Why Jesus Loves Relationships AND Religion Too

Parody Photo of Hate Religion Love Jesus

As I write this, the viral youtube video by Jefferson Bethke, “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus,” also titled as “Jesus > Religion,” has garnered over 12 million views since it was uploaded six days ago. It has set the internet world buzzing with many disagreeing with Bethke and many others defending him. I was alerted to this video by one of my student leaders who posted it on my York student club’s facebook group. We discussed this video in my weekly Theology over Pizza gathering and my students’ main reaction can be summarized as, “We like the video but hate its false dichotomies.” My students can see the validity of many of Bethke’s critiques of religion and religiosity. But they also noticed that Bethke painted religion with a very broad brush, creating a false either-or between Jesus and Religion. Many other bloggers have pointed out the video’s false dichotomy (see, for example, this one, or this one, or the interesting conversation here).

Atheists are naturally confused by Bethke’s sloppy categorizations as seen in the above parody photo that paraphrases his argument as, “Hates Fruits but Love Apples.” For many, Jesus cannot be divorced from the Christian religion. Yet, many Evangelicals have made this distinction between the gospel as a personal relationship with Jesus and not as a religion. And this gets to the heart of the issue at stake in the video – Evangelical Christianity’s popular distinction between religion and relationship. Is this distinction true? Does it make sense? Is true Christianity really only a personal relationship with Jesus and not a religion?

The Video

In this blog post, I want explore this crucial distinction, a distinction that I myself, influenced by Evangelicalism, used to spout. But first, here’s the video featuring Bethke’s poem.

I believe this video’s popularity is not due to anything new being said, but in its aesthetically pleasing spoken word poem form. It’s slick, well produced, and just under 4 minutes, which is perfect for our short attention span culture. Bethke, and his like, definitely touched a chord among many of the younger generation, especially younger generation Christians, I suspect, who are disillusioned with the institutional church establishment. To me, its popularity speaks more towards the younger generation’s dissatisfaction with what most Christian churches are currently offering as Christianity. Bethke and his generation are seeing through hypocrisy in the church and want a change. And their direction, which is a good one, is to go back to Jesus.


This is not anything new. This sentiment of let’s get back to basics because things are now rotten is as old as the Protestant Reformation. Although Martin Luther never pitted Jesus against Religion, but that individualist and revivalist mentality is part of Evangelicalism’s DNA. Unfortunately, so is the anti-Catholic sentiment.

Let’s not kid ourselves. The historical roots of this anti-religion rhetoric can be traced to anti-Catholicism within Evangelicalism. All the negative labels attached to religion in Bethke’s video are the kind of labels many Evangelicals in the past (and still in the present) have tagged onto the Catholic Church. Evangelicalism’s anti-institutional and anti-tradition ethos is very much shaped by anti-Catholic institution and anti-Catholic tradition. Look at this blog post for an example of how a Catholic gets ‘by-religion-I-mean-Catholicism’ vibes from the video.

As a young Christian, I grew up with this relationship versus religion rhetoric and, very often, this rhetoric is not aimed at other religions but squarely targeting other Christian traditions, like the mainline churches and especially the Catholic Church, with its rituals, hierarchies, traditions, rules, etc. Catholics, supposedly, embodied the yeast of the Pharisees, legalism, institutionalism and rigidity. In short, Catholicism is Religion but Evangelicalism – true Christianity, true religion – is a personal intimate relationship with Jesus.

Religion in the Guise of Relationship

I used to buy into this. Not anymore. I have come to see that many Catholics are sincere, devoted believers and just as many Evangelicals are phony fakes. Furthermore, when we scratch below the surface, this is nothing more than a rhetorical ploy. Evangelicalism offers up just as much religion as Catholicism but disguising it as relationship. As Larry Osborne observed:

“Just look at our models of spiritual formation. Almost all our books, seminars, workshops, and programs are heavily weighted toward religious practice and self-discipline. They show us how to do religion in hopes that it will produce relationship.” (A Contrarian’s Guide to Knowing God: Spirituality for the Rest of Us, Multnomah Books 2007, p. 27)

Although Osborne still falls into the religion/relationship dichotomy, he is at least consistent in pointing out that genuine relationships do not have a one-size-fits-all approach that so much of Evangelicalism pushes to its adherents – do devotions this often and in this manner, read your Bible and pray everyday, never miss a worship service, evangelize others, tithe your money, etc.  (See my related post on this.) Evangelicals can talk about relationship all they want, but they practice religion as much as the groups they criticize. They just don’t recognize it as such.

Furthermore, Pastor and author John Suk has also called into question the biblical foundation of this “personal relationship” metaphor. See his essay here. Not that it doesn’t exist in the Bible – for me, there are plenty of relational metaphors, not least of Christ and his Bride and God and his Children, in the Bible that describes our piety to God – but that Evangelicalism’s “personal relationship” framework is a distortion of these biblical metaphors and in reality is shaped more by secular therapeutic ideals and only sprinkled with biblical metaphors to make it sound like the real thing.

This false dichotomy of religion versus relationship is really a rhetorical rally call to revival and to authentic religion, as opposed to hypocritical, going-through-the-motions religion. Hence, “Jesus” in Bethke’s video, is really a shorthand for true Christianity and true Religion, just as “Religion” becomes shorthand for bad religion. This video then, really only makes sense for, and I suspect targeted at, Christians who understand the lingo.

Defining Religion

Good intentions aside, this sort of rhetoric is too simplistic to be helpful. Defining religion as a system of man-made dos and don’ts is a polemical definition, not a descriptive definition. It is defining something in such a negative way that it only serves your agenda of attack. It’s like Karl Marx’s famous definition of religion as the opiate of the masses. Your definition is not attempting to fairly describe but merely caricature and attack. Not a very loving approach.

A more descriptive way of defining religion is as “a particular system of beliefs, practices, and (for want of a better term) passions – what is sometimes referred to as ‘affections’.” (John G. Stackhouse, Jr, Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today, Oxford UP 2002, p. 99) In this way, Christianity is also a religion and Jesus, far from abolishing religion, came to establish one. Jesus taught beliefs that his disciples need to adhere to (e.g. that he is the Son of God). Jesus also established practices that his followers are to keep (e.g. the Lord’s Supper – do this in remembrance of me). And, finally, he very much encouraged certain passions or affections among his disciples (e.g. love your neighbour, love God, love one another). (For an interesting  and more theological discussion on defining religion, see this post.)

Time to Drop It

I think it’s time for Evangelicals to drop this religion/relationship dichotomy. It’s not only false, but I believe, in the long run, damaging to their own cause. As an evangelism tool to non-Christians, it may be fruitful in the past when speaking to mainly people with Christian backgrounds, but lately, it is causing more confusion than anything else. I have had a number of discussions in the past with students from China, for instance, who were totally befuddled by this relationship-and-not-religion lingo they were hearing from Evangelicals. For some of them, it was enough to turn them off Christianity. They were looking for a religion and if Christianity is not a religion, then why should they bother?

Furthermore, it is always an implicit attack on the other non-Christian religions. And in this climate of the New Atheists, it is essentially an argument that runs like this:

  1. Yes, the New Atheists are right – religion sucks.
  2. But, thankfully, Christianity (read Evangelicalism) is not a religion but a relationship.
  3. Relationship is good. Therefore, Christianity (read Evangelicalism) is good.
  4. So, New Atheists are only partly right – religion sucks, except Christianity because Christianity (i.e. Evangelicalism) is not a religion but a relationship.
  5. Therefore, leave all religions but join Christianity (i.e. Evangelicalism)!

So, this relationship versus religion argument essentially sides with the New Atheists in attacking other religions but attempting to immune ourselves from such attacks! Is it just me, or does anybody else find this problematic, or even, reprehensible? We are essentially throwing our religious allies under the bus and asserting that “we are not with them”! And premise #2 above can be easily shown to be false. And hence, there goes your argument.

A Better Way

Let me suggest a better way. Instead of pitting Relationship with Jesus against Religion, why not be more accurate and pit Relational Religion against Religious Moralism? How about Authentic Religion versus Hypocritical Religion? How about Living Tradition against Fossilized Tradition? There are so many other more accurate, productive and less polarizing, ways of rallying Christians to the core of their faith than simplistic false dichotomies.

It’s time to regain the Bible’s own definition of true religion: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27 TNIV) Of course, a personal relationship with God is important – the greatest commandment to love God implies an authentic relationship. But I would replace the adjective “personal” with “authentic”. The word “personal” implies too much of individualism these days. I have also suggested in the past that we have a total relationship with Jesus to show the kind of holistic, three-dimensional spirituality (religion) that we are to have.

Jeff Bethke, I applaud you for your good intentions, and maybe this is your way of trying to give the Church a wake-up call. But I hope you learn from this and that your next video will be a better one.

17 thoughts on “Why Jesus Loves Relationships AND Religion Too

  1. I hadn’t watched the video until a non-Christian friend told me about it. It intrigued him. I don’t think it occurred to him that Christians could be gracious and yes, I am speaking in generalities. For instance, of course I’m a Christian and he would put me as the exception that proves the rule. From where he stands there are churches that accept gays and then there is Jesus and religion. “Jesus” does not have an identity for him outside of how “religion” plays out in the media and from the Christians he meets. To suggest that ” the Christian religion” and “Jesus” are not always pointing the same way is a new concept for him. The subtext of Roman Catholic vs Evangelicals vs Christianity is not evident to him.

    I have found Chong to be one of the most gracious and engaging CRC Christians I have ever met. Kuyperianism (?) cuts both ways – when grace abounds it abounds in our lives including church. When we live under the judgement of law we take that with us every where as well regardless of church or denomination. I learned about grace in the CRC church – I experienced it in a Baptist!


    1. Thanks for the kind words Victoria. And thanks for sharing about your friend’s take on this, as well as your own personal experience.

      I am glad you experienced grace in the Baptist church. As I’ve said, it was my personal experience and I wouldn’t generalize it. But it shaped my psyche, so to speak.

      I don’t think I have always been gracious. I believe, by God’s grace, I have grown to be more gracious over the years. But God knows I have resentments and legalisms inside me that I struggle with. Maybe, as I grew older, I am more aware of my own shortcomings and sins. And that self-awareness of the log in my own eye, helps me ignore the specks in other people’s eyes.

      I believe you are right that when grace abounds in our lives, it follows with us wherever we go, so to speak. We can help spread grace around.


  2. Thank so much for your posts – very thought provoking. I like your statement: Catholicism is Religion but Evangelicalism – true Christianity, true religion – is a personal intimate relationship with Jesus. I also think within Catholicism and Evangelicalism there are both those who practise religion as well as those in relationship with Jesus Christ. I also think that in the traditional faiths like Catholicism there is more focus on the Word – God’s word in scriptures but in the end Jesus is the Word made flesh so even though Catholicism is a “religion” there is the relationship that focuses more on the Word and yet Jesus is the Word. The mystery of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I enjoyed reading your post.


    1. Hi Yesi,
      Thanks for reading my post.

      I just want to clarify: when I wrote, “Catholicism is Religion but Evangelicalism – true Christianity, true religion – is a personal intimate relationship with Jesus.” I was claiming that the relationship/religion framework used in the video was historically rooted in this kind of thinking/language.

      Like you, I don’t agree with that statement. At least, I don’t agree with it anymore. I used to, as a young Christian in the past. But like you, I find this to be not true. So, I agree with you.

      Thanks for the comment.


  3. Shiao, since you put it out there… I thought a note on your blog would be more personal and more dialogical which is I think what you want.

    First of all, I feel you made a bit of leap connecting this video to an Evangelicalism vs. Catholicism question. I see the gentleman noting hypocrisy mostly of evangelicals such as Republican equals Christian and Christians don’t go to parties as Jesus did. I see him challenging the ‘religion’ of evangelicals, his own tribe apparently though he has reformed theological pedigree.

    I find my disappointment in the spreading of this video is not that some 12 million people have viewed a mostly right on (the poet himself noted his own mistakes in a dialogue with DeYoung, see Gospel Coalition) celebration of grace versus works righteousness (the most public understanding of religion to whom the video was speaking ) but rather the nay sayers who place precision over passion, institution over relationship.

    Is he creating a wrong dichotomy given the reformed… definition of religion (and James of course)? Sure. I find that in the reformed tribe our problem… is not passion and relationship. Why are so many of our well trained reformed people going to The Meeting House to hear a guy who wrote the book, “The End of Religion”? I personally feel that a sharp focus on the gospel in Jesus Christ – a clear element of our pietist past – rather than an fogy institutional Kuyerianism… is the old gospel of grace message that so many yearn for and want to live their lives out of.

    I believe you were here teaching a both/and focus which is right on. But I find we all have to check whether our message calls for confession from the audience or a ‘we need not change’ message.

    Sorry if my gospel lacked enough grace. Keep writing. Keep up your good work.


    1. Hi John,
      Thanks for your comments. I appreciate it. Hope you don’t mind that I’m going to disagree with you on some points.

      For the Anti-Catholic statement – if you read my paragraph carefully, I am not saying that Bethke himself is anti-catholic but that the anti-religion framework or rhetoric that he inherited from his Evangelical heritage has anti-Catholic roots. That the relationship versus religion distinction – not Bethke himself – is shaped out of an ethos in the past of anti-Catholicism.

      And I speak of this from personal experience. I was not always Reformed. I was a born-again, believers-only-immersion-only baptism, rapture-believing, personal-relationship, Evangelical. And the rhetoric of my past Evangelicalism as the only true Christian tradition is intricately tied/fused with the relationship/religion dichotomy. And the Catholic Church has been very much the prime example of “religion” in the minds of my fellow Evangelicals growing up. That Catholic blogger and all his readers who agree with him who caught anti-catholic vibes in the video are not paranoid or delusional. There are deep seated roots to that language.

      I agree with you that Bethke is probably critiquing his own Evangelicalism. Kudos for him. But he is still using a quintessential Evangelical rhetoric and framework. And I am glad he noted his mistakes. The analogy here would be like someone using racist language and framework, out of ignorance, calling African-Americans the “N-word” not because of prejudice but say, that person has never been taught otherwise. He or she may have no intention of being racist, but in employing racist language, even in ignorance, he/she is perpetuating a problem. Is it not the responsibility of those who know that such language is harmful to point out and educate this person to stop using that language and framework? This is the point I am making. That anti-religion rhetoric is causing damage that Bethke does not intend – and I am pointing that out and asking us all, but Evangelicals especially, to stop using it.

      As for criticisms or nay sayers – well, John, Bethke and Evangelicals who use the same tactic have to reap what they sow. If you use (sow) a polarizing rhetoric that implicitly attacks everybody else except your own particular brand, aren’t you gonna expect (reap) people to criticize you in implicit defense of themselves? If he had, like you suggest, said “I Hate Self-Righteousness but Love Grace”, there probably won’t be that much criticism. But it’s Jesus versus Religion. It’s abrasive. It polarizes into either-or camps. It immediately elevates his own position by equating it with “Jesus”. And it naturally gets people’s backs up.

      I am not condoning all the critics. It may very well be true, like you pointed out, that many are not willing to be challenged and to change but merely keeping the status quo. I can only speak for myself and not for the other nay-sayers. I am not advocating institution over relationship. I think neither is dispensable. We truly need both.

      As I’ve said in the blog, the video, along with books like Bruxy Cavey’s “The End of Religion” (and the whole relationship/religion dichotomy) touched a chord with younger generation Christians who long for a more authentic spirituality that is both pietistic and socially active. You can hear that in Bethke’s video. To Cavey’s credit, his book has an Epilogue where he qualifies his use of “religion” and discusses, at least, the “religion” that God likes. It’s probably hard to make nuanced qualifications in a 4 minute video. Hence, it’s a rallying cry to revival. And if I didn’t give enough emphasis or credit to Bethke on that score, then I apologize for that oversight.

      That call for revival is the attraction of this framework and dichotomy. It’s a good end/goal, which I believe I noted in my blog. But I always struggle with the question: Do the ends justify the means? Does the good goal of reviving the Church back to grace justify the use of false polarizing dichotomies? Should not the ends SHAPE the means? Should we not use graceful and truthful frameworks/language to celebrate grace and truth?

      One last point, and this is going to be the most controversial. This is strictly personal experience and anecdote, so I wouldn’t make any universal claims for this. I was born-again Evangelical, as I said – and that statement might be confusing and problematic as the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) that you and I are part of is considered Evangelical by most. I joined the CRC later in life. And two of the main attractions for me were: 1) the old fogy institutional Kuyperianism you speak of, and 2) A GREATER PRACTICE OF GRACE. The irony, in my personal experience – as I’ve said I’m not generalizing this to all CRCs or all Evangelicals – but the irony is that even though I became a Christian in an Evangelical (and Reformed, a la John Piper types) tradition that preaches a lot more about grace, and had church-hopped around within Evangelicalism that all harps on grace, Jesus and relationships, it is only when I encountered a Kuyperian CRC community that I felt I received more grace and experienced more grace being practiced and given. This was in Edmonton, Alberta. I find CRC Christians there more willing to overlook minor “sins” like people who smoke, who swear a little, who are single moms, who struggle with homosexuality, who may not live up to the standards. I found the CRC community that I was involved in to be more liberating to let people watch movies, listen to rock music, even heavy metal, drink wine, etc. without judging them as inferior Christians. I found the Kuyperian CRC Christians less pushy on people to conform to particular rigors of devotional time, bible readings, etc. as markers of piety, even though they encourage them. It was part of the reason I joined the CRC. Now, since then, I have been in more CRC churches and met more CRC Christians, in other parts of Canada/US. And I have seen that not all CRCs are as gracious or as Kuyperian.

      In sum, my personal experience (and I am not generalizing to others) is that even though the Evangelical traditions are better at MARKETING grace, the old fogy Kuyperians are better at PRACTICING grace! This, I know, is a controversial and polarizing point! Hence, I am not making it a universal claim. Just from my personal anecdotal experience, I discover more grace from Kuyperian Christians who aren’t hung up on pietism and/or personal relationship than those (CRC Christians included) who are big on pietism and personal relationship. Those who harp on personal relationship with Jesus, in my humble experience – again, I am sure there are others out there who would prove me wrong, but this is my general experience – are more strict about “behavior modification” (to use Bethke’s words) and, as Larry Osborne observes, in conformity to a one-size-fits-all religion.

      So, I guess I need to confess – yes, I have a personal bias – I don’t want the CRC to lose its old fogy Kuyperianism because my (irrational perhaps) fear is that becoming more Evangelical-like in piety will make the CRC be better marketers of grace (which may draw the crowds) but be worse practitioners of grace (which is what the world really needs).

      I know that’s a bombshell statement. And, yes, it should be BOTH Kuyperian and Piety, which is what my blog comes down to. I am opening myself up vulnerably here to show you my emotional fears. But despite those fears, I am resisting making the false dichotomy that Kuyperianism is good and Pietism is bad. Officially, I am proposing a three-dimensional Christianity that takes seriously the pietistic, communal/social and cultural/creational dimensions. Peace.


      1. Hi Chong,
        Forgive my lack of knowledge, but what is Kuyerianism. I’ve tried to google it and it doens’t seem to exist. Please define 🙂


      2. Hi David,
        Actually, it’s misspelled. It’s Kuyperianism. Here’s a link that is helpful: http://kuyperian.blogspot.com/2004/10/what-does-it-mean-to-be-kuyperian.html

        But actually, it’s not really a common term. Kuyperian is probably more common than Kuyperianism. I was merely picking up from John’s comments. And, so, forgive me for using a bit of an in-house lingo within my denomination. And in my conversation with John, both of us are using the term rather loosely, I think, not in the theologically precise way that blogspot article I have linked above explains it. Although we would probably agree with that article on what Kuyperian is.

        In short, it is linked to Abraham Kuyper, a 19th century Dutch theologian who, in many ways, expanded Calvinism into a worldview, and emphasized the relevance and engagement of faith to all areas of life beyond the typical/conventional Church and Religious areas. His thinking greatly influenced my denomination, the Christian Reformed Church. I would recommend that you look at the link above to see the essentials of Kuyper’s thought, rather than me making a long reply and rehash it all.

        I guess, John’s criticism of the Kuyperian ethos in (some of) the Christian Reformed Church is its intellectual-ism. And I agree that is indeed a danger for Kuyperians, in general. Hope that helps, David! 🙂


  4. I have come to understand “religion” as that thing that binds our lives together. The root word for religion also gives us the word ligament. Ligaments hold out bodies together. Religion holds our lives together. If we want to discover what our religion is, take that one thing out of life that will cause our lives to fall apart. For some it is golf, for others it is their smart phone, for others it is their job and for others it is their family. And for some it is Jesus Christ. If Jesus is the ligament, then it is fair to say that Christianity (the practice of following Jesus) is the religion. There is no dichtomy here. Chong, you are right when you say that we can find better ways of describing what Bethke is trying to say. I might suggest another: helpful religion versus harmful religion. To know the difference might be to answer the question: what one thing has the strength/fortitude to get you through life and what is is that can also give you confidence in the face of death? Harmful religions are those which do not help us in life and/or which cannot help us faith death. They fail us. Helpful religions give us confidence and ability in both. For me, the answer to that question is: I belong to Jesus, for he died for me. That is what keeps my life together. And, therefore, it is my religion.


    1. Thanks Gary. I like your distinction too between helpful religion and harmful religion. Maybe it’s time to introduce another kind of definition here. I didn’t do this in the blog post because it was getting rather long already, and it wasn’t absolutely necessary for the points I was making.

      I wrote about polemical definitions and descriptive definitions – one defining religion in a negative, straw-man-like way as a prop for attack, while the other is more neutral and attempts to describe what religion is. Another neutral way of defining things is a functional definition, where we define religion by what it does. John Stackhouse, in his Humble Apologetics, talks about these two kinds of definitions.

      Your definition of religion, Gary, falls under the functional definition category. Religion as something that binds our lives together is defining religion by what it does in our lives. And I don’t think you are wrong. I agree with you. But functional definitions are trickier to prove than descriptive ones. It’s harder to get consensus on it. So, it tends to be more problematic as working definitions for an argument. Also, it’s a different level of discussion. As you noted too, with a functional definition, many things that are not typically or conventionally seen as religious (e.g. a job, family, etc.) can function religiously. This may not be helpful to clarify what religion is. But it is helpful to show what religion does for our lives and why religion is important in our lives.

      Functional definitions also blur easily into polemic definitions like Bethke’s and Marx’s. Religion as the opiate of the masses is defining religion by what it does. So did Bethke, defining religion as behavior modification. It is just that their functional definitions are inherently negative.

      But I think we can arrive at a functional definition, like the one you gave, by deducing it from the descriptive definition. We can show that the beliefs, practices and passions of a religion act as binding forces in a person’s life; they function to give people’s lives coherence and meaning to the deep questions of life and spirituality. Then, we can talk about how non-religious systems/things can still function religiously, even though they are not religion themselves. This functional-descriptive distinction in definitions can help avoid confusions in so many discussions I have seen between Atheists and Christians. Christians have claimed that atheism is religious, with which Atheists retort as simply ridiculous. But that’s because the two sides are working with different definitions – Christians using a functional definition of religion, while Atheists are using a descriptive definition. They are constantly talking past each other.

      Thanks Gary for a thoughtful response that obviously got me reflecting further! 🙂


  5. I really admire that guy in the video; i still have my doubts about what is and what isn’t- but he’s so confident. he makes it make more sense to me


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