Posted On October 23, 2018

Pure and Undefiled Religion

by | Oct 23, 2018 | series, Theology

James 1:27 comes in the context of wrapping up chapter one. While the existing chapter divisions should not dictate how we divide up Scripture, in this case (and many cases) they are probably appropriate. Chapter 2 begins to talk of favoring different groups of people and the danger of making distinctions among brothers in Christ. Certainly the same attitudes that begin chapter 2 would and should be applied to the care of orphans and widows in James’ view, but he is making a related point about personal favoritism at the beginning of chapter 2, not extending the same point in 1:27.

The more important context for 1:27 is the context that precedes it. James wants his readers to act. Throughout the epistle, he’s determined to press the point that Christianity is not a religion for the idle. There is a common misconception that this “right strawy epistle” is on one side of the coin and faith is on the other side. This is incorrect. In our analogy, faith IS the coin.  A lot of the Bible is devoted to rightly defining the system and doctrine of our faith (one side of the coin). James and others write about how that system and doctrine translates into real life (the other side of the coin). It’s not that what we do in real life is different from our faith, it is rather that real life is part and parcel of our faith. As he tells us “faith without works is useless” and “dead”; but note that he does not tell us that faith stands in contrast to works. Instead, just as trees should bear fruit, faith should bear works. Those trees that bear bad fruit or no fruit are useless and dead (Mat 3:10, Luk 3:9); so also is a faith that does not bear works.

But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. {Jas 1:22 NASB}Doers, not Hearers

This is why James tells us to prove ourselves as “doers of the word” (Jas 1:22) and gives us the promise of verse 25 (Jas 1:25). Doers of the word, not hearers only. This is the call of Scripture. In no place does James claim that what we do saves us or earns us merit before God. However, we’re not merely to peruse the Bible on a subject, align our thoughts with what it says, and leave it at that. God has a purpose in changing our mind. He wants us to change our lives too. It’s one thing to be convinced that we should be kind. It’s quite another to be kind. We should be convinced that marriage is between one man and one woman for life (with rare and extremely limited exceptions for separation). Since we are convinced, we ought to commit to the very difficult thing of staying with our wife or husband, no matter what trials and suffering may come as a result of it. James is the ultimate answer to easy-believeism. This epistle teaches that our faith will cost us. We learn from these pages that following Christ means serving God by serving others and giving of ourselves. James tells us that when what we believe becomes what we do, we have a living and useful faith.

Religion

James then succinctly gives us a prescription for some specifics to do with our living and useful faith; after a short warning not to undermine everything with an unbridled tongue (he writes extensively about the tongue throughout his epistle):

[27] Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of [our] God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, [and] to keep oneself unstained by the world. {Jas 1:27 NASB}

James calls this prescription “religion” in verse 27. That word would evoke strong imagery of visible religious ceremony. It’s not used often in Scripture, but Paul’s use in Col 2:18 (translated in NASB as “worship”) is a good baseline for the word. James is talking here about how we worship God – not just the changed mind of new belief as a new creation in Christ, but the changed heart, the changed actions, and the changed priorities. He’s saying Christians, with bridled tongues, worship their God by visiting orphans and widows in their distress and keeping themselves unstained by the world.

Since it is not the focus of this series, I’ll leave an exposition of “keep oneself unstained by the world” to better men, and I’ll leave the applications for widows to your own consideration. Similarly, I won’t speak much about widows here which the reader should not construe as a minimization of that important ministry. As a foster dad, whom God has impressed upon the need for ministry to foster kids, I will focus in on orphans.

Visit

James tells us to “visit” orphans. The single word in English is actually a phrase in Greek.  It has an interesting use in the New Testament. Most of the uses mean what you think of when you hear the word “visit”; calling on someone, an appointment, etc. What that doesn’t tell you is the purpose and overtones of such a visit. Two verses helps us to grasp a fuller meaning of the word. First, Acts 15:14 where our phrase is translated as “concerned… about”. In that sense, the word doesn’t mean to to call on someone, but rather to “to look after, have a care for, provide for” as Thayer’s puts it. Second is Hebrew 2:6 where the author is translating Psalm 8:4. The author chooses this word which is translated once again as “concerned”. In Psalm 8:4 the Hebrew word being translated means “mindful”.  We can start to sketch an orb of meaning for this word. It certainly carries a denotation of “paying a visit,” and has a connotation of mindfulness, concern, and caring. So, when James chooses this word to describe the church’s attitude toward orphans he most certainly means to pay a visit to them. Yet he’s not simply describing an appointment, but encouraging an attitude.

It’s the attitude of the connotation more than the prescription of the denotation that has application today. The reason for that is because the nature of orphan care has changed. In the first century, governments didn’t have a system to care for those left behind by their birth parents. Mostly, they were left on their own and James’ idea was to go to them. To an extent, we can apply those ideas but not in the same ways. Much more important is the idea of being mindful and looking after orphans. Doing those things, in whatever form they may take in a particular context, is true religion before God.

But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. ... Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of [our] God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, [and] to keep oneself unstained by the world. {Jas 1:22, 27 NASB}

Orphans

Who are orphans? The word used in James 1:27 is straight forward, as is its only other use in John 14:18. It means what you think it means: those without parents. The more important question is: “Which children meet that criteria today?” Clearly those whose parents have died meet the definition. But foster children tend to be those who have been removed by the their parents, and often against the parents wishes. Yet, the simple existence of person who is biologically responsible for the child and desires to care for the child does not a parent make.

The common belief that children are removed from good people at the drop of a hat for ridiculous reasons is largely a myth. The truth is foster children often suffer some of the worst things a child or any person can suffer. They suffer abuse of every kind and unthinkable neglect. Those children endure exposure to drug abuse and drug dealing. Many have been intentionally placed in the proximity of awful people; people with all sorts of nefarious intent including human trafficking. Many of these things are faced down by children who are behind in potty training, stealing food to eat, taking care of their younger siblings on their own, and navigating life not only without a childhood but also without security and basic needs. These children may have biological parents, but they don’t have mothers and fathers. They may have people who fancy themselves or for their own reasons desire to be caretakers, but they are not being cared for. If ever in the history of the planet there are qualified as “orphans,” it is these!

Find Your Role

I will be the first to confess that not every Christian family is cut out to be foster parents. Some are simply struggling to get by as it is. Some are stretched thin in ministering in other ways, and others are in need of being ministered to themselves. Yet, the call and mandate is clear from Scripture: worshiping our God purely and rightfully means, at least in part, caring for orphans; and in the modern concept there are few better ways to do this than through fostering and adoption. The church must have a larger role in this field. Not all Christians should be foster parents, but many more should be than already are.

Churches in the west are soft. Far too many are much more concerned with esoteric and academic ideas than the very results we are to strive to achieve because of those ideas. I call on the church: Worship your God in purity, without defilement! Care for orphans directly by welcoming foster children into your home. If you are unable to do that, then support and encourage foster parents. Such work loves your neighbor. It makes you a doer of the word, and not just a hearer. This mimics your holy God, and it is truly pure and undefiled worship of the Father to the fatherless, who did not leave us as orphans.

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2 Comments

  1. Michael Coughlin

    Jason – I’ve heard people use such a strict definition for orphan that ONLY a child with two dead parents would qualify, so I appreciate you bringing that up. A few questions:

    1. Do you consider infants in the womb whose mothers are heading into an abortion clinic to be orphans? I have heard abortion folks use Jas 1:27 to encourage people to abortion ministry and be argued against based on the term “orphan.”

    2. What about a child who has one parent die? Are they an orphan to be “visited” per Jas 1:27?

    3. If I coach basketball just because my son plays, and a kid on the team has no parents, can I say I fulfilled pure and undefiled religion because I helped an orphan, or do you think it is more intentional than that? (Note: I tend to think it needs to be more intentional than that, just wanted to see the way you’d explain that).

    • Jason Marianna

      Thanks for the questions.

      1) Yes, I think that’s a fair interpretation but I don’t think that all of pro-life ministry fits the criteria James lays out here. Surely some of it does, but much of pro-life ministry is spent doing things that don’t actually involve caring for orphans even if they may be related or they may be worthwhile things. It’s one thing to write a pro-life article, it’s another to actually be involved in work with children in danger of being aborted. Similarly, it’s one thing for me to write this article but quote another to actually be a foster parent. There’s room for grace, and room for support roles in both areas, but there comes a place where what you’re doing is merely related to caring for orphans, not ACTUALLY caring for orphans.

      2) In the strictest sense, no. But in a practical sense, they’re a lot closer than those children who have two parents. The church must find ways to care for those kinds of children too, and there are other scriptures that come to mind which would more than sufficiently cover such a situation. If a believer concluded differently and wished to include such kids in the definition, I wouldn’t object. But having studied the word and understood the denotation and biblical connotation, I can’t conclude they technically belong in the category. Excellent question!

      3) I agree it needs to be more intentional than that. You probably would have coached that kid even if they had parents and you’re treating that kid no differently than those who have parents AND with the goal in mind of coaching rather than “visiting”. I will say that opportunities such as coaching and teaching shouldn’t be underestimated by the Christian as a means to be used by God to reach others, including orphans. I would also exhort those who teach/coach/whatever to look for opportunities to have a larger relationship and to care for orphans.