On the tails of decades of civil war, a fateful edict was issued in 212 AD by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Caesar. In typical Roman fashion, he was a blood-thirsty, tyrannical strongman who wished to control the masses. Nicknamed Caracalla because he invented and wore a strange Gallic-inspired “hoodie,” his masses were unlike any the world had seen. Rome, a city of 1.2M people, was the world’s largest city and global empire head. But this Roman despot’s Empire was fragmenting. But what a Roman spear won could not be held by a reign of terror. The strongman can conquer, but can he unite? From the many, one identity must emerge. E Pluribus Unum. But, how to do this?
To unite an empire as different as England and Iran, Italy and Armenia, Portugal and Egypt, was no small task. Languages, customs, dress, culture, history, geography, tribal allegiances, monetary systems, and legal systems were vastly different across the Empire. Ever since the days of Caesar’s August, the August One, the “consecrated, set apart holy one,” the Roman Empire had been expanding. Into this global expansionism, “God had so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believed in Him would not perish but have everlasting life.” The true “august one” had come, not as a blood-soaked Roman Strongman, but as a babe in the backwater Provence of Judea primed to turn the world right-side up.
But two centuries of Roman expansion and global dominion had taught Caracalla something. If the Empire was to be united, they must identify as one. So, the 212 Edict granted Roman citizenship to all “freemen” in the Empire. No longer was citizenship reserved for native-born Romans from elite families. All the world was now Roman. The globe’s first “Amnesty Deal.”
And yet, the problems did not abate. So what if you were now a citizen of Rome when your crops were failing due to drought? What did it matter that you had a global currency when some distant mythic overlord was levying a crushing tax burden? A burden that prevented you from having enough to survive? Unity, it appears, would take more than an arbitrary title bestowed by a foreign ruler from a foreign city 90% of the local peoples had never known. What everyone did know, however, were their gods.
The Roman conception of “god” was multifaceted. For centuries, the Greek, Roman, and Eastern deities had mingled together to create a cacophony of heavenly sovereigns. And while these gods had different names, worship rituals, and placements in the divine hierarchy, they all shared one thing. Failure to please them resulted in catastrophe.
The earth’s gods were perceived to be fickle, capricious, powerful, and fearsome. These gods have perpetually demanded sacrifice. Sacrifice, animal or human, was the highest form of enticing your diety into granting you favor. Wooing God’s blessing for a particular outcome, like pregnancy or military victory, or a general increase in divine protection and pleasure over a nation was the primary goal of worship. Losing that favor meant the destruction of the country.
And so, Caracalla codified what previous Ceasers had intuited. Worship rituals and ritual observance became essential requirements for all Romans. To deny the traditions was not simply rebellious but treasonous. And the Romans had a Latin word for all of this. They called it religio. Religio was any ritual observance given to any approved diety that wooed their favor and secured the Empire’s place in global power structures. And thus, religion was born.
Paul wrestled mightly against this facet of Roman life. Look at what Paul says:
2 Corinthians 12:7
“even though I have received such wonderful revelations from God. So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.” Paul had traveled across the Roman Empire with a mandate from the Living God. To reveal to the gentile world the true religion of YHWH. And yet, there was a thorn. Satan himself sent a messenger to lead the world away from the light and plunge us into perpetual darkness.
Being a leading Jewish scholar with exemplary pedigree, this remade Pharisee knew the term he employed when citing a “thorn.” Look at these verses.
But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell.
know for certain that the LORD your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the LORD your God has given you.
So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.”
Each of these verses refers to the Jewish mandate to inhabit the promised land and cleanse it from the people’s false religio. So Paul was requesting that God do what He had commanded the Israelites to do: to rid the earth of false religion, dead gods, and lifeless idols. A fair and noble request with deep historical precedence. And yet, hear the Lord’s reply.
2 Corinthians 12:8-9
Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Herein lay the believer’s most potent weapon in dealing with toxic religion, the all-sufficient grace of the Living God.
Grace lays waste to toxic religion. Grace shatters the stranglehold works based religious observance has on our hearts. Instead of irradicating false religion, which, according to Paul, would inevitably lead us into arrogance and pride, God’s grace is perfected in the midst of competing ideas about how we should live and who we should serve. Grace shows us that it’s not at all about our abilities and obedience to God’s law, but rather, His divine Truth moving in the midst of falsity demonstrates true religion. Namely, what we never again need to woo God’s grace and favor. Rather, it is a free gift to all who call upon His name.
This was far from a theological concept. Paul knew intimately the costs associated with rejecting established religion and throwing yourself wholly into the grace of God. It meant:
2 Corinthians 11:24–27
 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.  Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea;  on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers;  in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. (ESV)
You’ll notice that it was not just the Romans that levied punishment upon Paul. The Jewish leaders had fallen into Satan’s toxic religious trap and so masterfully propagated by the Romans. Follow the rules, and it will go well. Break them, and culture crumbles.
Toxic religion is a demonic tool employed to hide the beauty of the Infinite One. Toxic religion says, “Behave and then belong.” Jesus says, “You belong. Now receive the Holy Spirit in power and let Him work on your behavior.” Toxic religion grounds the future of your nation, family, and soul in the power of ritual observance. Jesus builds his Church on broken people foolish enough to let the wisdom of God confound a performance-based world system.
I am here today in the authority of the resurrected messiah, to proclaim that you are free – for all time – from the religious chains that seek to entangle you and drag you into sheol. Your value as a person, your placement in your family, this church, and your nation has nothing to do with your ability to be good. To act righteously in the eyes of God means to wholly depend on His grace to renew, remake, and restore you to favor with God.
Man does not perform religio to woo God to earth. God woos man back home to heaven by demonstrating what it looks like to have God as King on the earth. Toxic religion traffics in works-based theology and elevates not the eternal One but the temporal self. True religion magnifies the resurrected Christ and throws off the old, dead “self”.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Now, since all of this has already been accomplished, how then shall we live? How do we live and act in a toxic world that equates divine approval with religious obedience? Does this mean that we should sin all the more that grace may abound all the more (see Romans 6). Does this mean we throw off all religious observance to avoid the toxic trap of works-based efforts? By no means! Then how do we do it!!???
It’s quite simple, really. But by no means easy. Like the minimalist design, the simplest is often the most difficult. We act from the acceptance, not for acceptance. We worship God rooted in sonship and shun the slavery associated with performance. And to shun the seduction of performance, we must submit to the childlike. We must learn to fail, to look foolish, to be thought of as weak so that Christ may be demonstrated to be strong.
And so, to be free from toxic religion, you must agree with heaven that your puny religious obedience is worthless and His revolutionary resurrection power is all you need. The Ceasers used toxic religion to forge one from the many. But God used death and resurrection to reveal the One to the many. And from that many, One new man is fashioned. That we may be one, in Christ.