How could one man like Adolf Hitler have such sway and influence in German society in the 1930s, to the point where millions of Jews ended up being slaughtered by Germans? To the point where there was major world war, and nearly the entire German populace supported it, including Christians! How? It boggles the mind. When I think about any genocides and wars, I can become very frustrated by how so many people, including Christians, get swept up in supporting them. How does this happen?
As we continue studying Colossians 2:8-15, the writer of this New Testament letter, the Apostle Paul, sayings in verse 8 that the Christians in the ancient Roman town of Colosse were not to become captivated by empty, hollow philosophy, based on the tradition of humankind. You can read the first post in this series here.
What is Paul talking about? Bible scholars call it The Colossian Heresy. Heresy is a word that means “false teaching.” A heresy is a teaching that goes against the truth. We don’t know precisely what the Colossian Heresy was. Paul doesn’t explain it in detail. But if you put together clues from his letter, you can get a fairly close idea of what this false teaching was.
By the way, it is highly unlikely that Paul is trying to be mysterious about the heresy, as if he left us a letter in code and he wanted us to figure it out. He didn’t have to spell it out because both he and the Colossians knew exactly what he was talking about. Remember that Paul is not writing for future readers, thinking to himself, “Ok…those people in in 2021 are going to be reading this 2,000 years in the future, and they will have no idea what the false teaching was, so I better explain it to them.”
We write the same way to our family and friends, which in this day and age are mostly email and text messages.
Imagine I am writing an email to my church’s Leadership Team, and I type, “You guys remember the conversation we had about the vaccine?” All the Leadership Team members were there at the meeting, which took place earlier that week, and therefore they can remember the conversation. I don’t have to go into detail about it, as it is common knowledge to them. I am not thinking, “Hmmm…our ancestors 2,000 years from now are going to be reading this, so I better make sure I fully explain the context of Covid-19, so they can understand more easily what we’re talking about.” I don’t need to do that because I am not writing with ancestors in mind; I am writing for the immediate audience. That is exactly what Paul is doing here. He doesn’t explain the false teaching because the Christians in Colosse were all aware of it.
So we have to play the role of a detective to try to uncover what the Colossian heresy might have been. We’re going to see how Paul sprinkles clues throughout his letter, and in verse 8 we get the first clue when he talks about philosophy.
As I mentioned above, Paul describes it as “hollow and deceptive” philosophy. Though we’re not sure what the false teaching was, Paul clearly puts it into the category of hollow or empty and deceptive, and that which is based on human tradition. Please notice, though, that Paul is not saying that philosophy, in and of itself, is wrong.
Sometimes philosophy gets a bad rap. I used to think that too, that philosophy was a waste of time. I mean, who wants to think theoretically about the world when you can go out and actually live in the world? But what I have come to realize is that philosophy matters. In fact philosophy has great power. Paul is clearly concerned about the power of philosophy. Philosophy is something, he says, that can take you captive. Ideas have power. Ideas can actually make a significance difference in the world. Paul knows this. He once was held captive by ideas that directed him to live a life in brutal opposition against the way of Jesus.
Now a few decades later, Paul is concerned that the same thing was happening to the Christian in Colosse. Have you heard the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword”? That phrase is basically the same thing that Paul is talking about here. If you study the history of our world, you see this so clearly. I started this post mentioning one of the most egregious examples of how ideas led to devastation. Nazi Germany.
That was evil Nazi Germany, though, and that’s extreme, right? Well, let’s bring it home. How could Christians travel the ocean blue in 1492 and end up slaughtering, over the next couple centuries, nearly the entire indigenous population of Native Americans? How? Ideas.
How could Christians in 1619 steal men and women from their homes in Africa, ship them to the Americas, sell, enslave and beat them, because of their skin color? And then, how could Christians develop, over the next two hundred and fifty years, a massive slave trade affecting millions upon millions of Africans? Further still, how could it require a bloody Civil War, killing 600,000 soldiers, to stop it? Ideas.
How could Christians say that based on skin color people are “separate but equal” so that people of one color were not allowed to worship in the churches of the other color? How? Ideas.
How could Christians storm barricades, brutally attack police officers, and break into the Capitol building, chanting “Hang Mike Pence!”? How? What would lead these people, some of whom were carrying Christian flags or other Christian symbols, to commit such crime and violence, not only uttering threats to the Vice-President of the USA (a man who claims to be a Christian himself, and seems to try to live accordingly), but also building a gallows outside the capitol? How could this be? Ideas.
All of a sudden, Paul’s not referring to a Colossian heresy anymore. He’s talking straight to us. Ideas matter. Knowledge is power.
Check back in to the next post as we’ll talk about what ideas could have have led to these kinds of awful situations.