The Neglected Truths of James 1:27

By Robert H. West

“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.”

The above passage has figured very prominently in the current controversy concerning benevolent institutions. Some brethren contend that this passage is authority for the church to “visit the fatherless and widows,” while others contend this is limited in application to individuals only. Without considering the arguments on either side of this issue, let me raise this question: What essential difference does it make if this passage does refer exclusively to the church or to the individual? If all brethren were to agree that James 1:27 applies to the church or only to the individual, the basic issue in the present controversy would still exist, to wit: Can the church build and maintain another institution through which to do its work? Why enter into an argument as to whom this passage applies when, even if we convince our opponent, we will still be divided on the basic issue?

There are, however, some facts taught in James 1: 2 7 which definitely do affect the basic issue in the present “orphan home” controversy. These arise from seeking out the correct definition of some of the words in this passage.

We are told by some brethren that we send a contribution individually or out of the church treasury to a benevolent institution, we are thereby “visiting the fatherless and widows.” But where do you suppose the idea originated that giving to and visiting mean the same thing? Certainly not from any inherent meaning of the word. Someplace “way back down the line” somebody merely assumed this to be the case and many brethren have been basing their faith on this assumption ever since. But what does the word “visit” actually mean in James 1:27?

The Greek word, here translated “visit,” is episkeptomai, and is closely akin to the noun, episkopos, which is rendered “overseer” in Acts 20:28. Thayer, the great Greek lexicographer, defines the word, “to look upon or after, to inspect, examine with the eyes  to look upon in order to help or benefit.” Vine, another Greek scholar, defines it: “primarily, to inspect (a late form of episkopeo, to look upon, care for, exercise oversight), signifies to visit with help  to visit the sick and afflicted.”

This is the same word that is found in Matthew 25:36, “I was sick, and ye visited me . . .” Did this mean they merely gave some money? Read the context and see that personal contact is the thing under consideration.

From these facts we see that merely sending a contribution, although this might be needed, does not fulfill the demands of the word “visit.” Personal interest, care, and supervision must be present to obey James 1: 2 7, none of which exists when either a church or an individual sends a contribution. As a matter of fact, “James strikes a downright blow here at ministry by proxy, or by mere gifts of money. Pure and undefiled religion demands personal contact with the world’s sorrow: To visit the afflicted, and to visit them in their affliction.” — M. R. Vincent, Word Studies, Vol. I, p. 736.

A second popular view held concerning James 1:27, is that it is limited in application to destitute “fatherless and widows.” This view has arisen from the assumption that the word “affliction” in this scripture has the exclusive meaning of “physical need.” But both the English and Greek word have a broader application.

The Greek word is thlipsis, which Vine tells us “primarily means a pressing, pressure, anything which burdens the spirit.” Paul’s use of it in 2 Cor. 1:4 (there translated “tribulation” and “trouble”) demonstrates that the meaning of the word is not limited to physical affliction alone.

In our present economic set-up many fatherless and widows are without physical need because of insurance, Social Security and other plans. But there certainly is an affliction that is common to all fatherless and widows whether they be rich or poor. I am speaking of the affliction of heartache and sorrow arising from the loss of father and husband. Long after their physical needs have been met, this affliction of the spirit will remain. If they need money, we should supply it to the extent of our ability. But more often they will need friends more than funds, people more than presents. It is here that all children of God may practice “pure and undefiled religion” by visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction.

Let us, therefore, never think we can discharge the responsibility placed upon us by James 1: 27 merely by the sending of a check.

Truth Magazine VI: 7, pp.5-6
April 1962