Pure religion exists, as does its perversion in many forms. Because of the baggage the word religion packs in our times, I have shied from defining it. Depending on the audience, the word takes on a plethora of meanings. For instance, when speaking with secular friends and acquaintances, religious is understood to encompass the lifestyle of one who dutifully serves God (or any god for that matter). Similarly, among some Christian believers, religious is a badge of honor worn to distinguish them from the non-practicing Christian or unbeliever. For many spiritually minded Christians, however, religious has become a derogatory term in our modern spiritual lexicon. Its usage is reserved to characterize the legalistic among the fold.
The Pentecostal/Charismatic move of the prior century can be credited for this linguistic development among the initiated. Teaching centered on the notorious “religious spirit” was made popular by wonderful voices like Jack Deere, Rick Joyner, Francis Frangipane, and Dr. C. Peter Wagner among others. What these teachers brought to light was the fact that modern-day pharisees continue to plague true Christianity. Just as in the day of Christ, there are those of an established order, who persecute and demonize any who defy their methodology. Some are confused or put off by this usage of “religious” and the many references made to it in Charismatic/Pentecostal conversations. The word religion is used only a handful of times in the scriptures, most famously in James 1:26-27 KJV.
“If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”
Religion in this passage is translated from the Greek word thrēskeia which is not pejorative in meaning. James uses the word religion to encapsulate the disciplines or public ceremonial exercises of one who worships God. Consider it a neutral word that describes the outward expressions of a worshipper. James suggests that the truly pious man demonstrates his piety by more than public worship. If he is sincere in his worship, he will keep his mouth in check and minister to the needs of others. Depending on the heart of the worshipper, his acts of worship can either be pure or defiled… true or false. Simple, no?
Where the term religious becomes remarkably complex is in its modern interpretation among certain camps within Christianity. Some of those nuances I would like to touch on, giving air to some of my recent musings. While understanding and endorsing the aforementioned teachings on the religious spirit, I do not relish the element of strangeity that have evolved from them. As is the case with any catchy teaching, there is a propensity for it to be taken to the nth degree. Some will extrapolate and build entire schools of thought on a single revelation. That legalistic modern-day pharisees exist, is true. That they are deemed “religious spirits” is unfortunate somewhat due to the overall positive acceptance of the word “religious” in most circles. Since most who read Defining Words are among the Pentecostal/Charismatic fold, I will use the word “religious” in its derogatory sense for the remainder of this post. Savvy?
The Religious Spirit Weaponized
It has taken me five years to muster the gumption to write about the religious spirit in its negative sense. Five years! For me, focusing on the negative elements of spiritual living is a downer. I’d much rather talk about things wonderful – but winds of late have incited me to break my personal rule. Negative truths must be acknowledged in order to gain a holistic perspective. Polarization is happening in the modern body of Christ and for two different reasons. A divide will always exist between those who hold to sound doctrine, and those who heap to themselves teachers of fanciful contrivances. The latter are always dangling off the edge of biblical reason. Second, working harder to polarize the body than any other force is the religious spirit, which drives away what it cannot control. (This earlier post may give further insight: 15 Signs of a Religious Spirit.)
Not necessarily demonic, the religious spirit is more a human spirit that seeks control of worshipful expression. Religious human spirits (or mindsets) plague every religion both true and false, with rigid and legalistic dogma. For the one bound to a religious mindset, it is either his way or the highway when it comes to how faith is expressed. The religious spirit will go so far as to weaponize their faith to attack those who fail to assimilate (hence the picture of the Borg for fellow Trekkies). Please don’t think me insensitive for this next statement. Whether it’s the Crusades of the Middle Ages, the Inquisitions, the modern War on Terror and radicalized Islam, or the internal culture war in the Christian World, religious spirits persist in shedding blood in the name of God. Most blood is shed, figuratively speaking, in the way of character assassination and the rending of the body of Christ. Disunity among Christians can almost always be linked to the divisive “religious spirit.”
What does the religious spirit want? It seeks total control over the definition of scripture, its teaching, application and worshipful expression. Since the religious spirit is human in nature, it requires a human arbitrator. This person, or human system determines what is acceptable and pleasing to God. Meanwhile, the role of the Holy Spirit is diminished in the life of a believer, to one who assists in implementing the preferred religious system. Holy Spirit is reduced to the one who helps the believer acquiesce to the chosen set of rules and demands. More dependence is placed on the dogma, doctrine, rules, etc… as described by the arbitrator, than on the necessity of hearing God for oneself. Little room is left for working out one’s own salvation as described in Philippians 2:12.
Personal expression or individuality is frowned on. Unless the individuality remains completely predictable, controllable or somehow enhances the “system” (by paying homage to it) it is deemed a threat. Anyone who willfully deviates from the preferred doctrines or prescribed code of conduct are in threat of dissociation and personal attack. It is not my desire to stir up ill sentiment with this post, or to feed rebellion among the disgruntled. Millennials, however, are falling by the religious sword in droves. Front lines for the cultural war in the body of Christ, have been arrayed on the division of generational perceptions.
If we are to end the bloodshed, we must put away the insistence on assimilation. Next-generation Christians are more individually expressive than ever before. While they seek the blessing of the prior generation, they will press on with or without it. As Solomon has stated, there is nothing new under the sun. Persecution from the religious spirit is as old as religion itself. Likewise, many who fought so diligently to free themselves from religious persecution in times past have become the chief pharisees of our day. No one is above weaponizing their faith, especially whenever their own personal dogma is challenged.
True spiritual believers recognize they are not fighting against humanity (flesh and blood), but against spiritual darkness. I fear the loss of progressive people from our churches is a bloodshed that has left us too weak to wage an effective warfare against the true enemy. Might we be willing to sit down with fellow believers and talk peaceably about our differences? Might we be willing to bless one another despite our religious cultural differences? Might we allow the Holy Spirit room to work individually as He may, to bring us each into maturity, in His own timing? The religious spirit would forbid such a coming together. Holy Spirit, however, would invite and host it.
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