Colossians: Human Philosophy and Social Justice

Holy Bible and Marxist Fist

Colossians was written in A.D. 62 by Paul while he was imprisoned. By this time the gospel had spread from Jerusalem to Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and likely Egypt, North Africa, and Persia.[1] The church at Colossae was probably founded by a man named Epaphras who may have been converted by Paul in Ephesus and then traveled back to his hometown to establish the church.[2] Paul wrote his letter when he received a message about false teachings spreading through the church, which continues to have meaning for us today.

A Review of Colossians

Paul opens the letter with a greeting from Timothy and himself to Colossae (Col. 1:1-2, ESV). Paul affirms that he is happy that the Colossian’s have received the gospel and prays that they will walk in a way pleasing to the Lord, having been made citizens of the Kingdom (Col. 1:3-14, ESV). The opening prayer sets the tone of the message, as the church had been infected with false teachings and was not walking in a way pleasing to the Lord.

Praise to Christ

Next Paul reaffirms that Jesus was the image of God and all things were created through Him (Col. 1:15-17, ESV). That Jesus is the head of the church and was the first raised from the dead (Col. 1:18-20, ESV). This establishes Christ’s authority not only as God but the head of the church. Paul follows this reminder of Jesus’ position, with other reminders that they were once evil, but Jesus reconciled them (Col. 1:21-23, ESV).

Paul’s Labor for the Gospel

After Paul reminds them of Jesus’ position and their relationship with Him, he establishes his relationship. Paul rejoices in his suffering to share the gospel, so he may bring the hope of glory to others and present mature believers (Col. 1:24-29, ESV). Paul is reminding the Colossians that he works to spread sound teachings of the gospel and he wants no one to delude Colossae with false human arguments. Paul reminds them that even though he is absent that he is with them in spirit (Col. 2:1-5, ESV). His message on sound teaching is reaffirmed at the end of the letter when Paul lists names of people that can be trusted. He then moves into critiquing the dangerous teachings.

Dangerous Teachings at Colossae

He affirms that the Colossian’s need to walk with Jesus as they have been taught and to not be led astray by “human wisdom” (Col. 2:6-8, ESV). Paul’s warning here is clear, that Colossae should not allow themselves to be kidnapped by an empty deception based on human ideas.[3] Paul reminds them that they have put off the body of flesh and been buried with Christ in baptism (Col. 2:9-12, ESV). They were dead in trespasses and flesh, but God made them alive in Him; cancelling their debt on the cross (Col. 2:13-15, ESV). According to Anders, when false teachers attack, they will do it in two ways.

First, they will attack the person of Jesus Christ and second the believer’s identity in Him. False teachers will fail to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is God and attempt to undermine his uniqueness.[4] Paul addresses Jesus’ identity and our relationship earlier in the letter. Here he addresses the second issue of attacks on believers’ identities. Paul asserts that no one should judge you in questions of food, festivals, or new moon worship. He reminds them that they should not worship angels, asceticism, or visions (Col. 2:16-19, ESV). Paul closes this section on false teaching by reminding the church to remember who they are in Christ and to stay away from self–made religion (Col. 2:20-23, ESV).

Living a Christian Life

Up to now, Paul has established the churches relationship with Christ. Paul’s relationship with the church and discussed how they are being led astray. In this next section, Paul will set standards of how to live a Christian life. He starts by instructing believers to set their mind on the things above and that life is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:1-4, ESV). He warns believers to put to death what is earthly as God’s wraith is coming because of sinful things (Col. 3:5-6, ESV). Jesus has changed their life, so it is up them to change their lifestyle, which starts with discarding the old.[5] Paul instructs that they are to put on their new self (Col. 3:7-10, ESV).

As a “new self” they are also a part of a new community. This community is not Jew or Greek…but all are in Christ and Christ is in all (Col. 3:11, ESV). Paul is reminding them that the human distinctions which normally divide people such as racial, religious, cultural, and social no longer have significance.[6] They are to put on then, as God’s holy and beloved. Bearing with one another and forgiving each other (Col. 3:12-13, ESV). By putting on the love which binds everything together the Colossians can let the peace of Christ rule their hearts (Col. 3:14-17, ESV)!

The final section on the Christian life provides instructions for marriage, parenting, and relationship with authority figures. Paul reminds husband and wives of their relationship with each other and reminds children to honor their parents (Col. 3:18-21, ESV). Workers work hard for the Lord, not your earthly masters (Col. 3:22-25, ESV). While masters are required to treat their servants fairly, remembering that they have a master in heaven (Col. 4:1, ESV). All of these relationships are representative to the supremacy of Christ and our relationship with Him, which will transform our character and revolutionize our relationships.[7]

Personal Greetings and Closure

Paul closes out his letter by instructing the Colossians to listen to Tychicus and Onesimus (Col. 4:7-9, ESV). He continues to provide a list of the others that can also be trusted (Col. 4:10-13, ESV). Paul may have done this as he was in prison and if he was not released or put to death, wanted to endorse the authority of reliable teachers (Col. 4:18, ESV). He also encourages the Colossians to read the letter to the entire church and to then trade with the Laodiceans (Col. 4:14-17, ESV). What Paul wrote to the Laodiceans is a mystery.[8] He was likely concerned about false teachings spreading to Colossae’s sister church and wanted this message to reach that congregation as well.

Application for Today

The letter to Colossae has many lessons for believers and the church today. Especially over the last few years and in particular 2020 the U.S. has increasingly focused on social injustice and race relations. Clearly in A.D. 62 Paul was also concerned with human relations in the church at Colossae when he penned “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11, ESV). God’s word admonishes racism, as believers we are called to “put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14, ESV).

We absolutely need to stand in these biblical truths, but many churches have begun to adopt “social justice” either as a ministry or have called members to become involved with initiatives. At first glance, this seems perfectly acceptable, but I would urge caution as congregations move to support social justice efforts. The first is that social justice can detract credit from God. The second reason is that it may delude the message of the gospel.

To address my first point, social justice seeks to make proactive changes through public administrators, government, non-profit organizations, foundations, public health and regulatory agencies.[9] While working with these organizations may be necessary to make changes in our society, they are not a substitute for the body of Christ. In a speech at Notre Dame University, former Attorney General William Barr made the following observation,

[The Priest] pointed to the growing homeless problem in D.C. and explained that more mobile soup kitchens were needed to feed them. This being a Catholic church, I expected him to call for volunteers to go out and provide this need. Instead, he recounted all the visits that the Committee had made to the D.C. government to lobby for higher taxes and more spending to fund mobile soup kitchen.”[10]

Certainly, Christians are called to feed the hungry, but who will get the credit in this instance? Jesus did not call his disciples to lobby Caesar for soap kitchens, he called his followers to feed the hungry in His name (Matt. 25:37; Mark 9:41, ESV).

Second, social justice is undefined and it is unclear how it translates into practice.[11] If we were to survey our church on the definition of social justice, we would all likely have different opinions. While most causes that are advocated by social justice organizations are paralleled biblically, many are not. Here Paul reminds us to “[s]ee to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition” (Col 2:8a, ESV). The concept of social justice is not well defined and in many cases argues for causes that are not congruent with God’s word such as same-sex marriage, gender fluidity, and the “right” to access abortion.[12] Due to the fact that everyone has a different opinion of social justice and what a “just” society looks like, it has divided not only politics in the U.S., but in many cases congregations.[13] Understandably, many Christians find the idea of social justice appealing, and certain aspects are sound, but “Undoubtedly, evangelicals have done grave damage to the church’s public witness by aligning too closely and uncritically with certain political forces.”[14] So should a church align with a social justice organization or start a ministry? I would argue that all we need is the Gospel of Christ.

Paul instructs the Colossians to focus on the things above. He affirms the Colossians need to walk with Jesus as they have been taught and not be led astray by human wisdom (Col. 2:6-8, ESV). Social Justice as a theory was established in the mid-1800s and has it roots in Marxism. God’s word is eternal and will not pass away. We need to “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another” (Col. 3:12, ESV). We should leave room for God’s divine justice and “if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:13, ESV). As the body of Christ we need to be the light in this dark world walking in God’s Word, bringing glory to Him, and spreading the good news of the Gospel. We do not need to be political advocates, but believers that “[w]alk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time” letting our “speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col. 4:5-6, ESV).

Notes


[1] “Introduction to Colossians,” in The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 2289-2292.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Max Anders, Holman New Testament Commentary: Galatians-Colossians. Vol. 8. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999).

[4] Ibid, 305.

[5] Ibid, 325.

[6] Ibid, 330.

[7] Ibid, 332.

[8] Ibid, 348.

[9] Kent State University, “The Five Principles of Social Justice,” July 30, 2020, https://onlinedegrees.kent.edu/political-science/master-of-public-administration/community/five-principles-of-social-justice.

[10] William P. Barr, “Attorney General William P. Barr Delivers Remarks to the Law School and the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame,” justice.gov. October 11, 2019. https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-william-p-barr-delivers-remarks-law-school-and-de-nicola-center-ethics (accessed September 29, 2020).

[11] Michael Reisch, “Introduction to Multi-Level Practice: Social Justice & Social Work Practice,”  University of California, Berkeley. December 8, 2014. https://archive.hshsl.umaryland.edu/bitstream/handle/10713/4665/UCB%20SSW%20Presentation%20120814.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

[12] Kent State University, “The Five Principles of Social Justice.”

[13] Andrew Byers, “Don’t Scoff at ‘Social Justice.’ Don’t Anchor Yourself to It, Either,” Christianity Today, June 18, 2020, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/june-web-only/douglas-murray-madness-crowds-social-justice.html.

[14] Ibid.

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