Do you lack joy in life? Would you rather skip church, prayer, and scripture reading? Do you focus most of your energy on doing the right thing and abstaining from the wrong things? Do you ever feel stuck in sin, shame, or condemnation? If you answered yes to these questions, you may be struggling with a spirit of religion (Spirit can be used as a descriptive term without referencing an actual spirit).
What is the spirit of religion and how does it impact the local church? The spirit of religion is a shift from joyful obedience in God and a transformed life, to simply doing the right things and abstaining from the wrong ones. The spirit of religion only allows for outward righteousness. It does not transform the person or the heart. Rather, it puts on a front and appearance that is no greater than skin deep. This impacts the local church by creating divisions between individuals and stealing the joy, freedom, healing, and transformation that comes through the power of God.
Content covered within the blog:
- What is the Spirit of Religion?
- How to Practically Distinguish It
- Scripture as a Tool of Discernment
- What Jesus Had to Say About It
- The Type of Righteousness Jesus Desires
- The Impact on the Local Church
- Spirit of Religion Vs. Godly Desire Chart
- Discerning a Spirit of Religion
- Confronting the Issue
- When You’re Deceived and Don’t Know It
- Scripture Warning Against False Teaching
What is the Spirit of Religion?
When we mention the word spirit, various connotations come to mind. For some, they will think of demons, exorcism, and power struggle. Others will brush it off as fake, an overreaction, and not worth a second thought. Neither of these extremes is healthy, helpful, or Biblical.
Throughout scripture, we see the reality that there are spiritual beings. God, Himself is Spirit (John 4:24). There are angels, and there are demons. These angels have met with humans since the Old Testament and during the New Testament. Furthermore, Jesus and His disciples consistently cast out demons.
The Apostle Paul explains, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).
What does this mean concerning the spirit of religion? Is there an actual spirit behind this? I cannot say this with full clarity or confidence. There very well could be. Another option is that there isn’t. I know too many people who hyper-spiritualize phenomenons and daily life experiences. I also know individuals who fight against the wrong things and never truly experience freedom.
In order to address this issue, we must use discernment, wisdom, and knowledge from scripture. Often, what I hear many people speak of as a “spirit of religion” is actually a mindset that people have adapted and retained. Was this the influence of a spirit? Perhaps. Whether or not it is, can we do anything about it? Yes.
How to Practically Distinguish It
The spirit of religion in a local church that many people explain seems to be more about action or lack thereof. Those with a “spirit” of religion, tend to take a legalistic approach to the gospel and their life in Christ. Their actions are incredibly outward and it’s hard to get the message to hit the heart. Furthermore, they don’t connect with God or others on a deeper level.
They do all the right things. And they check all the boxes. They are good people. What’s wrong with that? The issue is that outward actions do not always equate to inward purity, holiness, life, love, and Godliness. These individuals who do the right thing and obtain from the wrong things can still have the same issue of hatred, lust, selfishness, and greed.
Additionally, they can keep the right appearance in the right places, yet cave into sin when no one is looking. This may lead to secrecy, deception, lying, gossip behind closed doors, and untold sins. Furthermore, those who grew to believe that it is more about the sacraments, actions, or ceremonies, believe they are excused. They may genuinely believe that they have saving faith and that their sins are compensated for because of their actions.
Scripture as a Tool of Discernment
Simply stated, this is a deception. It is not Biblical. Scripture explains, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:11).
Additionally, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). Justification is never about our actions or abstinence.
Rather, justification makes believers pure and gives them the ability to sin no more and live a life of abundant good fruit. “It is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill His good purpose” (Phillippians 2:13).
What Jesus Had to Say About It
While living on earth, Jesus addressed crowds that included the general population, Pharisees and teachers of the Law. During His famous teaching, the Semon on the Mount, in Matthew 5-7, He corrects several misunderstandings. Mainly, this involves the statement, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
Jesus seems to be making a teeth clenching statement. The crowds were probably thinking, “my righteousness has to surpass the righteousness of the professionally righteous?” You might be thinking the same thing. “How can I, a normal Christian without extensive and life long training ever be on the same playing field as those who have devoted their entire life to follow scripture?”
The answer is simple. Jesus wasn’t talking about righteousness being greater or better than that of the Pharisees. Rather, He was describing righteousness that was different in kind. The righteousness that Jesus desires is not defined in the same terms that the Pharisees defined it.
The Pharisees defined righteousness by outward actions. They loved to practice their righteousness in front of others (Matthew 6:1-16). The extent of their righteousness was doing the right things and refraining from the wrong things. Yet, their thoughts, heart, and desires were plagued by sin and evil. They were not transformed. Instead, they were outwardly clean and inwardly evil (Matthew 23:27-28).
The Type of Righteous Jesus Desires
Jesus desires righteousness that goes down deep to the heart. He wants righteousness to begin inward and reflect outward. Good actions and abstaining from sin are the fruit of a purified heart that is holy to the Lord. Keyword: it is the fruit. Meaning, good deeds, and actions are the results of the tree of life being cultivated within an individual.
Scripture explains, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Jesus wants the heart to be transformed by the grace that was poured out in His death and resurrection. Through faith, believers are able to accept this. Then, through the power of Holy Spirit, they are able to live it out.
Jesus wants the good works that the Pharisees were doing to continue. Yet, He wanted the motivation to change. He uses the term when. This is used in the instance of “when you pray”, “when you give to the needy”, and “when you fast” etc.
Prayer, fasting, giving to the needy, and doing good deeds should be a regular part of a believer’s life. However, the mentality should shift from a begrudging obligation to a joyful opportunity. When the joy and love of the Lord are truly known and experienced, individuals cannot help but live in such a way that produces more love and provision into their families, friendships, community, and world.
The Impact on the Local Church
The impact of a spirit of religion within the local church is brutal. It can take the life right out of the church. The atmosphere is not usually joyful, free, passionate, transformative, grateful, or hopeful. The Fruits of the Spirit are not present in individuals with this struggle. Entire churches can even come under this.
Additionally, it can make Christianity a cultural event, rather than a transformative and personal connection with God. It could be debatable if these individuals even have saving faith in God. Some people get so wrapped up into a spirit of religion that their beliefs, actions, and life does not reflect scripture at all.
Scripture makes it clear that salvation comes only by grace and through faith. Additionally, it makes clear the expectation of growth and sanctification within a believer’s life. Jesus commanded His disciples to make disciples, not merely converts. Disciples are on an ongoing journey of becoming like their disciple-maker, Jesus.
Another downside is that it brings division and separation to the community of believers. Those struggling with a religious spirit are often more concerned about themselves than others. When this is the case, love does not abound. When love does not abound, the atmosphere is tense, and it is missing out on all the goodness that the Lord created community and close relationships to be.
Spirit of Religion Vs. Godly Desire
Simply put, this chart maps out the main issues of a spirit of religion. It also compares to the alternative Godly desire that is presented in scripture. By identifying these differences, it is easy to see where we stand and where our local church stands. Furthermore, it gives points to pray about, repent from, and move into the beauty of the Kingdom of God.
|Spirit of Religion:||Godly Desire:|
|Doing good works to be seen and praised by men.||Doing good works out of the goodness and abundance of the heart.|
|Helping the needy to receive something in return.||Helping the needy because of deep, Godly love for others.|
|Focusing more on presentation and appearance. Example: extravagant prayers, flashy explanations, and speeches, consistently speaking and focusing on self.||Doing all for the glory of God and the service of others.|
|Frustration that others aren’t valuing or noticing your talent, giftings.||Willingness to take a lower role of service.|
|Desiring a place of leadership or influence.||Wanting to serve wherever there is the need.|
|Centering worship and church services around key individuals.||Encouraging and exhorting the entire Body of Christ to partake in the Kingdom.|
|Valuing the important, successful, prominent, and popular over the lowly.||Esteeming all individuals as equal in Christ. Not showing favoritism or bias.|
|A critical viewpoint and judgment towards others.||Seeking to encourage and uplift others to their potential in Christ.|
|Living a sinful or compromised life.||Valuing holiness and pursuing sanctification, while trusting in the power and grace of God.|
|Acting differently in religious settings compared to daily life.||Having the same character and persona in all areas and times of life.|
|The individual feels consistent condemnation and shame.||Living in freedom and joy because of Jesus’ sacrifice. Knowing there is forgiveness and the supernatural ability to overcome sin and live a victorious life.|
|The individual thinks that his or her good works will give them right standing with God. They rely on themselves to make things right.||Relying only on the sacrifice of Christ and His deep grace that He pours out through our faith in Him.|
Discerning a Spirit of Religion
Jesus gives us practical tools to use when we are faced with false teachers, confusing doctrine, and dicey phenomenons in the local church.
Matthew 7:15-20 explains, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?
Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits, you will know them.”
The Fruit that the Spirit Cultivates
Jesus says, “You will know them by their fruits.” What is good fruit? Good fruit is that of the Spirit. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things, there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).
These fruits should be evident in the lives of believers. If these are lacking, it is an indicator. Since we are still humans, we will not possess all of these at all times. We still struggle with a fallen world and our own flesh. Despite this, a believer’s life should be characterized by this. These should be noticeable.
If you look at the lives of the scribes and Pharisees, these were not evident. Furthermore, you can discern what teachers, preachers, pastors, and spiritual leaders are healthily following the Lord, based on how they treat their spouse, children, family, and the lowliest individuals.
The fruit of someone’s life will come out when trial hits. We shouldn’t hold others to a perfect standard, but we should pay attention to how we and spiritual leaders respond to stress and certain situations. When stressed, does this leader cut others down? Do they compromise with sin to make them feel better? Aka, what do the true colors look like?
The Fruit That Results From the Flesh
In contrast, bad fruit occurs when a person is overcome by the flesh. “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-20).
Additionally, scripture outlines the actions that will not inherit the Kingdom of God. “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
Notice that many of these sins are easy to pinpoint. However, some will be apparent in interactions. There is much more to sin than the “Vegas Sins” that we easily spot. If you do feel that a spiritual leader in your church or life is producing bad fruit and may be harmful, pray about it. You may need to follow the model of confrontation that Jesus gave.
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17).
Confronting the Issue
No man can see to the heart of each individual. Only God can search and fully know the heart. This can make it difficult within the Body of Christ to know who is genuine and who is not. At times, it is not our place to assess others and whether they are operating under a spirit of religion.
However, there are times when this is needed. Accountability is necessary for the church. All believers should have accountability in their lives. When there is an issue it should be addressed in love. The Apostle Paul says, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13).
If there are individuals who claim Christ and you have a relationship with them, you should converse about the issue. Using scripture, you should come to your conclusion. At times, people are deceived and they don’t even know they are functioning from a spirit of religion. Once this is expressed, they may feel overjoyed, free, empowered, and full of God’s love.
For others, they may feel offended, hurt, or confused. Have patience and grace as you walk through this process with your brothers and sisters in Christ around you.
If you are sensing that someone is a false teacher that you listen to through media, stop following and listening to their sermons, teaching, worship, etc. It is not always necessary to confront this individual because you do not know them on a personal level.
Posting a hate comment on the internet is not a loving and Christian way to resolve an issue in the global church. If you are genuinely concerned that this individual is leading others astray, encourage and challenge those within your life to seek scripture over the teachers of this person or organization.
When You’re Deceived & You Don’t Know It
The Pharisees often get a bad rap. Of course, they were doing things that Jesus openly corrected and stood against. However, many Pharisees wanted to serve God. They wanted to do what was right. They were extremely zealous. Yet, in their pursuit, they lost sight of God and placed their sights on fallible people, traditions, rules and themselves.
After reading this, you may have realized that you have been struggling with a spirit of religion. The first step to take is repentance. Confess your sins to the Lord through prayer. Accept His forgiveness. Ask the Lord how you can consciously and intentionally turn away from this mentality and habit.
It may help to confess this to a trusted Christian friend. They can help speak truth into the situation. They can also hold you accountable.
I like practical application because it helps me gauge my growth and set realistic goals. Something practical you could do is develop a stronger prayer life. Maybe you pray often. Change how you pray.
If you feel condemned in prayer, meditate on scriptures about God’s forgiveness and goodness. If you are fearful or filled with shame, meditate on scriptures about God’s mercy and love. Switch up your routine if prayer has become a stagnant discipline that you feel obligated to.
Make prayer functional for you and the Lord. Don’t try to be like others. If journaling your prayers is how you connect best with God, journal. Maybe you like praying out loud or silently. Perhaps the time of day you pray helps. Or, making prayer a consistent dialogue throughout your day is more beneficial than setting a rigorous schedule for prayer.
Where to Go From Here
Additionally, identify any lies that you are believing about God, scripture, yourself, religion, and the world. Search the Bible to identify the truth that God speaks. Write these down and refer to them often. Take captive thoughts. Whenever you notice your thoughts going to a religious mindset, think about the truth of scripture. You can even post little reminders around your home, workspace, or within your electronics.
Identify when you first started feeling and living this way. Uncover the reason you began to live like this. This may help you to stop this action and live in the freedom and righteousness that Jesus intends.
It may be helpful to keep a gratitude journal if you struggle to feel joy in life or in your relationship with God. Ask God to give you a new perspective. Ask Him to “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).
God can supernaturally bring you through this. He can also take you through a journey and process. Whatever the case, continue to seek Him and His truth. Remember that it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4).
Additionally, God is loving and He is good. Following Him is a freeing, beautiful, joyful, and life-giving thing. This may look different than you have in mind, however, I can attest to it. I know many others who would say the same thing. Continue to pray and ask the Lord for truth, grace, forgiveness, and new revelation.
Scripture Warning Against False Teaching
2 Timothy 4:3-4, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”
Acts 20:28-30, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.”
1 John 4:1-3, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.”
2 Peter 2:1-2, “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute.”