Toxic religion (or bad theology) leads to bad times! We need to get our theology back on track.
In ministry, besides all the wonderful positive loving persons I’ve been privileged to call friends, I also have encountered about every form of negative emotions and habits, unhappiness, and utter joyless people present in the church and the world. Since the culture has a way of thoroughly penetrating the life of the church, the two are often too similar to each other even to distinguish.
Sadly, often, going to church doesn’t make us much different from our neighbors in our daily life. Our politics, behavior, language, courtesies (or lack thereof) appear to be roughly the same. It appears that part of the church’s failure to be the church stems from bad theology. Our theology has been profoundly affected by the mythologies, superstitions, and social and moral trends of the world. Essentially, when we graft a bit from here and a bit from there, we have culled bad religion.
What is bad religion? It’s what it has always been from the beginning—a misperception of God’s character and purpose, and, therefore, an adulterated version of the Gospel.
Here’s a brief summary, expressed in traditional theological language, to help grasp if what we’re being taught is bad religion:
Legalism: This has been the curse of Christianity since its very inception, due to the inherent factor of fallen humanity to think that we can make ourselves worthy of salvation by our own efforts and merits. Unless we are vigilant, we’ll inevitably fall into the trap of rule keeping and personal performance as the grounds of our acceptance by God. This is what the Old Testament faith, originally based on God’s grace, developed into over the centuries, and the very thing that Jesus railed against in his preaching (Matthew 23:1–11).
You may be familiar with the phrase “ecclessiogenic neuroses.” These are disorders that are actually caused by going to church! It’s generally the fruit of a legalistic view of faith: nothing is ever good enough, righteous enough, or spiritual enough. It’s the ever present sense that unless we measure up to some external standard of religious behavior or thought, we fall outside God’s mercy and grace. God becomes the bad parent for whom nothing is ever right. You can hear this upside-down “gospel” every Sunday morning on TV: “If you do better and try harder, God will bless and save you.”
This spiritual disease will erase every trace of joy or happiness that the real Gospel could provide.
Pelagianism: Named after a fourth century monk, it means that human beings are not affected by the original sin of Adam, that his rebellion against God’s command had moral consequences for him only, but not for those who came after him. In other words, we don’t have an inherited bent toward the bad—we begin with a clean slate from birth—and, therefore, by our own moral efforts, we can live a life without the necessity of divine grace.
This goes against what Jesus said: “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Pelagianism teaches that, “Apart from Jesus and divine grace, we can do everything we need on our own.”
The practical outworking of this is the current widespread secular view that people are basically good. It’s thought that what makes people do bad things is not their inborn tendency, but outward social and political structures of inequity, oppression, and the like. It’s the culture’s fault.
The implications for our preaching and teaching are enormous. It forces us to pretend that our fundamental “sin” problem doesn’t exist. It means that we can achieve not only acceptability before God by our own merits, but we can enjoy the natural products of divine grace—true joy and lasting happiness—salvation without divine grace.
Gnosticism: Originally, a philosophy that denied the goodness of creation—the entire physical realm, along with the body and all its pleasures. Gnosticism helped spawn the asceticism (severe self-denial of anything pleasurable, withdrawal from society) that has been part of the church for two-thousand years. Summed up in a slogan, the philosophy would read, “If it feels good, it’s bad; if it feels really good, then it’s really bad.”
Many of us have been raised in this false view of Christian life, and have felt the condemnation of our own conscience, and of other believers for doing anything fun or pleasurable. It instructs, “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (a misquote from Colossians 2:20-23. Read the entire passage). It’s a real joy killer and shares with legalism the same dreadful results.
“Bad religion” results whenever the truths of the Gospel degenerate into merely another religion on the market: rules, rites, and doctrines, without a transforming personal relationship with God, a changed heart and mind, and the joy of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling.
Bad religion takes over true faith whenever we come to believe that God’s physical creation is either evil, or a second-rate good that should be avoided in favor of the “spiritual” realm. It misses the truth that everything God made is good, in fact, “very good” (Genesis 1:31). It revokes the point that everything good is eternal, while everything bad is temporary, and that there will come a time when only good is left standing, and bad will not even exist.
What we believe and tell others is profoundly important. As the apostle John warned us, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
Photo by T. Kaiser on Unsplash