Truth Under Fire
November 16, 2003. © 2003, J.W. Carter
www.biblicaltheology.com Scripture quotes from KJV
The Church is under attack. Such a statement may sound reactionary, particularly if one is part of a peaceful congregation. However, even peace can be obtained through surrender to the enemy. God created mankind so that we would have a relationship with Him, that we would choose Him over this evil and wicked world, a choice that involves an act of faith followed by a life of joyful obedience to His Word and His Will. This sounds like a simple scenario, and when a Christian becomes engaged with a church body it may appear on the surface that God's purpose is entirely fulfilled in that congregation. One would certainly praise God, from whom all blessings flow, if this is true. Unfortunately, such a congregation may be hard to find. Instead, we find congregations that are characterized by teachings and practices that are extra-biblical, that is they are not based upon God's Word, but a misinterpretation of it. We also find congregations that are in turmoil, fractured by the divisions that come from the expression of worldly pride by its members.
It is no surprise that the church is under such pressure since it is entirely immersed in this world of sin, and Satan will stop at nothing to diminish its effectiveness. Before we look at the battles, let us look at the enemy: Satan. Paul writes in Ephesians 6:12 that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities and rulers in high places. When the church is in conflict, the enemy is NEVER other Christians. Maybe that statement should be repeated:
When the church is in conflict, the enemy is never other Christians.
The enemy is Satan and his realm of evil spirits. When Satan gets Christians to fight among one another, he wins. So, how does one do battle in this arena? Paul's letter to the Colossians is intended to deal with this specific issue, as that is fragmented by individuals who espouse erroneous doctrine and impose inappropriate requirements on the church members. It may be interesting to note that the first-century church was subject to the same stressors that the modern church is today, and this is no surprise since the selfish and prideful character of natural man has been unchanged through the centuries.
As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him:
God created people as social creatures. Each of us has a need for social interaction, social acceptance, and social significance. People cluster together in social groups of various kinds, usually defined by similar personal interests. Certainly, the Church is a social organization, and like any such organization is made up of people with opinions and desires for the way the society should operate. Paul gives a simple rule for operation: Those of you who have received Jesus Christ as Lord should "walk in Him," that is, your attitudes and actions should be brought under His Lordship, and His alone. Your conduct should conform to the will of Christ. We get into difficulty in the church when we forget who the Lord is. Some churches give authority to the church dogma, written church documents, or its leaders. Some churches give authority to their members. Some give authority to traditions, practices and rituals. Unfortunately, when we do this, be become so indoctrinated into these authorities that we do not even realize that we have become subject to them instead of to the Lordship of Christ. When we give authority to people, pride takes over, and Satan gets a foot in the door.
In this letter Paul addresses this specific issue. The work of the church has been dramatically diminished when Satan is successful in getting the people's focus off of the original gospel and the original commission to every believer, and turns their attention inward to themselves, reducing the Church of Jesus Christ to a social club with a Christian theme, a club who's Christian doctrine is deeply variant from that which God ordained.
Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving.
The foundation of the Church is not tradition, or dogma. The authority in the church is not a priest, a pastor, or a church member. The authority in the church is not a group of people or a group of rules. The foundation of the Church, and its only authority, is Jesus Christ. It is in Him that the Church takes root, it is in Him that faith is established and built. This is the truth that is taught by Jesus, was taught by the apostles, and demonstrated in their ministries. Paul describes here a church that is built entirely on the doctrine that they have been taught, one that as a result of their joy in Christ abounds in thankfulness to God. It is not a church that is established on dogmatic practice or burdening rules that subjugate, demean, or discourage its members. It is a Church that experiences the peace and joy of their salvation, is earnestly and joyfully thankful to God for what He has done and is doing in their lives, and cannot help but share the good news of the gospel with other people.
What is it that is drawing the church away into error? How is it that the enemy, Satan, is weaving his web of deceit among its members and diminishing its effectiveness? How can the Church allow the enemy to infiltrate its body, when the enemy is powerless against the Holy Spirit? Satan does mete out his destruction with an abrupt and obvious offensive. If he did, he would be recognized by the Church, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the Church would crush the advance of Satan. Instead, the evil one operates far more subtly, making use of the basic needs and basic desires of the people he would deceive.
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
Paul instructs the Colossians to "beware", or to be wary. The church is to be on guard against the enemy. If the church is asleep at the watch, the enemy can slip in and mete out his destruction. Many Christians have little or no interest in such vigilance as Satan has lulled them to sleep with his spirit of apathy. Paul shouts out to the church to "Wake up!" Become aware of what is happening so that Satan will not be empowered. Paul lists some specific ways that Satan attacks the church.
(1) "Lest any man spoil you" What does it mean to be spoiled? The term here refers to the action of a victorious army when it loots and strips the defeated of its objects of value. It has the connotation of shedding those things of value like one would take off an article of clothing and be left naked.
(2) "through philosophy," Philosophy is the set of worldly theories and presumed truths that define the conduct and culture of society. As a member of that society, it is nearly impossible to shield the church against worldly philosophy. To do so, one must be vigilant to recognize its infiltration, be familiar with the truth of the gospel, and be willing to step forward and confront that philosophy rather than embrace it. Unfortunately, the church accepts most worldly philosophies, and being relatively ignorant of the Word of God, makes those same philosophies central to their faith. Many churches today have gone so far as to stop preaching the gospel, replacing it with ear-tickling, heart-warming philosophy that makes one feel good, but denies the call to repentance and salvation. Philosophy is a tool of the world that defines its form and structure, it is not the foundation of the body of Christ. We must be wary so that the world's philosophies are recognized, rejected, and God's Word is preserved.
(3) "vain deceit." This is one of the areas that the church comes under the most attack. As social creatures, each of us has a need for significance and acceptance. God has made us significant simply because, as the God of the universe, He loves us enough to do what He has done. Christians have no need to find their significance in any other source. We are also accepted as we are by the same God. Christians have no need to find additional acceptance by their peers. Unfortunately, many people are not satisfied to find their reward in heaven, but also want to experience it now by imposing their desires on others in the church body. Some people receive great gratification by knowing that they have a voice of authority in the church. I always want to tell these people, "Go join the Elks club where you can be the chief potentate. Such behavior is inappropriate in the church." It is often the expression of this "vain deceit" that draws churches into conflict, and drops them to their knees. This was the state of the Colossian church.
(4) "After the tradition of men." I was once told that the state of a well-known government organization is characterized by "200 years of tradition that are unimpeded by progress." Traditions give us comfort in the stability and consistency of life that they engender. However, when those traditions stand in front of progress, when those traditions impede the change and actions that are always necessary to reach people in an ever-changing world, those traditions are inappropriate. Many Christian denominations are so steeped in tradition that it is the tradition that one sees when they are observed rather than the joy of Christ that one finds in a new believer. A popular cliché that I have heard refers to the "Seven Last Words of Christ:" as being, "We've never done it that way before." To be non-traditional in some churches is anathema. Tradition takes authority away from God and takes on a power of its own. Tradition can also give authority to the men (and women) who are appointed with its defense.
(5) "after the rudiments of the world." Here Paul refers to the basic authorities contrived by people over the years that are ascribed to the universe. An obvious example is that of astrology, a tradition that espouses that the moon and stars have some relationship, or even authority, over the daily lives of people. Science and technology have answered many questions over the years. Prior to those years, people tended to ascribe anything they did not understand to a god. Childbirth, animal birth, and plant reproduction were not understood, so those events were considered empowered by a fertility god such as Baal. Ra was the sun god. The Greeks of the first-century ascribed to a pantheon of hundreds of gods that they organized into ranks and files of authority. Still, people basically ascribe things they do not understand to some rudimentary worldly god.
Paul notes that such deviations from the gospel of Christ can come from "any man." Usually we would not espouse a doctrine that is blatantly false. However, when that doctrine is couched in the guise of love, in the words of a skillful orator, or in the deliberate manipulatory actions of a determined individual, it may not seem quite so erroneous. Cults often obtain success by masking their cultic doctrine under a candy-coat of acceptable sweetness such as a well-demonstrated love and acceptance of one another, or in the re-definition of important doctrinal words and positions.
How do we know when we are subjected to worldly philosophy, vain deceit, men's traditions, or rudimentary worldly authorities?
For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. 10And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power:
There is one characteristic of all of these false positions and false teachings: they add, subtract, or change something to or from the true gospel. All of the requirements of faith fully dwell in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Christians are called to make disciples, and so they will find ways to fulfill that calling. However, that calling is not to add, subtract, or change. Jesus teaches us how to disciple one another :
"Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." Matt 28:19-20
If one understands that the word, "baptise" (Greek, baptizo) means to "immerse", we get a clear understanding of Jesus' command. As we go among the lost of the world, we are to teach all of them, immersing them in the "name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost." That is, we are to teach them everything about them, (the "name). We are to immerse disciples in the knowledge of who God is, what He has done, and how He reveals Himself to us through the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We are also to teach one another to observe and be obedient to the teachings of Jesus.
How much have people added to this simple plan of discipleship? Anything that would be added to (1) the knowledge of God, and (2) instruction in Jesus' teaching, is an addition to the gospel. If we remove any part of these that we do not like, we are subtracting from the gospel. We also change the gospel by conforming it to the philosophies of the world, manipulating it by the vain conceit of man, smothering it by the traditions of men, and diffuse it by including in it the pantheon of worldly authorities. It is no wonder that the Church is not as effective today as it could be. Instead of standing as a bright and shining light of the gospel, the church might be more accurately characterized as a sleeping giant that is largely disengaged from its primary purpose: to reach the lost of the world that they would be saved.
The church needs no other authority than the gospel. The church is complete in Christ who is the head of all principality and power. We do not need to draw in any other authorities or powers, but rather can simply turn to God through Jesus Christ and Him alone. Our worship is to Him alone. Paul will address more on this later.
In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: 12Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.
Some of those who were trying to control the members of the Colossian church were imposing upon them the traditions of the Jewish faith that had defined their lives prior to coming to know Christ. They were demanding that the males in the membership be circumcised as they were circumcised. Without it they would not be a member of the "club", they were incomplete members of the fellowship and were to be distained as incomplete in their faith. Churches today are not protected from this same error. Some will add requirements to the simple profession of faith. Jesus taught that the small and simple faith "of a mustard seed" in Him is sufficient for salvation. Some people would choose to make saving faith more rigorous or more exclusionary by adding other requirements. Some believe that immersion in water is necessary for salvation. Some believe that a "second blessing" in necessary for salvation. Many different faith groups add a variety of obligations, rites, procedures, requirements, or actions to the gospel.
Paul addresses this doctrinal error directly by pointing out that all of the requirements for salvation have been met by their simple faith. They do not need physical circumcision since they have been circumcised by a circumcision that is done without hands. Originally, God appointed the rite of circumcision to the Jews as a mark of identification. It was a mark of obedience that clearly identified them as children of Abraham. Christians have received identification with Christ by the mark of the Holy Spirit. Just as Jews were marked by circumcision, Christians are marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit in their heart, filling the place that God reserved for Himself.
Likewise, Christians are identified by the act of Christ on the Cross. There is nothing that a Christian can do on his/her own to add to what Christ has already done. Many Christians practice baptism by immersion, just as many did in the first century, as an expression of the testimony that is described in verse 12. God taught the ancient Jews how there would be no forgiveness without the shedding of blood. God provided salvation for this lost world through the atoning death of Jesus on the Cross, and provided for an eternal relationship with Himself through Jesus' resurrection and ascension. The work of salvation was done by God, not by man. There is no work of man that can take its place. Consequently, circumcision is not necessary for salvation. Baptism is not necessary for salvation. There is no act of man or system of acts by man that can replace or add to what Jesus did on the cross.
Whenever Christians observe an action within the church that would add to the requirements for salvation, they are observing error.
And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; 14Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; 15And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.
Paul continues to state that the work of salvation has been done. All people were lost in their sin (separated from God for eternity because of their lack of faith in Him), the "uncircumcision of your flesh," that is simply the lack of the mark of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. However, in salvation, God has changed the lost from death to life, from eternal separation to eternal relationship. This very significant change, again, is not the act of man, but an act of God. God forgives those who place their faith and trust in Him as their Savior and Lord. The gospel is that simple. The "handwriting of ordinances" illustrates that the unforgiven sin in an apostate person's life is like a condemning ledger of grievances that are brought to the judge to prove the guilt of the accused. Paul states that God took those grievances and nailed them "to the cross," using an obvious metaphor to state that forgiveness of sins came from Jesus' atonement on the Cross, not by the atonement of any man.
Some churches teach that a man must atone for his sins. Many people have taken on arduous and dangerous tasks feeling that God is expecting them to suffer for the sins they have committed. Such a theology is not only erroneous, but is places the guilt of the sin on the back of the sinner, burying the person under its load. Jesus died to remove that load of guilt. It is easier for natural man to think that he must pay for his bad deeds, but Jesus died to pay for those deeds so that the sinner, who had no life but sin prior to coming to faith, will be able to experience the joy of their salvation, and by so living, be able to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit as they strive to turn from their sin and follow Jesus in obedience as He becomes their Lord. The Christian is now controlled by the Lord Jesus rather than by the sin.
Satan wins when he can get people to crumble under the weight of their guilt. Jesus died to take that power away from Satan. People would try to show their own righteousness by demanding that others cower in their guilt. This is not the gospel but a simple trap of Satan. Jesus, by forgiving people of faith of their sin, took away the power that Satan had to hold them accountable to that sin and drag them off to hell with him, taking them to that place where they are eternally separated from God. Satan has no such power over those who have placed their faith in Christ. When a Christian sins, the Holy Spirit convicts them of it and draws them to repentance. Though they sin, they will never be separated from God because of it, because of what Jesus did on the cross. If it were possible to lose salvation by committing another sin, no person could be saved, and Jesus' atonement would have been in vain. Satan is defeated. Jesus' triumph over Satan is final. Once the Christian is marked by the Holy Spirit, Satan has no power to take their salvation away. Consequently, there is no plan of man, or plan of the church that takes the place of God's plan. There are no atoning acts that are necessary following a sinful act in the life of a Christian. However, the Christian is still responsible for his/her actions and is called by God to a life of obedience. When a Christian sins, people are hurt, the person is hurt, and fellowship with God can be lost. However, because of the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, that fellowship with God can be restored.
Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: 17Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
Error enters the congregation because Christians allow it, either by their ignorance of God's truth, or by remaining unaware of Satan's beguiling ways. One way Satan creates division in the congregation is through the judgmental spirit of the natural man. We want to be able to judge one another based upon our own definition of appropriate behavior and belief. Such an attitude is inappropriate for the Christian. Christians are to love one another, not judge one another. God is the judge, not man. Consequently, Christians tend to disdain another Christian who worships God in another way. This disregard of the Love of Christ for one another has divided the church into denominations that disagree with one another over trivial matters of worship style, dress, tradition, and a variety of other additions to the gospel. Satan wins by dividing the church. Christians are not to look upon one another and make such judgments, but rather to embrace one another in love and work together to promote God's kingdom on earth.
People even judge one another with others in their own congregation, and by so doing divide the body all the more. Churches tend to cluster into cliques of members of commonality. The members of one race might disregard the members of another. The members of one socio-economic level might disregard those of another level. Such stratification comes from this sin of judgment, fueled by pride, a lack of self confidence, and a lack of self-respect. Again, we should never forget that the enemy is never the people of faith, the enemy is always Satan and his dominion. Anything that would divide the congregation and diminish its effectiveness is a tool of Satan, not of man, it is him who should be judged, not man.
Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, 19And not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God.
From Paul's letter, it is evident that the churches in Colossae and Laodicea were experiencing some major doctrinal problems. Though the letter never literally describes the heresies that the church is experiencing, his instruction is pointing to the correcting of some very specific errors. We have already seen several errors where individuals are asserting their own will on others. The translation of the Greek presents some difficulties and some confusion, as the word translated "beguile" has been rendered several different ways. The most literal translation when considered in the context of this discussion is, "Let no one deny your claim to be Christians." Paul continues with yet another list.
(1) "voluntary humility." Called ascetism, this is the practice of false humility, or groveling for a shorter word. It is a form of mocking self-abasement where the practitioner would subject himself to humiliating self-denial or self-flagellation solely for the purpose of appearing "holy." The practice of ascetism is not uncommon even in today's world religions.
(2) "worshiping of angels." Angel worship was a common pagan practice at the time, so it found an easy entry into the Christian faith. Some taught that people were so lowly in the eyes of God that He could not be prayed to directly, but rather it was necessary that prayers go through a lower level. Like flagellation, the worship of angels is an expression of humility. Those who espouse this doctrine argue that it is too bold to approach God directly, so one is to approach God through an intercessor rather than going directly to the throne of Grace. Some modern denominations still teach a similar practice. However, God has opened the throne of grace that we would pray directly to Him. When Jesus taught the disciples to pray, He gave them the first words ... "Father, who art in heaven, Glory be thy name ...". There is absolutely no scriptural basis for any Christian to pray to any person other than God as He has revealed Himself in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
(3) "things which he hath not seen." Many cultic leaders have made a powerful impact on others by claiming to have had profound visions or revelations, and then present themselves as the One called to bring them the truth. The only truth is that the claimants are charlatans who are taking advantage of the sincere faith of the ignorant in order to elevate themselves to positions of power, respect, and even wealth. One needs only to look at many of the recent cult leaders to see this pattern in practice. People are easily duped by such people when the cult leader has a charismatic personality and unusually good oratory skills. Also, a man of faith tends to trust those who he respects, and his first assumption is not going to reveal the orator as a liar and a cheat.
(4) "vainly puffed up". Paul is still referring to the one who is tricking the congregation into following him into heresy. The motivation of the heretic is revealed as the desire for a satiated pride that comes from a selfish, worldly mind. Christians are not immune from falling into this vanity trap. Some of the most successful ministers in recent years have attained so much acclaim and so much wealth that they lost sight of the simple sincerity that was the basis of their calling and their success and begin to think that they are something greater than they are. Then they saw their ministries crumble away when their vanity is exposed.
The false teacher who is beguiling the congregation differs from them in a very important area: The congregation sincerely seeks to know the Head of the church, who is Christ. The false teacher sincerely seeks to be the Head of the Church. The false teacher does not have a vital relationship with Christ. Jesus is the Head of a healthy church from which all of the body parts are joined and nourished. If a man becomes the Lord of the church, all of the nourishment from the head to the body ends, and the body dies. One must be vigilant to assure that Jesus is the Lord of the church, and not a man, a women, or any group of men or women.
Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, 21(Touch not; taste not; handle not; 22Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? 23Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.
Apparently, the congregations in Colossae and Laodicea had fallen deeply into the error of ascetism. If one becomes a child of God, his attachments to the rituals and ascetism of this world are forever cut. The Christian is not subject to the prince of the world any longer. Apparently the church members were still allowing themselves to fall back under the bondage of the rules and regulations imposed by the pagan culture. Any cultural ascetism that the Christian professed prior to salvation is now obsolete. Verse 21 illustrates that Paul specifically included the ascetism that was an integral part of Jewish tradition among the obsolete practices. A large part of Jewish traditional practices had become a showy false-humility that was generally accepted as such, but its practice continued because the tradition required it. All who practice this ascetism, no matter how sincere their practice, will still fall short of salvation without Christ, and the ascetic rules will die with them. The heretics tried to impose this list of ascetic requirements on the Christian believers who, for fear of error themselves, and out of ignorance of the truth, obeyed.
The heretics appear to be so wise, and they bring their demands for burden out of a show of wisdom. On the surface, they may appear wise, but in truth they bring honor to themselves alone. Their need for social acceptance, power, and significance are satiated, and the heretics will stop at nothing to maintain their power.
The churches in Colossae and Laodicea were experiencing some extreme conflicts that were caused by the insistance of prideful men to follow their own demands. When we spend some time with this passage of scripture we can see some of the heresies that were characteristic of that church, and may see some those heresies at work in our own churches. This lesson almost sounds like an indictment against the modern church. Though an indictment may be in order when we observe how the influence of the church in this wicked world has recently declined, we can certainly take Paul's teaching to heart and look into our own church, into our own congregation, and into our own hearts, to see if error has crept in. Are we adding anything to the requirement of faith alone for salvation? Are we expecting Christians to work off the debt they owe for receiving God's grace? Do we see an individual or individual who insists on being the Lord of the church? Or are we insisting on being the Lord of the Church?
A church that is characterized by the errors that Paul describes will not be the church that God has commissioned. Such a church will be focused inward with its members serving as keepers of the aquarium rather than serving as fishers of men. Rather than lifting up the name of Christ in joyful praise, they will be lifting up their own puffed-up pride as they usurp Jesus' rightful place as the leader of the church. Such a church is in bondage. It is time that the church be set free from these errors that place it in such bondage and diminish its effectiveness for the Kingdom. Let us be ever vigilant to recognize such errors and respond to them in a way that honors God, restores people to God's fellowship, and empowers the church to be the lighthouse of God's love to its community.