James 1:26-27 says:
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 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).
Though I believe James is written to Christians whether Jews or Gentiles, it certainly uses Jewish language to portray its point. Thus, as we consider “religion” from a Jewish standpoint, these verses are somewhat shocking. They are iconoclastic, breaking down the molds and mindsets that Jews would have had. The words for “religion” and “religious” do not emphasize spirituality in general but the outward forms and ceremonies of worshipping God. Thus, these two verses make a startling contrast to what the common Jew would have thought.
To a Jew, religion in the sense of ceremony and outward forms would have consisted of traveling to the temple, offering sacrifices, keeping the Sabbath and the feasts, etc. If Christians carried that mindset into their religion, they would picture gathering for their assemblies, taking the Lord’s Supper, singing and praying. Imagine how shocking it was to learn pure and undefiled religion is not really about these kinds of ceremonies at all.
Pure and undefiled religion does not mean making sure to say our prayers or sing hymns. It means letting those prayers and hymns be worthwhile because the rest of the time we speak properly, letting our speech be good for building up and not for tearing down (Ephesians 4:29).
Pure and undefiled religion does not mean merely “going to church” or going into our private prayer closets to worship and praise God. It means getting our hands dirty in service to those who are in need. James highlighted the two groups God had always used as examples of the ultimate of good deeds—orphans and widows (cf. Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 14:29; 24:17; 26:12; Isaiah 1:17).
Pure and undefiled religion does not mean offering sacrifices to atone for sin, but keeping oneself unspotted from the world. Pure and undefiled religion is not about moments in time where we really worship God, it is about a life of service to Him, doing His will, serving His people and glorifying Him through our every action.
Yes, I recognize James was not trying to write a definitive thesis of the term “religion.” He wasn’t saying there are no real outward forms or ceremonies for Christianity. However, we must not miss his point because he spoke accommodatively. He really is saying without good words, good deeds and purity, none of the actual outward forms or ceremonies accomplish anything good. We don’t get to live how we want and then have a few ceremonies that make everything okay. Constant Christian service with good words, good deeds and good lives is the ceremony and outward form of religion God wants.