Religion is a word that we tend to toss about pretty casually. We study comparative religion, or may hear others say that they are spiritual but not religious, as if to be religious was a bad thing. We may even say that we follow some sort of dietary regimen religiously or that we watch some sort of television series religiously, to demonstrate the way that we have disciplined and ordered our lives around eating and entertainment principles. Some people will claim that Jesus Christ did not come to this earth to start a religion. And so it goes. All of these discussions express the way that we use religion today, sometimes in a distinctly non-“religious” fashion. But more important by far than our own use of the term religion is the way that the Bible uses it. And how does the Bible speak of religion?
Perhaps a bit surprisingly, the word religion only appears four times in the Greek New Testament. Each time religion is found in an English translation it is taken from the Greek word threskeia, which is a derivative of words meaning fear or trembling and crying aloud, and which is usually defined as involving religious discipline or external religious ceremony. The four times the Bible uses the term religion are interesting as well. Acts 26:5 says: “They knew me from the first, if they were willing to testify, that according to the strictest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.” This particular verse is interesting because Paul comments that he shared common religious disciplines with his Pharisaical opponents, specifically to the extent that both of them continued to follow the laws of God in common between genuine Christianity and Judaism. Paul himself uses the term again in Colossians 2:23: “These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.” Here we see Paul talking about the disciplines of asceticism as being useless against the pull of flesh, despite their popularity in certain mainstream “Christian” circles as far back as the desert fathers and their later imitators. James is responsible for the other two references to this term, and they form a contrast with each other in James 1:26-27: “If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
Let us take some time to see what James is referring to, because it does not bear a close religion to what most of us consider when we use the term religion. Instead, as is rather typical of James’ approach as a whole, when James speaks about religion he speaks about our personal habits as the outgrowth of our beliefs. True religion is related to practical behaviors that involve living a morally blameless life as well as showing a concern to vulnerable members of society in their trouble. Likewise, useless religion is related to impracticality in that it does not lead one to control their tongue. Since biblical religion is based on one’s patterns of behavior, and focuses on the practical effects of our beliefs on the way that we treat other people, religion that makes us feel righteous but does not lead to better conduct is useless. This is something that we have to ponder and reflect upon, to make sure that we are not wasting time thinking of ourselves as righteous or enlightened sort of people when we do not treat others kindly or with respect.
It should be noted as an aside that there is one additional use of the word religion in contemporary English-language Bibles. We find it in Acts 25:18-20: “When the accusers stood up, they brought no accusation against him of such things as I supposed, but had some questions against him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, whom Paul affirmed to be alive. And because I was uncertain of such questions, I asked whether he was willing to go to Jerusalem and there be judged concerning these matters.” The word used for religion here is δεισιδαιμονίας, and it refers to “superstition” rather than religious discipline. It is noteworthy as well that this word is said by a heathen Roman governor in Felix rather than, as is the case with the biblical word for religion, by godly religious leaders like Paul, Luke, and James. Frequently those who think of religion in terms of superficial matters are thinking more like heathen Romans than like heroes of biblical faith. Who should we be modeling our approach to religion on?