3 Signs of a religious spirit – and how to avoid developing one!

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.

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1 thing I learnt from an Indian apostle

A couple of years ago I visited India. It is amazing what God is doing there and throughout the developing world. Although I was there to speak / teach, I came home feeling that I had learnt more than I taught.

Just recently I had the “home leg” of the learning experience when one of the church leaders I had visited in India visited our church. Needless to say I wasn’t disappointed by the “learning experience” from my friend’s visit. I learnt more than one thing and was moved, not to say overwhelmed by much of what he had to say. One thing, however, stood out.

So what was the one thing? My friend told us that in his movement they instilled into the children that God had called them and ordained them to lead a fruitful life. This is based on Jesus’ declaration to His apostles in John 15 that He had chosen them and appointed them to bear lasting fruit (v.16). If you want to trace the idea further, read the mandate God gives Adam and Eve in Genesis 1. Or the promise He gives Abraham in Genesis 12.

He told stories that were both amazing and very moving to illustrate how even the children in the movement he leads were passionate for Christ and the gospel. This passion, it was evident, remained into adult life, to the point that many were and are prepared to sacrifice very good careers to become missionaries.

As I reflected on the kind of church culture I grew up in – one that extended far beyond my particular church – I noticed that our approach to and understanding of our purpose in life was very different. For us, the emphasis was on avoiding sin rather than producing fruit. In fact I think producing fruit was seen more as a command to be obeyed than a promise to be believed.

There are two problems with that approach.

Firstly, a fruitful Christian life becomes a pressure rather than a promise. And it almost always rests on our ability rather than His power at work through us. In the end it produces spiritual frustration more than spiritual fruit.

Secondly, an approach that focuses on “sin avoidance” tends to end up in spiritual sterility or even a kind of paranoia about being polluted by the world.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t emphasise the need to avoid sin. In fact, we might need to rediscover that emphasis. But on its own, it will not produce fruitful people. And if individual Christians aren’t fruitful, then churches will not flourish.

I should admit that I do go looking for the “secret sauce” or the “silver bullet” when it comes to any kind of success or effectiveness in the church, or elsewhere for that matter. Having said that, I am not for one moment claiming that this is the only or even the main factor in church growth in the developing world. And I do realise that there are enormous cultural differences between the Western world and the Indian sub-continent.

At the same time there are biblical principles that transcend culture. The conviction that God has called every Christian to flourish and bear lasting fruit, to my mind transcends culture. It’s a scriptural principle, not a tenet of a particular culture. And if that is the case, it should be the conviction of every believer- Indian or Western.