There is such a thing as pure and undefiled religion (James 1:27) . At the same time, there is a counterfeit of authentic worship and ceremonial connection with God. It has a form of the real thing, but it invites more pressure on people than true freedom in Christ. It is often called a religious spirit. It’s a mindset that appears to have the framework of God in it, but the form lacks heart-connected power. It leaves people more connected to a formality than intimate relationship with God.
As I have said, all of the cults and false religions combined have not done as much damage to the moves of God as the infiltration of the spirit of religion into the Church. Cults and false religions are easily discerned and discarded, but the religious spirit is extremely subtle. It has attempted to thwart possibly every revival or movement of God to date, and it still retains an undeserved seat of honor throughout a huge part of today’s Church. ― C. Peter Wagner, Freedom from the Religious Spirit
A Subtle Deception
“Me, I don’t have a religious spirit! But those people do!”
This is often the first and common expression of many, who are denial of how a Pharisaical religious spirit has influenced their life.
It would be amazing if there was a clear-cut way to diagnose and catch a religious spirit in its tracks. The problem is that it’s so subtle. A Pharisaical religious mindset can and will infect any culture, no matter how free their overall theology might appear to be.
Some church cultures boast to having zero influence from a religious spirit, yet when you pull back the curtain, you’ll find some form of it’s workings present. Those who claim they are more free and don’t remain humble and sober can engage the same pride the Pharisees themselves carried. The call is for all of us to engage freedom, yet retain our sobriety that we can always become prone to deception.
A Strong Stance
The one group Jesus addressed in the harshest manner was the Pharisees. He spent time with sinners and embraced the broken, but He had no tolerance for the religious infection the Pharisees carried. They embodied the religious spirit that stifled people and held them back from the expression of God’s love and grace.
The Apostle Paul chastised the beloved people of Galatia who allowed the influence of a religious spirit to invade. What started in grace and faith became polluted with works, performance based Christianity and added burdens. The ways of the law took on a new form to maintain its legalistic clutches on believer’s hearts.
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Galatians 3:1-2 (NKJV)
Growing Up with a Religious Spirit
Growing up, many of my viewpoints and practices were skewed by a religious spirit. Well intentioned leaders and preachers brought a strong message, but it had large strands of Pharisaical condemnation, judgmentalism and religious performance in the fabric of their teachings. It left many in daily thoughts and habits wrapped in constant guilt, performance pressure and feelings of “never being good enough.” Rigidity and somber demeanors were commonplace.
Undoing the works of this subtle deception has been joyous at each stage. Yet it often takes honesty and time to get free. Sometimes the level of freedom has caused me to stop and say, “is this real? Wow, I cannot believe this freedom was always available!” But undoing the deception has allowed me to breathe a fresh breath of air like never before.
The Fruit is Not More Sin
Getting free didn’t lead me into more sin and lawlessness. In fact it’s quite the opposite. The more I dove into the love and grace of God, while shedding off the chains of Pharisaical religious bondage, the more fruit I saw over the power of sin.
A Religious Spirit Has a Viral Effect
A religious spirit is very contagious, because it communicates the Scriptures, but it strips the Spirit of Christ while seeking to retain the letter of the law and its condemning overtones. People are left more bound than free, yet they continue to live in the bondage that a religious spirit brings. Pharisaical religion actually keeps people from entering the Kingdom of God while keeping those who have entered in a lock-down of religious pressure, bondage and law.
Step One: A False Sense of Salvation
A religious spirit blankets our country today, deceiving millions into thinking their entrance into the Kingdom of God is based on their good works, occasional charity and overall decent behavior. Church attendance becomes the equivalent of a relationship with God. It actually keeps people from experiencing the born again experience.
“I’m a good person.”
“I go to church.”
“I’m involved in service for people.”
These thoughts create a false foundation for what being in relationship with God means. The basis for personal salvation is based on living a good life and being kind. This busy life and constant doing keeps people from realizing their need for a born again experience.
I don’t mean to be legalistic in pointing this out, but it’s astounding to me how many people seek Christian help, yet have no recollection of a born again experience. Religious deception has kept from the greatest experiences we can have–the new birth. A religious spirit has given them a false assurance of their relationship with God.
Step Two: A Religious Form without Power
If a religious spirit cannot keep someone from an authentic born again experience, it will then wrap its tentacles around a believer’s perspectives on how they stand with God and will pollute the spiritual practices they engage. A religious spirit pollutes the real and tangible freedom in Christ that is available.
Watching Out for Leaven
The religious spirit in the Bible is referred to as leaven, an agent added to dough in order to make it expand and rise. It does not add any substance or nutrition to the bread-it only expands and inflates it. Once a leaven is inserted, it becomes part of the recipe.
Jesus warned of two leavens that could contaminate our lives; the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.
Then He charged them, saying, “ Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod. Mark 8:15 NKJV
The leaven of Herod is a politically based mindset that conditions leaders to focus on keeping thing politically correct, pleasing the people and not offending anyone. It’s built on manipulation, control, fear and governing forces that lack integrity. This leaven runs counter cultural to the Kingdom of God, which often offends and does not scratch the itch of everyone.
Defining a Religious Spirit
The leaven of the Pharisees is a religious mindset. It often works in partnership with politics to keep the power of God at bay. It has a form of healthy religious activity, yet the genuine manifestation of power is absent.
To be honest, I believe we are all under a process of becoming more free from these leavening agents in our lives. To say you have none of its influence in your life can be a bit naive or a case of denial.
- Pharisaical religion is binding, hurtful, restrictive and oppressive in the worst way. But many who are under it do not even realize they are under bondage. Sometimes you need be introduced to a picture of freedom in order to see that you are surrounded by sludge.
- A religious spirit takes the commandments of God and forms traditions out of them, but in a way that our hearts draw far from God. There is nothing wrong with rituals and traditions, but they can often lose the heart connection we need for a vibrant relationship with God.
- It binds us to law based living. Many times modern Christianity can repackage the works of the law into its daily practices.
- Pharisaical religion is always based more on rules than authentic relationship with God. Other people are viewed through rules first, not love. I often say that any ritual without a loving relationship foundation will breed a religious spirit.
- On top of everything else, a religious spirit adds further commands, new requirements and additional burdens to what was written in the law.
A Resistance to What God is Doing
The biggest mission the leaven of a religious spirit perpetuates is a resistance to any new work that God is doing. A religious spirit keeps people from noticing and embracing the new wine skin that God is using to transform people’s lives and build the Kingdom. It will keep us in traditional patterns that can become ruts, rather than fruitful habits that keep us fresh and alive.
Here are some common examples of what a religious spirit does and how it holds you back from grace filled freedom:
- Opposes vibrant praise and worship unto God. Expression is suppressed and seen as excessive or too emotional. Therefore people are held back from experiencing God in a personal way that is heart connected.
- Pharisaical religions looks down on the expression of joy in sacred settings. Only that which is somber is considered sacred.
- Cultivates black and white thinking based on legalistic rules as the primary focus of spirituality.
- Keeps people in a performance based Christianity that blocks people from experiencing love and grace to the fullest.
- Leaves people never feeling safe in God’s presence. They constantly feel condemned or never good enough.
- Produces a hypocrisy, where people’s outward appearances seem to be healthy, yet underneath, brokenness and sin abounds.
- People are not free to make mistakes, have weakness or struggles. Therefore they rarely grow in an authentic manner.
- People become bound by a fear of change.
- The focus becomes more on how things look. So man made efforts and image are the basis for everything that takes place.
- Rigid tradition is held in higher regard than walking by intentional leading of the Holy Spirit.
As a result, there is often little authentic transformation, inside out change and long term fruit. Everyone goes through the motions while their lives lack the vibrancy found in authentic heart transformation. People are often left not even realizing there is more.
When you break free from a religious spirit, a deep sea of possibilities open up with God you never knew existed.
What are some ways that you find Pharisaical religion holds people back?
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