I don’t think I have ever preached on the danger of developing a religious spirit. However, having given a bit more time to reading the gospels over the summer, it is hard not to see how much opposition Jesus faced from the religious leaders of his day.
It would be handy if we could consign that kind of mentality to the days when Jesus was on earth. Unfortunately we can’t safely do that. It’s a mentality that manifested itself in the early church and throughout the subsequent history of the church.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written primarily to counter an extreme case of religion. If churches planted by the apostle Paul were vulnerable to the kind of legalism manifested by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the thought that we are immune to this religious virus is not rooted in reality.
So what are some of the signs? Let me give you three.
Firstly, we risk developing a religious spirit when we focus on our spiritual history at the expense of our future destiny.
Here’s what John the Baptist said to the Pharisees:
Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, 9 and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Matthew 3.8-9
They were so caught up with their own spiritual pedigree that they overlooked the lack of fruit in their lives.
An impressive spiritual family tree is incomplete without spiritual fruit.
Secondly, we risk developing a religious spirit when we fail to embrace what God is doing.
In the revival that came about through John the Baptist’s ministry, baptism was the evidence that you had embraced what God was doing.
The religious leaders rejected it. Luke 7.30 says:
But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptised by John.
We often think that our impressive history with God guarantees that we’ll always be at the centre of what he is doing. Yet history proves that the opposite is almost always the case. The people of the previous move of God become so locked into a kind of spiritual nostalgia that they miss what God is doing in the present – and sometimes even reject it as “not the real thing”.
Finally, we risk developing a religious spirit when we become more concerned about forms of religious expression than helping people.
On one occasion Jesus healed a woman who had what we would call curvature of the spine on the Sabbath in a synagogue. You might think that everyone would rejoice. Not so! The synagogue leader responded with a lecture about the Sabbath not being a day for healing – there were six other days for that:
Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. 14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, ‘There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.’ (Luke 13.13-14)
The reaction is almost comic, but tragically it reveals that this man is more concerned about the forms of his faith rather than the people that faith is meant to help.
It’s very easy for those of us in a Pentecostal / Charismatic church to apply this to some of the more established liturgical churches. It has to be said that more traditional churches are not the only churches susceptible to “formalism”. Contemporary worship expressions, prayer lines, altar calls, preaching, and the unwritten liturgy of “the way we do it here”, can become just as formal and every bit as people unfriendly as we think is the case in more traditional churches. In short, what was once something that was Holy Spirit empowered degenerates into turbo-charged religion.
How do we avoid this trap? Love and humility. That was how Jesus moved amongst the people. In His day it exposed religious spirits. In our day, if we will walk the path of love and humility, it might help to save us from developing a religious spirit.