Have you ever been in a workplace or school or volunteer group that has a rule in place, and a newcomer asks, “Why do you have that rule?” and you honestly can’t remember? You’ve been following the rule for so long that you’ve forgotten why it was imposed in the first place! It was wise at some point, but now maybe it’s not needed.
Rules and regulations, Paul writes in Colossians 2 verse 23, have an appearance of wisdom. Rules and regulations often do, as they are put in place in response to a situation.
This is very true for religious-based rules and regulations. As I’ve mentioned on the blog before, for a couple years Faith Church offered beginning ballroom dance classes in our fellowship hall At the time the idea was first proposed, some in our church family were concerned it might violate the rule, “Do not dance in the church building.” Maybe not every church had that rule, but some EC Churches did. Our Outreach serve team was proposing offering the dance classes as a community outreach, so we had to talk about that rule. It might have been wise in the past, but it also might not have been. Not all rules start out as good rules. Either way, we concluded that the no dancing rule wasn’t applicable anymore, so long as the ballroom dance classes were tasteful, which they were. On the first night, we had so many people show up for ballroom dance classes, we had to turn people away and build a wait list.
In verse 23 Paul says that the rules not only have an appearance of wisdom, they also have self-imposed worship. What does that mean? I had to look that one up. That Greek word means this: “a set of religious beliefs and practices resulting from one’s own desires and initiative—‘religion thought up by oneself’.” Paul is saying that the people promoting the Colossian Heresy are teaching a religion filled with rules and regulations that appear wise, but are based on religious beliefs and practices they made up! You can see how that is a concern. We shouldn’t make up a religion, rules or regulations. True religion flows from the heart of God.
What was this made-up religion? The Colossian Heresy might have been made up by mixing together elements of other existing religions. This practice of mixing is called syncretism, taking pieces of different belief systems and mixing them up to create a new religion.
The resulting mixture sounds like Christianity, but it is also different. So what might this syncretistic or mixed-up religion in Colosse have been? Look back at verse 18. There Paul writes that the false teachers worship angels. Well, Christians do believe in angels, but we don’t worship them. Then Paul writes that the false teachers go into great detail about what they have seen. It could be that Paul is referring to people who talk a lot and will not stop talking. But it is also possible Paul is referring to visions (“what they have seen”). Yes, Christians believe that God can give visions and dreams, and in fact he did many times in the Bible, including to Paul himself, as we studied in Acts last year. But Paul said these people would go into great detail about what they saw. It could be that Paul means these people take their stand on the visions, as if the visions are the central focus on their belief. Either way, what they are doing he says in verse 18 is self-focused, arrogant, giving them a big head. They are the focus, not Jesus. That is the syncretistic, self-imposed, or made-up worship he is referring to in verse 23.
Syncretistic worship can occur when Christianity and culture start to merge into one another. For example, African Christianity has had to wrestle with witchcraft. Asian Christianity has had to wrestle with ancestor worship. What do you think American Christianity has had to wrestle with? Consumerism and materialism, racism, our entertainment culture, and as I mentioned in the previous series, nationalism. Each culture and each time period can have ways of thinking that confuse the truth about Jesus and how to live that truth in that culture and in that time. What that means is that we need to do the hard work of making sure that our view of Jesus is as unpolluted as possible. That can be hard work.
Next Paul says in verse 23 that the false teachers promote rules and regulations that have an appearance of wisdom because of their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body. There’s that phrase “false humility” again, which we first heard about in verse 18. Paul’s repetition of this concept shows us that Paul is saying that whatever the Colossian heresy is, it gives the appearance of humility, but it is false.
One way it shows itself to be false is through harsh treatment of the body. What does Paul mean be “harsh treatment of the body”? That phrase gives us another clue about the identity of the Colossian Heresy: Gnosticism. Scholars debate if there was Gnosticism in Paul’s day. Others wonder if Paul might be responding to an early form of Gnosticism. We’re just not sure. The reason why people wonder if Paul is referring to Gnosticism is because of this comment about harsh treatment of the body. Gnostics believed that the physical body was sinful, that flesh is evil. Therefore if humans practiced self-flagellation, they could actually beat the sin out of the body. But Paul says self-harm has no value in restraining sensual indulgence.
Notice the link Paul is making here to rules and regulations. So often we can follow rules and regulations, and we can have little or no heart behind it. We can follow rules begrudgingly, angrily, or ironically. Paul is saying back in verse 17 that those kinds of rules are a shadow, and the real thing is Christ!
Paul is not saying that we shouldn’t have rules or guidelines or principles. In the coming weeks we’re going to study Colossians chapter three where he’ll talk about the kind of life that practices the way of Jesus. Paul will list rules we should follow. Rules, then, are not inherently wrong. But know this: rules will not change your heart. It could also be that the word “rules” is not helpful, given its legalistic bent. Instead, going back to Colossians 2 verses 9-15, Paul is saying that we need to place our faith in Christ, we need to know him and his ways and his heart so we can be free to follow his way. We should not follow the self-focused, empty rules of the world.
This means we need to teach and practice discipleship to Jesus!
Are you judging people or yourself based on rules rather than on Christ?
More pointedly, how are you evaluating your own heart? It is not wrong to be a rule-follower. Some of you take pride in being rule-followers. Some of you are not rule-followers! But when it comes to Jesus, Paul is saying, so far in Colossians 2, that we are people who have been made alive in Christ, transformed by Christ, and are still being transformed by Christ, so we should not look to rules and regulations as our guide. Jesus is our guide for how to live life. Continue to get to know who he is. As you read scripture, study how Jesus acts, who does he interact with? How does he relate to people? What do you learn about his heart?
 Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 532.