Vol. 1 - No. 1
A Re-examination of James 1:27
by Jack Kirby
"Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world." (James 1:27, ASV)
This has been one of the most controversial passages among us for the last thirty years. The arguments about its meaning center on providing benevolent orphan homes, and specifically whether the passage "applies to churches or individuals. It is our opinion that we have completely missed the teaching of James, and have restricted the meaning to a lesser degree than the Spirit intended.
Let us define the terms of this passage:
"visit" To inspect, look upon, care for, exercise oversight. (Vines Exp. Dict.)
"fatherless" An orphan (Vines).
"affliction" Properly pressing, pressing together, pressure. In the Bible, oppression, tribulation, distress, straits. (Thayer, pg. 291). Vine says anything which burdens the Spirit. The verb form has reference to sufferings due to pressure of circumstances. The Kingdom Interlinear translation uses the word tribulation. A one-word synonym would be bereavement.
The subject of James 1:27 is the practice of pure and undefiled religion. This is seen in our relationship to widows and orphans who were experiencing afflictions or bereavement, and also in keeping ourselves pure.
Notice now some things not in the text:
“Home” For either the widow or orphan. Nothing is inferred that they had no home.
"Benevolence" Nothing is mentioned about a monetary or physical need of any kind. The widow and orphans could be very wealthy and many are. Many widows and orphans are financially independent.
"The church" Nothing is mentioned about the church nor collective action at all. The entire paragraph, beginning at verse 19, and even verse 27 itself, is concerning individual action.
"Poverty" From the definition (above) of "afflictions," nothing specifically refers to poverty nor financial needs.
Now what is taught in James 1:27? In looking at the definitions and applying these to our text, the passage could be paraphrased as follows: "The practice of pure and undefiled religion requires a person to look upon, inspect the condition of, and care for those who are bereaved at the loss of a husband and father; and in so doing do not allow yourself to become sexually involved with these." The New International Version reads, "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."
This is another teaching of that principle taught by Paul in Romans 12:15, "Rejoice with them that rejoice; weep with them that weep.
The greatest need of many widows and orphans is a kind, sympathetic word of encouragement at the time of their bereavement at the loss of the father and husband. Of course, if financial needs are evident, they are to be supplied; but, to present this passage as one on monetary matters only, is to profane the passage to a physical application instead of the deep spiritual meaning of the entire paragraph which begins at verse 19.
No, orphan homes, poverty-stricken widows and orphans, benevolence, and the church are not discussed by James in this passage. We must always understand the Bible in the context in which it was written.