Religion. Many things, both good and evil, have been done in the name of religion. Many things have been done in the name of the Christian religion. We can see the mercy ministry of Mother Theresa, the generosity of the church toward the poor and the destitute, the abolition of slavery, the lives enriched by missionaries, and hope instilled into hopeless situations. But there was also the war in the time of the crusades, the atrocities during the inquisition, the violence during the reformation, the executions during the Salem Witch Trials, even the American slavers justified their acts in the name of religion. These were wrong and cruel, unjust, and ungodly. And those acts have placed a sour taste in the mouth of the world for religion.
Even many within the Christian religion have a bitter understanding of religion. If Christians say that someone else is ‘overly religious,’ what they often mean is that he/she is all about the rules. He or she is bitter, and judgmental, treating those who do not agree cruelly. He/She sometimes follows those rules him/herself, but she always expects others to do so. No swearing, no drinking, no dancing, no running in the sanctuary. You must read your Bible every day, pray at least three times a day (especially before every meal); if you do not go to church every Sunday then you are a sinner and don’t deserve to be there anyway. The word ‘religion’ has almost become a curse word and an insult in both the Christian and non-Christian worlds. However, do we have a false understanding of religion?
The Word of God, in James 1:27, tells us a different understanding of religion,
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (ESV). From this, we get two principles that Christians ought to think deeper about when we speak about religion.
The first principle is this – religion is outward focused. James uses the example of a single mother and her children (orphans were children who had lost a parent, usually a father). In the patriarchal society when a woman lost her husband then she lost her primary source of income, which was the husband's wages; this often left them without a stable source of food or shelter. Visiting the orphans and the widows is a way of caring for those in need. In Matthew 25:35-26, Jesus adds many more to this list: feeding the hungry, giving a drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and visiting those in prison.
Religion is about showing the love of God to others. Jesus has a big issue with following rules and laws without showing love. This was the criticism that Jesus had of the Pharisees who would look very much like the aforementioned ‘religious person’ described above; just look at Mark 3:1-5,
1Again [Jesus] entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. 2 And [The Pharisee’s] watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” 4 And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.
The most important thing to Jesus was to do good and to save lives. Jesus always followed the Law of God perfectly, and in this case, He was willing to conflict with the Pharisees and their cultural rules about the Sabbath to do good and to show love to this crippled man. The Apostle Paul teaches the same in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3,
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Following all the rules without love is not religion; it is but a resounding gong without substance or merit.
One of the main reasons that the culture hates the church is not that we are like Jesus, as Jesus teaches us we will be, but because we are often seen as loveless and compassionless. Often the people in the church yell and scream when the culture is running headlong into troubling places, but do not stop to lift and support a single mother in need. Instead of loving, we are seen as hating. But Jesus says in John 13:34-35,
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Love is essential to walking out our religion, our faith in Jesus Christ. However, James does not stop there; many Christian communities (churches) in the western world have overcompensated for the non-Christian’s perspective on Christian religion’s rules. They have embraced the first half, showing compassion, while abandoning the second half.
The second principle is equally important. Pure religion is not simply showing love to others; it is also “keeping oneself unstained from the world”. God puts a high value on righteousness – doing right or good in the eyes of God, and holiness – remaining set apart for God and uncorrupted by the world. When we embrace Jesus as our Saviour, the Bible says that we become set apart for God (Hebrews 10:10, Ephesians 5:25-27). Although he does not use the word holy, James does call us to remain set apart and uncorrupted by the world, which means that Christians are to live according to the will of God as outlined in His word. Pure religion means acknowledging and resisting things that conflict with God’s design for us, what the Bible calls sin.
Acknowledging and repenting of sin from our lives is perhaps the most difficult thing that we can do as human beings; we alone are powerless to purge pride, hatred, selfishness, covetousness, sexual immorality, or greed from our lives, to name a few. But with the Holy Spirit working within us, and our surrender and submission to God’s loving scalpel, we can begin to live out pure religion.
Pure religion is both loving others and committing ourselves to follow God in purity. However, for many in the church today, our problem is not legalism, or the over-emphasis on rules; instead, our issue is often lawlessness. In our eagerness to show the world how loving and accepting we are, we abandon God’s design, following the world's understanding of freedom, justice, mercy and compassion. We can so easily end up compromising on the clear instruction of Scripture to please the world. But God says through Paul that we are not to freely accept the ways of the world,
1I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
You see, Christians are to think differently; our minds are to be transformed to think differently, to only care about doing the will of God, as it is outlined in the Bible. We must care about what the Bible says in all circumstances and every area of our lives, even in politics, the justice system, and in the fight for social justice. We must resist the temptation to become like the world, or to twist the words of the Bible to align with our thinking; instead, we must allow God to instruct and renew our mind.
Pure religion is about pursuing both love and purity; loving others self-sacrificially, but most importantly, presenting “your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”. And none of this is possible without the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. When we believe in Jesus and He sends His Spirit to live in us, we are given the power that we need to walk rightly and to love rightly. I heard a preacher say recently that “we are not saved by our works, but we are saved for good works;” to rephrase, we are not saved by pure religion, but we are saved for pure religion, which is love and purity in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Watch Pastor Jordan's sermon from this past weekend.
 Fitzgerald, J.T.. (2016). Orphans in Mediterranean antiquity and Early Christianity. Acta Theologica, 36(Suppl. 23), 29-48. https://dx.doi.org/10.4314/actat.v23i1s.2
 John 15:18