It seems that Christians today want to throw out the term “religion” altogether. And for good reason. “Religion” in today’s world seems to imply “church,” “tradition,” or a person’s “faith.” It’s just a claim; an outward appearance, but nothing real. And so genuine believers want to stress that true Christianity involves a relationship with God Himself. “Jesus is a person, and you can know Him, and be redeemed by Him, and live for Him. It’s not just something you do. You can be religious and not have Christ.” It’s a valid concern.
But it’s interesting that the English translation of the Bible uses the term “religion.” The Greek word translated “religion” (threskeia) there in James 1:26-27 is also used in Acts 26:5 (Paul as a Pharisee) and Colossians 2:18 (worship of angels), both in a seemingly negative light. However, in James, we see a definition of worthless religion, as well as a definition of what religion ought to look like. So, using Bible terminology, it would seem that “religion” can be a good thing. And it is interesting to note that the term “relationship” appears nowhere in the English translation of the Bible.
Terminology is crucial. The Bible is basically saying, “Be religious, and make sure it looks like this” (see James 1:27). Nowhere in the Bible will you find the statement, “You need to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Yet, in 21st century America, cultures removed from Bible times, we realize that the idea of “religion” is often downright contrary to the gospel. And the term “relationship” becomes helpful to explain to people that what they need is salvation through the person of Jesus Christ and a new self continually being renewed after the image of its Creator (Col 3:1-10). Not a habit of going to church, saying prayers, and doing good things.
True religion is a matter of the heart. What we need is true religion. For purposes of clarification, perhaps Christians need to set aside the term “religion” and show the world that it’s more like a “relationship.” Or maybe, when the time is right, we can take them to James 1:26-27, define “religion” the way the Bible does, and show them that “true religion” is the kind of religion they need, because all other “religion” is worthless.
“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.”