How to Recognize the Characteristics of a Religious Spirit

Form Of Godliness And The Spirit Of Religion Recognize the Deceptive Illusion of a Religious Spirit: Avoid Its Influence. Religious spirits have a form of godliness. We are instructed by the Apostle Paul, “From such turn away.” Religious spirits spend a great deal of time talking about what great and magnificent things they are going to do for God, yet seldom do more than criticize others. With an understanding of the evil designs of the religious spirit, it becomes vital to recognize its characteristics so we can turn away from its influence.

In a letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul warns his spiritual son about religious spirits and gives him implicit instructions about how to interact with them. Scripture says, “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away” (2 Timothy 3:5).

As Paul so matter-of-factly points out, religious spirits have a “form of godliness” – they appear religious but lack the spiritual substance of an intimate believer. Paul told Timothy to avoid such people – and with good reason. Religious spirits sidetrack people with the deceptive illusion of religious form. Religious form is:

  • Appearance
  • Structure
  • Ceremony
  • Formula
  • Liturgy
  • Ritual.

More interested in liturgy than liberty, religious spirits are focused on outward appearances. Religious spirits look at things like the church building, the size of the congregation, where the church is located, and who is attending to decide whether or not they want to be a member of the assembly. They are more interested in form than what the Spirit of God is doing among the people. The result is that they miss the spiritual dynamics of the church because of a focus on carnal externals.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do you know anyone that chases religious status, titles, and positions?
  2. Have you ever met a person that was offered a religious title or position in the church only as an obvious attempt to keep that person in the church?
  3. Do you know a person that acts like a know-it-all?
  4. Have you been around a person that projects an air of self-righteousness or a better-than-you attitude?
  5. Does someone expect you to do things that they are not willing to do themselves?
  6. Have you met the person who can’t perceive the spiritual dynamics of the local church?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you have probably experienced the spirit of religion first hand.

The Hunt for Position

Position seeking is one of the most obvious characteristics of the religious spirits. The religious spirit is always looking to advance into positions of influence and visibility in the church so that they can fulfill their purpose: to be admired of men.

Since religious spirits are interested in status, titles and positions, they often choose a church based on whom they know that is already a respected member and what potential opportunities the pastor, or set man, will offer them to advance their own ministry. If they are denied the status, title or position they are seeking, then they often wind up church hopping in effort to attain their impure goals.

Religious spirits want to know what is in it for them – how they can achieve recognition, visibility, position and honor within the local church – before they will commit themselves to the vision of the house. But these motives are contrary to the Word of God. Scripture declares,

“Let me not, I pray you, accept any man’s person, neither let me give flattering titles unto man. For I know not to give flattering titles; in so doing my maker would soon take me away” (Job 32:21-22).

Titles, of course, are necessary because they help us define job descriptions and areas of responsibility in our society. To seek titles, however, with the intent of exercising religious control or to seek a leadership position to gain man’s admiration is truly unrighteousness and is the activity of a religious spirit. Titles given only to flatter, manipulate or control someone are not biblical and ultimately lead to confusion and trouble.

Sometimes titles are offered as a form of religious control. The disgruntled church member who is offered the title and position of a deacon by the pastor just to keep him from leaving the church. The evangelist that greets a pastor by preceding his name with a flattering and fashionable title in hopes of booking a meeting. These tactics simply feed the prideful nature of the religious.

I once met a man that was attending another church in our city. He was full of bitterness and resentment against his pastor and church and had developed a reputation for being a troublemaker by maliciously gossiping about anyone and everyone in the ministry. The man had become a religious critic. When this man announced his intention to leave the church in search of the “perfect ministry” the pastor ordained him as an Elder. This amazed me, considering the backbiting and gossiping the man had engaged in concerning both the church and the pastor. Was this man really ready for leadership? Was he really a good example to others of a Christ-like servant? Or was this simply a manifestation of religious control through flattering titles in an effort to keep this man and his money in the church? Perhaps you would agree that this man needed correction and not a position in the ministry.

Religious Know-It-All Attitude

Besides seeking position, religious spirits are seldom teachable because they think they already know it all. Whether or not the religious spirit has ever had any actual first-hand experience with the business at hand is of no matter. They may not have the first clue how to organize a banquet, for example, but they are quite sure that you are not doing it right and are even more certain that they could do a better job if they were only given the opportunity. It doesn’t matter what the activity is, the religious spirit always thinks it knows more than you do.

This “know-it-all” attitude results in religious spirits becoming offended by anyone that they perceive may know more than they do. I speak from experience. Every religious person that ever walked into our ministry has made it clear to me that anything Minister So-and-So could do, he or she could do better. Surely we are always open to be taught, explore better strategies and ways of doing things but, unfortunately, most of the time a religious spirit’s advice is only a facade for self-righteousness, legalism, and criticism.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Have you met a religious person that was insensitive to the needs of those around them?
  2. Do those who labor among you do good things or God things?
  3. Does someone you know always focus on your faults and continue to ignore your positive attributes?
  4. Is someone critical of the way you do anything for God?
  5. Have you ever been the victim of malicious gossip?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you have probably been the victim of the religious spirit.

Religious Perfectionism

What’s interesting about a religious spirit is that even though they know it all they are often unwilling to jump in and help unless the task brings them some recognition. Religious spirits often tell you how to do what they are unwilling to do themselves.

One Saturday, we were in the park feeding the hungry and the homeless, and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. After about 30 minutes, some people with religious spirits who were visiting from another city approached me and began to lecture me about what we were doing wrong. When they finally stopped, I simply asked them how much experience they had working with street people. Not surprisingly, they said they had no such experience. They had never fed, clothed, or witnessed to the homeless, yet felt compelled to tell me that I wasn’t doing it right. Notice that the religious spirit was unwilling to join in and help us feed the homeless and, in fact, had no prior experience in street ministry, yet expected me to change my methodology to suit their criticism. 

What’s more, oftentimes a spirit of perfectionism accompanies a religious spirit. Perfectionism is an extreme behavior or expectation beyond the balance of being excellent. It is often non-practicable, extremely time consuming and because performance standards are raised so high the work never gets started, finished or measures up to the perfectionist’s standards. That is why the religious perfectionist seldom accomplishes much beyond frustrating himself or criticism of others.

These same religious folks went on to tell me what we were doing for the homeless “was good but not good enough.” Their point was that if we could not feed the people the way they would feed the people, then we shouldn’t feed the people at all.

One thing I’ve learned through the years of ministry is that if we had to do everything just perfect, then nothing would ever get done. I am not saying we should not maintain a standard of excellence in ministry. Yet, we should guard ourselves from the polarization of religious perfectionism.

When I looked at a hungry man eating the sandwich that we had just given to him, I had a hard time believing that it mattered to him how we presented the sandwich or the Gospel. I believe that God, however, was pleased with our efforts to preach the Gospel and feed the hungry that day.

Religious Spirits are Manipulative

Religious spirits are notoriously hypocritical. Look no further than Judas Iscariot. One day at Lazarus’ house, Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume (John 12:3-6). Some say that the perfume was made in Egypt and was very valuable. Judas became very angry and terribly upset after watching Mary pour out the entire bottle of anointing perfume on the Master’s feet.

Judas actually interfered and tried to stop Mary, saying, “Why don’t we sell this ointment and give to the poor?” Sounds like an innocent idea, but it was not because Judas’ motives were impure. It was a religious statement that Judas was really making with the intent to manipulate and control the situation. Scripture says,

“Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment. Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him, Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein. Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always” (John 12:3-8).

Judas’ request was another characteristic of a religious spirit: control and manipulation. He was saying, “Let’s do something good with the perfume, but let’s not do anything for God with it.” It’s possible to do what appears as good works with wrong motives. Beware of good religious works and activities not motivated by the Spirit of God.

Religious Spirits are Polished

Religious spirits can be the most polite people (at least in public) you could ever meet. But remember this: words of deception, spoken with flattering lips, are still words of deception.

Religious spirits will continue to wear their suave facade until they find out that their smooth words are not effective in controlling or manipulating you. Then their tune will change, if you know what I mean.

If genteelness doesn’t work, then the “God told me to tell you” line will often manifest. The problem is that God is always telling them that you should stick with their traditions and, of course, you had better listen! It is interesting to note that they always hear God speaking about your faults, but never exposing their own. Right!

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Have you encountered the religious person who can’t take subtle hints of correction and make you spell it out in specific detail?
  2. Is there anyone in your life who makes you feel like you are walking on eggs around them?
  3. Have you ever been wrongly accused of being unloving?
  4. Has anyone ever said to you, “And you call yourself a Christian!”
  5. Do you know people who’s perception of Jesus is limited to the baby in a manager or a little Lamb?
  6. Have you ever met a person who wears their feelings on their shoulders?
  7. Have you ever had a conversation with a person with a religious spirit who will not get to the point but makes you read between the lines?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you may have come into contact with the religious spirit.

Religious Spirits are Critical

Back to feeding the hungry at the park, it seemed the religious folks had a never-ending laundry list of things they said that God told them about me and what I should do next time around to rightly accomplish my ministry work. I sometimes wonder if they thought it puzzling why God would talk to them about what I was doing without talking to me also? That, too, is just another characteristic of a religious spirit.

Religion thinks that if God were going to talk to anyone it would be to him or her and not to you. The fact is that God had given us a strategy for feeding the homeless in our territory and we were obedient to follow His Spirit.{module Spiritual Warfare Kit}As we saw back in the park, religious spirits are downright obstinate. Religious spirits are always critical of the way you do anything for God. No matter how you do it, they will always tell you that it could be done better. Scripture declares,

“And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Either how canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye” (Luke 6:41-42).

Religious spirits rarely start or carry through on anything on their own accord. They will, however, talk about how poorly you do it. They spend a great deal of time talking about what great and magnificent things they are going to do for God, while simultaneously criticizing what you are actively doing for Him. Religious spirits like to talk the talk but fall short of walking the walk. In reality, they often do little outside of their own imaginations.

Watch out for the “but” statements from religious spirits because it’s the springboard to criticism. These religious folk in the park also advised us to open our homes to the people, something else that they were themselves unwilling to do. When I told them I felt that the Lord was probably laying it on their hearts to do just that, their response was, “No way would we invite ‘that kind’ of people over to our house.” Can you see the hypocrisy in this? Beware of the critical religious spirit with an imagination ministry. Avoid the critics; work with the workers and not with the talkers.

Religious Gossips

Webster defines a gossip as “a person who chatters or repeats idle talk and rumors, especially about the private affairs of others.” With such a critical nature, religious spirits find plenty to gossip about. Gossipy religious spirits are always looking for and talking about the faults of others. They are the ones with the beams in their eyes, but all they can see is the speck in yours (Matthew 7:3). People with religious spirits tend to look at themselves through rose-colored glasses, while looking at everyone else under a microscope. Gossip is the destructive weapon of the religious spirit.

Gossip is a marked characteristic of the religious spirit. They are critical talebearers and evil tattletales. You can spot gossipy religious spirits in the back of the church, hallways, bathrooms, and parking lots. Like birds of a feather that flock together, religious spirits hang out with, and are drawn to one another to assassinate others with their tongues. After church services, they can’t wait to reach those telephones, online chat rooms and e-mails. The Apostle John wrote about the evils of gossip,

“I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church. Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God” (3 John 1:9-11, Italics added).

Religious Snoops

Religious gossips will go out of their way to chase down rumors and pry into things that are surely none of their business in hopes of uncovering some juicy tidbit of information that they can use as a slanderous weapon.

One day a lady came to our church and within two short months she began to chase down a rumor about the marriage difficulties of a couple in the congregation that she didn’t even know. She told anyone who would listen that one of the spouses was having an affair. As she launched her investigation she went so far as to call the church office in an effort to get a staff member to disclose more information about the couple’s private affairs. The staff member discerned the evil motives and, of course, did not divulge any information.

To investigate, probe into, or to discuss the private lives of others is certainly way out of line. This woman actively pursued and dug for private information that was none of her business and that was an ungodly action. To make matters worse, this woman began to call others in the church to gossip and spread more rumors. No consideration or thought was ever given to the children of this couple or the fact that they were working together to overcome their marriage difficulties. Gossip is a sin that should not be tolerated. It is the fruit of a religious, self-righteous spirit. There is certain information that belongs only to God and the pastor. Let’s keep it that way.

The Hypocrisy Factor

Never forget that religious spirits are hypocrites. Jesus wasn’t kidding when He said that one should first remove the beam in his own eye. This gossiping church member had originally heard a rumor about this couple’s marriage difficulty from another woman who was a member of a church in a totally different city. It just gets even more amazing doesn’t it? This religious church member did not personally know this allegedly troubled couple, but stuck her big gossiping nose in these innocent people’s lives. She had actually heard the ugly rumor from another woman in a far away place.

What can be worse than one gossip? Three gossips! Again, religious spirits are hypocrites. So where was the hypocrisy? The hypocrisy was that the church member spreading the prattle was getting her information from a woman whom was herself living in adultery. Because of the hypocrisy of a religious spirit, part of the lesson is that religious spirits often accuse you of having the problems that they have. Or they are often doing what they accuse another of doing. This woman, herself an adulterer, was accusing a young couple of what she was secretly doing.

Religious Spirits are Insensitive

Religious spirits are insensitive. Another church group held an evangelistic outreach to homeless people in a park near their church. While speedily passing out tracts to as many homeless people as possible in 30 minutes, one believer was heard discussing plans with the group of eating at a particular restaurant for lunch in front of the homeless listeners. Should these believers have been more sensitive to having such a conversation within earshot of the hungry homeless?

Religious people are deceived by the “good work” of religious activity such as passing out a tract or a sandwich rather than seeking to produce life-changing results. Religion will focus on the natural activities and avoid the spiritual dynamics of serving Jesus, thus passing out the tract or sandwich and ignoring the spiritual need of the listener.

Decree and Flee

Religious spirits don’t take hints and cannot handle Spirit-led confrontations. Their motto is “decree and flee.” They flee when exposed and decree how unloving and non-understanding you are as they go to the next unsuspecting pastor’s church.

I have watched ministry leaders try to deal with and correct, ever so gently, these religious spirits to no avail. Religious spirits try to make you afraid to say anything to them at all because you never know how they may react. You feel like you’re walking on eggs around them. Just go ahead and break the eggs because religious spirits can’t take subtle hints; they must be confronted head on. Be humble of heart, without malice, innocent as a dove, gentle in your heart, but bold as a lion.

If you have made it this far in this essay without getting upset, then you’re doing pretty well. I once met a man that read this material and got so upset with me that he actually threw it in my face. I wonder what spirit (pneuma) he was operating in?

When you speak with truth and begin to expose a religious spirit, the person with the religious spirit may accuse you of being unloving and say that you are judgmental, full of hate, emotional, and non-Christ like. When confronted he may say things like, “You just don’t understand me,” or “And you call yourself a Christian!”

Many times I have seen them hide behind a religious facade called love. Love is the balance beam of Christians. It is the motivation of preaching the Gospel. It is the reason that God sent His only begotten Son into the world and offered Him up as the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world. But love is not getting into agreement with some religious person’s out-of-order flesh or nonscriptural criticism. Love should never motivate us to compromise our faith or the Gospel of truth.

The religious spirit is always stirred to accuse, when you speak out against apathy, traditions of men, and comfortable Christianity. He perceives Jesus as a little lamb never offending, upsetting or contending with anyone. But the Bible tells us that Jesus dealt strongly with sin. Scripture describes the day Jesus cleansed the temple.

“And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves” (Matthew 21:12-13).

Public Spirits

Most of the time the religious spirits try to appear righteous in public. They will say things in front of others that tend to exalt their religious posture or social status. Scripture reveals the religious spirit’s showmanship.

“And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).

Religious spirits will speak of controversial subjects, and to be sure, at inappropriate times. They will take the Word of God out of context to prove their religious points. I have actually watched religious spirits set up their Sunday school teachers, or other church leaders, to get them mad in front of others. The motive? To try to demonstrate that their composure (or rather religious smooth form) is proof that they have it all together and that you do not. Religious spirits will try to provoke you. Provoking is a weapon of the religious spirit that we discuss in greater detail in the next chapter.

Voice of a Religious Spirit

I have come to quickly recognize the voice of a religious spirit. Perhaps you have heard his voice, too. He says things like, “You stand up too long in your church services. You take up too many offerings. That church music is too loud. Look at that jewelry; those earrings look demonic. All the preacher really wants is my money. You mean to tell me that sometimes your church services go past noon? Well, I would never go to that church with them acting like that. Look how emotional they are!” Perhaps you can think of some other statements from the religious spirit. Religious spirits hate emotion, with a passion.

Religious spirits attack emotion as “beneath” a good Christian’s upbringing. Teach them in Greek and Hebrew, but don’t you dare allow any spiritual punch or passion in your preaching or you will hear them say things like, “The Old Testament is not applicable for today. We are under the New Covenant. The King James version of the Bible is the only inspired version. If it was good enough for the Apostle Paul, then it’s good enough for me. Did you see what Sister So-and-So was wearing last Sunday? I prayed for three hours last night, and thought you needed to know. It took us two hours to drive to church on Easter Sunday last year. I don’t like the voice of that man. There is something that I don’t like about him, but I just don’t know what it is. Do you sense it too? I can teach better than that. That preacher doesn’t preach enough about love. Why does he want me to get involved in church? After all that is what we pay him for. I can’t go to that church because they put a demand on people. I’m not ready for that. I want to grow at my own pace. They should be glad I make it to church as often as I do.”

Have you ever heard this voice? The voice of the religious spirit is found in dead and spiritually lifeless churches all over the world. But do not be deceived; religious spirits are not limited to any particular denomination. The religious spirit can be heard loud and clear even in the most on fire church you can think of.

One day I was invited out to lunch with some religious people. I had just left the church after a prayer gathering that they had not attended. We sat down at the dinner table and the man asked me to pray the blessing over the food. I prayed a short prayer and certainly not religious, mind you, something like, “Thank you for this food, Lord. Amen.” I knew it was short, but there is nothing wrong with simple prayers of thanksgiving. Little did I know the Lord was getting ready to teach me another valuable lesson about the characteristics of the religious spirit.

To my surprise, this man was highly insulted by my brief prayer. He looked over at his wife and asked her to say the blessing the right way. Wow! I must admit it does bother me when praying over your lunch is the height of your spiritual communion with God. I believe in prayer, especially the quality of prayer, but long praying over meals is not, in most cases, the time for serious mountain moving, shaking, and quaking prayer.

If you ask religious people why they pray over their meals, they probably won’t know. Most religious people pray from a spirit of tradition, rather than a heart that is compelled by a love for God’s provision (1 Timothy 4:4-5). Others only pray over their meals because they are copying what they have seen others do or it’s the behavior they believe is expected of them. You can expose a religious spirit almost every time by saying short prayers to bless the food at the dinner table and watching how they react.

You won’t believe it, but I had another opportunity to have dinner with these same religious people. Well guess what happened? They asked me to pray again. I am sure they were wondering whether or not I could get it right this time. Well, the Spirit of God began to bubble up in me, and we began to have camp meeting right there at the dinner table. Praise the Lord! You should have seen their faces. Funny though, they stopped asking me to say grace. What happened?

Tit For Tat

Religious spirits seek to engage you in “tit for tat” as they offer legalistic rebuttals during conversations. There is no sense in going tit for tat with a religious spirit. We don’t always have to defend God’s Word. Be careful not to throw your pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). Why continually open yourself up to religious abuse? This spirit will search for your weaknesses, not to help you to be an overcomer, but rather to use them as weapons to undermine your faith and walk with God. All this sounds so cruel, I know, but it happens all the time in churches across the globe. That’s why this issue must be addressed. Religious people love to debate with you out of an argumentative heart.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do certain people try to draw you into meaningless arguments and debate over the Word of God?
  2. Have you met the person that intentionally draws attention to themselves during prayer meetings?
  3. Has anyone told you how long he or she prays in an attempt to prove his or her spirituality?
  4. Are there people in your church who carry a self-righteous uppity religious attitude?
  5. Has anyone ever accused you of being unloving when you were led by the Spirit of God to speak the truth in love?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you have no doubt encountered a religious spirit.

Religious Scuffles

Putting those with religious spirits in positions of leadership is a death sentence in the ministry. Don’t build a gallows for yourself by giving them the titles and positions they so covet. If you have already done so, then stay in the Spirit when dealing with them. Do not act out of your flesh, but at the same time, don’t Mickey Mouse them and play religious mental games with them, either. The Word says, “Do not answer a fool in his folly” (Proverbs 26:4). Confront religious spirits head on when necessary. Remember, religious spirits do not take hints. Tell them outright what’s the matter, in an attitude of love. Never speak out of the flesh, or anger, but rather out of a right spirit while communicating with Scriptural clarity and precision.

Pray for them and try to get them to see the weakness and the bondage of form, while leading them to the Lordship of Christ. Consider, however, that you can give a religious spirit a book, tape or CD that deals with their problem specifically, and they will not see themselves in it. They will only see others.

If you approach them to bring loving, but strong correction, and they refuse to change, then cut them off. Don’t use them in the church as workers or leaders. Never reward religious rebellion. Don’t hesitate, because things will only get worse. Know the Word, and don’t be afraid to open the Scriptures and discuss chapter and verse with them provided they are humble of heart and ready to receive.

By all means be sure to have somebody with you. Religious spirits hate witnesses during times of confrontation and correction. Why? Because it prevents them from twisting the truth. They cannot pervert what was said. They can’t “smooth” over the correction and make light of it. The witnessed confrontation will either cause them to change or to decree and flee. Usually they’ll flee because their motives are not pure.

(c) Apostle Jonas Clark








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