This verse hit me pretty hard this morning: “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (James 1:26).
I have often said that gossip is the native tongue of the church, and what this means is that a large number of people who attend religious services Sunday morning need to be told that their “religion is worthless.” But what does that mean?
“Religion” translates θρησκεία, which occurs four times in the NT. Paul tells Agrippa that he “lived as a Pharisee according to the strictest party of our religious system (θρησκείας)” (Acts 26:5). He later tells the Colossians that they should “let no one rob you of your prize, insisting on self-abasement and the worship (θρησκείᾳ) of angels” (2:18). And in v 27, James provides the balance to v 26. “Religion (θρησκεία) that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their time of trouble, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
The commentaries basically say that θρησκεία refers to the outward forms of our faith, how our faith works itself out. Richardson comments, “One can seem to be religious, that is, rightly related to God, and yet in the most basic way be failing to be so.… Religion is the external, observable qualities of the life of faith in Christ” (page 99). Nystrom says it can refer to both the “inner and the outer forms of worship” (page 96). BDAG defines it as “expression of devotion to transcendent beings, esp. as it expresses itself in cultic rites, worship.”
The other important term is “worthless” (μάταιος). It occurs 6x in the New Testament. Christians have turned away from μάταιος to the living God (Acts 14:15). The reasonings of the wise are μάταιος (1 Cor 3:20). If Christ has not been raised, our faith is μάταιος (1 Cor 15:17). Titus is to stay away from quarrels about the law because they are harmful and μάταιος (Titus 3:9). We “were ransomed from the empty (ματαίας) way of life handed down from your ancestors” (1 Pet 1:18).
So what are we to do with all this? What hit me when I first read it was the question of whether perpetual and consistent gossip was a sign of a person who was not truly converted. After all, Paul says that neither “thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers (λοίδορος) nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:10). And what made me really stop and look was v 27: imitating the character of God by defending those who cannot defend themselves, and a basic call to sanctification, are core, I believe, to what it means to be saved. So is James talking about worthless in the sense of non-existent, non-salvific?
But this is where word studies really do help. θρησκεία apparently refers primarily to outward forms, of how a person behaves, what he or she does. Certainly, how we behave is an expression of who we are, but the emphasis here is on what we do. If this is right, then “worthless” means that gossips and slanderers may make a great show of religious behavior, but none of their general religiosity is of any significance. Their gossip invalidates everything else they do. Their outward show, their pretense of being religious (spiritual?), is worthless.
So gossips, hear this. You can go to church, sing loudly, give money, volunteer in the nursery, led a Bible study, wear your Christianity on your sleeve, be an elder — but no matter what you do, no matter what people think of you, it is all a sham, worthless. Your gossip invalidates everything you do. At least, that’s what the Bible teaches.
When I was working on my view of church discipline, one of the real questions is what offenses are worthy of discipline. I was thinking through the normal answers, but someone challenged me that I was too focused. “The question,” he asked, “is what sins are the most destructive of the church?” Gossip, in my mind, is number one. There is nothing that tears down and destroys faster. Not divorce, Not sexual misconduct. As I said, I believe gossip is the native tongue of the church. It rips and shreds. The church should be the safest place of all, and yet most have found that it is one of the most dangerous. It is a place where knowledge is used as a weapon to pummel and destroy. It is a place where unity is destroyed by the quick jab of the tongue.
Is it of no wonder, then, that the church has, as a whole, failed to show the world that God has sent Jesus (John 17:23)?