Bad Religion

“He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them, He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (John 1:11-12).

Have you ever thought about why Jesus was rejected by the religious leaders of His day? He didn’t meet their expectations, He didn’t share their prejudices, He hung out with the wrong crowd. He appeared to break all their laws. God’s people were looking for a warrior king to fight their enemies, but Jesus came as the Prince of Peace. They were looking for a day of vengeance, and missed the glorious appearing of the virgin child. Jesus came as one of us, and He had compassion. It was not what they were expecting.

Jesus touched the untouchables. He embraced lepers, the ceremonially unclean, He called women to be His disciples. He was a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Not only that, but He drew close to the people who were shunned by society, and it was His willingness to come close to people that the Pharisees feared the most. 

To the religious rulers of His day, Jesus would have seemed like a heretic. Jesus challenged their conception of religion, status and privilege. The liberation He offered was an existential threat. They came from Abraham’s seed. They thought they were insiders. They thought they were saved by virtue of being Jewish. But Jesus said, Abraham was not their father — their father was the devil. He told Nicodemus his Jewish identity wasn’t enough. He had to be born again.

Being a wealthy, healthy, religious Jew had no bearing on salvation. The religion of Christ brought liberation for every tribe, tongue, nation and people. It wasn’t about being male or female, Jew or Gentile, all were one under Christ. 

But when you are accustomed to privilege, equality looks like oppression. The religious rulers thought that embracing “others” would lead to contamination and the loss of religious purity, but Jesus did not share that mindset. So, He was despised and rejected by religious men.

In his book What Jesus Meant, author and historian Garry Wills says, “The most striking, resented and dangerous of Jesus’ activities were His opposition to religion, relevant to His time. This is what led to His death. Religion killed Him.”

Religion killed Christ. Or, I might add, religion partnered with power-driven politics. History shows that when religious and political establishments come together for a cause, it often involves violence, war and death. 

There is a rise of Christian Nationalism around the globe. It needs to be confronted because it seeks political power under a religious disguise. It may claim to represent Christ, but it is against everything Jesus was for.

True religious liberty protects the atheist just as much as the believer. It speaks up against the oppression of a gay person, just as it would speak up against the oppression of a straight person. It is committed to the ideal that all men and women are created equal.

So be careful of political and religious figures that invoke the name of God but curse minorities and the vulnerable with their actions. Be careful of people who lead in national days of prayer but are actually hypocrites. Jesus called such leaders snakes (Matt. 23).

You can’t be a Christian and a nationalist at the same time. Christianity can’t be forced into a box based on privilege, exclusion and prejudice. Christian nationalism isn’t about protecting the rights of the other, it is all about self-preservation. In that way, it is anti-Christ.

Christ was rejected the first time He came to His own people. How will it be the second time around? If you have been rejected by religious people take heart, Jesus was rejected as well. 

When religious people misrepresent Christ, they lay heavy burdens on people.

“For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matt. 23:3–4).

Bad religion is worse than no religion. Where bad religion is exclusive, Jesus is inclusive. Where bad religion restricts, Jesus sets free. He says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30).