doctrine” instead, because an epidemic-sized proportion of “born-again” Christians think that having the right theological opinions and political stances is what saves you rather than Jesus Christ Himself. Their self-righteousness doesn’t come from performing certain rituals or doing good deeds but from having the right opinions, or doctrine. Doctrine is the idol that has taken the place of Jesus in American evangelical Christianity. Our worship of doctrine instead of Jesus has become today’s greatest heresy.
The problem stems from a misinterpretation of a very important concept that is the cornerstone of evangelical theology called justification by faith. There are many Bible verses behind this concept, but Ephesians 2:8-9 provides the most concise summary that I’ve found: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” We are saved and made right with God by our faith in Jesus, not because of any works that we do, whether they’re good deeds, sacrifices, rituals, prayers, or anything else. The critical question is what constitutes faith and what constitutes a work.
Many evangelicals think that faith refers to a list of things that they’re supposed to believe about the world and about God. You can see examples of these lists on the “What We Believe” pages of many church websites. Some of these lists are very long. Different churches have different lists. And Christians who go to these different churches have very fierce arguments with one another in which the other person is not just wrong but on their way to hell for having the wrong doctrine. Thus we end up taking on the form of “religion” that Jesus came to stop us from having, which makes us into mean, defensive, argumentative people.
I know it sounds weird to say this, but believing all the right things in order to be right is exactly what’s wrong with many Christians. In the dichotomy between faith and works, having the right doctrine ends up being a work rather than faith since it becomes a source of self-righteousness (note how Ephesians 2:9 describes the reason we are justified by faith: “so that no one can boast”).
The way that we are set free from the boasting that keeps us at war with God and each other is through trusting that the blood Jesus shed for our sins is completely sufficient to set us right with God (independent of whatever rituals we perform or doctrines we espouse). This realization of trust is what faith really means. It saves us from being self-righteous jerks out to crucify others, which allows us to have peace with God. As Ephesians says, it’s not something we can work up in ourselves. God gives it to us as a gift.
Good doctrine is very important to the learning process by which God gives us faith, but it isn’t itself what saves us and thinking that it is can keep us unsaved. The faith that saves us is not the result of anything good that we do, which is why it’s able to short-circuit and jettison the bad form of religion in which our goal is to be right. If Jesus’ blood is what makes us right, then we don’t have to worry about being right, which means we can disagree with other Christians about doctrine without needing to condemn them to hell in order to feel secure that we’re not going there.
On the one hand, I don’t hate doctrine at all. I’m very passionate about teaching good doctrine, because I see how theological misconceptions have created an utter mess in American evangelical Christianity today. But I do hate the heresy by which believing the right things about Jesus has replaced trusting in the person of Jesus. Every good thing turns ugly when it becomes an idol, even doctrine. As Jesus says to the Pharisees in Matthew 19:17, “There is only one who is good.” He is the only one worthy of our worship. We cannot be saved by what we believe, only by what He has done.