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).
I admit that for most of my adult life, I’d paraphrase the first half of this scripture and leave the second half out. As we discussed it yesterday in Sunday School, however, I realized the problems such an approach causes: One can visit the fatherless and widows and relieve their suffering without a church.
Is that what James really means?
We developed a list of things “religion” is – primarily a system of belief or faith. Our instructor moved on before it occurred to me that religion is also the performance of ordinances.
The key is in the second half of the verse: keeping oneself unspotted from the world. The simple answer is that we should keep the commandments to keep ourselves unspotted. And yet we all sin. We all have need of repentance. And we all have need of the sacrament as part of that process of ritualized cleansing.
Without the church, without the priesthood, there is no sacrament. Nor are there other saving ordinances of the gospel. And without those, we cannot be unspotted from the world. Indeed, having the church and the temple as an occasional place of refuge is a great blessing in the second half of Peter’s description of pure religion. And, if we heed prophetic counsel, it can also be an enabler in the first half.