The greatest oversimplification of the Christian faith in our time is as follows: “Jesus came to abolish religion.” Or “Jesus hates religion.” Or “Jesus wants a relationship and not religion.” It’s an argument that has been somewhat dear to the center of my convictions, because it was one of the dominant themes of my high school Young Life club – where I got saved. But is the argument valid?
It’s a game of semantics really.
In the first place, what does the word “religion” actually mean? Webster’s Dictionary (my nemesis from high school English class) defines the word “religion” as “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices” or “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.” When we say that Jesus hates religion, are we saying that Jesus is opposed to having any personal convictions or beliefs? … Are we saying that Jesus could have penned the song “Imagine” by John Lennon with its talk of no heaven, hell or religion? … Are we saying that Jesus had no ardor (meaning strident energy or seal … not to be confused with the love of trees) or faith? … Surely the second person of the Trinity didn’t go through all the trouble to take on human flesh to declare to His creation: “Do whatever you wish … Believe whatever you wish … It’s all cool with me.”
In contrast, some pastors are openly channeling Martin Luther when they discuss “relationship vs. religion.” This form of the attack on “religion” comes from a well-intentioned and even Biblical position. While most religious systems throughout the world base salvation or enlightenment on personal works or achievements, the message of Jesus Christ bases salvation on God’s grace alone through faith alone. Ephesians 2:8 (ESV) states: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Instead of trying to ascend to heaven to get to God, God descends from heaven to rescue us. From the Garden of Eden onward, our God desires for us to have a relationship with Him and not just hollow acts of devotion. Jesus often attacked the Pharisees for this point. The Pharisees would tithe out of their spice racks but would fail to have compassion on the marginalized members of their society. The Pharisees looked good in the eyes of the applauding public but ultimately their hearts were deceitful and unchanged. So in that Reformation-esque frame of reference of “faith vs. works,” God does desire relationship and not empty religious actions.
From this standpoint, I can imagine that the “religion vs. relationship” argument probably flourishes in many churches because it’s simple, catchy and both words begin with the letter “R.” As a seminary trained Southern Baptist minister, I can vouch that pastors are suckers for alliteration.
Unfortunately, the “religion vs. relationship” argument has been hijacked to connote something other than “faith vs. works.” Sometimes words wind up taking on new meanings like when Michael Jackson tried to convince us that “bad” meant “good” back in the 1980s (I never bought it). Similarly, “religion” has become a hipster code word for the traditional, organized church. To this end, the “relationship vs. religion” argument channels many people’s different frustrations into a focused attack against traditional, organized church. If all God wants is just to hang out with people, then why do we need all these multi-million dollar church facilities and over-paid ministers anyway? For that matter, why do I need to bother committing to a church at all if I can commune with God in my home in my PJs or at Starbucks with some hot java? To hear many people now describe the “religion vs. relationship” argument, you’d think that Jesus wanted everybody to have an unstructured quiet time in a meadow followed by a drum circle and meditative emo acoustic worship in minor keys. Then go have a torch-carrying mob burn down every mega-church like a scene from the movie “Frankenstein.”
For this reason, the word “religious” has gotten a bad reputation because it’s also commonly used as a label for over-zealous religious types. No one wants to be “religious” anymore. It’s about as cool as “mom jeans.” Being “religious” connotes that you’re a bike helmet wearing, door-knocking Mormon missionary. And no one wants to be the guy who interrupts another family’s dinner. It’s so much more hip to be “spiritual.” If you’re “spiritual,” you’re the culturally enlightened guy who drinks lattés, carries a man purse, rocks a deep-V and at some point in his life has worn a “soul patch.” The “spiritual” guy has never knocked on anyone’s door to share his faith … He’s got dinner reservations at the Thai-Ethiopian restaurant down the street anyway.
But there’s another very extraordinarily raw nerve at work as well: Religious hypocrisy. Many of us grew up in a more traditional church worship style where eccentric conventions straight out of “Footloose” were commonplace (“Hey you! Stop dancing, cut your hair, take out your earrings and stop listening to the back-masked homicidal messages in the Judas Priest record!”). Many will read the gospel accounts of the Pharisees and immediately think of hypocritical members of past churches: The pastor who ran off to Florida with his 20-year old secretary … The church treasurer that systematically stole millions from the church budget over a period of years … The Sunday School teacher that went through an ugly nuclear-level divorce … The teens that sang “Lord I Lift Your Name On High” at Wednesday youth group and went to the drunken orgy on Friday night. In church, we are often falsely taught to view our church leaders as Superman, who later engender our grave disappointment when they cannot leap tall buildings in a single bound. If it were true that Jesus hated religion (and vis-à-vis church), then it gives license to dump the hypocrisy and sheer disappointment often found in the organized church.
For those vigorously pushing back against the organized church with the argument that “Jesus hates religion,” I understand what it’s like to be disappointed in the church … I understand what it feels like to be disconnected to a particular style of worship … I understand what it’s like to feel handcuffed by church tradition … I understand that the church sometimes seems meandering and unfocused. But Jesus does not share your animosity towards the church. Jesus does not hate His church. The church is the beloved bride of Christ, for whom He shed His precious blood, and is His appointed means of accomplishing His mission of sharing His gospel into the world.
But here’s the ultimate point: Jesus never stated that his mission was to abolish religion. Period. Not in the Bible. Furthermore, Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, faithfully observed the practices of the Jewish faith, participated in all of the Jewish festivals, had core convictions about His worldview and said this statement about His religion: “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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20 ESV)
Yes … Jesus was “religious” in every lexical sense of the word:
- Jesus had core convictions and beliefs. The Sermon on the Mount and the parables tell us the worldview of the God who created the universe then came into flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus was universally considered to be a Rabbi that sought to share His conviction with others. People desired to pack like sardines into houses to sit and listen at Jesus’ feet.
- Jesus had faith and urged His disciples to have faith. The God who calms the storms and walks on the water urges His disciples to step out of the boat in faith as well.
- Jesus had ardor and zeal for His beliefs. We find out that Jesus is pretty skilled with a whip when He chases the moneychangers out of the Temple. Jesus compares the Pharisees to decorated graves and openly mocks their attempts at hollow piety. When Peter refused to accept Jesus’ mission to die on the cross, He called him Satan. Jesus wept over and had compassion for the lost and the perishing. Jesus was not a robot.
- Jesus and His disciples participated in organized religious celebrations. The Gospels record Jesus participating in and fulfilling nearly every major Jewish religious observance.
- Jesus liked hanging out in religious establishments. Even at age 12, Jesus could be found teaching at the Temple. It was His Father’s house! Not only did Jesus teach in private homes, mountainsides and seasides, He taught in the synagogues and the Temple frequently.
On top of all of this, James – the brother of Jesus – goes on to describe in James 1:26-27 that there is false religion and true religion. And God the Father accepts true religion. God the Father does not reject all religion.
In summary, the argument of “Jesus hates religion” fails simply because it is imprecise and unclear. In using the word “religion,” does it mean that Jesus hates conviction and belief? Religious works? Traditional church? Over-zealous religious types? Hypocrisy? The correct answers are no, depends (see James 2:14-17), no, no and absolutely, but – at the end of the day – it all winds up being as clear as mud. Let’s all resolve to be more precise in our theological language, because the gospel is at stake.