It is hard to pinpoint exactly what to call the heresy in Colossae. By way of contrast, Paul also took time to address false teachers in Philippians. Scholars gather from his argument that he was refuting those making Jewish Law and customs a necessity for Christianity (Philippians 3:1-11). The internal evidence and the external evidence (record of history) point to a Jewish heresy in Philippi. But the heresy of the Colossians is more complicated.
As you read through Colossians, you see Paul declaring the preeminence of Christ (Col. 1:15-23) which is helpful in understanding the heart of the heresy. At its core, the Colossian Heresy likely down-played Christ’s supremacy. In Colossians 2:16-23, we have the clearest indication of the false teaching. Paul directly refutes Jewish Law and customs as a necessity (2:16-17), asceticism and worship of angels (2:18a), and vain religion and reasoning (2:18b). Paul sums up that the heresy was “not holding fast to the Head” (2:19), that is, Christ.
The false teachers in Philippi seem so simple by comparison. They were teaching you essentially had to be a Jew to be a Christian. But the Colossian heretics were teaching a heresy like some meals your mom threw together when you were growing up — those “everything and the kitchen sink” kind of meals. The Colossian Heresy was likely a mixture of Judaism, and Paganism — all behind a mask of Christianity. The Colossian Heresy was much like a kind of cultural Christianity. The culture surrounding the Colossian Christians wanted to add to the requirements of the gospel. The only cure is what has made the Colossian letter so famous: the supremacy of Christ.
The Bible Belt
My area of the country, the Bible belt, is known for having churches on every block and being historically “Christian.” This culture makes the Bible belt a particularly hard nut to crack. It doesn’t take you very long to knock on a few doors, ask the residents if they have ever heard of the gospel, and to get a response such as: “Oh, I’m a Christian,” “I am a member of a church,” ” I was saved when I was a child,” or even more directly, “I know Jesus and believe He died for my sins.” Despite this, we are faced with reality. We know how many members there are in each church, we know the attendance numbers, so what gives?
What gives is Cultural Christianity. Many people living in the Bible belt would likely claim some stake in the Kingdom of Heaven. The trouble is precisely that Cultural Christianity allows many to claim Christ while still having one foot in the door of the surrounding world. In other areas it is black and white — Christians are Christians. They do Christian stuff. They draw hard lines in the sand in order to identify with Christianity and Christ. The Cultural Christianity that permeates my community (and others like it) is a “kitchen sink” Christianity. Whereas the Colossian Heresy was a “kitchen sink” heresy because it sought to require more than what the gospel requires, the Cultural Christianity of Bible belt is a “kitchen sink” heresy because it allows more than the gospel allows.
The heresy of the Cultural Christianity is not so much “you must add this,” but rather, “have as much as you like.” Many in the Bible belt have unfortunately fallen prey to this kind of Cultural Christianity. It is a heresy of Jesus doesn’t mind what you do, who you are, or how you live. Ultimately, Cultural Christianity and the Colossian Heresy have the same problem: Christ is not supreme. Therefore, they have the same cure: the supremacy of Christ.
Colossians for Today
Colossians was written to a people to show them Christianity at its heart was Christ and Christ alone. The Colossians did not need to add anything to Christ. We who labor for Christ in the Bible belt ought to apply Colossians in the same way. Colossians for the Cultural Christian is a wake-up call to get rid of the idols they bring with them. I can think of no better book of the Bible for a pastor shepherding in a difficult Bible belt context. I can think of no better book of the Bible for a Christian, wearied by the Cultural Christianity surrounding them.
Pastor, do you think there may be some in your congregation who are Cultural Christians? Are your heartbroken over members who will not make Christ supreme in their lives? Preach Colossians. Church member, do you feel like your fellow Christians are being influenced more by the culture than they are by Christ? Do you weep for those around you because you worry for their souls? Let Colossians be a comfort to you.
The message of Colossians is a great comfort to the weary Christians laboring among Cultural Christians: Christ is supreme and the Savior. Let that message be a comfort to you. The supreme Savior is the only solution for Cultural Christianity. Paul understood this truth for church at Colossae, and we in the Bible belt should trust it also. The supremacy of Christ was good enough for Colossae, it is certainly good enough for the Bible belt.