In Defense of Religion

By now you now you have probably seen the YouTube video by Jefferson Bethke entitled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” Posted just six days ago, it has already had 12 million views. It is the epitome of a video gone “viral.”

By now you have probably also already read a thousand blogs that have responded – either positively or negatively – to Bethke’s  sentiments. I am not under the delusion that I will offer anything different, fresh, or all that earth-shattering, but I did nevertheless feel like it would be worth sharing a few reflections because the video touches upon a very relevant topic that betrays an underlying and growing disdain for anything that falls under the “religion” category. This is especially true in this part of America, where the three northern New England states (Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont) are the least religious states, according to a 2009 Gallup Poll (with Maine tying for third with Massachusetts, another New England state). Such a reality is a reflection of the “spiritual, but not religious” attitude that many are finding attractive – a Gandhi-esque, “I like your Christ, but not your Christians,” mentality.

So what are we to make of this mindset and Bethke’s expression of it?

Truthfully, a lot of what Behtke expressed resonated with me a great deal. I tried to listen to his heart – which is an accurate reflection of many, I do believe – as he talked about religion being about man searching for God, while Christianity is about God searching for man. I also recognize that there are many, many people who have been burned out by religion, overwhelmed with the rigid rules that are devoid of love, and the immense hypocrisy that permeates the culture of Christianity.

The typical response to this latter issue is to say something to the effect of, “Well, we’re just all sinful people who aren’t perfect. And so long as you are with a group of people, you will find hypocrisy.” I understand that. It resonates with me. There is a lot of truth to this thought.

But I don’t think it has to be that way and I don’t believe it will always be that way. I think God is bringing together a group of honest-hearted, humble, sincere people who are fully cognizant of their sinfulness, their frailty, their weaknesses, and yet will learn to rely fully upon God for strength and power, till they, as the apostle Paul writes, “all come to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). In fact, I think God is waiting for this to take place before He retrieves us from this fallen planet.

Thus, I applaud Bethke – and so many others – who are not satisfied with the status quo and business as usual and who will not rest until such false religion is expunged from the true Christian’s experience.

Of course, although there were so many positives about his video, there was one glaring challenge with Bethke’s video – a challenge I know he is aware of, and which many people have already identified. His usage of the word “religion” was so ambiguous that it was practically useless. Neither the Bible nor Christ is against religion, per se. In fact, in one of only a handful of places the Bible uses the word, James talks about “pure and undefiled religion” (James 1:27), thereby implying that there is a false form of religion and a true form of religion.

Thus, “religion” itself, as a nebulous term, is not what causes wars, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness. It is religion in the hands of unloving and unsanctified people – which we all are at times – that can be so damaging and deadly.

The truth of the matter is, because there are many people who have had negative experiences with sinful human beings who espouse one religion or another, the tendency is to write the whole thing off altogether. But religion, when positively practiced, provides incredible community, accountability, love, and fellowship. It is these things – in conjunction with a personal walk with God – that one needs in order to grow in his or her walk in grace.

It is to these people that I present this powerful and precious promise, written by one of my favorite authors: “The church is the repository of the riches of the grace of Christ; and through the church will eventually be made manifest, even to ‘the principalities and powers in heavenly places,’ [Ephesians 3:10] the final and full display of the love of God” (Ellen White, Acts of the Apostles, p. 9).

This is, I know, a picture of religion that Bethke and all others who have been burned by religion would find attractive – a picture toward which God is working.