Furniture restoration often involves the use of chemicals and abrasives which are intended to strip away years of refinishing and grime just to return to the mint state of the piece before them. It seems as though mainstream religion in the late twentieth century is in a similar state.
Religion That Is God-Imposed
There is religion that is God-imposed, and can be studied in the New Testament. In order to meet Christ's demand that all worship of his father be both in spirit and truth, man's praise must hew to what can be ascertained from revealed authority (John 4:23-24). That authority rests in Jesus (Matt. 28:18-20) and his twelve apostles who were chosen to reveal much of it through the inspired dictates of heaven (Matt. 18:18). As the first century of Christ drew toward its dusk, Jude could write that the faith had been once for all delivered (Jude 3). That system of belief, practice and religion was being completed. Any form of religion which God had imposed was in its masterpiece state even 1900 years ago.
Yet even then, forces were at work in an attempt to refinish that faith once delivered. A strong element of Judaism sought compromise with the church by suggesting that Gentile converts to Jehovah simply adhere also to the law of Moses. Unfortunately, this required grown men to be circumcised in the flesh and adopt a form of life and religion that was itself dying (Heb. 8:13). Inspired men successfully fought this movement with boldness (Gal. 5:1-12) and its dross was not added to God's pure work.
The religion that is God-imposed can be examined on the pages of the New Testament of Jesus Christ. It differs greatly from the system of practice under the law of Moses, containing no Sabbath day observance (Col. 2:16), no provision for animal sacrifice (Heb. 10:1-4), no Jerusalem temple (Eph. 2:19-22), no instrumental music in worship (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16) and no civil codes (Rom. 13:1-7). Accepting the religion that God has imposed ensures that we will serve him in a way that is acceptable to him. Going beyond what is written is like walking onto an icy pond during the late stages of the spring thawit's thin ice (2 John 9).
Religion That Is Self-Imposed
The obvious form of self-imposed religion is a system of practice that tolerates moral degeneracy. Some denominations today have sanctioned the use of alcoholic beverages and covetousness through gambling. Others have proscribed teaching against sexual immorality (homosexuality) and lewdness (dancing, immodest dress, mixed bathing). Such self-imposed religion is Christianity Lite--all the joy and sense of grace with less of the sacrifice and self-discipline (Matt. 10:38-39, 1 Cor. 9:27).
Sometimes, however, self-imposed religion introduces a strictness and harshness that the Bible does not require, binding it on oneself or others to the actual detriment of the cause. Paul wrote in Colossians 2:20-23:
This self-imposed religion introduces prohibitions not espoused by the Holy Spirit, and thus sends the worshiper out on the thin ice. He is concerned about appearances more than genuine, meek discipleship. His methods, thus, do nothing to overcome carnal impulses, but provoke them by proudly displaying one's "deeply religious" soul. All these self-imposed tenets are mere commandments of men and worth no consideration in the faith belonging to God (Matt. 15:1-9).
The Roman Catholic religion is almost as old as the church of Christ itself. Jesus established his church in about the year 33 A.D. when he perished upon a Roman cross, but was then resurrected and ascended into heaven (Acts 2:29-33). That church which Jesus promised to build (Matt. 16:16, Rom. 16:16) is easily identifiable from the scriptures and can be replicated today by reverent believers in the wisdom and authority of Jehovah. A God-imposed religion will be practiced by her members (James 1:27), who will eschew the traditions of men in the practice of faith that every oracle of God might be revered (1 Peter 4:11).
Catholicism evolved from a falling away from these principles in the second and subsequent centuries. Councils were convened to pronounce matters of faith. Congregational elders began overstepping their local authority and seizing control over other, smaller churches in the region (1 Peter 5:4, Acts 20:28). Finally, a Pope was anointed as the Chief Bishop and the place of Catholic tradition alongside (and often in contradiction of) scripture was forever established.
The hair shirt was a fourteenth century example of self-imposed religion. Donned as a form of penance, the shirt was composed of very course animal hair which formed the inside so that it scratched the flesh into ribbons. Surely, this had the appearance of wisdom and piety to those not courageous enough to wear it, but what value against the flesh did it actually possess? And just as importantly, where did God ever prescribe "acts of penance" in the religion which he delivered once for all through his emissaries? Fruits of repentance, we see, but not acts of self-punishment. Lastly, if such a practice was so religious 600 years ago, why is it not emulated today?
The observance of Lent on the Catholic calendar is yet another example of self-imposed religion. Lent is a 40 weekday period between Ash Wednesday (scripture?) and Easter (scripture?), observed by the Catholic, Orthodox, and many Protestant churches as a period of penance and fasting. Lent regulations were more strict prior to World War II and since have been eased. Until that time, Catholics could eat no meat during this period; now only Fridays are designated as meatless. The scriptures are forever but human traditions come and go (1 Peter 1:23-25).
Lent is intended to mimic the 40 day fast by Jesus just prior to his temptation by the devil in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11). Note, however, that Jesus did not take weekends off, nor is there any record that he broke his fast for a feast of fish. Moreover, there is absolutely no record of a Lenten observance in all the New Testament. This cannot be God-imposed religion; it must be self-imposed. Paul stated that commands to abstain from certain foods was evidence of apostasy (1 Tim. 4:3-4). Who is right?
What value against the flesh does Lent offer? Catholics are encouraged to give up something for the Lent period. Their president, John Paul II, decreed that Catholics who give up smoking or heavy drinking this year will receive special consideration in eternity. That is like encouraging people to give up fornication or murder for 40 days. Some things should be given up permanently and decisions about eternity belong to God, not some pretender to the throne.
The lifestyle of priests, nuns and monks wreaks of self-imposed religion. The dark, hot and uncomfortable clothing is intended to make a boast of humility. God did not impose such attire, but man did. Such people are required to live celibate or they cannot serve in these capacities. Yet, God says, that a religion which forbids marriage to eligible people is apostate (1 Tim. 4:1-2). It looks deeply pious to the uninformed and yet the desire for companionship and sexual gratification is not completely deterred (1 Cor. 7:1-5). Of this, Peter could likely attest; if not, perhaps his wife could (Matt. 8:14). Modern accounts of sexual abuse in the cathedral show the cracks of this self-imposed religion and that it often does great harm.
Paul wrote, "Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ" (Col. 2:8).
Catholicism is self-imposed religion that cheats people out of the truth, genuine discipleship, and a home in heaven. It is so concerned with its ancient tradition that it has set aside the more ancient words of God. It draws near to God in word, but betrays a distant heart, vain in its works.