Religion is often characterized by absolutism, authoritarianism and activism
which do not derive from God Himself.
©1999 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.
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©1999 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.
The English word "religion" is etymologically derived from the Latin word religo, meaning to "bind up." Religion binds people up in rules and regulations or in ritualistic patterns of devotion.
Christianity, on the other hand, was never meant to be a religion. Christianity is the dynamic spiritual life of the risen Lord Jesus indwelling the spirit of man so as to create functional behavior to the glory of God. Granted, men have attempted to force Christianity into the molds and forms of religion. That is evident by all the steeples and sanctuaries and ecclesiastical programs that dot the landscape of our society.
It is the propensity of man to formulate religion, to take that which is of the invisible God and attempt to make it visible, tangible and controllable. Man-made religion! The apostle Paul refers to it as "self-made religion" (Colossians 2:23), and goes on to indicate that it is of no value against fleshly indulgence. In essence, Paul is saying that "religion is of no value against man's sinfulness." In fact, religion is a co-dependent enabler of the sins of mankind. It is itself an addiction.
Religion is essentially idolatry. Men worship their man-made formations and structures—their ideological idols formed in the concrete of inflexible minds. When the apostle Paul came to Athens (Acts 17:22), he observed their idols and exclaimed, "Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects." The Greek word that Paul used for "religious" literally means "to have great respect for demons."
To document that God hates religion, note the following passages of Scripture:
"...every abominable act which the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods." (Deuteronomy 12:31)
"I have had enough of burnt offerings...Bring your worthless offerings no longer...I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts; they have become a burden to Me... So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you... I will not listen..." (Isaiah 1:10-15)
"I hate, I reject your festivals; nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies...take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps." (Amos 5:21-24)
These passages bear out the fact that God hates religion, and all of its procedures and programs; rituals and regulations.
Religion is inevitably the result of man taking that which is of God and forming it, formulating it, in such a way that men end up "playing God." Men can form idols out of wood or stone in an attempt to represent God, or they can formulate ideological idols (belief-systems, doctrinal definitions, theological theses). The men who thus form and formulate become the "chief priests" of the new religion because they are regarded as knowing the most about what God is like, and well they should for they formed "it."
There are three features which seem to be basic to all forms of man-made religion. Religion involves absolutism, authoritarianism and activism. Now there is nothing wrong with absolutes, authority or activity. God is absolute, authoritative and active. But when any man or group of men attempts to establish themselves as the arbiters or regulators of God's absoluteness, authority or activity, they then begin to "play god," and religion is the result as they impose their perspective of absolute, authority and activity on others.
God is absolute. All other absolutes are derived from His absolute character. But when any man, or grouping of men, think that they have determined the absolutes of God absolutely and set about to impose them absolutely on others, then you have the absolutism of religion.
It is the natural propensity of man to want to get everything figured out. We have a "lust for certainty." We want everything to be "cut and dried," black and white, right and wrong, with no loose ends. We do not like paradox, antinomy or dialectic.
Most men cannot accept that the Infinite God is bigger than their finite ability to understand. So we set about to reduce God to fit within our rationalistic and intellectual reasonings. We reduce God to fit within our mental "box," then we nail it shut, construct our creed, and absolutely affirm that we have God figured out. We have reduced God to no bigger than our cranial cavity.
Religion advocates the absolutism of a particular belief-system. We formulate our doctrine, our theology, and demand that others affirm it absolutely as we do; no variation, no freedom of thought or opinion, no doubt (for doubt would indicate that one does not believe it absolutely.)
Such absolutism is the basis of "fundamentalism." Fundamentalism is a religious idolatry that tends to worship a particular formulation of fixed fundamentals of faith. These fundamentals usually include both the detailed doctrines of a belief-system, as well as the meticulously prescribed behavior patterns of an ethical-system.
Religion employs the absolutism of a particular and prescribed moral law, a closed-system of ethics. These behavioral laws (judicial, theological or sociological) are comprised of dos and don'ts, "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots," rules and regulations, and codes of conduct. They are legalistically applied with rigid inflexibility and with perfectionistic expectations of absolute obedience.
Such absolutism in belief and behavior leads to the absolutism of exclusivism: "We are absolutely the only ones who have found truth; Ours is absolutely the only way." Thus religion begins to employ the rejective "tests of fellowship" which demand acceptance of their belief-system and conformity to their behavior patterns or else they will disallow you to be a part of their socialistic group identity. They disallow individualism and freedom of thought. Identity is found in the whole. Any deviations are met with condemnatory judgmentalism and guilt manipulation unto conformity. Severe forms of corrective social "discipline" are employed to keep people "in line," subscribing to the absolutism. Threats of excommunication from the authorities in charge are used to create absolute conformity and absolute obedience.
God, because He is absolute, is authoritative. But when any man, or group of men, claim to be the designated instruments of God's authority and attempt to express such authoritatively, especially in an autocratic or totalitarian way, you then have the authoritarianism of religion.
The bulk of mankind are followers, who will follow a leader like sheep. There always have been and always will be some men, therefore, who set themselves up as leaders and authorities claiming to represent God and to speak authoritatively for God. They often claim to have a special "in" with God, a "hot-line" with God, or they claim to have a special vision, a special "calling," a special understanding, or a superior spirituality. Some people inevitably follow such people and regard them as religious authorities, or gurus.
The well-known proverb states, "Power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The selfish propensities within men cause them to abuse power and use people to their own ends as they lead. Such results in authoritarianism. It may be but a subtle emphasis on "pastoral authority" or the spiritual authority of an elder or a "shepherd," or it may be a special esteem granted for those in exalted positions of so-called "clergy" or priests, ministers, preachers, presbyters, etc. These are then developed into an hierarchical order of ecclesiastical positioning and politicizing.
These self-designated religious authorities often foster a dependency attitude of the people upon themselves. Directly or indirectly they encourage loyalty and commitment to the organization they lead, or to themselves. As incentive for such they often convey the idea that they hold the eternal fate or spiritual destiny of others in their hands, in their power.
The sense of personal equality before God is lost. People are expected to learn their "place" and told not to "get out of order." "Do not ask questions; do as you are told." "We will do the thinking and the feeling for you." "We will do the Bible study and the praying, the relating to God." "We speak for God, and we will tell you what is true." What is this but mind-control propaganda, advocating blind, unquestioning submission and obedience. It is an undemocratic system of non-equality wherein the religious authorities have no accountability to the people they serve.
Such religious authoritarianism creates a "fantasy-bond" of the people toward their so-called "priests." There is a projected idealization of the authorities as being especially close to God -- almost "gods" themselves. The religious authorities then exploit the people, utilizing superstition and fear to control people's thinking and behavior by shame, guilt and threatened loss of identity or eternal destiny.
Religious authorities must create a sense of direction and momentum for the people; a sense of doing something and going somewhere. There must be a program of activity that will keep people "involved," feeling that they are meaningfully expending their lives and energy for God's "cause." This is also fueled by the self-serving purpose of financing and perpetuating the religious system.
God is an active God, and He wants to act in us by the expression of His character and ministry. But when any man, or group of men, claim that they are the directors of God's activity and that they have discerned what God wants to do in you, how God wants you to act, beware of religious activism.
Religion is perpetuated by the activism of the people. People want a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging, a sense of identity, a reason to be. These are God-given desires. Religion offers a false-fulfillment of these desires. Religion repeatedly encourages people to become more involved, more active. Involvement, commitment, dedication, consecration -- these are the hallmarks and the "passwords" of religion. Religion fosters a fixation, a compulsion, an obsession, an addiction to religious activities, explaining the absolute necessity to be thus engaged in the activities in order to please God, and for the good of the whole -- never admitting that it is primarily for the good of the religious authorities!
Activism seems to become an end in itself within religion: the activism of financial giving, the activism of keeping all the rules, the activism of church attendance, the activism of participating in all the ordinances and rituals, the activism of recruiting others to the "cause." Such activism is a not-so-subtle form of "works" salvation, which leads to physical fatigue and exhaustion and other forms of addiction.
Religious activism sometimes takes the form of social protest. People are enjoined to stand up for God's absolutes in political activism. Sometimes they go so far as to engage in criminal and terrorist activity, even wars. In the midst of such they usually develop a persecution-complex: "It is 'us', the good guys of God's army, against 'them', the army of humanism or satan; and only by our ardent activism will God win!"
So often religion defines spirituality by the amount and intensity of one's activism. "If you are really going to be 'spiritual' and close to God, you must be doing what God wants you to do," i.e. our proscribed form of activism.
Much of religious activism is perpetuated by people simply as an escape from reality, an escapism from the day-to-day functionality of life. It is much more difficult to stay right where you are and be the father or mother, husband or wife, employer or employee that God intends you to be, than to carry a sign and chant choruses or to busy oneself in the program of a religious organization.
Religion results in dysfunctional socialization. It will never produce the functional loving community of mankind that God desires. Religion is unloving and self-serving. What religion offers is a pseudo-love, an addiction to the sense of belonging, an addiction to the sense of being cared for and sought after, an addiction to the sense of meaningful existence and purpose and identity.
This expose of religion is in no way designed or intended to impinge upon the reality of Christianity. Careful distinction between religion and Christianity must be made. As stated in the beginning of this article, Christianity is the dynamic spiritual life of the risen Lord Jesus indwelling the spirit of man so as to create functional behavior unto the glory of God. Religion is the man-made aberration that attempts to impose absolutism, authoritarianism and activism upon other men.