Cape Coral, Florida
The inspired writer of the book of James tells us that our religion can be vain (Jas. 1:26). When religion becomes vain it is a faith that has lost its real value, its substance, and importance. It is empty, void and worthless. It has become a religion that is a sham, a pretension where one's faith is not demonstrated with evidences of true faithfulness (Jas. 2:19-24, religion and faith are used in this context as that which is subjective, i.e., one's piety or holiness).
But when is religion vain? The answer to this is so very important to the true believer who wants to practice pure religion. It would be a terrible thing to learn in the end of this world that our religion was vain and worthless. By some it is feared even now, in the eighties, that most professing believers lead lives that are mere pretensions. The love of display, the love of the spectacular is growing among professed members of the body of Christ. There is a prevalent attitude that opposes all preaching except totally positive preaching. In fact, some are asking, "Is there a place for the negative in our preaching and teaching?" The Bible teaches that it is important that we preach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). This involves both the negative and the positive. Timothy was commanded to "reprove, rebuke, exhort," but some today would have him only exhorting (2 Tim. 4:1-2). Surely we must emphasize what is right, but we have to condemn that which is wrong, too. Is it possible to stand for truth and not stand against sin at the same time? Certainly not! Sound doctrine is indispensable to pure religion. But it should be understood that just as a perverted doctrine corrupts, so does a neglected gospel. The "I don't intend that anyone say no to my planned path of worthy living and fleshly indulgences" philosophy is the very thing that has led churches to be anxious no longer to be distinguished from the denominations. The result is that the trend is to even lift the preacher above the gospel by demanding pulpit pleasers who preach a sugar-coated, honey-dripping, lovey-dovey kind of preaching. Real, sound gospel preaching is on the decline (1 Cor. 1:18-31). There is an increase of vain religion. Brethren, we simply cannot let our pride of intellectual attainment in the field of modern scholarship keep us from preaching the simple gospel that must of necessity "romp on toes" wherever there is a perverted and neglected gospel (Gal. 1:6-9). We are to speak the truth in love, but this involves reproving and rebuking, sometimes.
History will bear out the fact that the "new face" of the Lord's church today came about because of a gradual abandonment of basic, doctrinal teaching in favor of more socially relevant themes. This was followed by a loss of conviction that denominational people are lost and the ultimate disregarding of scriptural differences. We need to understand that truth is not negotiable whether it be in a unity meeting like the Joplin, Missouri meeting (Aug. 7-9, 1984), or anywhere else. Do you wonder why there is a dying evangelistic spirit among us? This is it! Denominationalism is wrong no matter which way one cuts it.
We can exhort our young preachers to attain a greater degree of education under the guise that the day of "cornfield" preachers has come to an end, but we will reap the fruit of a corrupted church. You can put emphasis on the need to communicate to the young and aggressive minds as if they needed something different from the rest of us, but you will end up with a "the old style, plain book-chapter-and-verse" preaching must go the way of the flat-top and crew-cut hair styles philosophy. There will be more "sharing a text" in our pulpits rather than taking a text. In short, the Jerusalem gospel will be replaced with current religious thought. It is not possible to preach Christ and honor Him while at the same time avoiding the preaching of His doctrine and gospel (2 Jn. 9; Rom. 1:16-17). The most practical way to turn people's attention to the Lord is to turn their attention to His Word. We must overcome the temptation to make a show of religion. The child of God must continually ask himself the question: "Does the kind of preaching I involve myself in make my religion real and genuine?" Or after all, "Is my religion vain?" It is important then that we give attention to the question, when is our religion vain?
Our Religion Is Vain When We Do Not Bridle Our Tongues
James 1:26 says, "If any man thinketh himself to be religious, while he bridleth not his tongue . . . this man's religion is vain." We deceive ourselves if we claim to be religious and at the same time do not bridle our tongues. As a youngster I had a high-spirited house that Dad had bought for us to ride. We had to put what we called "a cutting bit" in her mouth that was attached to her bridle. Only in this way could we hold her in check and control the horse. There was no other way to make her obey us. To bridle the tongue, therefore, means to hold the tongue in check, to control it that it may always obey judgment.
The tongue can be a most evil member. The apostle says, "and the tongue is a fire, the world of iniquity. . . " (Jas. 3:6). The tongue is set on fire of hell and defiles the whole body. The old Hindu proverb is true: "conquer your passions and you conquer the whole world." When I think of the description of the tongue as a restless evil full of deadly poison, I think how unruly it is when let loose (Jas. 3:7-8). It is sad to see evidences in the body of Christ today of the tongue divising "every wickedness, like a sharp razor, working deceitfully" (Psa. 52:2). Much of the trouble that plagues the family, the community and the church is often devised and stirred up by an unholy tongue. Most of our vexations come largely from the lack of control of the tongue. It is no wonder that the wise writer said, "A fool's mouth is his destruction, and his lips are the snare of his soul. . . " (Prov. 2:23). Furthermore, time can scarcely heal the cruelly inflicted wounds of a talebearer's tongue. As I write I think of the bleeding hearts and souls wounded almost to death by the cruel tongue of the slanderer. How sad! Surely our religion is vain if we control not our tongues while claiming to practice pure religion. To say that what we are hearing throughout the brotherhood is a mixed bag is an understatement. Bane and blessing earmark our era, and sorting the good from the bad is seldom easy. The facetious "you can't trust them Christians" of the past has all but become a reality of the present. Let us not deceive ourselves. Rest assured that He who has a sharp tongue soon cuts his own throat. Let us, as someone has aptly said, "be sure your brain is engaged before putting your mouth in gear." Eternity demands it! Your religion could be vain.
Our Religion Is Vain When We Do Not Practice What We Profess
Religion is vain when we do not practice what we learn from God's Word (Jas. 1:25). Our brethren in Christ profess much in reference to religion. We claim to advocate the truth, the whole truth, as revealed by Jesus (1 Cor. 2:6-12). But our "we speak where the Bible speaks" profession has become a pretension. The institutional churches have made a sham of the plea with their denominational practices which have caused them to lose their distinctiveness. In other areas, we, the conservatives, make loud boasts with little practice sometimes in comparison to what we profess. The fact that some of us profess great faith in Christ and the allsufficiency of His Word, yet become discouraged, allow zeal to slacken and do little beyond "keeping house," is obvious. Such religion is vain, empty and worthless. This no longer involves isolated cases scattered throughout the brotherhood. The vainness has become rather widespread.
Charles Colson, writing in Moody Monthly (Sept., 1985) under the heading, "Stabbing the Conscience of a Sleeping Church, " has effectively pointed out that the refusal to believe Cathleen Webb's recent recanter of her testimony as a 16-year-old (Cathleen Crowell, then) that convicted Gary Dotson of rape in 1977 was due to the judge's not believing her when she said she is now telling the truth (that Dotson did not rape her) because of her conversion to Christ. Understanding that the denominational concept of conversion must be taken into consideration, we note that Colson concluded two things about the implications of her so-called repentance: (1) "For those who have not experienced the One who transforms lives, what happened to Cathleen Webb is inexplicable." (2) "Cathleen Webb's (she is now married, jt) actions seem incomprehensible because the world so seldom sees genuine repentance in action" (p. 14). The latter point is what Colson sees as a stab at the church (denominationalism). But, is it not a stab at the Lord's Church too? Are we generally showing any better sincerity of practice of religion than Christendom as a whole? Have we picked up on how the public generally views the court case involving the Collinsville elders (Church of Christ)? You guessed it: "It's just a.display of hypocrisy on the part of the Church of Christ elders." In this area, this writer and others whom I have talked to are seeing more and more vain religion in our ranks. Only when we answer the question rightly: shall we practice before the world what we profess? will we restore New Testament, primitive Christianity.
So in addition to our general failure to act on our so-called belief that we are the New Testament church and that the gospel is the power to save, many are seeing more and more Pharisaical attitudes when it comes to prejudices toward each other. Prejudice is sinful (Matt. 7: 1; 13:15). We cannot show partiality toward certain brethren and expect to go to heaven (Rom. 12:9-10; Jas. 2:1). We cannot believe every evil report that is spread without investigation ("Doth our law judge any man, before it hears him, and know what he doeth?" [Jn. 7:51]). With so much gossip in circulation about this preacher or that preacher, this brother or that brother, along with the refusal of the gossipers to even talk to those whom they condemn, some are asking, "How can they claim to be Christians, let alone preachers?" I too, wonder! "For they say and do not" (Matt. 23:2-3). In some quarters our practice is a shame and disgrace, and some of our most respected brethren (?) live in such a way that they should never get out of the pulpit once they get in it, and never get in it when they get out. Such displays make religion vain.
Our Religion Is Vain When It Does Not Make Us Better
Just this past week in two of the home studies that I am conducting with weak and newly converted members, I have had occasion to stress the need for evidence of growth in the faith. Wherever there is growth there will be evidences of such progress. For example, in 2 Peter 1:5-8 one finds such expressions as "giving all diligence," "if these things be in you, and abound," and "neither be barren nor unfruitful." Concerning this very thought the apostle Paul admonished Timothy: "meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all" (1 Tim. 4:15). More literally Paul is saying, "think hard about all this, and put it into practice, and everyone will be able to see how you are advancing" (The Jerusalem Bible). So, as a Christian my religion should show advancement and not retardation. If my religion does not make me better in every way in every respect, what does it amount to, as it respects me? Am I benefitted at all when I am not a better man? Would my profession not be empty, vain, worthless and fruitless? How often the Christian gives way to his or her evil passions and desires, and religion becomes vain!
In my vocation as a Christian, if I am not made more wise, just and live more in harmony with the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12), has not my practice become vain? Brethren, and preachers in particular, by reason of growth, should have more of that wisdom which "is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruit, without variance, without hypocrisy" (Jas. 3:17). Christians should not harbor resentments, be filled with sinful prejudices and engage in hurtful and damaging talk. The most sinful among us do not need their sins (?) paraded before the brotherhood. What is needed is some concern for the soul of the brother or sister and an effort to restore such a one (Gal. 6:1-2). How many have been driven into complete abandonment of the faith by vain religionists among us who seem to have little or no milk of human kindness and mercy in them? Can we not learn that it is usually those who are not important who most often make the mistake of thinking that they are? Too many are ever learning but never coming to a knowledge of the truth.
My religion should make me a better citizen who promotes and maintains civic righteousness in every community. it should make one a better wife or husband, son or daughter, better employer and employee, and if it does not, religion is vain. Yes, if my profession and practice as a child of God does not make me better in every way and happier in this life and in the life to come, it is undoubtedly a vain religion.
We who claim to be Christians only and are pleading earnestly the restoration of apostolic Christianity wherein there has been departure, are absolutely right in theory and profession. But, what about our practice? Are we living the Christ-like life? Are we any better than those who are still in the bondage of modern denominationalism? If it is not vain, we will not only say, we will do! Listen once again to what our Lord said: "Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21).
Engraved on an old slab in the Cathedral of Lubeck, Germany are the following words:
Ye call me Master but obey me not,
Ye call me Light but see me not,
Ye call me Way but walk me not,
Ye call me Life but desire me not,
Ye call me Fair but love me not,
Ye call me Rich but ask me not,
Ye call me Eternal but seek me not,
Ye call me noble but serve me not,
Ye call me mighty but honor me not,
If I condemn you, blame Me not.
Guardian of Truth XXIX: 20, pp. 619-622