Make your choice! Jesus or religion! I understand where this idea comes from. Partly, it comes from Jesus’ condemnation of religious hypocrisy, particularly hypocritical religious leaders. It also stems from certain theologies that dismiss the role of works in salvation. After all, if we can leave works out of the equation, we can also leave out any structure. If we don’t need any structure, we don’t need any religious organization. The result is a “Jesus and me” approach where it really doesn’t matter where (or even if) I go to church, just as long as I believe in Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. And I certainly don’t need any stuffy, hypocritical church leaders coming between me and my Jesus.
Additionally, many Christians believe that the Church is an invisible body. In other words, since only God knows the heart, no one really knows who is saved and who is lost. Therefore, the Body of Christ cannot really be seen. It exists in a purely spiritual, invisible form. Religion, however, is visible. Religion includes certain works and structures and visible manifestations of the faith. Consequently, some Christians conclude that being a Christian is incompatible with “religion.” But, is this really the case?
Jesus did indeed condemn religious hypocrisy. However, he did not condemn the Jewish religion. In fact, Jesus told the people, “Do what the religious leaders tell you, just don’t act the way they act, for they sit on the seat of Moses.” In other words, Jesus recognized that the religious leaders had valid authority. Judaism is a valid religion and Jesus confirmed its validity. Jesus was also a faithful Jew. Jesus said, “I did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it.” Jesus did not destroy religion; he took it to the next level.
Jesus told Peter, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church. And I will give to you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Jesus created a new sacrifice and a new seat of authority. The seat of Peter picks up where the seat of Moses leaves off. Jesus created the offices of pope and bishop. He obviously intended to establish a visible religion with authority and structure. Peter became the prime minister for Jesus. We can see the apostles exercising apostolic succession by filling the office left vacant by Judas.
Being a Christian is not a matter of choosing between religion or Jesus. Being a Christian is a both/and proposition. Jesus and his religion go together. The purpose of the Church is to make Christ visible to the world. The Church is the Body of Christ. Unfortunately, what the world often sees is a divided church. But a house divided against itself cannot stand and does not provide a strong witness. This is why it is crucial for the church to be united and organized. The Catholic religion is the realization of the visible, organized, authoritative Church that Jesus established 2000 years ago. The Church is a visible city on a hill, not a candle under a bushel or a buffet of options.
Do some Catholic religious leaders behave badly? Yes. Do some Catholics become so “religious” that they lack a relationship with Christ? Yes. Are a lot of Catholics hypocrites? Yes. None of this is unique to Catholicism. None of it negates the authenticity of the Church that Jesus built on Peter any more than the behavior of Judas negates the authenticity of apostolic authority. Don’t leave Peter because of Judas. Don’t leave the religion of Catholicism to find Jesus. You don’t have to reinvent your own Christian religion. It’s already been prepared for you by the Master.