The "R" Word
Today the term "religion" has fallen out of favor with a significant part of the religious world. “I love God” many say proudly “but I want you to know that I am not religious.” How strange that some feel the need to say this. If we study our Bibles closely we will find that the word “religion” was utilized without shame by the writers of both the Old and New Testament. That means that there was and still is an important place for religion among believers. ”Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).
This means that Bible believers should never need to apologize for the claim that they are religious. Since James mentions something called “true religion” then there must be a false religion that exists too. But in order to determine which is which we need to understand the biblical definition of religion. Interestingly it is not made up of great feelings of zeal or passion by people who love to converse about spiritual topics. Thrace-ki'-ah (Greek for the word religion) simply means ceremonial observance. But just what ceremonial observance(s) becomes the question and thankfully the Bible itself will lead us to the answer.
But first let’s get a better understanding of this word in our English language. The etymological breakdown of the word is "re" which is to go over and "legre" which means the writings. So in essence, religion simply means to revisit the writings. But what writings should a religious man be revisiting is the question. Whatever writings James meant, these words led truly religious people to aid the Widow and the Fatherless. But beyond this, James gives us little information as to what else constitutes "true religion” other than it must be pure and undefiled.
But thankfully we can gain a wider definition of “religion through the new Testament's Hebrew counterpart. The Hebrew rendering of religion is “shaw-mar”. It means to stand guard over and preserve. Here is a verse that sets religion in its proper place among the scriptures. "Say to the Israelites, 'You must observe (religion/preserve) my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come” (Exodus 31:13). From this verse along with many others, religion is a habitual routine commanded by the Law of Moses. They are common sense habits which have been delivered to us for our own good. The following verse gives context to what James was getting at when he associated true religion with acts of relieving the fatherless and the widow. Moses wrote “When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied” (Deuteronomy 26:12).
Note that this third year of tithe is cyclic and according to James, qualifies as an integral part of religion. Those who place their faith in the Law of Moses should take care not to allow worldly pressure to influence their heart and marginalize the sacred words that the God of Israel spoke. Believers should shun practices and traditions which do not resonate with these words and passionately seek to fulfill, teach and defend the commandants found in the Torah. Moses, the most influential defender of the true faith, encapsulated the term religion in the following passage “Be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them” (Deuteronomy 4:9)