Recently a friend of mine sent me an article published on Fox News by a Christian pastor who was the latest voice to echo the statement that “Jesus Hates Religion.” Those who take this view associate the word “religion” with hypocrisy, self-righteousness, judgment, merit-based salvation, ignoring the poor, pointless rules, bondage, and war.

The spirit behind this view has some merit. While I agree that members of the Church are guilty of these things, I wonder, is the Christian religion itself the cause these things? Religion defined:

    – a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

The passage that many people point to when they say that Jesus hates religion is Matthew 23. “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others… ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.’” (Mt 23:1-6; 25-26)

There isn’t anything in this passage or those like it that show Jesus hating religion itself. Rather, Jesus is pointing out the sinful behavior of men. We see that Jesus uses the word, hypocrite, seven times in the full text of the passage. Hypocrisy defined:

    – a pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles, etc., that one does not really possess.

It is very clear that Jesus does not have a problem here with religion – in fact He commands His followers to obey these hypocritical religious authorities. His problem is with hypocrisy. In fact, hypocrisy underlies all of the criticisms of religion listed above. This is a very different argument. Jesus does not hate religion. Jesus hates hypocrisy. Labeling Jesus’ condemnation of hypocrisy mistakenly as His hatred of religion masks the fact that Jesus’ mission was to fulfill the Jewish religion!

Jesus, the law-abiding Jew, said, “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.” (Mt 5:17) The Law and the Prophets are the foundation of the Jewish religion. Jesus took the best of Judaism – the law, the temple, sacrifice, and priesthood – and synthesized it, raising it to a new level in Christianity.

During His three-year ministry, nearly everything Jesus did was used to teach us what to believe, how to act, and what to do after He was gone. Think of the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, the parables, etc. In all of these moments He was establishing religion.

Jesus did this formally by building a Church and giving the Apostles His authority, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 16:18-19; see also Mt 18:18)

St. Paul refers to the Church as the “pillar and bulwark of the Truth” (1 Tim 3:15) and the body of Christ (see Col. 1:18 and Rom. 12:5). Jesus did not establish an individualistic, privatized faith. Instead, He established a Church, of which He is the head, and we are the body – completely interrelated – thrown in together despite all of our faults and foibles.

Additionally, Jesus told His disciples to obey His commands and promised the Holy Spirit would come to aid them. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:15-17) If we love Him, we should expect to have to live according to Christ’s “rules”.

Having established a Church, given it authority, and provided for the creation of and obedience to rules, Jesus tasked His Church to baptize (and teach): “Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Mt 28:18-20; see also Col 2:11-12)

Also included was the command to celebrate the Eucharist – fulfillment of the Jewish celebration of the Passover: ”For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” (1 Cor 11:23-26; see also John 6)

According to St. Augustine, the Latin origin of the word, religion, is religare – “to bind”, as in, to bind oneself to God. This binding necessarily means sacrifice – the sacrifice of our freedom to do whatever (bad thing) we want. But as Christ says, “For My yoke is easy, my burden, light.” (Mt 11:30)

The argument, “Jesus hates religion”, while well-intentioned, sets up a false dichotomy. Religion isn’t the cause of the problems attributed to it, it is our hypocrisy – our desire to do whatever evil we want and still consider ourselves holy. Blaming religion for this hypocrisy is like blaming the hospital for our sickness. So while Jesus hates hypocrisy, He loves us so deeply that he willingly died for each and every one of us hypocrites. So let us return that love, through true loving sacrifice, by binding ourselves to Jesus through His religion.

The opinions expressed by the DPS blog authors and those providing comments are theirs alone; they are not necessarily the expressions or beliefs of either the Dead Philosophers Society or Holy Apostles College & Seminary.