They were, to coin a phrase, very spiritual. Always first in line when it came to praying, and renowned for their street ministries, they embodied a zealous godliness that certainly turned heads. Rumour had it that they prayed for three hours daily. Their faith was steel like and solid; they had no truck with wooly, liberal theology, but had a firm grip on the doctrines of resurrection and judgment, and of angels and demons. They could accurately quote Scripture with smooth ease. They were fiery, roaring revivalists. Not for them the morgue-cold cynicism that expects little or nothing from heaven. They were on tiptoe, expecting God to move at any time, and called sinners to repent and make ready for His coming. Members of a holiness movement, their hope fuelled them in their almost pernickety obsession with personal purity. Despising foggy compromise, they thundered that God was either Lord of all, or not Lord at all. Every little detail of life must come under His control. Impressed? They were the Pharisees.

Today, those of us who are preachers tend to set the Pharisees up as easy targets, as punch bags handy for a quick Sunday morning jab. Like the wicked witches in the pantomime that we love to hiss and boo at, the Pharisees have generally been painted in an entirely negative light, like wholly religious crones. But their faults were not so obvious - and they were uncomfortably like us, like modern evangelical Christians. A lay movement formed around 200 years before Christ, the Pharisees had embraced an approach to spirituality that was hall-marked by passion and dedication. They would even gather together for conventions for mutual encouragement; I imagine that a Spring Harvest: Pharisees together at Butlins event would have been a little short on fun...

Their closest allies were the Scribes, or ‘the teachers of the law’ as Matthew tags them. They were that strange mixture of commitment mingled with dullness that can still be evidenced by spiritual people today. Generally thought of as dry, uninspiring preachers who knew a lot but lack spiritual authority, they were also great students of Scripture. Their pursuit of ‘law trivia’ enabled the Scribes to announce that there were 613 commandments in first 5 books of the Old Testament; 248 positive, and 365 negative. This microscopic approach to Scripture demanded infinite precision and commitment to detail – which meant that they often lost sight of the plot, fighting over detail and missing the big picture by miles.
Surely there would have been Pharisees and Scribes standing in the crowd on that epic day when Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount. Mental notebooks open, sharpened pencils poised, they would have listened carefully to His every word, they would have listened as a self appointed jury for the prosecution. Brows furrowed in stern concentration, they would have evaluated and analyzed each statement, testing its’ 'soundness’, and ready to pounce at the slightest hint of what they perceived as error. Any ordinary, common people in the crowd that day would have given them a wide berth.

The Scribes and the Pharisees had an intimidating, white-hot religion that seemed to scald those lower down the religious food chain. The Scribes and the Pharisees herded people smeared with failure and shame into the corral of one indicting designation: ‘sinners’. Theirs was a religiosity long on law, and short on compassion. But surely they were to be commended for their zeal?

Apparently not, if the Sermon on the Mount is anything to go by. When Jesus gave His great Sermon, it was not the ‘sinners’ who came under fire from His words. On the contrary, Jesus seemed to roll out a kingdom red carpet for those who felt keenly their lack of God, the ‘poor in spirit ’. Stunningly, it was the full, not the hungry, those who appeared to own the established franchise on religion, the Scribes and Pharisees, who Jesus had in His sights for a judgment salvo. Far from holding them up as exemplary models of commitment and devotion, He slammed them with a repeated, exocet phrase: ‘don’t be like them’. Their highest acts of devotion, in prayer, fasting,and almsgiving were rejected by Jesus as useless. Elsewhere, he carefully warned his friends and would be apprentices about allowing, ‘the leaven of the Pharisees’ to creep into their own spirituality (Matthew 16:6). And no one can read the almost nuclear vocabulary of Matthew 23, where the Pharisees are tagged as ‘vipers’, and ‘whitened tombs full of dead men’s bones’ without trembling. When Jesus formed His team, not one of these experts in prayer or Scripture were invited to join. Apparently he preferred the unspoiled pliability of rough, ordinary working men and even the red-faced gratitude of former extortionists to the practiced piety of the religious. The Pharisees were blinded by their own religion, rejecting the remarkable supernatural ministry of Jesus, writing it off as sourced by dark power. Even the appearance of a still stinking Lazarus, raised to life now, didn ’t shake them. Their principles had become more valued than God’s purposes: Jesus indicted them with the charge that their traditions had become more important than God’s com-mandments (Matthew 15:3).

And so it becomes clear that there is a religiosity that can hijack those who would be holy. I have observed that this ‘leaven’ of religiosity is the primary temptation for those who would be among Jesus’ most committed followers; like a devastating computer virus that mugs your hard drive and then tries to automatically infect every one on your e-mail address list, so religion crouches in the wings whenever commitment or zealousness is in the air. It corrupts, and seeks converts. Just as Islamic faith Ben Laden style is denounced as being a corruption of true Islam, so there is a mutated, religious Christianity that is loud, critical of others, passionate and almost martyr like – but is a fundamentalism that we should avoid at all costs. ‘Religious’ Christianity is worse than useless. It deters those who are genuinely looking for God, repelled, as they will surely be, by a church preoccupied with stern privatized piety and empty irrelevance. This is a faith useless to the world – and impotent before God; religions’ fervent praying goes unheard in heaven, according to Jesus. But it takes great grace to be a Christian without being religious. Face it; we all have some of it in us: if you want to know if you have some of that ‘leaven’, there’s a simple test: just take your pulse. If you’re alive, it’s more than likely that you have at least some of the virus pumping through your spiritual veins. Perhaps a consideration of some of the more obvious symptoms of religion would be helpful.

Religion 1: Don’t react

Non-religious Christianity is a tantalising phrase, and one that has provoked me to be on a kind of spiritual safari for the last 20 years. I first bumped into the curious notion that religion and authentic Christianity were not necessarily compatible – on the contrary, they may be sworn enemies – in the pages of a book whose author’s name now escapes me. ‘How to be a Christian without being religious’ was it’s alluring title; I remember being deeply stirred by the thought that Jesus Christ embodied the antithesis of religiosity. I saw His invitation to be His follower as a call away from the lifeless droning existence that is faithless faith. And so the long search began …

The ‘New Churches’ in the UK, (a hilarious description I think – it’s only in the Christian Church that something can exist for over 25 years and still be described as new) were birthed because of a hunger for a Christian faith that was not tied down by traditionalism and legalism. Starting with handfuls gathered in houses rather than church buildings, believers who were disappointed with what they saw as status quo Christianity joined together in their search to find ways to follow Christ without resorting to ‘religion’. I joined them on their search some years ago, and I ’m glad that I did. But it was Bono who famously sung that he still hadn’t found what he was looking for, and I think he sings for a lot of us who have figured out that being non-religious is not as simple as it looks.

For example, the pursuit of non-religiosity has led some of us to simply react to whatever we came from, in terms of our spiritual heritage, and to put a black felt tip pen through the lot, writing it all off as ‘religious’. The logic is simple, though fatally flawed. For example,Christians have been taught that having a ‘quiet time’ is essential – which is right – and wrong. To be a slave to the notion that God is rather irritated with us if our day didn’t begin with a flip through Leviticus and the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer is a religious fallacy. But superficial reactionaries like me threw the whole practice into a large dumpster called religion. Therefore, for some of us, ministers in robes, stained glass windows, communion tables and choir robes and meeting on Sunday mornings at 11, and men donning a suit for those Sunday ‘services’ was all quickly designated as religious. An easy contempt for the old leads one to a desperate addiction to the new – and the ever newer. Suddenly we find ourselves on a compulsive search for what is at best innovative and at worst hollow and trendy: addicted to the next fad. Non-religiosity becomes a matter of embracing a different style; and we stagger from one ‘new thing’ to another, frantically pursuing non-religious nirvana. And the irony is that the pursuit of the ever new becomes a religious style in and of itself.

Use of the ‘new’ vocabulary becomes essential. And we end up being religiously non-religious! One can reject the practice of giving thanks for food before eating as being religious – and so I went through a phase when I religiously didn’t say grace ……

Being non-religious is not about inventing new styles today, which are old tomorrow, or despising anything that has longevity as being traditional and therefore useless.

Religion 2: Putting on a good show

The Pharisees were experts at what Gerard Kelly calls ‘pray and display’. They dressed to make a religious fashion statement, adorned with ‘tephillin’, small leather boxes containing portions of scripture – which screamed “Don’t you know I love Scripture” and tassels – the four tassels from the prayer shawl, which likewise made a statement: “Back off everyone, here comes an intercessor..” Impressive it was, and hollow too. Jesus dismissed this posturing as the work of ‘hypocrites’ – Matthew uses that word no less than 13 times. Palestine had some fine theatres – one was located city of Sepphoris, within a few miles of Jesus’ home of Nazareth. Perhaps Jesus, as a boy saw the hypocrites, the actors who worked there, prancing about the stage in their masks and sometimes giving running commentaries on the play. Other hypocrites were employed to professionally, ‘turn on the water works’, as it were, at funerals. They would weep and wail for the unknown departed, and tear their clothes along the seams, so they could quickly stitch them up again for the next funeral performance. The word ‘hypocrite’ gradually crept into common usage to describe anyone who was a pretender.

Gordon MacDonald has described pretending as the ‘common cold of the evangelical church’. Religion that relies on us having weekly close encounters of an evangelical kind, working hard at the sweaty business of unreality, reeks of religion. Do you want real, true religion? Then get real, at least with somebody.

Religion 3: By the grace of God, I’m better than you…

Jesus drew an almost pythonesque sketch when he describes the Pharisees as giving, while blowing trumpets to announce the fact. This kind of spiritual posturing was roundly condemned in the great sermon. Jesus was not rejecting the validity of public and communal expressions of spirituality – some have rejected the idea of corporate prayer gatherings, or a call to collective fasting, because of a misunderstood of this teaching. But public platforms and prayer meetings are particularly toxic zones for the bacteria of religion; all of us should negotiate them with care. Mere religion is a corruption of true faith, and is part of a satanic biochemical campaign. Be humble about your own tradition, and respectful of others. Avoid masks and performances, and take notice when you’re being noticed. Be alert and careful. For God’s sake.