In this series on follow-up, we have been looking at how missionaries can continue to help churches they have planted after they no longer are resident where those churches are located. The letter to the Colossians was not written to a church that Paul planted like other letters we have looked at in this series. Rather, Epaphras, not Paul, planted the church in Colossae. This probably happened during Paul’s extended ministry at Ephesus (Acts 19). Paul describes Epaphras as “our beloved fellow servant” and “a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf” (Col. 1:7). Epaphras faithfully preached the Gospel in Colossae. But the new church struggled with staying true to the Gospel they heard from their missionary. Apparently, Epaphras had met Paul in Rome (Col. 4:12) and informed Paul of the false teaching threatening the church.
As with most false teaching, this false teaching appears to be a form of syncretism. Syncretism is a blending of teachings that significantly alters the original message. We find that it is a constant danger in proclaiming the Gospel. So, it is important that we learn Paul’s strategy for avoiding syncretism from his letter to the Colossians.
The Colossian Syncretism
Borrowing from other religions
Clinton E. Arnold provides a convincing case that the Colossian “philosophy” found its roots in the folk religions of the area. In his conclusion he points out:
The environment was characterized by a significant level of religious syncretism. There was a fair amount of borrowing from cult to cult. There was also a strong tendency for the newer religions to assimilate features of the older local religions.1Clinton E. Arnold, The Colossian Syncretism: The Interface between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae, Wipf and Stock, 2015, p. 310.
The false teachers were passing judgment “in questions about food and drink, or with regard to a festival or new moon or a Sabbath” (Col. 2:16). From this we see a hint of a Jewish flavor to the false teaching.
Likewise, G. K. Beale writes:
Thus the false teaching was based on a combination of distorted Hellenistic and Jewish ideas. This syncretism is natural since, as we have seen above, there was a significant Jewish population in Colossae, while the majority of the population was Gentile. Such syncretism is not new, as noted earlier, since false teaching in the OT arose from combining pagan idolatry with the worship of Yahweh.2G. K. Beale, Colossians and Philemon BECNT, Baker, 2019, p.16.
Not according to Christ
Paul’s warning about false teachers appears primarily in Colossians 2:8-23. He characterizes the false teaching as “philosophy and empty deceit” (Col. 2:8). Furthermore, these arguments are according to human tradition and elementary principles of the world. Hence, the teaching has a human origin in the local culture.
The critical factor is that the teaching is “not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8). Douglas Moo comments on this phrase:
Here is the essence of the false teaching: it is “not according to Christ” (2:8). And, at the risk of generalizing unduly, we might suggest that here as well is the point of contact for the application of the message of Colossians to a wide variety of historical and contemporary teachings. Any teaching that questions the sufficiency of Christ – not only for “initial” salvation but also for spiritual growth and ultimate salvation from judgment – falls under the massive christological critique of Colossians.3Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, Eerdmans, 2008, p. 60.
In addition, the false teaching included ascetism, worship of angels, visions, and pride (Col. 2:18). The false teaching had an appearance of wisdom with its ascetic practices and harsh treatment of their bodies (Col. 2:23). But the rules were based on merely human commands and teachings and did not come from God at all (Col. 2:20-22).
In sum, Paul points out that the false teaching diverts people from focusing on Christ. Namely, it is “not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8); it does not hold fast to Christ, the head (Col. 2:19); and it has no value in stopping indulgence of the flesh (Col. 2:23).
Paul’s Strategy for Avoiding Syncretism
Paul’s strategy for avoiding syncretism in Colossians emerges in three points. Firstly, he proclaims the supremacy of Christ. Secondly, he proclaims the sufficiency of Christ. Thirdly, he teaches what a life in union with Christ looks like in this world.
Proclaiming that Christ is supreme
God has delivered believers from and domain of darkness and transferred them into the kingdom of his beloved son (Col. 1:13). Having declared that, Paul teaches in Col. 1:15-20 that Christ is supreme over both creation and redemption. First, he is supreme over creation because he is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). Also, everything was created by him and for him (Col. 1:16) including all spiritual powers. Then, he is supreme over redemption because he is head of the church and the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:18). In addition, Jesus’ exalted position is confirmed by the fulness of God dwelling in him. In short, Christ is Creator and Redeemer. If we are to avoid syncretism, we must proclaim and explain that He is supreme over all.
Proclaiming that Christ is sufficient
Not only is Christ supreme over creation and redemption, but he is also completely sufficient. We do not need anything more to complete our reconciliation to God. For “all the treasure of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden in Christ (Col. 2:3). That is, there is no spiritual experience or growth that is not found in Christ. In Christ, “all the fulness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). Furthermore, we have been “filled in him” (Col. 2:10). We begin our Christian life receiving “Christ Jesus the Lord” and we continue to walk in him (Col. 2:6). So, there is nothing that we can add to Christ as we mature in the faith because we are “rooted and built up in him” (Col. 2:7).
Consequently, any human or cultural tradition that is “not according to Christ” is a path to syncretism. Syncretism takes away from Christ’s supremacy and sufficiency. However, we can carefully adapt some human and cultural traditions in such a say that they do not conflict with proclaiming Jesus as supreme and sufficient.
Living in Union with Christ
We must live out the truth that Jesus is supreme and sufficient in our daily lives. This new mindset of living in union with Christ involves a putting off of the old self and a putting on of the new self (Col. 3:1- 4:6). So, when one comes to Christ there needs to be a transition (conversion) from one’s previous spiritual belief and practice. The guiding principle for this transition is the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ. In other words, our life in Christ must reflect our complete trust in him. Hence, our total life reflects Christ (Col. 3:17).
Syncretism is a serious problem for the church throughout the world. For whenever human tradition and philosophy modify the gospel and undermine the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ, the church is harmed. So, it is important for us to study Paul’s letter to the Colossians. We need to make sure that when people leave the kingdom of darkness and move into the kingdom of the beloved Son, they change their worldview and lifestyle.