The next thing to realize is that not all spirits are pleasing to God. For instance, if we possess a spirit of pride, or unbelief, or doubt, we are not being effective for the Kingdom of God, of which we are citizens if we are saved through faith in Jesus.
One of the few times that both the words religious and religion actually appear in the Bible is in James 1-26-27: If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. I think we can clearly see that our Father in Heaven doesn't require or ask for a lot of the man-made or human ceremonies, traditions, or rituals that have become a part of our religious expression. He doesn't want our external exhibitions or displays of worship; He wants us to act from a heart whereon He has written His Law, and to remain untainted by the world's values and its impression of religious expression.
But here's the thing ... the devil is always trying to deceive our heart and whisper the lies that inspire loyalty to religious concepts and practices in such a way as to oppose and [possibly to] counterfeit the true work of the Holy Spirit that is within us. Satan knows it is in our human nature to act "religious" -- to attempt to declare our awe of God by outward displays. In other words, it is his goal to pervert our instincts about worshipping our Creator by sending deceptive spirits to deceive our hearts and minds.
I'm going to just cut to the chase ... A religious spirit is a demon that wages war against the grace of God in our lives and tries to destroy a true intimate relationship with our Father in Heaven. Think that's going a little too far? Just consider some of the religious spirits that can affect the Body of Christ: judgmentalism, self-righteousness, religious pride, criticism, legalism, perfectionism, division, error (doctrinal falsehood), unbelief, doubt, confusion, argumentism, false holiness, salvation by works, guilt, condemnation, fear of losing salvation, fear of God (unhealthy, scared feeling), and intolerance. Any, or all, of these are afflictions that can oppress Christians within the churches of our land, and which attempt to stifle the influence of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus made it clear that it was His desire for the unity of the church to reflect the unity of the Godhead ... "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Yet, consider for a moment the theological disagreements and bad relationships which exist between churches, and also within individual local churches. How many call themselves Christians, seeing themselves as holy, righteous, and favored by God, while looking down upon others who profess different understandings of Scripture? There is a spiritual power behind these kinds of confrontations and attitudes, and it is instigated and encouraged by religious spirits.
One of the ways in which I am discerning that these false religious spirits are working satan's plan is in the realization that men and women full of the mercy of God, their authority from Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit are coming under attack from within the Church itself. When these faithful people begin to challenge religious people in churches with a different interpretation of the traditional concept of God's Truth, the devil likes to get his demons stirred up, and if possible will provoke all kinds of unreasonable and malicious attacks on such servants of God. If their ministries are outside the realm of the man-made traditions and religious teachings of the Church, they are automatically looked upon as cults, or cliques, or heretical.
Let me be clear --- We must absolutely measure every word and teaching against Scripture, but I believe that God is pulling the scales off the eyes of His remnant and revealing the deception that satan has perpetrated upon the Body of Christ. Our God is bigger and more personal than we've been taught; He desires our participation in His Kingdom; and He wants us to be who He made us to be, co-heirs with Christ! We are beginning to see the power and authority that is ours in the Name of Jesus, and in the last days it will not only become more and more common to exercise it... but absolutely necessary!
The first woe: They shut up the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 23:13). Shutting up the Kingdom of heaven against men is a very common activity of religious people. They neither advance nor increase in the things of God, or allow anyone else to, either. They stand as demonic guards and buffet the things of the Spirit of God – all in the name of religious duty. The religious spirits hinder and threaten those who are entering into a deeper Spirit-led relationship with the Lord by taking away the key of knowledge and a more accurate perception of Jesus. The religious spirit then uses threat as a weapon to argue, complain, debate, and otherwise frustrate the plans of God for the Church through its own apathy. All this shuts up the Kingdom of heaven.
The second woe: Religious spirits put on a show (Matthew 23:14). We all know those professed Christians who like to put on a false demonstration by praying long and loud, but you never feel it is sincere. And how many times have you seen people pray before a meal when they know others are watching, but you know it is not something they feel called to do when in private? And then there are those who pray to impress others, but aren't really speaking to God. Jesus is not pleased with polished showmanship or the false pretense of the religious deceiver whose motive is the show.
The fourth woe: Blind guides and fools (Matthew 23:16-22). In this instance, Jesus zeros in on the Pharisees’ inability to lead the righteous. He labels them as blind guides and fools that have no spiritual understanding of the Word of God. A religious spirit can never lead people into a greater walk with Jesus because one cannot take someone to a place that one has not already been. Religious spirits may know the current religious buzzwords and Christian lingo and all the convenient snippets of Scripture, but they are faultfinders that put down those with true spiritual discernment while they live a life directed by man-made religion. Their hearts are not focused on God, but on perpetuating man's traditions regarding God.
Once again, Jesus exposes the true nature of a religious spirit – a hypocrite. This fifth woe pictures the Pharisees again with their emphasis on externals. This is a picture of the average church today that is busy making the outside of the cup look clean by religious works but never deals with matters of the heart. They go through all the ceremonies, have the best sound equipment, chairs, buildings, etc. But all of the external ceremonies cannot clean up the corruption of the inner man; cannot set the captive free from the satanic bondage of his or her spiritual wounds. This is a picture of a religious leader who is in the front row of the pews on Sunday, but allows his children to watch R-rated horror films, and yells at his wife in fits of anger. Legalism binds the captives of religious spirits and keeps them from being set free by Jesus.
The sixth woe: Extortion and Excess (Matthew 23:25-26). Extortion is the act of plundering, robbery and stealing. Extortion is a predetermined plan of action with the intent to steal from someone. Jesus said the Pharisees were so full of excess that they had lost the ability to control their lust for more. Today we have modern religious merchandisers who steal from the people of God so they can lavish themselves with excess. Have you ever attended a church that was clean and well-kept on the outside but inside there was no spiritual life? That can occur in a small country church as well as in a palatial church with stadium seating that seats 5000. The religious spirit will demand that the inhabitants of that church stick to the letter of the religious law in an effort to amass more authority for their outward appearance. But that spirit neglects and starves the heart.
The seventh woe: A pretty tomb (Matthew 23:27-28). It was commonly believed that if anyone could get into heaven, if anyone were righteous, surely it would have to be the Pharisees. Why? Because people were looking at their supposed pious and religious works. But Jesus called them dead, full of hypocrisy and iniquity. He then went on to say that they were full of uncleanness, which means they were full of impure motives and lust. One can only imagine the impact of such statements that Jesus made. No wonder they wanted to kill him. White-washed grave markers are just pretty tombs. They look nice but are nothing more than a house for the dead. Let me ask you a question ... Have you met the person that respects the great revivalist of history (like Calvin or Luther), but disrespects those who have the same revivalist spirit today? Or what about a person who went to a theological seminary, but couldn't find Jesus there? Unfortunately, those scenarios represent the presence and impact of religious spirits.
The eighth woe: A murdering spirit (Matthew 23: 29-34). This woe reveals to us the shocking murderous heart of a religious spirit, and is Jesus’ final and most stern declaration. These same religious leaders that were honoring the prophets of the past were soon to crucify the very Son of God who was speaking to them. How many modern Christians have been symbolically crucified for daring to bring a new understanding to Scripture? Serving Jesus is more than being indoctrinated in Christian philosophy or religious theology; it is an active heartfelt love for our Savior and King, and a willingness to look beyond the boundaries of prescribed religiosity. A murdering religious spirit quenches the Holy Spirit and denies the supremacy of Spirit-led life over a religious one. These eight woes, as expressed by Jesus, make it clear that He hates any and all religious spirits.
I wrote this post today to try and express my frustration against the presence of religious spirits in the modern Body of Christ. These spirits are more prevalent among the faithful than I think we would like to acknowledge, and they are more interested in justice and punishment than mercy and forgiveness. They are an instrument of the devil and only serve to make you feel distant from God, and to set you up for spiritual disaster through pride and self-righteousness. Through their introduction in your life or your church, it is satan's goal to nullify the work of Christ in your life, and keep you in bondage to man-made traditions, legalism, and division. Being set free from religious spirits can bring major spiritual freedom and an enormous breakthrough in your relationship with God! Religious spirits are just as destructive in the life of a Christian as any of satan's other deceptive spirits. They can keep you in bondage to man-made philosophies and traditions, while you are missing out on what Jesus wants to show you. It's time the Body of Christ shakes off the shackles that keep us tied to religion and come into the true Light of Christ.
Colossians 2:8 "See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ."