The Case for Harmony

Update (1/15/2012): Jeff Bethke, the man in the video, has put on his Twitter account that much of the critiques he has faced are spot on and warranted. He states that he will use better words and terminology in the future. May we respect, admire, and emulate his humility.

I love religion. Specifically, I love the Christian religion. One of the reasons I love this particular religion (over the many others readily available) is because it is objectively true and allows for authentic personal relationships. There has been a cultural and sociological movement away from the religious emphasis over the past few years. Most recently, a video gone viral on the internet (which can be seen at the bottom of this post) has spawned a renowned movement. The statements go, “I hate religion, but love Jesus” or “It’s not a religion, but a relationship.”

Unfortunately, this view is nonsensical, albeit well-intentioned.

I understand the sentiment. I have had horrid church experiences in the past, especially in my teen years. I am a pastor’s son. I’ve seen the dark and grim sides of the church and dealt with the long-term repercussions of bad church leadership. It would be very easy for me to say that I hate religion. But stating this would be stating that I hate something that is a core of who I am – a Christian. See, I identify with Christianity. I believe in the doctrine – the Trinity, the redemptive work of Christ, and the nature of evil in the world. Many people affirm these basic doctrinal truths, yet supposedly hate religion, something which Christianity fundamentally is.

The entire “I hate religion” movement is well-intentioned, but at its core is a contradiction. Only if one never attends church, never participates in the sacramental rituals (at the very basic, I am referring to the Eucharist and baptism), and does not affirm the basic doctrine can one say that they are not religious. Because inasmuch as Christianity is a relationship with Christ, it is also a religion. Religion is important for Christianity in ways that a simple relationship cannot achieve. Namely, the Christian religion and institution affirms and endorses doctrine, disembarks heresy and offers organized worship.

What is more concerning, however, is what happens when the “relationship” extreme is taken to its logical end. Christianity is a religion that has inherent objective value and truth. It is meant to be experienced in community, with others both inside and outside of the church. When the relationship view is taken to its logical consequence, the objectivity of Christianity becomes subjective. Each individual will have their own vantage of Christianity, but when coming together, there is cohesion and unison established in scripture and upheld by the institution. If Christianity is just a relationship between God and the individual, there is no place for confession, accountability and community – all things which mainstream evangelicalism promotes. Further, why listen to a pastor? Why attend church? If Christianity is merely relationship, these components become expendable. This view is called relativism and purports that each individual only has his or her own identifiable vision of God. This opens the door for heresy, false portraits of God and idolatry. For here, I have my Jesus and you have yours. Don’t tell me that my relationship with Jesus is wrong. It’s what I perceive, and it must be true.

And now to the video which was the catalyst for this post. It appears to be produced well and the style of narrative portrayed is appealing. Unfortunately, it lacks much substantial content. And worst of all, it promotes the false dichotomy between religion and relationship. I appreciate the heart behind the video, but this video sends a dangerous message for the reasons outlined above.

The video starts off with the provocative statement, “Jesus > Religion.” This is fundamentally flawed. The video states that Jesus came to abolish religion. This is found nowhere in scripture. Jesus himself was religious, an adherent of the Jewish religion. He had no problem with the religion, but problems with the legalism within the religion. This is a distinction that is almost always overlooked and is the root of the false dichotomy in question. Jesus surely revitalized religion – instantiating what has been a historical and universal movement with his proclamation to Peter. When the video claims that “religion is a man-made invention,” it simply forgets Jesus’ declaration to Peter. For Peter was the man chosen to be the rock on which Christ built the church. Christ started this organized religion, centered on relationships, and then had his people build and support the church via this method.

By perpetuating this dichotomy between religion and relationship, the idealists are purporting an internal war within Christianity. It is people v. the church. At best, it finds its source in resentment; at worst, hatred. The video claims that the religion started wars and ignores the outcasts. There is some historical validity here, but it engages in the logical fallacy of hasty generalization. Most wars are not sourced from religion, and by no means has religion completely overlooked the poor. While this may sometimes be the case, it is simply not universally true. Individuals start wars, evil starts wars; Religion is not by far the only culprit here.

The man in the video puts into public his private life – one of a churchgoer who struggles with lust and pornography – a habit which no one knew he had. He blames the Church for this. Why? How is this the Church’s fault? This is a personal issue; one that he himself admits he hid. How can he blame his own faults on something else when he keeps it private? It would be a different situation if the man in the video said he confessed this issue and sought help – a search that was not met. But this is not what is proclaimed. What is portrayed (which is likely unintentional), rather, is someone who is looking to cast blame of his failures on someone else.

This video is propaganda. It is theologically weak and appeals to those easily swayed by production. It has some valid points and they need to be noticed (i.e., more attention need be given to those who society deems as lowly). But it appeals to emotion, something which we all get caught up in. Yet, when examining the content, this video establishes a false dichotomy which cannot function either in theory or in practice. Choosing either religion or relationship purports an extremism that does not move forward the message of the gospel. Religion and relationship are not mutually exclusive components, but rather ought to work as a harmony. Personal relationships, both with God and with other people, are a vital and invaluable aspect of Christianity. Yet, it is the church, its doctrine, its liturgy and its mission that protect Christianity and promote unity. The church, at times, has failed in its history, but so have people.

The church is fragmented. I will not deny this. Sometimes denominational differences are based on minor issues; sometimes they are separated by large doctrinal disagreements. I affiliate with a particular denomination. It is not perfect, but due to contemplation and prayer, I have decided that it is theologically, practically and socially where I want to be. This does not mean that my Catholic friends, my Baptist friends or even the many in the non/inter-denomination churches are my enemy. It simply means that we come down differently in either approach or specific doctrine. Yet we all uphold the core of the gospel. We believe in Christ. May we fight for relationships while adhering to the fact that we are part of a religious affiliation. For if we are mere people gathering together with our own individual gods, what else are we besides people worshipping our own version of God in a similar manner.

I love religion. I love relationship. I love the harmony that exists between these two things. That’s why I am a Christian.

27 thoughts on “The Case for Harmony

  1. michaeldstark says:

    There was a line in here that seemed too harsh against anyone who holds the “relationship” view. I did not mean for it to come across that way. I noticed that inadvertent mistake and changed the language a bit. Apologies.

    1. Nate Johnson says:

      Wow! After reading your piece, and then watching the clip, I am reminded of Wittgenstein’s adage “Define you terms.” Sometimes I wish language were mathematical, but its looser and contains ambiguity. Terms help, but even then, it’s rarely so rigid as a tautology. My Point? I think your critique by-passed his message. You ‘took him’ for one direction; I think he went another. Your points are correct, but you missed his. I didn’t see where he blamed the church at all, e.g., as with you example of pornography. He simply observed that externals do not equate to the internal. He said, “Don’t get me wrong; I love the church.” On this one Mr Stark, language is clear enough, you missed his point. I thought it not only well done; it was solid and true.

  2. Alan says:

    “This video is propaganda. It is theologically weak and appeals to those easily swayed by production.” Lots of good points here, but I liked this line in particular. We cannot trade form and style for the content and quality of the message. A well produced and stylized contradiction is still a contradiction. I wish he would have either chosen to specifically define what he meant by religion, but I would have much rather preferred he use another word altogether, probably ‘legalism’ would have fit best.

    1. Max Richey says:

      I would not call such a video propaganda, if I felt that it offerred a certain set of value assessments, which permitted me to recognize the reference to “legalism.” It appears to me that you have recognized the heart of the man’s message. Perhaps you missed the part where he stated that he, too, loved the church. Perhaps you would be willing to consider another word that, although not well defined, might very well be suited to the task. The word “religiosity” is taken in some circles to describe the negativisms of both fundamentalism and legalism, as if behavior modification can conquer sin. As the Church, we should simply focus on the similarity that we are righly related one to another and thus to Him, by Him, and for Him, both in and by His Grace.

    1. Jake says:

      Why is this more and more of a problem??? Because it is being perpetrated by the church… captivate them with production and
      feed them a watered down and weak gospel message.

  3. Sarah says:

    The thing is….He may have used the word “religion” in place of, legalism, hypocrisy or what ever turns people “off” of Christianity , but he is able to get his point across to those people who have been hurt by the Church. I believe the main point is, humans run the Church, humans will fail and let you down because, well they are human, but Jesus is greater then that. He is above the “religion” that many non-believes see. Many non-believers see Christians as people who think they are better then everyone and put on a “front” but sin behind closed doors. By sharing his struggles with everyone, he is telling them he is human therefore relating to anyone who has struggled with anything, but that as a Christian, he realizes he is broken and is in need of Salvation and really, isn’t that the main difference between non-believers and believers? We are all the same, broken humans in need of grace, Christians are just aware of their brokeness and understand the awesomeness of the free gift of Salvation that none of us deserve. I think the more non-believers with negative opinions about Christianity who see this video the better. I believe its a good simple start and then the details of theology and what “religion” actually is can come into play later. I understand those with more of a theological background will find flaws in this video but as far a basic simple message for those, who “hate religion”, to turn to Jesus, cannot be a bad thing.

    1. michaeldstark says:

      He may very well mean legalism. I wrestled with that for a while as I was writing. Unfortunately, my role as a reviewer of this is to evaluate what he actually says. If he means legalism, he should say legalism. Frankly, that is his job. I think the guy has a good heart, but I cannot accurately judge or evaluate what he may or may not mean. He uses the word, ‘religion,’ and that is what I found myself critiquing.

  4. Jennifer Bouton (@jennsright) says:

    In the video, he states “he loves the church” and that “religion says do and Christianity says done”. Doesn’t sound like he advocates forsaking gathering together (as in Acts). I read this as many people have been turned off by the legalism and judgemental nature of church in America today. He’s reminding people that what ultimately matters is that God seeks us out and does the saving. His grace gives us what we don’t deserve. For those discouraged by people in the church today, it’s a reminder of what our salvation means – not worrying about pleasing people, their judgemental attitudes or legalistic expectations. Perhaps you feel the new or immature believer would use this as an excuse to forget church, the sacraments and what the Bible tells us about relationships with the world and other believers. I disagree – this video doesn’t advocate this at all. Just because it’s simplistic in that it doesn’t offer a dissertation to every theological point or offer a qualification for every statement made doesn’t mean what is said is inaccurate. Ultimately, Christianity is Jesus saves. That’s his point. I don’t see ‘casting blame for his failures’. I see someone who failed trying to jump thru the hoops of ‘religion’ and found that Christianity is true freedom because it’s about Jesus and His work. That realization comes from the work of the Holy Spirit. From that, believers mature and come to understanding of the ‘horizontal’ relationships God expects from us.

  5. Roger Montano says:

    I can relate to and can appreciate Michaels reponse to the video. Several people have posted the video on my facebook page, asking my thoughts on it; and, the following is the response I gave to each of them:

    ‘I’ve watched it, and it is good…
    I just want to say this, though, and I don’t particularly intend it towards this young man’s message. There is a Great Revival about to take place on this earth… I know this because of the signs Jesus mentions in the New Testament. Many of these signs have already shown themselves, and many more will very soon.

    In addition, there is a proliferation of these ‘types’ of messages circulating through society these days, and have been in recent years, which I believe is also a ‘sign of the times’. While these messages on the face seem innocent and true enough, we, as the Body of Christ, must always be wary of one dangerous message they seem to always include, that being the assault on the church as a whole.

    I believe this proliferation to be a cleverly veiled tactic, to instill in the hearts of God’s people and potential others, that it is unnecessary and irrelevant for God’s people to gather together to pray, to learn more of and to worship HIM. It has become a popular notion and statement in recent years, by professing believers and not, that “I do not need to go to church to be saved”, or the top slogan, “Going to church doesn’t make you any more Christian than standing in a garage makes you a car.” While these statements are obviously true, they also espouse and seemingly promote the idea that we do not need the support, encouragement, and edification that gathering together provides the individual members of the Body.

    In God’s Word, we are advised and implored to gather together regularly, and Jesus Himself said, “Where two or more are gathered in My Name, there will I be in the midst of them.” We, as believers, fight a very real war… a spiritual war. Thought of in this sense, it becomes easy for one to see the potential damage to the Body, and success for the enemy’s end cause, by the advent of this clever tactic of the enemy, and by the people of God buying into the scheme and staying away from the House of the LORD. It virtually reduces the ‘strength in numbers’ aspect of the Army of God (the Body), and makes it easier for the enemy to wreak havoc in the life of the individual soldier (believer). What’s worse, it robs God of HIS praise by the Body, if the Body has dwindled and is no longer there in the House of the LORD.

    Anyhow, this is something the LORD has impressed upon my heart recently.’

    1. Sean says:

      As a Young Life leader, I’m always ready to encourage the high school students I lead to attend church services and church related functions, even at the expense of their ability to attend Young Life events. I say this to back you up. While I believe I see a deeper meaning than others in the video, the point you make against the growing relationship movement is very strong. In my youth I used to believe in it myself, and I now describe that time in my life as one where I was loving Christ, but not doing anything about it.
      To put it simply, one is not enough. A regenerate relationship with Jesus Christ is absolutely necessary for salvation, but without the foundation of believers to rely on you will be like the seed planted in the thorns…

  6. Jennifer Bouton says:

    I don’t get from the video he’s advocating Christians be an island unto themselves. He states he loves the church and that while religion says do, Christianity says done.he clearly distinguishes the two. And he’s right to say ‘religion’ is man made. Rules and works are man’s attempts at redemption and b/c it is insufficient we’re left with a yoke that seems impossible to overcome. Relationship over religion isn’t some movement to deceive believers or shift focus from the simple Gospel message. Actually its the opposite. I think it springs from too long a focus on works, programs, people -pleasing in that church that turn nonbelievers & believers away from the church. This messages refocused people on who does the work of salvation and how liberating it is to come to that realization. The real movement tearing people from fellowship & edifying relationships is the online churches. Lets tackle that deception!

  7. Dietrich Smoke says:

    I know this comment will not be popular, but you mentioned that you agree with his premise, then proceeded to give a 1200-word philosophical and theological diatribe — the crux of your argument hanging over the usage (or rather non-usage) of one word…legalism

    You clearly place a supreme importance on regular church attendance and sacramental ritual participation.

    You paradoxically brush over the global pain religion has caused — yes wars are often started by individuals — but those individuals often start them under the guise of religious orthodoxy. Today’s Middle East. The undermining of cultures in the name of “civilizing mission.” Religious orthodoxy, when seen as the end in itself, is not a pretty sight.

    You speak of the importance of confession yet use this man’s own difficult admission for your argument against his experience.

    Most alarmingly, you called a heartfelt and well-thought out video supporting Jesus Christ “propaganda” and its message “dangerous.”

    Perhaps this wasn’t your intention, but it appears to this unbiased person that you, Mr. Stark, are guilty of the very legalism that Mr. Bethke is speaking against.

    1. michaeldstark says:

      ‘Diatribe’ insinuates bitterness, something which I am not. I am, rather, concerned with the message of this video. I did attempt to exploit problems with this view philosophically and theologically. This ought be done.

      I do place significance in church attendance and participation in the sacraments, but this is not ‘supreme’ as if it is superlative. No where is this stated. So I don’t “clearly” place emphasis here, as you have accused me of doing.

      I use his own confession “against him” because he indirectly blames the church. I did not undermine his experience, but rather portrayed that he seemed to take no accountability in his own fault, but rather haphazardly included it in a rant against organized religion. This leads me to believe he is looking for someone to blame.

      The ‘I hate religion’ movement and message is dangerous for the reasons I spelled out in the article.

      I am unsure where you have perceived that I am legalistic. I directly stated that both the relationship aspect and the religion aspect of Christianity are both reasons why I adhere to Christianity. Perhaps you could clue me in on how I am legalistic.

  8. rj says:

    This is all pretentious blather. Your thoughts are redundant and your arrogance is evident. Quit right-clicking on each word to find a synonym with more syllables; it doesn’t make you seem more intelligent.

    1. michaeldstark says:

      Furthermore, arrogance was not in my attitude. Sometimes things sound harsh on the internet. I tried to give credit to this man’s passion. Obviously you can only take or leave my word on this, but I came at this with no arrogance in which you accuse me of.

  9. Tom Stark says:

    As the author’s father, I have found this article, and it’s responses, to be quite intriguing. While I do not agree with a good portion of my son’s stance or content of this article, I do post them with my name. And as for RJ, I do not hide behind cowardice initials.

    As for my son, he is finishing his Masters in Philosophy of Religion (and will one day work on his doctorate) and I know he uses the words in his article in his daily life, because he talks to me using them. RJ, maybe they seem ‘redundant’ and ‘arrogant’ because you don’t understand them. I am not sure, since we only know that you signed your comments with two letters (which I assume may not even be your real initials).

    If you agree with the video (which I do) and disagree with the article (which I have already stated that I do not agree with a good portion of it), then state that and why. That adds thought and perspective. That adds interest. That adds the ability to dialog with the responses. My son has responses from people who are my friends, all who are on both sides of the argument. I love reading them. They make me think. Your post makes me think that you are just bitter and angry at my son for speaking his mind, on his blog, for people to read.

    The fact that he did not delete your post shows his character. You are not the only person who disagrees with him, but you are the only one who attacks him (as far as I can read), and after chatting with him a few minutes ago, he has no one significant in his life with those initials, so I am not even sure you know him well enough to attack his character.

    As for the rest of those who responded to the article, thank you for making me think. At my age I can start to create habits and mindsets that are embedded in cement that can often times be impossible to break. Your responses make me continue to think, process, dialog and form my thoughts and beliefs daily.

  10. Constant says:

    As a B.Theol student I find the discussions very interesting. It seems the video blogger (VB) addresses people’s dissatisfaction with the church, which includes critique of her involvement in war, her lack of effectively feeding the poor, legalism, not practicing what we preach. All valid criticisms that need to be addressed.

    But then the VB gets it wrong. He says “Jesus came to abolish religion”, “religion and Jesus are two different clans”, and “Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums”, which is not true. Jesus came to CORRECT a religion that has gone astray – to love God (Deut 6.5) and love your neighbour (Lev 19.17-18), there is a biblical theological unity between the OT and the NT. He says the “Old Testament (OT) calls the religious whores”, but the OT merely calls the religious whores because they are not following the religion as originally intended. So I agree with Michael on this issue, saying “I resent it (religion)” is not helpful at all (for the reasons Michael outlined above).

    When the VB talks about religion (a term normally used by atheist critiques for all forms of religion) it seems early on in the video when he critiques religion he refers to the Church (manmade institution following the Christian faith) and later focusses specifically on legalism – “dressing up the outside while the corpse rots underneath”. But there is a difference between the Church (religion) and the faith (Jesus), which is what I believe the VB is trying to point out. Those belonging to the faith (Jesus) are “the church” (people of God), but every Church includes the sheep (the church), goats (non-Christians), and wolves (those who want to lead the flock astray). He needs to keep this in mind.

    Regarding legalism history shows us many denominations, and individual churches are affected by legalism, so it is hardly reasonable to assume that the new community of Jesus followers (the non-religion Jesus group) will evade the issue. Errors in doctrine creep in, Satan is not sleeping. It is the age old showdown between the “grace brigade” and the “fruits of salvation” concepts, with Satan waiting on both sides with free grace for continuous sin on the one hand and legalism on the other. The problem is we don’t teach doctrine in the church today. This has become more prevalent as we move away from “sola Scriptura” into more and more autonomy from God (see Francis Schaeffer “Escape from Reason”). When all realms of this world is given autonomy from God we are left with nothing upstairs but religious symbols that lack any real content or categories and in this we put our hope. Jesus becomes relative, a person you must have a relationship with, but a person with no content at all. A postmodern Jesus about whom no real reliable conclusions can be drawn from Scripture (other than that He lived, died, and was resurrected for our salvation), thus leaving us without doctrine to teach. Through in man’s desire to do what he wants to do and Satan can just about go on holiday.

    In conclusion, I see what he is trying to do, am convicted by some statements, yet find that he has not communicated it very clearly. In the end “the church” makes mistakes because man is sinful and no matter what system we create it will eventually be affected by sin somehow. Christianity is a religion, but one that needs correction and continuously will (Look at Israel in the OT & NT, and the churches of Revelation) – which is in effect what the VB is trying to do. As far as legalism goes I believe it is a doctrinal issue and the result of a lack of sound gospel being preached and lack of sound doctrine being taught in the church today. When Christians live to mortify the flesh we will see less of sin prevail in our lives, but only when Jesus comes back will we finally be free from sin (fruit flows from grace as we are compelled to holiness, good works and proclamation when we look at the cross and fully understand what has happened on it – by the grace of God and the Holy Spirit).

    Hope that is helpful, peace and grace to you all 🙂

    1. raytheon says:

      Hey Michael Stark, pick something that’s worth criticizing and use your brain and time picking a fight with that. Your critique of this guy demonstrates his point perfectlyl

      1. michaeldstark says:

        Hey Raytheon,

        If you disagree with me and my argument, provide a counter-argument. This is your first and only warning. Personal attacks are no longer tolerated. I will enforce this rule moving forward.

        I believed I explained adequately the reason that this subject is “worth criticizing.”

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