I don’t know about you, but I believe there is such a thing as a “religious spirit.” It can be a mere mentality or an actual spirit that manifests itself in obsessive fanaticism. The net effect of such a mentality is to turn others off to God and true faith. The religious spirit is not limited to Christianity – it can manifest itself in any religion. It can also find expression in political ideology, science, religious humanism or even medicine.
We’ve all known excessively religious Christians who indiscriminately follow television personalities as though they were in the place of God. This “follower” or “true believer” mentality encourages cults of personality that can wind up in a People’s Temple Jim Jones style cult that proved fatal for hapless hundreds. In the latter half of the twentieth century, we saw a number of such cults arise – the “Moonies,” the People’s Temple, the Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate to name a few.
These groups were egregiously fanatical. Others are less overt but equally obsessive. Typically, they have circled the wagons around the teaching of some domineering leader upon whose every word they hang. All that drips from the glorious, self-important, leader’s lip is viewed as Gospel. Followers accept his or her teaching as though it were straight from God himself.
The leaders of such groups will often claim that their teaching comes directly from God. To challenge them is to challenge God. Followers are cowed into cringing submission. The noose of cultic rules is drawn ever tighter. The faithful are forbidden to have contact with “outsiders” – even if they happen to be family members. Leaders take charge of their follower’s money, their time and their activities. Most importantly, they commandeer the minds of the faithful.
This excessively religious spirit of blind fanaticism can be seen in ardent environmentalists (i.e. eco-terrorists), save-the-whales people, animal rights activists, Islamic terrorists, neo-Nazis, left-wing socialists, health food fanatics, fanatical communists and other nut case groups. It is natural for people to want to rally around a cause – but what if that cause is destructive and evil? Evil is as evil does.
There are scientists who have made a religion out of atheism. There are doctors who play God with people’s lives. There are “climate change” loonies who would bring the world’s most powerful economy down to third world status in the name of reducing our carbon footprint.
The spirit of irrational fanaticism is omnipresent in today’s world. It can manifest itself in the most sincere Christian who lives in a constant posture of looking upward and mouthing spiritual utterances, to the most murderous wild-eyed jihadist who is obsessed with filling the world with indiscriminate death and destruction.
Throughout history, there have always been obsessively religious fanatics who have wreaked havoc on the civilized parts of society. Instead of advancing mankind, or emancipating it, they have plunged it into dark ages of superstition, torture, unjust imprisonment, the illegal confiscation of property and untimely death. Helen Ellerbe writes: “The dark side of Christian history has been, and continues to be about the domination and control of spirituality and human freedom. Orthodox Christians built an organization that from its inception encouraged not freedom and self-determination, but obedience and conformity. To that end, any means was justified. Grounded in the belief in a singular, authoritarian and punishing God, orthodox Christians demanded singular authority and punished those who disobeyed,” – The Dark Side of Christian History, p. 185.
Every religion, including the secular ones, has its dark side. Every one can lead to an obsessive religious spirit and mindless fanaticism. Follow the money, follow the power and study the control freaks of the world and you’ll soon see what’s happening. Here are some scriptural guidelines for avoiding possession by, or involvement with, the religious spirit.
Keys to Avoiding the Religious Spirit
- Is it idolatrous?
Any movement that puts anyone or anything ahead of God is idolatrous – avoid it. God says, “I am the Lord [YHVH]; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols,” (Isaiah 42:8). True faith is centered on God, Yeshua and divine instruction – not on human personalities, movements, ideologies and cults – environmental or religious.
- Does it tend to freedom or bondage?
“To the Jews who believed in him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are truly my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,’” (John 8:31-32). If something is truth, it does not bring you into bondage. Jesus came to “set the captives free” – not to enslave them to anything or anyone. If we are Jesus’ disciples (talmidim) then we are his “bond slaves” and no other’s. “Don’t you know,” wrote Paul, “that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey…?” (Romans 8:16). If we submit to no bondage but Christ’s, then we will be free indeed.
- What are the fruits?
Said Jesus, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit,” (Matthew 7:18). Whether something is good or bad can be determined by what it produces (Matthew 7:20). If a leader, a movement, an ideology or even an idea, produces bad fruit, avoid him, her or it. If it produces death, destruction, bondage, loss of freedom, enslavement, economic collapse, pollution, the destruction of the traditional family, Ponzi schemes, etc. etc. avoid it. In fact, if you have the means, actively oppose it.
- Beware of isolation
Many religious cults seek to isolate their members from the world. It is true that Paul warns against unhealthy alliances with unbelievers. He cites Isaiah 52:11 to make his point (II Corinthians 6:14-17). But Paul’s instructions are qualified by Jesus’ own teaching: “My prayer is not that you should take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified,” (John 17:15-19 NIV).Jesus did not want his followers physically separated from the world. Rather, he sent them into the world to preach the Gospel and to be light and salt. In Greek, there is a play on words here: “I do not make request that you should take them out of the world, but that you should take them out of the evil,” (cf. The Englishman’s Greek New Testament).
As Christians, we do not participate in Satan’s domain or the evil that it produces. In our lifestyle, we are separate, but physically we live in the world – not in an isolated compound near the Dead Sea, or Guyana. The word translated “sanctify” is hagiazo in the Greek. It means to “make holy, consecrate, sanctify,” (Bauer’s Lexicon, p. 8). Bauer’s says the last sentence of verse 19 could be translated “I dedicate myself for them [the disciples].”
Jesus lived in the world and he fully participated in it occupationally as a carpenter, socially as a Jew, and spiritually as a rabbi. He engaged people at every level. He had done so from childhood. His Father did not hate the world – he loved it, so much so that he gave Jesus as a sacrificial gift to save it (John 3;16).
It is our possession of the truth of God that sets us apart. We march to the beat of a different drummer. We take our cues from heaven, not from the spiritual darkness of this world. We are here collectively to preach the Gospel, live Kingdom values, and to set a Christlike example. We do not hide our light under a bushel. We do not cringe in a corner, geographically separated from those to whom we are called to serve. Jesus again explains his relationship with the world in Mark 2:15-17: “While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the ‘sinners’ and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?’ On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
The classes of people mentioned in this story are interesting in their own right: tax collectors, sinners, the sick, physicians and Pharisees. There is a chapter in Joachim Jeremias’ book Jerusalem in the Time of Jesusentitled “Despised Trades and Jewish Slaves.” It contains several lists of “despised trades.” Included were physicians, tax collectors and publicans. Also on the list were tanners (Acts 9:43) and sellers of purple (Acts 16:14). Jesus came to minister to the sick, the broken, those in bondage, the demon possessed and sinners of all stripes. The church that grew up around his disciples grew up around just such people – “not many mighty, not many noble” were called. Jesus and his disciples did not isolate themselves from these people; they freely mixed with them and ministered to them. It was of such people, and worse, that the church was made up (I Corinthians 6:9-11).
The religious spirit is a plague in the world. It is destructive, isolating, fanatical, off balance, crazy-making, alienating, distorting and it invites the “darkness of this world” to express itself. It manifests itself in Christian cults, fanatical Catholics and Protestants, in all of the world’s religions, in the global warming and environmental movements, in animal and gay rights movements, in feminism, in Neo-Nazi groups, in evangelistic communism, in terrorism, in the natural health movement, in political ideologies, in science, in the medical profession ad nauseum.
It represents a loss of balance – a closing off of any other possibility. It is exclusivist and isolating. It says “my way or the highway.” It is “zeal, but not according to knowledge.” It is obsessive and fanatical, closed minded and bigoted. It needs to be fought and defeated at every turn.