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Spiritual but Not Religious: True Religion in James 1

by Brant Pitre August 22, 2019 0 Comments


Have you ever heard anyone say that they are spiritual but not religious?  What does the Bible say about religion?  What makes one's religion true.  Dr. Brant Pitre looks at the end of James 1 in order to show what the Bible says about true religion.




And then finally, in the last part of this opening chapter, which is functioning almost like a kind of epitome of the whole book, he now gets on the importance of works. Works. This is what is says:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror [another analogy, right?]; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing. If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue [there it is again] but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

He just said a lot in a little. Let me make a few quick points here. Alright, first of all, if you go to your notes (the notes might help us get through this), he’s opening up here the theme of “faith and works”, which he’s going to return to at length. And he’s emphasizing the importance of the fact that it’s not going to be enough just to believe in the truth of Christianity, you’re going to have to live it. You’re going to have to be a doer of the word, not just a listener to the word but a doer of the word. He gives this example of a man in a mirror. Looking at himself, seeing what he looks like, but then once he turns away, what happens to the image? When you look at the mirror, it’s clear, it’s precise, it’s defined, but as you go away, what happens? It fades, right? And he says that’s not how the word should be with us. We need to look into the perfect law of liberty — and for him the law here is still the scriptures. We contemplate the scriptures, gaze into them in such a way that we are configured to them, transformed by them. We look into this perfect law of liberty and of freedom and begin to live it out in what we do.

And here he opens up something that’s very, very, very important. This is what I want to spend the rest of our time focusing on. This whole question of what is true religion? In James 1:26-27, he talks about the fact that some people think they have religion, but they don’t. And the Greek word he uses here for religion is thriskeía, which comes over into Latin as religio. Now on page 17, I gave a little excursus on this.

I want to read through this with you, because how many of have heard in our own day someone say they are “spiritual but not” what? Religious. Everyone’s nodding right now. “I’m spiritual but I’m not religious.” Now it’s fascinating to me that that would be the case because we have in the Bible, a positive description of the word religion. This is biblical (because James is in the bible). And yet, in popular Christianity, religion has come to have a bad name, as if it’s something we don’t want to be, right? We just want to be “spiritual”. Now, I think that’s very telling, so let’s look at what religion means here and see why that might be the case. So let’s put it in context. So I wrote a little excurses on page 17: Spiritual, But Not “Religious”?

The word “religion” (Greek thriskeía; Latin religio) occurs only four times in the entire New Testament. Once it is used to refer to the religion of Israel (Acts 26:5), once to refer to the (illicit) worship of angels (Col 2:18), and twice to the practice of the Christian faith (James 1:26-27).

So this is the only time in the New Testament that the word religion ever occurs with reference to Christianity. So this is important. It’s kind of unique, right?

What did the term word “religion” mean in the first century A.D.? And to what does it refer here in James?

If we look carefully at ancient parallels, we will discover that the Greek word for “religion” was used to refer to expressions of devotion to God (or the gods) primarily through acts of worship expressed in various cultic rites. The word could be used to describe worship…

So you express your devotion to God or to the gods (Judaism to God) through an act of worship, sacrifice, prayer, attending the synagogue. This would be what? Religion; thriskeía. It connotes outward acts of devotion, outward acts of worship.

The word could be used to describe worship in Judaism (Philo, Special Laws 1.315; Josephus, Antiquities 1.222; 12., 253, 271), paganism (Dionysius of Halicarnassus 2.23), and early Christianity (1 Clement 62:1; Letter to Diognetus 3:2). In light of these parallels, James seems to be criticizing Christians who engage in the liturgical acts of worship directed toward God but who neglect acts of charity directed toward love of neighbor, such as care for widows, orphans, and the poor (James 1:26-27).

In the late 20th century, it became popular to refer to “religion” as something negative—as an purely outward expression of obedience to a set of rules and regulations.

Now pause there. That’s what people mean. When they say “I’m spiritual but not religious”, they are talking about the fact that they don’t feel any compunction to have to participate in an organized, external, liturgical form of what? Worship. “It’s just me and my bible, it’s just me and Jesus.” It’s a reaction against the idea of an organized liturgical expression of worship so that when you say spiritual, it’s code word for non-liturgical and non-organized. Like people often say, “I don’t believe in organized religion.” And I always want to ask, “so do you believe in disorganized religion? What kind of religion do you want there?” But it’s expressing a sentiment that’s popular in secular society, too, where outward public acts of worship are what? They’re frowned on. “Keep your religion where?” You keep it to yourself. It’s personal, it’s an individual affair. In a secular context, you keep your religion private. You don’t bring it out into the public. So you can be spiritual, but you better not be religious. You see the public and outward has impact on society as a whole. I’m kind of fast forwarding to modern times, but I hope you can see that there’s a deep issue here that James is getting at that when we are talking about religion, we’re focusing on that outward expression. Now in James’ time, in the writing of this letter, the issue is slightly different. Liturgical acts of worship are viewed positively, and in fact some people take great pride in them. But what are they lacking according to James? The acts of charity. The love of neighbor.

In the late 20th century, it became popular to refer to “religion” as something negative—as an purely outward expression of obedience to a set of rules and regulations. Defined in this way, “faith” is often pitted against “religion,” with the former being defined as sincere, spiritual, and inward while the latter defined as insincere, earthly, and outward. In addition, it has become popular for some to refer to themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious.” To the extent that this self-description is meant to signify that one believes in the Christian God but does not engage in either cultic acts of worship (or acts of charity), it may well be accurate.

If you’re not worshiping God and you’re not engaging in any acts of charity, yeah, you could say you’re spiritual but not religious.

However—at least from the perspective of James—it is by no means a positive thing to be spiritual but not “religious.” Indeed, James assumes that “religion” includes both the worship of God and love of neighbor, otherwise, it is “worthless religion” (James 1:26).

So part of James’ concern then for his teaching on works and faith that we are going to look at it when we come back, has to do with the fact that he seems to be identifying a problem amongst his community. Namely that they’re engaging in outward expressions of worship but they’re failing in acts of charity. It’s going to lead straight into chapter 2 with his prejudice against the poor in his community, in these communities that he’s going to deal with.

Now, what’s interesting to me about this is that this tension that he’s identifying here, I think it’s still with us today. On the one hand, we can express our religion through worship in love of God. On the other hand, we can express it through acts of charity that will demonstrate our love of neighbor. And what is James doing here? He’s saying that true religion has to have what? Has to have both. That tension has been around since the 1st Century and it’s still around to this day. There are some people who will tend to reduce all of religion to what I do on Sunday (in the pew, in the liturgical context). Then there are other people who intend to reduce it all to charity. This is very popular in the modern world. What do people say? “I’m a good person. I don’t kill anybody. I give to charity,” Therefore what? “I should go to Heaven”, right? That’s the implication. “I’m good.”, “Why?”, “Because I love my neighbor.” Other people will say, “Well I go to mass. I’m very reverent. I say my prayers, but when I see the poor and I see the suffering, what do I do? Keep on walking by. Well I love God, that’s not enough?” No. James is saying you have to have both of these, otherwise it’s not true religion. It’s not true thriskeía.

And notice how he puts it up. He says true religion is to visit orphans and widows in there distress and to keep oneself what? Unstained by the world. And by that he means the sinful world. Once again, some people think they just abstain from evil, that’s sufficient. Think of the Pharisees here. What did Jesus critique them for? “You tied your mint, your dill, your cumin. You keep your law down to the littlest letter. But what do you neglect? Justice, mercy, charity.” You should’ve done all the things. You need to keep the law, but you should’ve also done these greater things, justice and mercy as well, right? So with the Pharisees, there’s always this temptation to legalism…like the Pharisees on the one hand, “I’ve dotted all my i’s, I’ve crossed all my t’s, I’m done.” On the other hand, you’ll sometimes find a tendency (I don’t know what we would call it here), it’s a kind of activism (yeah, that’s a good word) which says, “Well as long as I’ve done good things, that’s enough. I don’t need to worship God.” And James is saying, “No, no, no. They both go together: love of God, love of neighbor.” You can’t pick which tablet of the commandments you’re going to keep (in other words). You have to keep the ones that love God and you have to keep the ones that love neighbor. And when you put the two together, then you’re dealing with true religion, or religion that’s going to bear fruit. It’s not going to be worthless before God.”


Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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