I love people, and I look for the best in them. I love God’s church, and I believe through Christ, God’s church carries the hope of the world… the Gospel of God’s Grace in Christ Jesus. So, when what I believe is a spiritual infection threatens the very life and vitality of something very precious to my heart (people and the Gospel), I believe it deserves to be brought out of the shadows and into the light. Especially when it has taken on what could even be said is a pandemic scope.
Is what I am addressing being manifested in all churches and among all Christians? Not at all. However, I do write with concern for what I see infecting certain segments of the body of Christ. It’s a spiritual stronghold of Satan’s crafting custom fit for segments of the Christian culture and sharpened for the target of God’s Church.
What I see eroding portions of the American church from the inside out is what I call the “religious spirit.” In simple terms, the “religious spirit” is anything that reduces our focus and faith in the beauty and finishing work of Jesus, and shifts it towards human performance. It is any spirit that communicates that your identity is shaped by your actions, or any spirit that places the fulfilling of your purpose in the hands of your performance.
The religious spirit declares that human performance is what makes the transaction between God and His provisions becoming a reality in our lives. Yet, the Gospel teaches that “faith” is what makes transactions possible between God and us, and us and God. Unfortunately, not only is this religious spirit alive and well in many-a-church, it is even leading them. In fact, in some settings, the religious spirit is indistinguishable from the church. And to be sure, when the religious spirit sets in it will do nearly anything to keep its influence and control.
For example, in most churches, you would rarely if ever hear a direct message declaring that receiving salvation is contingent on our human performance. Yet, when we add anything more to this transaction than faith alone, we are doing just that. Even the well intentioned phrase, “Giving my life to Jesus” can become problematic when we believe foundationally that we have any life to give Him, and our giving is what opens the door to Grace. Truth is, we don’t give our life to Jesus, Jesus gives His life to us. We receive His life, He doesn’t receive ours. That’s the subtlety of the religious spirit.
See, our flesh is attracted to messages that give us something to do to work our way out of the wedges of life. It appeals to our human nature to place our destiny (or portions thereof) within our human ability to accomplish. We love to hear “steps” to this or that spiritual goal, or even be convicted to just “do better” because ultimately it places the focus on us and gives us a self-authoring hope.
It’s much like playing golf, we start living for the hope that the next round will be the round where we finally play better. The Christian life becomes simply a series of scored rounds where you hold onto a hope that you will finally do better than the last one. In that way, it (the religious spirit) keeps you coming back for more of what you ironically will never truly achieve as it appeals to a hope that one day will be THE day…so just keep on playing.
In fact, have you ever noticed that nearly every issue of Golf Magazine is basically the same? It’s all tips and tricks to playing better, sometimes even presenting the same tricks and tips in just a bit of a different way. People keep buying issues of the magazine over and over because ultimately what they learned in the last one we never could fully be put into practice.
Yet, the same is true about the reality of much of the church going life in America. It’s really the same spiritual magazine every week of tips and tricks of how to enhance your life by essentially doing better in some way, shape, or form. Yet, because it’s ultimately focused on our performance, we keep coming back because week after week, in some way or another, we fall short.
That’s why the religious spirit comes out of who I want and think I need to be, but the Gospel-spirit comes out who I am in Christ and who I get to be. Like the trajectory of a rocket geared to the millimeter at launch, this distinction is critical in the trajectory of the Christian life.
The religious spirit has manifested itself in many ways within church, here’s a few briefly described…
1) Personal Performance-based Self Improvement.
Within some contemporary and traditional churches alike, there is a message being given that is based on a foundation of faithfulness and self-effort that gives the religious prescription that our performance leads to spiritual growth and life enhancement. In these settings, obedience is seen as the root of the Christian life and faith is the fruit. Yet, the Gospel teaches that faith is the root and obedience is the fruit. Right believing leads to right living. It is not our performance that makes us better, it’s our faith in the work of Christ and our identity in Him. You become a new person, believe you are new, and then live newly from that faith. Our identity determines our performance, not our performance our identity. In fact, there is really no such thing as self improvement, there is only new-self becoming. You can’t become a better person until you become a new person in Christ. Once you are a new person in Christ, your faith makes you better as you believe in who you are (not your performance) and God’s work in you. Therefore, faith is the root, obedience is the fruit.
2) Religious Rituals and Prescriptions
For one example, in many church and Christian circles, the Bible has become an idol rather than a foundational revelation, guide and tool for our Christian faith and life. Scripture memorization, knowledge and debate have become the primary goal. The foundation is on what can be memorized, quoted, or underlined. Additionally, the Bible has become a religious symbol of devotion and the reading thereof a ritual that attempts to convince the soul and the observer of the genuineness and vitality of one’s faith. Jesus has become an accessory to the Word and the reading thereof instead of Him being the purpose and the prize. The Word of God was and is always meant to lead us to Jesus; His Grace, beauty, presence, and finishing work on the cross. It is not a religious book from which to gain points with God or to put one’s faith on display.
Unfortunately, what a religious spirit has done with God’s Word, it has also done with other things like prayer, fasting, and serving.
3) Legalist Church Cultures
Legalism is simply the placing of a law where there is none with a sure sense that if not fulfilled or followed it will keep one from God or the things of God.
Some churches are full of all kinds of rules that God never created. Much of them are man made, and center around the use of power, guilt and fear to influence and conform. From various kinds of denominational politics and policies to churches approving of only a certain Bible translation that their members can read, from dress codes to doctrines of a nonessential nature, the religious spirit has done well to promote and prosper legalism throughout God’s church.
Legalism places hoops to jump through in order to get to God or the things of God, yet the Gospel shows God doing the hoop jumping in order to get to us and pour out His blessings into our lives.
The question isn’t so much “where is legalism within the church today?” the question is really, “where isn’t legalism in the church?” There is a continual message communicated in many and various ways within God’s church that if you don’t have this or do this, you aren’t completely one of us, and may not even be one of God’s. Are there essential beliefs to the Christian faith? Obviously, yes. But legalism rarely ever focuses on the essentials but makes codes, conditions, and constraints out of the nonessentials.
Indeed, from issues of ministry leadership to callings in the Kingdom, we have placed a lot of emphasis on our guide posts, best practices, and bench marks in nearly every spectrum of the church to the point we have nearly created a religion of leadership, the Christian life, and doing church and ministry.
4) Man Centered Traditions and Structures
The Gospel is God created, religion is man created. Find me a place within a church where what is man created eclipses or replaces what God created and you will find me what is religious about that church. Are there various interpretations as to what God created church to be like and how it is to operate? Absolutely, but undoubtedly there are also clear footprints where the religious spirit as stomped on and stolen from God’s design for His church and replaced it with man created traditions and structures.
From worship styles to church committees and boards, there are countless examples of where what man has created can either eclipse or replace what God designed. Is everything that man creates within church religiously spirited? No, not at all. However, where we place our created things over or against what God has designed and purposed, we run into dangerous territory. For example, worship styles aren’t necessarily religiously spirited until they are put over or against God’s redemptive purpose for His Church. Committees and boards aren’t necessarily religiously spirited until they are put over or against the direct and/or delegated authority God designed for His church.
The Faithfulness Factor- Differences between Acting and Working
There is a reason why God is only pleased by our faith. Faith is what releases God to work in and through us, lavishing and spilling His Grace in and through us. God works, we believe, we act in response to His revealed movement seen and sensed by our faith, God continues to work and bless. That’s the order, the interaction, and the re-act-ion.
Our acting is often to be in real-time concert with God’s working. God works, we act. Acting always comes out of faith and need of God’s working. Work comes out of some level of disbelief, dissatisfaction, or doubt with God’s work, power, and goodness. It is the flesh engaging despite or without the power and prompting of God. Faith puts us in step with when to act in sync with the Spirit, work is virtually deaf to and even disinterested in such discernment.
When God gave birth to the Church He scripted its birthing memoirs in a book called “Acts” in the Bible, not a book called “Works.” To be sure, it is often attributed to the acts of the Holy Spirit in birthing the Church, but notice throughout, the same pattern repeats over and over again… the Spirit works in many and various ways, the people believe and then act. In many instances, the people involved believe, wait for God’s movement and then act. The foundation is the Spirit of God moving, not the flesh drawing from its own power, purpose, and prompting.
Faithfulness is simply acting as a result of and in the flow of God’s working, but never without or before it. Faithfulness is never doing things (no matter how great or spiritual the cause) when and where God is not or has not directly moved. Furthermore, it is never to be a performance that proves one’s faith, puts it on display, or appeases God.
What about the book of James? Yes, we were created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. However when we abide in Christ through faith, He is the one who does them. “It is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13)
Furthermore, a study of the text of James will reveal that James who stated such things as “Faith without works is dead” and “You see then that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24) was referring back to the “works” of Abraham. What was the work of Abraham? To believe in God. James is not contradicting Paul whose faith was by Grace alone, but seeing our faith and trust in Jesus and His promises as a one and only abiding work. As Jesus said, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent.” John 6:29.
First, it is saving faith, then it is an abiding faith. But none of it is work in any performing/religious way, shape, or form. Rather, James is describing the unbelieving believer. The faithless faith, and thus the workless (the work of believing) faith.
Unfortunately, much of serving and what is being done in the name of “faithfulness” in and outside of church is laced with religious performance. It is not rooted in the rest that comes from the Gospel of Grace, but in the performance mindset or “work” that comes from the subtle movements of the religious spirit. It is the hard work of the unbelieving believer. They believe in Jesus, but less in His Gospel of pure Grace and power for their lives. Thus, their restlessness and need to be busy to “do more for the Lord.”
There are two very distinct ways to work. Each having a different foundation. One can work under law or under Grace. We place ourselves under the law when we scan the horizon for things we should be doing for Jesus to make and ensure the Christian thing happening in us gets complete as we try to convince ourselves of what we are not truly convinced in our souls; we are forgiven, fully acceptable, and lacking nothing. We remain under Grace when we rest in Him and then act on His promptings. From Grace, under Grace, through Grace.
Is The Religious Spirit alive in Church? Yes, but the Gospel spirit is so much better, and such a better way to live!