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. Jas 1:27
It has become fashionable in recent years for evangelicals to say bad things about “religion”, about how Jesus came to save us from “religion” and that “religion sucks”. Whilst I understand the sentiment, I have always felt slightly uneasy with this way of speaking precisely because of this verse. James is not against religion per se, but he does recognise that there is good religion and bad religion.
There is a particularly neat balance to James’s brief description of pure religion. It is described positively (what we must do) and negatively (what we must avoid).
First, pure religion is expressed in social action on behalf of the needy. It is interesting that instead of suggesting financial donations to orphans and widows (which I am sure James would heartily have approved of), he suggests we get personally involved and visit them (other versions have “look after”, or “care for”, with the implication being that more than simply talking to them is in mind – see Jas 2:15-16). In other words, we are to take the initiative in personally helping the most needy and vulnerable in our society.
Second, pure religion is expressed in personal holiness. Whilst the first requirement he sets out rules out the option of retreating from the world, nevertheless James is aware that it is possible for a believer to become “stained”, through picking up the ungodly habits and attitudes of the world.
When I was researching the “emerging church” several years back, I noticed that one difference between emerging and more traditional evangelicals was how they conceived of holiness. Emergents saw it primarily in terms of social action. A holy person is one who cares for the poor, and they tend to be less concerned about that person’s swearing, smoking or sexual activity. By contrast conservative evangelicals tend to view holiness much more in terms of sin avoidance. Thus you can be considered “holy” by avoiding a long list of sins, but without ever lifting a finger to serve the needy.
James’ balanced definition of pure religion is therefore one worth pondering right across the spectrum of evangelicalism. If “religion” has a bad name, it is at least in part, our fault. The problem is not that the church has too much religion, but that it does not have true religion.