In the Church at Colossae, the young Christians were getting hammered spiritually by the abusive and intimidating tactics of the Gnostics. As they begin to mix into the church, these heretics brought with them an assortment of doctrinal beliefs bent on confusing the Christians of Colossae, discouraging them, and most likely intending to either change their beliefs or force them to leave the church. What’s fascinating is that the beliefs of the Gnostics almost 2000 years ago are nearly identical to the pervasive heretical belief systems that are being repackaged and reintroduced into today’s Church and the goal is the same, spiritually abuse the immature Christians and create division amongst believers.
In chapter 2 of Paul’s epistle to the Colossians we find him succinctly addressing each of these false doctrines. Beginning in verse 8, Paul starts his discourse with a rebuttal of the human philosophies that were infiltrating the church. Here we find the first wave of spiritual abuse, namely, philosophical Humanism. “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Colossians 2:8 ESV Within the context of this passage, Paul was speaking directly to the Gnostic beliefs which denied the deity of Christ Jesus. The Gnostics had developed a humanistic philosophy that denied the incarnation of Jesus and subsequently his deity from His birth until His baptism by John the Baptist. At this point they then claim that the presence of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended on Jesus and it was here He received His deification. As I alluded to earlier, these historic false beliefs of the Gnostics in Paul’s day are the same in today’s church, simply repackaged and rebranded for a greater appeal. Take for example the following quote from Rob Bell’s book Velvet Elvis:
What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologist find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births?
Questions. Big questions, right?
Was Jesus born of a virgin?
But what if, as you study the origin of the word “virgin” you discover that the word “virgin” in the gospel of Matthew actually comes from the book of Isaiah, and then you find out that in the Hebrew language at that time, the word “virgin” could mean several things. And what if you discover that in the first century being “born of a virgin” also referred to a child whose mother became pregnant the first time she had intercourse? What if that spring were seriously questioned? Could a person keep on jumping? Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian? Is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to live? Or does the whole thing fall apart? If the whole faith falls apart when we reexamine and rethink one spring then it wasn’t that strong in the first place, was it? What if… Mary wasn’t a virgin in the way we understand it? The way you handle this question determines how you read this book.
Bell’s assertion here is that if our faith so weak as to be unable to withstand the possibility of Jesus not being born of a virgin (which denies 1. the miraculous birth and 2. the deity of Christ in His sinless nature) then we likely have no faith at all. This is the same philosophical false beliefs that were so pervasive 2000 years ago and it should be noted that Bell’s argument is a straw man designed to undermine the deity of Christ. If we follow his logic in assuming the virgin birth did not happen, clearly this destroys our faith and makes the Bible a book of lies and Christ a sinner like us instead of a perfect, magnificent, and holy King. Our response should be that of Paul’s, “For in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in Him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” Colossians 2:9-10 ESV Anything contrary to this Gospel truth is simply heretical and the teacher of opposing doctrine should be treated as a heretic.
The second wave of spiritual abuse that the Apostle Paul addresses is Legalism. In our Church today there is a common misunderstanding of this word, which at this point we need to clear up. One pastor makes the following observation on legalism: “it is subscribing spirituality to man-made rules, [while] subscribing to God’s rules is obedience.” It seems like the opposite definition has become “true” these days, in that no one wants to be told what to do or to be held accountable to an absolute moral truth, namely God’s commands, i.e. the Law. God’s rules are perfectly holy, perfectly righteous, and perfectly just in holding us accountable and they are meant to point us to Christ (Galatians 3:19-24 ESV). Likewise in Christ, as Paul points out in Colossians 2:13-14, the legal demands of God’s holy law have been met through Christ’s death on the cross for all who believe in Him. It’s the institution of man-made rules for the purpose of righteousness that defines legalism, not God’s rules. Paul addresses this in the verses that follow, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Colossians 2:16-17 ESV In the Old Testament, God instituted these rules to keep Israel a holy nation unto Himself, such that it would be impossible to intermix with other people, but as Paul reminds these observances were a foreshadow of Christ and upon the establishment of His Kingdom in the hearts of men, these rules and rituals were done away with. The Gnostics however, were forcing these rules onto the Church at Colossae and in doing so proclaiming that Christ alone was not sufficient, but that the keeping of these additional rules was necessary. In essence what they were teaching was “works-based righteousness”, a belief that prevails even to this day amongst the various world religions. In fact as one pastor says, “Every false system of religion in the world says you get saved by works; Christianity is the only one that employs grace. Satan counters grace with works.”
In addition to these works outside of Christianity, within the Church has crept a sect of people who are simply repackaging these old Gnostic ideas into a social gospel/justice agenda. As Christians, we are instructed to feed and clothe the poor, and care for the homeless, but all in the name of Christ, with Him being both the motive and the goal, an outworking of our love for Him. However, the social gospel pushes a new agenda sometimes even in the name of Christ, but with man-centered motives and goals. The Social Gospel seeks to meet peoples felt needs, i.e., their physical needs, while ignoring their spiritual needs, with the goal of “action” speaking louder than words. The problem with this application is that it tells nothing of the substitutionary atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross and while a person may have clean drinking water, food, clothing, or shelter, they are starving just as spiritually as they were before hearing this “gospel”. The Bible is crystal clear, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.” Romans 10:17 ESV Ministering physical needs with Christ-like love is Biblical, but leaving out the spiritual needs, i.e. the Gospel, reduces the act to merely “good deeds”. “But he answered, ‘It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”” Matthew 4:4 ESV In a similar fashion, Social Justice seeks equality and rights of those “disenfranchised” or “lesser” individuals with the goal of cultural or societal reform. The real Gospel of Jesus Christ produces holiness, the social gospel of man produces artificial happiness.
The third characteristic of spiritual abuse that Paul addresses to the church at Colossae is Mysticism. We read of this in the following passage, “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in details about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.” Colossians 2:18-19 ESV The Gnostics that were infiltrating this early church were likely members of a religiously zealous sect of Jews known as the Essenes. They believed in the worship of angels and were attempting to bring these beliefs into the church in order to promote a higher form of worship. Like the previous two forms of abuse, this third form is also prevalent in today’s church and becoming more so on a seemingly daily basis. Today, what we are beginning to see coming into the Church is the practice of contemplative spiritual meditation/prayer, which get’s its roots from eastern cultures and involves the chanting, mind clearing, breathing, and focusing techniques that fall far short of Biblical spirituality and instead create an altered state of consciousness conducive to satanic influences. Make no mistake about it, it is prevalent, it is real, and it is very dangerous.
As Paul alluded to in the earlier passage, the fourth wave of spiritual abuse is Asceticism. “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” Colossians 2:20-23 ESV Asceticism is the practice of self-denial and it takes the inverse approach to legalism. While legalism says “do this”, asceticism says “don’t do this” and both are dangerous traps by which man attempts to improve his standing with God through differing forms of self-righteousness. Getting rid of everything you own, for the sake of feeling more godly is not a Biblical principle, yet this idea continues to lurk in the shadows of churches still. The monastic lifestyle of a monk does not in itself create any higher standing with God than a person who is a responsible steward of the possessions that God has allowed.
As we’ve seen, the Apostle Paul’s encouragement to the Church at Colossae in the face of these spiritual abuses can be directly applied to the false teachings infiltrating the Church today. Be encouraged Christian. Don’t be swept away by the various philosophies of man, by legalistic “do this” rules, mystic practices, or ascetic “don’t do this” mandates. Instead focus on Christ and be complete in Him for “Christ is all, and in all.” Colossians 3:11 ESV