There are many ways to approach this topic, and for the record I think this is a good conversation to have. Furthermore, I believe many are asking the wrong questions as each individual’s perspective on the nature of religion will vary according to their experience with the church and scriptures. Bottom line, truth is not subjective but our interpretation of religion is.
I recently read Matthew 23 and found some insight.
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat,”
(Matthew 23:1-2 ESV)
A way of translating this might be to say: “The Pharisees have taken Moses license and office”. This may very well have been a self appointed position since they did have some authority in matters of the law (Deut 17:9), but they had far exceeded their jurisdiction.
“So do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. 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.”
(Matthew 23:3-4 ESV)
Now, it is important to take note of two things.
1. Jesus is NOT doing away with the law, instead He affirms its authority and power. In fact, He even encourages obedience to the expressed preaching of the Pharisees (pending it aligns with God’s word)!
2. Jesus IS publicly condemning the promotion of extra-biblical traditions. He explicitly stands in opposition to their expectations as it creates unnecessary “burdens” (v.4) and obstacles for the people.
So, what is the difference between the two?
God’s law is a gracious thing. It was intended to reveal the goodness and wisdom of God, bring awareness of sin and guilt, and show the need for divine redemption (Leviticus 17:11; Galatians 3:24; Romans 3:19-20; 7:7-13; 1 Timothy 1:7-11). The law, however, was not given to be utilized as a performance-based means of salvation. Moreover, when it is, even good things become bad things. This is what the Pharisees used to keep authoritative control over the people and I believe this is what Jefferson Bethke intended to convey in his poem. When we create obstacles beyond faith, we actually rob people of the very thing we hope for them to experience: grace.
“You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”(Matt 23:13)