When the word “religion” flows through the context of Biblical Christianity, it takes on radical meaning, scandalizing billions of egos without respect to age, sex, gender, class, or sexual orientation. Of all the world religions, it is the most maligned for intolerance and exclusivity. Yet it is not immediately apparent why this is so. Going by the Bible’s own definition of religion, it seems pretty tame, almost universally compatible.
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 1:27
So, the offensiveness, where does it come from? Universal compatibility begins to come into doubt when one considers the opposite meanings to various words and phrases above. Questions arise: “Are other religions impure and defiled?”; “Is there one God who determines the standard of purity for religion?”; “What is a world-stain, and what causes it?” I frame the first two questions as pretty much rhetorical, although I will revisit them below. The third question is most significant to look at first for a couple reasons. Biblical Christianity does not offend mainly because of its value judgments of other religions, therefore this question is contingent on the last. Second, having one God who sets the standard of purity isn’t that radical either: the party’s rules – or their abscence – are far more important. The crux of the offense is found in the filth, and more significantly, what cleans it up.
In Genesis 1:31 after God created the world, he pronounced it very good. So how could something very good make such ugly stains? Furthermore, the Bible not only describes the world as stain-producing, but also seems to have a bias against flesh.
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. ~ Romans 8:5-6
We suddenly have an ultimatum that involves punitive death. So what are we to think? Why would God create all flesh, along with the entire world, declare it all very good, then warn us against thinking about flesh and getting stained by the world – or else? Is this the one true religion? Is unseasoned boiled squash in, and fresh apple pie out? Or should only apple pie be allowed since that would be bad for the flesh? Behaving in accord with the one true religion just got miserably complicated. Things would appear much easier if we could just go back to helping old ladies and feeding hungry kids.
Unfortunately the stakes are higher than any human can contemplate. Here’s where the first part of James 1:21 matters. God does set the standard of right and wrong, and in his party there are limits. Whatever world-stained means, it must be wrong. It must be contrary to God’s law, contrary to his view of purity. Those of us who are Christians want to be on the right side. It’s an important part of our religion. James, though, hammers our death nell a few verses later in 2:10, stating that “…whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” The apostle Paul, continuing from where we left him in Romans 8, writes in verse 7, ” For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
So, according to James, are we left with the desperate predicament of being damned to Hell if we do one thing wrong? Considering Paul, is it even possible to submit to God’s law – to do even one thing right? From the context, the word “flesh,” at least, can be understood as selfishness, or self-seeking: God has a law and people would rather not follow it; they have their own standards. Therefore God can send us to Hell forever if we have one act of selfishness. A cursory moral inventory of my day condemns me instantly.
Hopefully now it becomes easier to understand “world” in reference to James 1:21. God’s standard of justice is so high, no one in the world attains it. Instead, people walk in the “flesh,” doing what is right in their own eyes.
None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. ~ Romans 3:10-12
Matters appear hopeless, but the journey of religion through Christianity is not complete. Its most well known verse points to its greatest intolerability:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. ~ John 3:16
While all other religions focus on what people can do to be good people, Biblical Christianity is based fundamentally on what God has done to save filthy people. We can’t climb the stairway to Heaven, and we can’t buy it either. Our goodness must be attained on God’s terms alone, but it is completely free and unearned. It is open. This brings up another word: Grace. Ironically, this concept is the real reason Christianity is so offensive, and so exclusive.