The word religion can have many meanings to different people. So then when discussing the concept of religion it is important to agree on what particular meaning a person is ascribing to it within the context of the particular discussion.
It is true that words have many flavors of meanings as evidenced by numerous entries in a dictionary. Moreover, the meaning of a word may change over time. Thus, the context in which a word is used largely determines its meaning. For example, consider the word Governor in Matthew 2:6 where it says “And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.” Certainly, the word Governor as used in Matthew 2:6 has a different connotation than that of the Governor of a State.
Some object to the use of the word religion in association with Christianity due to what they believe to be the etymology (origin) of the Latin word, religio, from which we get the English word religion. Some suggest the word religio means to bind; others suggest it means to study and transmit text; others suggest it mean to worship God or gods.
The truth is religion has properties of all three. Some see this binding as binding one to a set of rituals or ceremonies or laws,etc. But of course such binding is not necessarily a characteristic of a religion. Instead one could easily view this binding of one of creating a union. Does not the Christian religion define a union between God and the believer and between believers? Furthermore, is not Christianity concerned with studying the Bible and transmitting it to others? Moreover, is not Christianity concerned with worhipping God? In the final analysis, we are not sure of the original meaning of the Latin word religio. Moreover, it really does not matter. What matters is what we mean by the English word religion today!
The World Book Dictionary1 defines religion as (1) a belief in God or gods, (2) worship of God or gods, (3) a particular system of religious belief and worship: the Christian religion, the Moslem Religion, (4) anything done or followed with reverence.
Webster’s Dictionary2 defines religion as (1) the belief in a god or in a group of gods, (2) an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods, (3) an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group, (4) the service and worship of God or the supernatural, (5) a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices, and (6) a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.
The Harper’s Bible Dictionary3 distinguishes between religion in the Old Testament (O.T.) sense and religion in the New Testament (N.T.) sense.
With regards to the Old Testament it says:
“religion for O.T. study may best be thought of as a system embodying the means of attaining and expressing in conduct the values deemed characteristic of the ideal life, including concepts of belief in sacred rites, sacrifices and offerings.”
Yet, for both religion in the O.T. and N.T. sense it says:
“In Hebrew and Christian thought religion is man’s recognition of his relation to God and his expression of that relation in faith, worship, and conduct.”
So then Harper’s Dictionary points out that at its core the O. T. and N.T. religion ideal is/was the same although the expression and manifestation of it differs.
Thus, herein, religion refers to a set of generally common recognizable beliefs and worship practices regarding a god or gods, some of which may be distinct and others may be shared.
The word religion does not say that every person or group associated with a religion conforms to and accepts every such belief and practice generally associated with the particular religion.
Indeed, as Webster’s definition (5) indicates in its use of the word personal, in one sense the number of religions in the world is equal to the number of persons in the world; this is because religion is also an individualized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.
Yet, for reference purposes it is useful to group persons into a named religion based on common declared and/or observable characteristics. Thus, the concept of religion merely provides a convenient method of referencing and distinguishing one general group of persons from another group based on generally observable characteristics. This is no different than the use of the word bird to refer to a particular type of winged creatures.
So then when there is some significant distinction between groups such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam it is proper to refer to those groups as the Christian religion, Jews religion, or Islamic religion. Of course one may choose to use such terminology or not. But ones choice to not do so does not mean that another person’s choice to do so in invalid. Indeed sometimes I use the phrase Christian faith instead of Christian religion but they are interchangeable when I use them in such a sense.
So religion is about a god. If that god is the Christian God then the religion is a true religion; otherwise, it is false.
Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. — James 1:27
In James 1 undefiled means to be acceptable and unpolluted before God.
The phrase to visit the fatherless and widows is symbolic of visiting and contributing to relief of anyone in their time of distress. Its emphasis is on caring for children and women whose husbands have died. Paul also speaks to this aspect of the Christian faith in I Timothy 5:3-16. Here Paul says family members have first responsibility for taking care of widows. Only if family members are unable to take care of them should the church or government or anyone else be charged with that responsibility. It is for this reason that churches and governments should be extremely careful not to collect an over abundance of funds from individuals in the form of “tithes and offering” and taxes. It is also one reason that churches and governments should be wise and un-wasteful in how they employ collected funds. It is also one reason every church member and every citizen has a right to know and have a say in how collected funds are being expended.
To keep oneself unspotted means to keep oneself from being polluted or corrupted by the influence of the world with respect to ways opposed to the ways of God.
In Galatians, (Gal 1:13-14), Paul speaks of his earnest participation in the Jews’ religion; this participation took place prior to his conversion as denoted by the phrase “in time past”. Of course, Paul was saying he had learned that the Jews’ religion is insufficient and deficient.
James 1 speaks of the value of religion and provides foundational characteristics of good religion in contrast to bad religion. Both Paul and James acknowledge that none of us can escape the presence of religion in our world nor the need for religion in our world. The key is whether we will embrace and promulgate pure or impure religion.
The word Kingdom refers to the existence of a powerful authoritative King having servants/subjects and a set of expected relationship principles regarding King and servants and between servants. In God’s kingdom, servants are also friends of God (John 15:15). In Christianity, the Kingdom of God includes God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), angels, the church of Jesus Christ (born-again believers worldwide), and God’s Will, Word, and Way. Generally, the Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven are synonymous. Yet, in some contexts the phrase Kingdom of God/Heaven may be exclusive of some of the constituent elements listed above.
The concepts of Religion and Kingdom are both mentioned and exhorted in the Bible (Matthew 6:33, James 1:27, etc.). Therefore, they are complementary rather than contradictive. Kingdom is the greater in that it emphasizes the existence of the King and his servants whereas religion emphasizes the interaction of the King and his servants. Both religion and kingdom define individual and group behavior that is expected for God’s children and the kingdom’s citizens. Jesus and James were right to use the word kingdom & religion, respectively, and so are people today when done in a positive way.
There are many religions in the world. Pure religion defines a body of knowledge that by the Holy Spirit tells us how we are to relate to the one true God and to one another in faith and practice.
Necessarily, religion includes personal relationship and personal relationship includes religion; they complement rather than contradict. Both community and personal aspects to the Christian Faith exist. Religion says it is not just about me; but, it is also about us.
To God Be the Glory!
1World Book Dictionary, World Book, Inc., 1984
2Merriam-Webster Dictionary, www.i.word.com, February 19, 2015
3Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Harper and Row Publishers, 1973