Journeying through James – On Being Religious, James 1:26-27

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world James 1:26‑27 (NIV)

The word “religion” surprisingly occurs only 6 times in the New Testament. And every time it’s used, it’s associated with some outward form of ritual that people do to worship God. Paul informs us that religion can take the place of true worship. James is basically in agreement with this, but comes at it from a different angle. First consider the Apostle Paul’s concern about “religion:”

“You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, 21 ‘Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!’? 22 Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. 23 These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion (literally “religion” in the original Greek * ), pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires” (Colossians 2:19-23, NLT).

Paul’s explanation (inspired by the Holy Spirit) doesn’t need any commentary except to note that human beings like being religious. James, of course, would have been very familiar with the many rituals and rites that were in Judaism; however, James comes at this from the different perspective. It’s almost like he’s saying, “Alright, I’m not going to get into the weeds about the notion being religious;” true religion is about:

  • What comes out of your mouth. Jesus taught: “But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. 19 For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. 20 These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you” (Matthew 15:18-20, NLT).
  • Your conduct and actions. Jesus said, “For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in My name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (Mark 9:41, NKJV). And the Apostle John received great inspiration on this: “Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. 19 Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God” (1 John 3:18-19, NLT).

So, how religious are you? Being “religious” isn’t a bad thing as long as your religion makes you more like Jesus in thought, word and deed!

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In the original Greek manuscripts, the word is “ἐθελοθρησκία,” (pronounced: ethelothrēskia).
According Louw and Nida*, it means “a set of religious beliefs and practices resulting from one’s own desires and initiative—‘self-imposed religion, religion thought up by oneself.’ ἅτινά ἐστιν λόγον μὲν ἔχοντα σοφίας ἐν ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ ‘these (rules) appear to have an air of wisdom in the self-imposed religion’ Col 2:23.”

* Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition., Vol. 1, p. 532). New York: United Bible Societies.