Ottawa’s paper has recently published an ongoing debate on the religion page as well as in their letters section by “free thinkers”–atheists–and what they consider to be the folly of belief. They naturally equate belief with organized religion, and find fault with every religion specifically and with religion as a concept. What they don’t realize is that unbelief is the biggest religion of all, and that all of the world’s traditional belief systems are merely sects of the Universal Temple of Unbelief.

(From Carta del norte, 5 December 2008)  –  As we minister in a radically pluralistic setting, I have been thinking about boning up on world religions (I am doing some reading on Islam and forget a lot of what I learned about Hinduism, Shintoism, etc.) and am struck with one of the few mentions of that word in the NT. James 1.26 and 27 read,

“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.”

James is addressing people who think of themselves as religious (like many in our churches) and points out that true religion has at least three components. The first is VERBAL (controlling the tongue, because “out of the mouth the heart speaks”); the second is SOCIAL (meeting the needs of the needy) and the third is MORAL (keeping oneself unstained from the world).

The missiologists would likely view the social component as “incarnational ministry”. While I do not oppose an incarnational approach to ministry (it will constitute a major element of the Borealis Project), I am convinced that it must be a means to an end, not an end in itself. At the risk of sounding too much like Mark Driscoll (who, though he is a pillar of the emerging church movement, has some uncannily accurate insights into North American churches) I might suggest that the theological Liberals of the 20th Century slew the third component of pure religion on the altar of the second, and many Fundamentalists did the reverse.

Striking a balance between the second two elements can be difficult. Paul says we are to “speak the truth in love,’ which encapsulates some of James’ teaching. The moral element involves the “renewing of the mind” so that one’s thinking—worldview, perspective, choice of counsel (Psa 1.1), etc.—are unsoiled by the kosmos. Sadly, we have abandoned this “pure religion” to a large extent in our churches, even with regard to public worship, means of expression, methods of teaching and discipleship, and hermeneutics.


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