Have you heard any of the following phrases? “They have a religious spirit.” “That certainly got rid of any religious spirits that might have been present!” “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship.”
The Religious Spirit Accusation
I frequently hear these sorts of comments, especially in charismatic circles. These statements are part of the “in language” of a Christian sub-culture that re-defines the ordinary meaning of words. What do they mean?
The claim that an individual or group has a religious spirit is usually applied to people who like liturgical worship and ritual. It is used for people who are not comfortable with very exuberant worship expression or strange manifestations, or for people who prefer the more dignified traditional denominational expressions either in the churches or the synagogues.
Sometimes groups promote bizarre kinds of expressions because they believe such activity will “get rid of religious spirits”. I am not referring to prophecy, or tongues and interpretation, as well as other gifts of the Spirit. I am referring to such things as wild dancing, falling down, exuberant laughing and many more things that can take place in some charismatic gatherings. This sort of behavior only serves to offend more conservative believers who are simply not open to such expressions.
When people say, “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship” they want to emphasize that they are not into rituals, formality, incense, and old types of expression. Too bad for those that enjoy these expressions and direct their hearts to God in them!
The Problem with these Terms and Phrases
As one who has identified (although not exclusively by any means) with the charismatic wing of the New Covenant people of God, I am open to expressions that are quite out of the ordinary as possibly led by the Spirit, but not as a daily or weekly diet. Despite my affinity with the charismatic movement I want to recommend in the strongest terms that we retire these phrases once and for all. Why?
First, these phrases are not biblical. The word “religion” is used only in the book of James and he speaks of true religion in a positive way. According to the Scriptures, religion is not a bad word. The term is not negative in its historic usage, but simply means the set of beliefs, practices, etc. by which people view reality and order their lives. In this regard, we believe that the biblical faith is the one wholly true religion and is based on a relationship.
Secondly, the terms are too broad and are used as sledgehammers by charismatic believers to arrogantly dismiss those streams of believers who do not adopt the types of spontaneous expressions they themselves have chosen.It is also frequently used by some believers to dismiss the value of liturgy and ritual as part of worship. This is strange; since the Bible presents us with ritual and liturgical worship forms that endure into the New Covenant age. Those who do like such expressions of faith could claim that the super spontaneous have a religious spirit that idolizes spontaneity. The claim precludes real discernment with regard to whether or not a spontaneous occasion is really led by the Spirit or is merely a fleshly outburst. The term religious spirit explains too much, and when a term explains too much it probably does not explain matters well at all.
There are More Accurate Terms to Describe the Issues
There may be some truths behind these phrases, but let’s use more accurate words. In my book Growing to Maturity I speak of those who are legalistic. This may be what some mean by a religious spirit. For example, some who are legalistic do not allow for any modification of liturgy. It has to be the same all the time. Others who are legalistic foster extra biblical norms as being on the same level of importance as biblical norms. Legalism is a big problem wherein Judaism and Christianity have sought many extra biblical definitions to regulate behaviour. Sometimes this list gets quite detailed. However, good guidelines and standards of respect and etiquette can be both constructive and positive.
Then there are some people who are more rigid in their outlook than others. Good people can be rigid. They are uncomfortable with spontaneity and feel that they do not fit in to such settings. Let’s not judge such folks by claiming they have a religious spirit. Let’s invite them to relax and just seek God quietly in their own way until or unless they have conviction for greater exuberance. Deep things can happen in quiet worship.
Sometimes people react to intellectual pride. People who have intellectual pride and are too dominated by the intellect do not like to see emotion in worship, whether in liturgical settings or in more modern spontaneous settings. They want to get past the worship into teaching with good intellectual content. They distrust the intuitive. Is this what some mean by a “religious spirit”? If so, then let’s call it an over-intellectual orientation.
Of course there are the occult spirits in witchcraft and pagan religions. It is better to identify these as occult spirits or demonic spirits.
It seems to me that believers have a very hard time not being judgemental and arrogant against those who are not flowing with their own preferences. Those who are not given to exuberant expressions or even strange manifestations judge those who are as being immature, emotional and psychologically unstable. Well, the truth is, some individuals in charismatic movements are just that, but so are some who are rigid! Those who are comfortable with more exuberant expressions tend to judge those who do not prefer such expressions as not being in the will of God and missing the true nature of spiritual experience. Some people who are given to really outlandish expressions judge even those given to more mild spiritual manifestations as having a religious spirit because they do not go as far as they do.
All of this ignores the importance of discernment and interpretation. The Bible exhorts us to test all things and prove what is good. What was God doing in the gathering? Was it really of the Spirit or was it of the flesh? Will it result in real life-change, or is it just a repeat of last week’s experience? By embracing everything and judging those who do not embrace everything, we easily forgo the biblical command to discern. We need to accept that God leads people in different ways. We need to accept that there are different strokes for different folks and repent of arrogance. As one who loves liturgy and ritual when done right, and has also confirmed as from the Spirit things which seem bizarre to others (such as defended by the great revivalist Jonathan Edwards), can we stop the arrogant judging? One way to overcome this sort of judging is to retire these useless phrases. There are better phrases that define the problems and issues involved. After all, we never read that Yeshua cast out a religious spirit, though He did call for repentance from those in legalistic pride