Introduction: In this passage we’re going to learn some ways to avoid playing church. We’re going to consider a plan for our church so that we won’t be a congregation that simply plays church. At the same time, we’ll consider some indicators to watch for in our own lives that may be indicative of playing church.
James 1:26-27 says, “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
In the two verses we’re going to look at this morning, James points out three things we should do to avoid playing church. We need to be people who have control of our tongues. We need to be people who willingly care for the less fortunate. And we need to be people who clean up our acts whenever the need arises.
But before we get into the text, it’s critical that each and every one of us understand that what James teaches us in these verses are both meaningless and worthless unless we first have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Without that critical, mandatory, unambiguous factor being real in our lives, then there is no way to avoid playing church.
Now, having established the first and foremost condition for avoiding a lack of genuineness in our faith, let’s look at some things we, as believers, should do both individually and corporately as a body, to avoid playing church.
The Kind of Person James is Talking About
What James says in verse 26 and 27 is well placed, coming on the heels of James’ teaching about hearers of the Word who delude themselves. Just as James made a contrast between hearers and doers, in verses 19-25, in our verses for today he makes the contrast between people who practice their religion out of habit or tradition and people who practice their religion in such a way that it has an internal, lasting affect on their lives and the lives of the people around them.
The adjective “religious” comes from the Greek word threskos and is found nowhere else in the New Testament. We see the noun form of the word at the end of verse 26. Although the word “religious” can refer to internal convictions, more often than not, in other Greek literature, it is used to describe the outward visible practices of one’s religion. It’s a word that can be used in both a positive and a negative sense. Again, there is good and bad religion.
James begins verse 26 with what’s known as a first class conditional statement—“If anyone thinks himself to be religious.” The wording here is such that James is assuming that there are people within the body of Christ who are like this. The fact that James uses the word “anyone” tells us that he is not pointing out a particular person, congregation, or group within a particular congregation. We know that he is speaking to Christians. But beyond that, we can only surmise that there are people who seem religious in every congregation.
James talks about the person thinking himself to be religious. The Greek word, rightly translated as “thinks” in verse 26, can also be translated as “seems.” I think the idea James is trying to get across here is that not only does the type of person he is referring to consider himself to be religious, but this type of person is probably perceived to be religious by people in both the Christian and secular communities.
What we’re going to see James do in the remainder of verse 26 is make the argument that the person who thinks themselves to be religious, yet behaves in the way he is about to describe, is fooling himself about his spiritual condition and just playing church.
Control Your Tongue
The next phrase in verse 26 gives us a good indication that the person whom he is talking about has a religion that is not all it’s cracked up to be. James tells us that if a person seems to be religious to those around him, and he subjectively considers himself to be a religious person, it may all be a façade if he doesn’t have control of his tongue.
Who we really are can often be determined by what we say. Our speech will do more to make or break our reputations than just about any other character trait. More types of sin can likely be attributed to the tongue than any other part of the body.
Having control of our tongues is not only critical to our own spiritual health, but it is also critical to the health of our church. The fact that the apostle Paul, in his instruction to Timothy and Titus regarding the selection of church leaders, made a point of included qualities such as temperate, not quarrelsome, and not double-tongued as being important traits of the men who were to lead the new churches around the world, shows how important the issue is.
In referring to the need for controlling the tongue, James uses the very descriptive word “bridle.” Do we have any horse people here? Well, when we think of a bridle, we more than likely think of the apparatus used to control a horse, which is comprised of a headstall, bit, and reins. Since James uses a similar illustration in chapter three, this is likely the kind of bridle he is referring to here.
The fact that James doesn’t give us specific areas in which we should control our tongue, we can conclude that he is telling us that we should control our tongues in every form of speech. Areas in which we should be controlling out speech include sarcasm, anger, slander, bitterness, and boasting. There are many others.
But since we don’t have the time to look at every form of speech, I want us to focus on what I think is a form of speech that is pertinent to the life and health of our church. This particular form of speech is one of the most devastating and insidious forms of speech in any environment, especially the church—gossip.
Proverbs 20:19 says, “He that goeth about as a talebearer revealeth secrets: therefore meddle not with him that flattereth with his lips.”
And in Proverbs 13:3 we read, “He that keepeth his mouth keepeth his life: but he that openeth wide his lips shall have destruction.”
People gossip for many reasons. Probably the most common and, at the same time, least often admitted to, is the need to feel important. Information is a very powerful thing. The possession of information, especially information that is unknown to others, can be an intoxicating thing. The only way for anyone to know how powerful or important you are because of the information you possess is to tell someone about it.
Sometimes an insatiable need to gossip can disguise itself as something more positive—like prayer. Have you ever heard or ever said the following: “I’m only telling you this so you can pray.” When a person shares a personal prayer request with you, you are automatically placed in a position of influence with a significant amount of responsibility.
Sometimes we can get so caught up in the moment, we can be so taken aback by some of the information we receive, that we find ourselves running off at the mouth before we realize we’re doing it. Anytime we receive information from or about another person, we should take as much time as we need to think about the consequences for repeating the information we’ve received.
T—Is it true? H—Is it helpful? I—Is it inspiring? N—Is it necessary? K—Is it kind?”
“If what I am about to say does not pass those tests, I will keep my mouth shut! And it worked”
But what if you’re the one on the receiving end of what appears to be gossip? What should you do? Well, there are several simple questions you can ask yourself to determine whether or not the conversation you are involved in is healthy or gossip. Ask yourself, “Does the third party know we are having this conversation? Why is this person sharing this information about someone else with me? Is the third party being built up or torn down? Who can this conversation hurt? Is this conversation tempting me to gossip?”
It’s an incredibly uncomfortable feeling to be in the middle of a gossip conversation. It can be so uncomfortable that we find ourselves smiling nervously and not saying anything, as if our silence means we are not participating in the gossip. Yet not saying anything, not stopping the conversation before damage is done, is no less detrimental to your spiritual health and the health of the church than if you were the one spreading the gossip.
If you find yourself heading into a gossip conversation, lovingly ask the other person if they have taken up the issue with the person they are talking about. If they haven’t, then politely tell them that you can’t be involved in the conversation. It might be helpful to keep Matthew 18:15 in mind if you ever find yourself in this kind of situation. “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private (emphasis mine); if he listens to you, you have won your brother.”
The verse doesn’t say, “go and tell the world about your brother’s sin.” It doesn’t say, “go and tell only your closest friends and ask them to pray.” No. If you have an issue with a person, anything that could cause you to speak negatively about that person, then you are obligated to go to that person first and work it out.
I know we’ve spent a lot of time on this, but I think it’s vitally important that we are all very clear about how dangerous gossip can be to friendships and the fellowship of the church. It’s so important, as some of you will find out in our upcoming membership class that part of our membership covenant is a commitment not to engage in gossip.
Before moving on to describe what pure and authentic religion is, James adds one more powerful caveat to emphasize his point about controlling the tongue. If a man cannot control his speech then his “religion is worthless.”
The word “worthless” comes from the Greek word mataios. James doesn’t use the word in the sense that he is speaking about a believer whose faith is shallow or immature. He is making the assertion that a person who cannot control their tongue is a person whose faith is an exercise in futility. It is utterly meaningless.
If we want to avoid fooling ourselves about our religion, if we want to avoid playing church, then we must come to the realization that our words, probably more than anything else, reveal our character. Jesus speaks some very powerful words to the Pharisees regarding this issue. Remember, the Pharisees were the religious leaders of the day who were fooling themselves about their spiritual condition. Listen to what the Lord said.
“Matthew 12:33-37 (KJV)
33 Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit. 34 O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. 35 A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. 36 But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. 37 For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.
Who Determines the Purity of Our Religion?
Having very clearly defined what pure religion is not, James moves on to lay out a very simple model for authentic church life in verse 27. James sets up the answer to the question, “How can I avoid playing church,” when he says, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this.”
The words “pure” and “undefiled” are synonymous terms. Purity, as James speaks of it here, carries with it the idea of moral cleanliness. James uses the word “undefiled” in the sense that authentic, genuine religion is free from any form of contamination.
What we should catch from this first phrase in verse 27 is who makes the determination whether or not a person’s religion is morally clean and uncontaminated. It is our God and Father. Man does not determine the purity of his spiritual condition. God does.
Yes, God’s Word is clear that, as believers, we are to submit to the authority of the church, which is the leadership of the body of Christ; and to the government God has placed over us. But that submission to men has absolutely nothing to do with a person’s salvation. A person is saved by faith alone in Christ alone. Man is not saved by faith in Christ and the approval of man. Going to a cathedral, mosque, temple, ward, or the clubhouse will not save you.
Care For The Less Fortunate
One indicator of a genuine, personal faith in Christ, and a mark of a congregation that is not just playing church, is the extent to which the less fortunate are cared for. James expressed this idea when he wrote, “to visit orphans and widows in their distress.”
The NASB translates the Greek word as “visit.” Although this is a literal translation of the word, it could be misunderstood to mean casually dropping by to see someone. That’s not the spirit in which James is using the word. The NIV comes closer to James’ intent. The NIV translates the word as “to look after.”
James specifies two classes of people who needed extra care —orphans and widows. In the ancient world, these two groups represented the poorest of the poorer and the people who were most likely to be cast aside by society. James is telling his readers that they were to imitate the model that God Himself has set for them. David describes God this way. “A father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows, is God in His holy habitation” (Psalm 68:5).
But James writes this sentence in such a way that his readers were not to limit their benevolence to only widows and orphans. You see, had James wanted his readers to only think of the people he was mentioning, he would have written, “to visit the orphans and the widows.” The point James is making is that if we should be caring for people with the greatest of needs, we should also be caring for the needs of others who are distressed on every level, at every opportunity.
The Greek word for “distress” means the stress that comes with the intense pressure of life, whether it is as a result of illness or circumstances. To truly meet the needs of the less fortunate, which can be anyone of us at any time, we need to meet them while they’re in distress.
Sometimes it is difficult to do that. Sometimes we tend to shy away from the less fortunate as if their misfortune may rub off on us. Sometimes we distance ourselves from those in need because we don’t want to be forced to look at our own pressing needs, or we consider our own needs to important to put those less fortunate first. Regardless of whatever hang-ups we may have about serving those in need, if our hearts don’t break for them to the point that we extend to them more than just a smile and a kind word, we are just playing church.
Now granted, all of us won’t be called to go into impoverished areas, in distant lands, to serve the less fortunate. But we can participate in these ministries in tangible ways through prayerful, logistical, and financial support.
Clean Up Our Acts
Finally, James exhorts his readers, and each of us, “to keep [ourselves] unstained by the world.” We need to be mindful to clean up our acts whenever the need arises. Throughout the rest of his letter, James will give us practical examples of how we can do this in our own lives. In verse 27, James is making a very specific call to personal purity. The NIV translates the word “unstained” as “unpolluted.” In effect, what James is calling for is a balance between being in the world in order to serve, and avoiding becoming one with the world and the pollution it contains.
“To keep” is in the present tense. This means James is calling his readers to regular, continuous action. We are constantly bombarded with images from television, radio, books, even the religious section of the local paper depending on who’s writing that day, with ideas and principles that are contrary to the Word of God. James is calling his readers to “apply [the Word of God to their lives] without moral or spiritual compromise”
James’ wording tells us that there can be no exceptions to this rule. Regardless of the sin issue in your life, or the causes of that sin, or the explanations you can give yourself for remaining in that sin, if you want to avoid playing church you must remain unstained by the world. That is not to say that you must be perfect. You will here me say that often. But if you claim to have an authentic Christian faith, yet you have no desire to remain pure according to God’s standards, then whom are you ultimately fooling? You’re certainly not fooling God.
As we close this first chapter of James’ letter, we’re brought full circle back to the mirror. We’re brought back to the idea of taking a good, long look into the mirror and seeing what type of people we actually are. There will be times when we look in that mirror and find the stains of a polluted world on our faces—stains we put there ourselves. You may have seen that image in the mirror some time ago. If you look today, you may see it.
The practical and relevant question is this. “What will you do when you see the stains of the world as you gaze into the mirror? Will you walk away and forget about it? Will you keep it in mind only long enough to rationalize it away? Or will you abide in the Word of God to the point that you are brought to repentance and obedience to what the Word says? I can’t answer that one for you. Only the person in the mirror can.
One of our core values here at St. Matthew is to raise up a body of believers that yearns to be holy. We want to be a church where each and every person seeks to cultivate personal holiness in their lives through consistent personal worship, Bible study, and prayer, which will equip each of us to make godly decisions every day.
This yearning to be holy is not what makes us Christians. We should yearn to be holy because we are Christians. This yearning to be holy, to be more like Jesus in every aspect of our lives, whether it be in our speech, our care for others, or balancing the need to remain unstained by a world we are all called to reach for Christ, will help us to avoid playing church and give us confidence about our spiritual condition because of who we are in Christ