Jefferson Bethke of Mars Hill Church recently released a short video that has over 15 million hits on YouTube and has started a firestorm of interest. While many have adamantly applauded his remarks which are given in a rhyming ‘rap’, filmed in a contemporary style with the camera darting in and out of the scene, an equal number of people are left standing unsure of ‘what exactly was just said’.
My purpose is to shed a very brief light on the words spoken by standing them against the Scriptures so that the audience can decide for themselves if the words carry any authority in regard to the church as a whole.
When one hears (emphasis on ‘hears’) something that invokes a desire to quickly respond with a stance of agreement or disagreement, it is advisable to get a transcript of what has been said to read and discern based on observation and educated response. Apologist Ravi Zacharias uses the illustration that we should see ‘through’ the eye and ‘with’ the mind. Likewise, I would say we should hear through the ear and with the mind. The best way to pin the words down for understanding is to read them. Then, all of the pageantry and otherwise distracting effects are removed while the words lie unprotected in their simplest forms.
One note of caution – it is equally as dangerous to operate with a hermeneutic of suspicion as it is to mindlessly dive into approval because it ‘feels good’ or ‘sounds right’. When seeking truth in a matter, one must be ready to accept what ever it may be, even if it treads all about our presuppositions.
The lyrics will be stated in quotes with generalize statements following. I will preface by saying I will only address statements that have issue with Scriptural authority or that merit clarification.
“What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion
What if I told you voting Republican really wasn’t His mission?
What if I told you republican doesn’t automatically mean Christian
And just because you call some people blind doesn’t automatically give you vision”
When Mr. Bethke uses the word ‘religion’, because of a lack of defining otherwise, he leaves us with the definition in a biblical sense. The Greek word transliterated is ‘thrayskeia’, which is translated as ‘religion’ and ‘worship’. As you can see, this immediately causes some concern in the first line of his monologue, when he states, “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?”. If we were to exchange the word ‘religion’ with the word ‘worship’, we probably would have stopped listening right off the proverbial bat. Admittedly, many, if not most words are translated accordingly to the context in which we find them. However, in the Scriptures, ‘religion’ is not categorically a negative word. In fact, only if it is a false ‘religion’ is it deemed bad.
Secondly, the introduction of a political observation concerning one party is unadvisable for effectiveness in a setting for his first line. Regardless of where one stands, Jesus did not come to vote Democrat either. While some would point to the ‘religious right wing’ thinking they have the corner market on God, is it not equally true that the ‘liberal left’ thinks it has the monopoly on caring for minorities and the under-privileged? Though the political division clamors for the religious vote, it is a fact that the vast majority of conservative Christian circles have rejected the Democrat party based on the party’s promotion of homosexuality and abortion. The grand exceptions usually are based on racial lines and liberal theology. Nonetheless, some of the most devout agents of religious backing of political agendas are Democrats. One should check the last time a Republican was tolerated to speak from a church pulpit concerning political issues without threats of the church losing their 501c3 (not for profit status). On the other hand, Democrat politicians are openly allowed to speak during a Sunday morning assembly, even to openly call out Republicans by name, without a hint of risk from the IRS. Therefore, it is interesting that Mr. Bethke only speaks of one side of the political equation.
What remains in the context of Mr. Bethke’s paragraph is blindness and vision. This largely smacks of the ‘anti-judgment’ crowd sounds, where people state that it is wrong to ‘judge’ others. Yet, we are clearly told it is our responsibility to judge each other (1 Corinthians 5:3, 6, 12; 6:2, 3;), even as Paul calls on men to judge what he has said for truthfulness (1 Corinthians 10:15). Our confusion lies in the difference between judging and judgmentalism (see https://www.ccfwf.org/james__blog/view/1204/judging_judgmentalism for more details). The point is, as Christians, when we do judge/discern, we are often criticized. While it is agreed that self-righteousness has no place in the kingdom, the abolition of stating what is righteous has no claim to the home either.
“I mean if religion is so great, why has it started so many wars
Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor
Tells single moms God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever had a divorce
But in the Old Testament, God actually calls religious people whores”
The next paragraph states that religion has caused wars. This is no more true than stating one can tax a business. As only individuals can be taxed, wars can only be started by people. Moreover , God never condemned the grand temple Solomon built, because its original intent was to glorify Him. So we quickly see it is the motivation that determines whether a ‘huge church’ building is right or wrong. It should be noted, that the statement concerning ‘building huge churches’ while neglecting the poor, in itself is judgmental. Some of the larger congregations have generously funded programs for seeing to the poor within their communities, as well as overseas projects. It is the ‘religious’ who sacrifice, and give of their money and volunteer time for these efforts. Moreover, so often neglected is the theology regarding seeing to the poor. Without going into details, consider how God used severe need to turn people’s faces back to Him. After all, God used severe need to push Jacob and his clan towards Egypt as a crucial part of His plan to set the stage for the Exodus to come years later.
It is also unfairly categorical to say that religion per se has condemned ‘single moms’. It is untrue to make this claim applicable to all places and could be resentful to those who have specific ministries regarding these particular issues. Herein lies something much more problematic: 1) It was not exclusively ‘religious’ people God called ‘whores’; it was rebellious people. 2) and to parallel this with the ‘single moms’ line is to assert that ‘religion’ calls all single mothers ‘whores’. This is dangerous and needlessly accusatory rhetoric that could potentially plant seeds of hurtfulness throughout the church.
“Religion might preach grace, but another thing they practice
Tend to ridicule God’s people, they did it to John The Baptist
They can’t fix their problems, and so they just mask it
Not realizing religion’s like spraying perfume on a casket
See the problem with religion, is it never gets to the core
It’s just behavior modification, like a long list of chores
Like lets dress up the outside make it look nice and neat
But it’s funny that’s what they use to do to mummies while the corpse rots underneath”
I will only take 2 words from this paragraph to encompass a meaning – “behavior modification.” This is exactly what people need in conjunction with a heart renewed. If the latter happens without the former, it would be like taking the new car that the person has completely neglected and trashed, and handing them another new one, with no direction for care and maintenance. To deny this is to ignore Leviticus, where the first half of the scroll instructs how to get Israel holy and the second half is how to keep her holy. It is the “put off” and the “put on” of Ephesians 4. If we do not change our sinful behavior, that which has been made clean will subsequently be defiled once again. I understand this may differ with some denominational doctrines. However, most would reasonably agree that the renewed heart of a blood-bought Christian will behave differently than before. ‘Behavior modification’ is the fruit of being connected to the True Vine. And make no mistake – the word ‘discipline’ is used in Scripture because it must be a willful effort on behalf of the saved individual. If it were different, we would have no need to train/discipline our walk in Christ.
“Now I ain’t judging, I’m just saying quit putting on a fake look
Cause there’s a problem if people only know you’re a Christian by your Facebook
I mean in every other aspect of life, you know that logic’s unworthy
It’s like saying you play for the Lakers just because you bought a jersey
You see this was me too, but no one seemed to be on to me
Acting like a church kid, while addicted to pornography
See on Sunday I’d go to church, but Saturday getting faded
Acting if I was simply created just to have sex and get wasted
See I spent my whole life building this facade of neatness
But now that I know Jesus, I boast in my weakness”
As much as one might agree with Mr. Bethke’s following statements in this paragraph – without mincing words – yes, he is judging; Acknowledging that while he is being judgmental in some respects (to religion), but in the correct sense to the subsequent matters stated. So own it.
Boasting in one’s weakness is a tightrope. Only in the shadow of Christ’s strength to overcome our frailties can be righteous be obtained. When our weakness becomes our badge, even our identity – i.e. my infidelity, my addiction, my temptation, my, my, my; then Christ becomes our co-dependent enabler (in the distorted mind). Most everyone has met or personally acted as one who has willfully sinned on the fire insurance concept that God will not hold them accountable. This is a dramatic error. Salvation was not purchased by the tortuous death of Jesus to leave the individual unchanged.
“Because if grace is water, then the church should be an ocean
It’s not a museum for good people, it’s a hospital for the broken
Which means I don’t have to hide my failure, I don’t have to hide my sin
Because it doesn’t depend on me it depends on him
See because when I was God’s enemy and certainly not a fan
He looked down and said I want, that, man
Which is why Jesus hated religion, and for it he called them fools
Don’t you see so much better than just following some rules
Now let me clarify, I love the church, I love the bible, and yes I believe in sin
But if Jesus came to your church would they actually let him in
See remember he was called a glutton, and a drunkard by religious men
But the Son of God never supports self righteousness not now, not then”
It is fruitless to attempt to hide one’s sin before God. But most have also know those who, as in the prior remarks, have worn their sin as some sort of badge of honor; that somewhere along the way, their testimony of their past became more of their the dramatic part of their story, rather than the redemptive power of Christ’s blood. Therefore, not having to hide it before God is not license to parade it as well. After all, repentance is an about face in our conduct.
Now comes the apex of the argument. When Mr. Bethke states that ‘Jesus hated religion’, he makes a monumental mistake. In no place in Scripture will find such a statement. Quite the reverse, one reads in James 1:26, 27; “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Therefore, religion is presented here to be a good thing and endorsed by God in such a way that instruction is given how to have a proper religious attitude. The term ‘organized religion’ even makes a delineation from ‘religion’ in its proper context. To state that religion is something evil is living in the dangerous area of calling that which is good, evil.
Moreover, many sincere Christians would answer his question concerning Jesus’ admittance into the buildings where they meet with a resounding “Yes!” In our congregation, we even purposefully named it in the possessive (“Christ’s”) to be a continual reminder whose it was and is.
As stated prior, Mr. Bethke to have confused ‘religious’ with ‘rebellious’. Had the men he referred to been genuinely religious, they would not have called Jesus such false names.
“Now back to the point, one thing is vital to mention
How Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrum
See one’s the work of God, but one’s a man made invention
See one is the cure, but the other’s the infection
See because religion says do, Jesus says done
Religion says slave, Jesus says son
Religion puts you in bondage, while Jesus sets you free
Religion makes you blind, but Jesus makes you see
And that’s why religion and Jesus are two different clans”
Once again, Mr. Bethke is incorrect that ‘Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrum(s)’ (see James 1:26, 27). But perhaps now is the juncture at which the point should be made concerning the main issue at hand. Mr. Bethke would have been correct throughout most of his assertion had he used the word ‘legalism’ instead of ‘religion’ (although it would have been difficult to match the rhyme with). Legalism would adeptly represent his allegations in a proper representation of the ‘infection’ of the church.
Onto the statement “Religion says slave, Jesus says son;” While both statements are relatively true, Mr. Bethke makes a gigantic theological mistake at pitting them against one another. Romans 6:16-23 clearly states that Christians have been purchased at a great price out of one slavery, to be ‘set free’ into another slavery. While this initially sounds contradictory, early Christians completely understood the difference between having freedom under a good master and being abused under an evil one. Our idea of chattel slavery leaves us with incorrect notions about Paul’s illustration. Indeed we are bound (bondage) to Christ when we accept Him as Savior. We are making an open declaration that we are completely surrendering our will to His and committing ourselves to obeying His commands and not our own. Ironically, it is telling in regard to the limited commitment we see in Christians in the contemporary church – but that is for another subject.
“Religion is man searching for God, Christianity is God searching for man
Which is why salvation is freely mine, and forgiveness is my own
Not based on my merits but Jesus’s obedience alone
Because he took the crown of thorns, and the blood dripped down his face
He took what we all deserved, I guess that’s why you call it grace
And while being murdered he yelled
“Father forgive them they know not what they do.”
Because when he was dangling on that cross, he was thinking of you
And he absorbed all of your sin, and buried it in the tomb
Which is why I’m kneeling at the cross, saying come on there’s room
So for religion, no I hate it, in fact I literally resent it
Because when Jesus said it is finished, I believe he meant it”
The search has never been God for man. He knows exactly ‘where’ we are. This what makes the arrival of Jesus Christ so fantastic. God has come to us. Emmanuel. It would be a correct statement to say God is ‘pursuing us’ instead. While salvation is ‘free’ per se to us, it is important to remember that it is not free from cost. See Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s teachings on ‘cheap grace’. And while our salvation is not based on our merits, he who loves Christ will keep His commandments (John 14:21). Just as James said, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).
At the end of it, one would be left to think Mr. Bethke had a sincere thought that had more to do with legalism than with religion. However, the danger is twofold: 1) Listeners may be easily mislead. Just as Mr. Bethke has used ‘religion’ erroneously to make his point, others may just as easily trade ‘religion’ out for ‘the church.” As I canvased a number of individuals as to what they thought he was talking about immediately after viewing the clip, I received a number of responses, many of which were skewed. 2) One who speaks in such a manner teaches others, and James warns us of a strong accountability in these matters (James 3:1). Words matter and carry meaning. We must be thoughtful and careful – especially in the mass communicative formats we share in today. May all of our teachings be strictly and contextually biblically based. Then the message will be pure.
Mr. Bethke has a great talent and ability for contemporary communication. He also has a great opportunity to set anything straight that might have been off-target. While this will take a tremendous measure of humility, it will be the test of his lifetime. Our prayers are with him to be a strong instrument of Jesus’ righteousness.