Every church and/or organization has a corporate culture with norms, rules and expectations that pressure participants to conform. Some cultures are good and some bad.
That being said, there are particular attributes that characterize false religions or become the norm during religious decline in a true faith such as Christianity. For example, “Every religious system in the world is centered upon a temple (or a sacred place) and has rites and ceremonies, has hierarchies and titles distinguishing men from one another, and has holy days and holy celebrations” (quoted from a teaching I heard from Pastor Tommy Moya several weeks ago).
The Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah, Micah and Amos decried religious ritual that was without true righteousness, humility and love for neighbor (Is. [1:10]-17; 58; Amos [5:21]-24; Mic. 6:8). The line of prophets arose starting in the 8th century B.C. primarily because Israel had a tendency to focus more on adhering to the temple ritual worship of the Levitical system than the ethical lifestyle required by the Law of Moses as found in the Ten Commandments. For this, the prophets pronounced judgment upon the nation, and God dispersed the people and, on two occasions, let enemies destroy their temple.
We have the same issue in today’s church, irrespective of the denomination or expression of the body of Christ. (Many Pentecostal, charismatic and evangelical churches have these same issues.) Not only that, but all leaders (including me) have to constantly grapple with some or all of the following issues internally to make sure we are never sucked into this false system.
The following are 10 of the characteristics of false religious systems as taught by Jesus in Matthew 23:
1. There are onerous rules and regulations some call legalism (Matt. 23:1-3).
In the contemporary church, there are numerous man-made traditions and requirements that never arose from the Word, which have become an unnecessary burden upon believers. For example, in many Pentecostal churches the emphasis is on outward holiness related to attire, makeup, the cutting of hair, jewelry and other regulations. I have spoken to numerous young people who stopped attending church because these regulations made them feel weird in front of their unchurched friends. Fundamentalists in the past forbade any form of entertainment, including watching movies, listening to the radio, watching television, etc. These are legalistic efforts to bring holiness that have resulted in numerous churches losing their next generation.
2. The church leaders serve to receive prestige from men (vv. 5-7).
God makes it clear in His word that some religious leaders love the praise of men more than the praise of God (John [12:42]-43). The judgment of God is against the leaders who are constantly posturing themselves within their denomination to attain the highest seats of authority and places of honor among men. Truly, some of the greatest people of God in the earth today are hidden from the public eye.
3. The leaders crave titles and moving up the ranks of hierarchical religious systems (vv. 8-11).
Today’s church is replete with people who use titles to validate their ministries. I can’t tell you how many people I have met with the title apostle, bishop, doctor or archbishop on their business cards who have very little influence in the church and secular world. Truly God doesn’t care about an apostolic title; God looks more at apostolic function and fruit. I have found that, the more a person speaks about their academic achievements and ecclesial titles, the more insecure they are as a person and about their ministry accomplishments.
I say this as a person who has been consecrated both a bishop and apostle and who flows in circles with leaders who use these titles. There is nothing wrong with these titles (both are biblical) as long as we don’t flaunt them, crave them and depend upon them for validation and/or to hide that we do not have real apostolic function and fruit. Many of the greatest leaders in the church world do not insist upon people referring to them with a title.
4. The leaders have an entitlement mentality (vv. 11-12).
I believe in the biblical principle of serving the people of God as a prerequisite to being qualified to function in the same ministry as they do. For example, Joshua was called the servant of Moses; Elisha served Elijah; David served Samuel and Saul, and the 12 apostles served Jesus.