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. – James 1:27
I’m not a fan of sayings such as: “Jesus hates religion.” or “It’s a relationship and not a religion.” I know when we say things like that we mean legalism (the idea that obeying the Law saves us), that going to church and traditions save us and make us a Christian, or the “I’m better than you” attitude. Those things are bad, and Jesus doesn’t like them. He was constantly battling them with the religious leaders during His time on Earth and with people who believed in that way.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines religion as: 1. “The belief in a God or gods.” 2. “An organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.” 3. “An interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.” (online version). While that is a good summation of what religion is, there is no true definition of religion. It is more of a litmus test because no one religion looks alike. If a majority of these things describe you or your religion, then it is classified as religion. The worship of a god(s)/God, ceremonies, rules, and traditions are few qualities on the spectrum that qualifies a religion.
Christianity passes this litmus test as a religion. Christianity 1) believes and worships God, 2) has an organized system of beliefs (i.e., doctrine and teachings), and 3) performs certain ceremonies (e.g., baptism, the Lord’s Supper).
Religiosity and anti-Gospel is what we should stand against with Jesus, but to make the false dichotomy of “it’s a relationship not religion” creates an unfounded distinction. Why can’t our religion be based upon a loving relationship with our Lord?
Let’s take a look at a few other religions to see how Christianity differs. Judaism essentially believes that the Law is their salvation. If we obey the Law that the Lord God, Yahweh, gave us through Moses, then the Lord God will bless us and save us. It is based in rules instead of a relationship with our God. That is why when Jesus came out of God’s love for His creation that many of them missed the point. They missed out on God’s love and desire for us because they were so focused on their rules. Hebrews 10:5-7 says,
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’”
God does not desire a simple obeying of rules. He desires all of us. Jesus tells us, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). God desires a relationship with us.
Islam comes along after Christ’s time and says that the Jews and Christians got it all wrong. Allah/God speaks to his prophet Muhammad to rewrite scriptures declaring this new truth. Allah would speak to Muhammad, Muhammad would repeat these things to his disciples, and they would write it down creating the Koran. While our scriptures were written by about 40 men by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit over the span of about 1500 years, the Koran was written by one man in just a few years. Our Lord is intimately involved with His creation and people, but we don’t quite see that with Allah. There is a great separation and fear involved with Allah and Muslims. They fear that if they mess up or disrespect Allah in anyway, then they will be destroyed. God the Father shows His love, mercy, and grace to us continually through scriptures, and it culminated in the coming and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Through Him we fear no retribution or punishment, because He paid the ultimate price for our sins redeeming us and making us whole again once and for all (Hebrews 10:10).
Hinduism has so many gods that nobody knows who to worship. You cannot even count how many gods exist in the Hindu religion on your own fingers and toes even with the help of your neighbor. It’s mass confusion. Therefore, they say that all gods are an incarnation of Krishna or another major god, and all paths lead to tranquility. Yet, God tells us through Moses, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). He removes any confusion of who to worship by declaring that there is only one God and He alone deserves our worship.
Buddhism says that we are all drops in the vast ocean. So, our identities and who we are don’t matter? Paul teaches us that our identity in Christ is of great value (Galatians 2:20).
The Greek gods did whatever they pleased with mankind. They used man for their joy at the pain of man, and they killed man if he displeased them. We see God destroying nations for His people. In 1 Samuel 15, God tells Saul to destroy the Amalekites. Previously, in Israelite history, the Amalekites were one of the people that tried to prevent them from fulfilling God’s promise to them. Therefore, God was going to enact justice on those that harmed His people, His children. Instead of mistreating His people, God fights for them.
We see time and time again God’s love for us and a desire for an intimate relationship with us. Michael Reeves describes God’s love as overflowing (Delighting in the Trinity, 43). God the Father’s love for the Son overflowed greatly that He desired to create man to share in this love. Our religion and faith is founded on a relationship with and love for our God and Lord because He first loved us and desired a relationship with us.
James defines this religion in this way: “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.” (James 1:27). This should remind us of what Jesus said to the Pharisees trying to test and trip Him up:
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And [Jesus] said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God and the second is to love people. When we take a look at the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20), we see that the first four commandments tell us how to love God and the remaining six commandments tell us how to love people. Our religion that is founded in love and a relationship commands us, drives us to love God and to love people.
We love God by obeying His commandments. James says “to keep oneself unstained from the world”. James has spent some time describing some of the things that stain us with the world, and he’ll continue to do so after this verse. He tells us to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger because anger does not lead us into the righteousness of God (1:19-20). He then tells us to receive the Word of God and to do what it says (1:21-22). These are some of the things that can stain us, but receiving and obeying the Word of God will help us to stay unstained.
If you study ancient culture and religion, then you will see how different God’s commandments are compared to the surrounding Canaanite religions. There’s a story about a king who feels as if he’s being punished by the gods for something he did, but he does not know which god he sinned against. Therefore, he spends hours praying to all the gods and goddesses he knows trying to cover any possible wrong and penitence he can. God clearly laid out guidelines for what He considers evil and how to make proper penitence. Out of His love and grace for His people, God gave us a clear plan on how to be separate from the world and to live in His righteousness. If we love God, then we will obey His Word.
James lived in poor Palestine where they lived in houses made from dirt, where the water was too unclean to drink, and most people had a hard time providing meals. He saw people showing favoritism to climb the social ladder while others suffered. Orphans and widows were especially left in the dust to die. In Jewish culture, if a man and husband died, then it was the duty of his brothers to take care of his family. Many would fail in their duty because they couldn’t afford to take care of someone else’s family or out of pure disobedience. James could not stand for this injustice of not taking care of the poor.
In Acts 6, we see the Hellenists, Greek converts, complain against the Hebrews because their women were being neglected in the daily distribution. Previously, in Acts 4, we see everyone selling everything they had to take care of each other, but then this happens. So, the Apostles appoint seven men to serve and make sure everyone is treated fairly and taken care of. We cannot love people if we neglect them.
When we love someone, we will serve them. We serve people by putting their needs above our own. Service is not just about doing something we like or enjoy. Some of us enjoy doing yard work or getting our hands dirty. Some of us love holding babies, feeding them, and changing them. Some of us enjoy talking to people and meeting new people. Just as the body has different parts and uses to function as a whole, the church has different parts for it to function. The philosopher Aristotle is attributed to have said, “Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation”. So, in other words, where the needs of people and our talents cross, that is where we can and need to serve. But sometimes service goes above and beyond our abilities and desires. Serving and loving people is about being selfless. If everybody loves and serves in this way, then everyone’s needs will be met.
Just as God the Father’s love for the Son overflowed into creation, our love and service in the church should overflow into the community. If we’re not making a difference in our community, then there is no point in us meeting every week. If we are not loving God and loving people, then you’re right that it’s not a religion. That’s how James inspired by the Holy Spirit defines religion in the Word of God, and we are wasting our time if that’s the case. If we are to be the church, then we need to be loving God and loving people because our religion is founded in love.
 These summaries are extremely short explanations to compare with Christianity. They are not intended to misrepresent these religions at all. They are based upon my understanding of them from studying them.