Over the years, I have visited many websites of ministries involved in orphan care or adoption. Time and time again, I have seen James 1:27 quoted as a foundational passage of God’s definition of true religion and call to care for orphaned and abandoned children. Regardless of the specific translation cited, the vast majority of cases render the verse as follows:
"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress." (James 1:27 NIV).
But is that really what James 1:27 says?
Let’s look at it again:
"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." (James 1:27 NIV, emphasis mine)
Why is God’s entire thought hardly ever presented? Why does it seem more convenient and supportive of the ‘ministry vision’ to hack off the second half of the verse, the very second half of God’s definition of "True Religion"?
Yes, I realize that Scripture wasn’t originally written with verse numbering and that that process was rather subjective, but that’s not what we are talking about here. This is a single thought that has been mutilated just to look better on orphan ministry websites and brochures.
A Pharisee once asked Jesus, "What is the greatest commandment?" What if Jesus’ reply was almost always condensed to "Love the Lord Your God with all your heart"? To miss the totality of that love and also not reference the second part of His answer, "and love your neighbor as yourself," would be a travesty, wouldn’t it? It would shortchange God and it would certainly shortchange us.
Scripture is not a series of sound bites, conveniently designed to be cut and pasted according to our goals and desires. Even if something appears to be ‘inconvenient’ it is still…truth.
It’s only fair to tell you that, as I write this, the World Orphans website has the shortened version of James 1:27 presented also. It’s an easy trap to fall into. We’re not blameless. We’re not ‘holier than thou.’ I just noticed it today and shuddered. It will be remedied by Monday.
To sever the second half of James 1:27 is to miss an important point, an important truth. The sad thing is that the second half of the verse is as equally supportive of orphan care as is the first. The first part of the statement can rarely be accomplished without adhering to the second half. They are part and parcel. They represent a unified whole.
I’ve seen the opposite scenario also, where the first half of the James 1:27 passage is the part that is omitted from our memory and understanding. If I were to ask most people, "Why was Sodom destroyed?" the common answers would invariably reference some form of the wickedness that occurred there.
But is that the only reason Sodom was destroyed?
Let’s take a look at what Ezekiel had to say about it:
"Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen." (Ezekiel 16:49-50 NIV)
Did you notice that the ‘detestable things’ were actually mentioned second? Did you also notice that this passage mentions the same two parts of the singular message presented in James 1:27 – care for the poor and needy (widows and orphans) and avoidance of pollution (detestable things)? They are written in the same order, but complete the exact same totality of thought.
Sodom was destroyed because it didn’t practice "True Religion." It didn’t care for the beggars, strangers, widows and orphans…and it didn’t keep itself unpolluted by the temptations and corruptions of the world.
I pray that the fullness of the significance of James 1:27 and the destruction of Sodom, serve as reminders of how our faith is to manifest itself. Our saving faith is to be lived out fully yielded to God…with serving hands and guarded minds.