25 February 2010

Colossians studies 3: the false teachers (?)

by Dan Phillips

As I mentioned last time, the little church in Colosse was being threatened by false teaching.  In time, I hope to show you that understanding as much as we can about the false teaching — and, particularly, observing how Paul responded to it — is extremely helpful and instructive to us in our current situation.

I also mentioned that it is common to identify the opposition in Colosse as (A) a group of (B) Gnostic false teachers. I have seen studies debating just how Gnostic they were (and more studies and sermons simply and flatly asserting that they were Gnostics), but I've never seen the number of false teachers debated, nor even discussed.

For instance, the recent, excellent NT introduction by D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo (Zondervan: 20052) discusses whether the false teaching can be called Gnostic in any sense, what its elements seem to be, and even whether there was any specific identifiable heresy in Colosse (526-529). But in describing the opposition, they simply write, "The apostle had heard that some false teachers had come to Colosse, so he wrote to refute their errors..." (523, emphases added).

Similarly, in N. T. Wright's earlier TNTC commentary on Colossians (IVP: 1986) he spoke only of "false teachers," plural. Even on 2:18, where Paul uses the singular, Wright wrote that "Paul describes these people as ‘entering into—their own visions!’ All they have discovered in their vaunted mystical experiences is a set of imaginary fantasies" (128).

In spite of this unargued consensus, I noticed something consistently in the text of Colossians sent my thinking in a fresh direction. As I said, given that far better men that I evidently have seen no such thing, I may well be wrong. However, given that greater understanding and greater attention to details is always helpful, I think it's at least worth a thought.

Let's start by isolating every verse that directly mentions the opposition in Colosse. Here you go (all are my ad hoc translations, bolding added):
  • 2:4 — "I say this that no one should delude you with persuasive arguments."
  • 2:8 — "Keep looking out lest there shall be someone who takes you hostage through empty, deceptive philosophy, in accord with the tradition of men, in accord with the rudiments of the world, and not in accord with Christ:"
  • 2:16 — "Therefore, stop letting someone judge you in eating and in drinking, and in respect to a festival or new moon or sabbath day,...."
  • 2:18-19a — "Stop letting anyone rule you out, delighting in humiliation and worship of the angels, going into detail about things he has experienced, being inflated without cause by the mind of his flesh, and not holding fast to the Head...."
With those in mind, note these mentions of opponents in other epistles:
  • "Indeed, I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. ... 12 And what I do I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do.  13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.  14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. (2 Corinthians 11:5, 12-15)
  • "...there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ." (Galatians 1:7)
  • "They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them." (Galatians 4:17)
  • "I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!" (Galatians 5:12)
  • "For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh." (Galatians 6:13)
  • "Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh." (Philippians 3:2)
  • "As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine,  4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. ...6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions" (1 Timothy 1:3-4, 6-7)
  • "For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party.  11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach" (Titus 1:10-11)
What do you notice? Every one of the mentions in Colossians is in the singular, both pronouns and verbs. The other epistles regularly speak of the opposition in the plural.

Now, this isn't an exhaustive study of every mention of false teachers in every other letter. But I do note that even when Paul uses a singular (i.e. 2 Corinthians 11:4), he'll shift right back into plural (11:5, 12ff.).

So I surmise that there was one charismatic and potentially influential false teacher in Colosse, who was threatening to exert a dangerous influence among believers. I don't think we should speak of the false teachers in Colosse, but the false teacher. At any rate, that's all we have direct authority to identify.

Some might quite appositely point to Colossians 2:8 and 22, where Paul mentions the traditions, commandments and teachings "of men." But 2:8 says to beware of someone, some individual, who teaches these things. Besides, in every other occurrence of τῶν ἀνθρώπων ("of men"), Paul is speaking of mankind, not of specific men (Romans 2:16; 1 Corinthians 1:25; 13:1; Ephesians 3:5; 4:14). Indeed, the ESV translates both occurrences in Colossians as "human."

If I'm reading it right, then, while the other epistles help us see how Paul responded to movements and teachings, Colossians will specifically show how the apostle goes up against one big name, one heretical proto-televangelist, who perhaps could fill the auditoriums of his day and rivet crowds with his personal teachings and experiences and revelations.

What will Paul do? Find dirt on the man's private life? Focus on the way he dresses or lives, or how much money he gets or spends, or what rumors are told of him? How will the apostle respond to this one charismatic false teacher who is threatening to unravel this young church?

First, Lord willing, let us identify what we can of the man's doctrines.  (Was he a Gnostic, like everyone says?  What did he teach?) Next time. Then we can see how Paul responded.

Dan Phillips's signature


James Scott Bell said...

I think that's a terrific insight, Dan. 2:4 esp. seems apt. Groups and members of same don't often make persuasive arguments--usually that is one person who is giften in that regard.

I think you're on to something. Can't wait to read the next installment.

David Regier said...

That was not my guess.

So now I get to read Colossians this morning and stew on it.

Nothing bad about that.

Thanks, Dan.

DJP said...

Thanks, gents. My day's made. I figured the first comment would be either "So?" or "How does that feed a poor person in Bogoland?" or "But we don't really know, do we?" or worse.

So I'm a happy man.


David Rudd said...

Interesting, Dan. I'm curious to see your next step.

In your first paragraph you said this "is extremely helpful and instructive to us in our current situation."

Are you speaking generally, as the church in 2010, or is there a "situation" you have in mind? or will that be part of what you unpack later?

Unknown said...

It's an interesting suggestion. I've been reading Wright and Moo on Colossians recently, and neither has entertained this possibility. My gut reaction though is why Paul doesn't name and shame this teacher more explicitly? He's certainly willing to do so as evidenced by singling out Euodia & Syntche, Demas, as well as singling out a specific individual in 1 Cor 5. Looking forward to reading your next posts on this.

DJP said...

David, basically I mean the church in 2010.

Excellent question, Mark. I mean to get back to that in the next post or two. If I don't, consider this your invitation to remind me.

David Regier said...

Ok, my first stew.

The heretic was teaching Christ plus. Paul just keeps punching away with Christ's supremacy.

The teacher is saying, "Jesus got you in the door, but now to really get it, you've got to . . . "

Paul says, "Here is Christ, Who He is and what He has done. On that basis and none other, you are to . . ."

It doesn't have to be full-blown gnosticism to take the focus off Christ and to put it on the works of man.

DJP said...

Well... there y'go! Very nicely said. I'm done!

Good night everybody, drive carefully, don't forget to tip your waiter!


Chad V. said...


Your conclusion seems plausible to me. The contrast between the singular in Collosians and the plural in the other epistles should not be over looked. It seems to me that a good exegete would take that into account.

You asked why Paul didn't bring up personal faults etc. against the false teacher. I think because none of that stuff would disprove his doctrine anyhow. King David was a murderer but that doesn't keep us from reading and believing his Psalms. Looks to me like Paul is going straight to the heart of the matter. He's going right to Christ and him crucified and liberty in the gospel. That's what matters no matter what kind of lifestyle the false teacher lives.

And as I write this it occurs to me that in a way Paul really has exposed the false teacher's greatest sin. He's exposed his heresy, the greatest evil.

If this teacher were preaching the truth but lived immorally it would be another story. Then Paul would bring to light those sins and exercise discipline.

G N Barkman said...

Very thought-provoking. Thanks. I'm looking forward to the next post.

Stefan Ewing said...

What David said.

Maybe the historical context demands Gnosticism (I don't know), but the heretical teacher(s?) whom Paul is addressing in chapter 2 really seems to be more generally teaching some kind of performance-based "super-Christianity" (to coin a phrase).

There are none of the distinctive hallmarks of Gnostic false teaching, like the supposed duality of mind and body or some of the other whacky stuff the believed.

olan strickland said...

Ephesians - the primary teaching on ecclesiology; Christ is the cornerstone and the head.

Philippians - reproof concerning ecclesiology; have the mind of Christ.

Colossians - correction concerning ecclesiology; not holding fast to the head - proto-pope!

Dan, thanks for accurately handling the word of truth!

Phil said...

Dan you do bring up a good point, what about those starving kids in Bogoland? How does your comment feed their bellies? As this quote I made up about an ancient dude shows "Preach the gospel, talk about Christ only if absolutely forced to" the text is no good unless its practically good for those Bogolanders.

Seriously though, very interesting. Looking forward to the next part.

Chris Gilliam said...

Very exciting study...I wonder if the singular false teacher is...Me? My old sinful self that drifts back to my old sinful ways and fails to keep Christ in the appropriate lime light and rather allows my view of him to lack luster. It is Me, I say, that falls each day and my rebellious mind has yet to be captured and conformed to the Christ proclaimed.
Perhaps Paul is shooting at the false teacher in each of us. Our flesh. Certianly one could make the gnostic duality charge stick if it this point is exagerrated...or I could be of the mark...
Just a few thougths after this reading....Looking forward to your insights.

Christopher said...

I always thought it was awesome WHAT Paul cared about: In Philippians he speaks of people preaching Christ out of wrong motive. They are WRONG, but their message is RIGHT, so he yet praises God that the Gospel is going out.

On the other hand, go to Galatians and see people who are ADDING to the Gospel, and Paul pronounces Apostolic condemnation them. I just thought about that as the Colossian Heresy was "Christ plus". Question: Do you think that most, if not all, heresies start from that standpoint--Christ+(Fill in the blank)=Salvation?

DJP said...

Christopher, meaning specifically Christian heresies (as opposed to false religions unrelated to Christ), I think basically yes.

"Basically" allows me some wiggle-room, but I don't need much. I think you're fundamentally right.

Stefan Ewing said...

Not apposite to Colossians, but:

* Christ-plus-something is one form of heresy.

* Jesus-minus-Christ is another form!

David Rudd said...

thanks, Dan.

i'm inclined to agree with David on the Christ plus heresy... and i agree, it's VERY applicable to the church 2010.

Unknown said...

I think Dan is using our posts to figure out what to say next. ;)

So, in order to help him out, here are my 10 bits. (First off, let me say that I am aware that I'm using some fairly large brush strokes here.)

The issue for Paul in so much of his writing seems to be that he wants Christ to be lifted up, exalted in such a way that everyone has a better opportunity to see the supremacy and magnificence of Christ: who He is, what He has done and what He will do.

This task has at least two major facets for Paul: what one believes and how one acts. The crucial point for Paul seems to be that how you act is based on what you believe. Hence the observation that much of his writing starts off first to establish what we should believe (and why) and then proceeds to establish how we are to live (and why) in light of these truths.

His focus for much of the first facet might, more or less, be related to justification and for the second facet, it might, more or less, be related to sanctification or righteous living.

In the case of Colossians, it appears that he is dealing with someone who claims that one needs to have some sort of experience, [in particular, one where they have spectacular visions (2:18) that lead to stringent regulations prescribing what (not) to do (2:21)] in order to be able to overcome fleshly lusts, i.e. to live righteously.

But, Paul clearly states that this kind of thinking has been prevalent since the foundation of the world (2:8 & 20) and therefore is incapable of giving to us what it is promised to supply, viz. the power to conquer our lusts so that we can live a holy life (2:23) (The implication here would appear to be that this is the means to be found acceptable in God's sight.)

He then goes on to talk about how we can live a righteous life: know that you are raised with Christ (2:10 & 3:1) and know that you are chosen by God (3:12).

All in all, Paul says, it is your faith that empowers you to be alive AND to live the way you should. (2:11-12).

Assuming that I have any where near a modestly decent understanding of Colossians, I end up having an unanswered question about the book I hope Dan might tackle in one of his posts: why wasn't Paul as harsh with the Colossians as he was with the Galatians where he says that what they believe is anathema? It seems to me that Colossians is dealing with a similar issue, so why isn't there the same level of concern to flee what appears to be a different gospel?

Ben said...

It's a very good study and thorough exposition. I'm thankful to the Lord for your blog and your ministry. The only thing I'm struggling with is that it seems to me that if it would have been only one individual, Paul would have named him by his name as he did in Timothy. So maybe Paul is more concern about the heresy that was beginning to be adopted (in an impersonal way) than a specific individual. I'm not sure about what I'm saying. I just want to share my thoughts. Thanks again. Every time I came to read your blog, I'm blessed!
Ben Guillot

Rachael Starke said...


Jonesy, it's great that Dan's post has inspired you to "help him out" so enthusiastically, but I was kind of looking forward to getting Dan's take first, yes? Y'know, on the blog where Dan writes? ;)

Besides, I've learned that posting a comment where I do the bouncing up and down in my seat yelling out the answer in advance thing can sometimes backfire, when I find out my answer is spectacularly wrong, and I've earned the right for Dan to throw a piece of chalk at my head. (Even though he's too gentlemanly to do that to a lady. :) )

Rachael Starke said...

Oh, and for the record, I was thinking along the same lines as David. I know that because I emailed him yesterday just to ask. I wanted to have time/date stamped proof that I was as smart as Dan, and David. Oh well. :)

We were both speculating along the same lines that the source of the false teaching was perhaps very close to home, rather than more of a "brand name" guy.

But it's really instructive to me how you took the whole letter and let the words Paul uses test these different theories. There might be an exegetical lesson or two in there to go along with all the helpful instruction from the book itself.
Now that's value for money! :)

jstephens said...

The first I heard of the single false teacher idea was in the ESV Study Bible introduction to Colossians. This is a great series, looking forward to the rest.

DJP said...


Grr. Honestly, I never had seen it anywhere else. Hm, was that by Clint Arnold?

Well then maybe I'm not wrong.


Stefan Ewing said...

Dan, you're not so plugged into the ESV Study Bible that you've got all the articles memorized?

I guess you're not Truly Reformed after all!

(I jest. I don't have a copy myself.)

Anonymous said...

I believe Paul may have had the seond commandment,


"be careful not to be ensnared by their ways after they have been destroyed before you. Do not inquire about their gods, asking, ‘How did these nations worship their gods? I’ll also do the same." (Deut 12:30)


"If a prophet or someone who has dreams arises among you and proclaims a sign or wonder to you, and that sign or wonder he has promised you comes about, but he says, ‘Let us follow other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us worship them,’ do not listen to that prophet’s words or to that dreamer. For the Lord your God is testing you to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul. You must follow the Lord your God and *fear Him. You must keep His commands and listen to His voice; you must worship Him and remain faithful a to Him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he has urged rebellion against the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the place of slavery, c to turn you from the way the Lord your God has commanded you to walk. You must purge the evil from you. (Deut 13: 1-5)

in mind. What say you Dan?

Anonymous said...

Heart of false teaching I believe:

"an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence." (Col 2:23)

jstephens said...

There's nothing wrong with a little independent verification (or is this validation...) =)

I assume Arnold wrote both the intro and the study notes, though he backs off a bit in the notes by just saying "teacher(s)"

Joel said...

Umm for those of you who missed it. I would just like to point out that DJP implicitly admitted to being a heretic, or in least worse than a heretic.

i.e., "As I said, given that far better men than I evidently have seen no such thing, I may well be wrong."

N. T. Wright= Heretic
DJP < N. T. Wright

DJP <= Heretic


TruthStands said...


Interesting observations. I'm wondering what you think of the idea that the false teaching was coming from outside the church and not inside, and that he was arguing against a syncretistic mileu not necessarily a particular person.

Colossae was a very small town far away from primary places of worship. It is the perfect environment for syncretistic worship because of the lack of "accountability" for each religious view to remain pure. It seems as though there was a mesh of proto-Gnosticism (way too early for pure Gnosticism), Jewish mysticism, Jewish legalism, and the like.

Paul's overarching purpose is to defend the deity, humanity, and supremacy of Christ in all things. That message argues well against syncretism. I have been studying Colossians for several months and it doesn't seem like the teaching is inside the church, but more the milieu of the town and Paul is encouraging the saints to remain steadfast.

The prevalence of present imperatives implies that they were not yet giving in to such teaching, and he was encouraging them to continue in steadfastness.

Looking forward to your next post!

DJP said...

Really good observations, questions.

I mean to incorporate my response as I open up what I think the false teaching was.

If I forget, please nag.


Unknown said...

Hi Dan, thanks for this series! In your last post you said, "Here's where I strike out on my own, with a position I haven't seen anyone else take."

I thought I would share with you a quote from Hiebert: "Since the denunciations throughout the epistle are in the singular number, rather than in the plural as in Galatians, it seems that this Colossian heresy rested on the authority of some single teacher rather than on an appeal to Scripture or tradition" (Intro to the NT, p. 224). Also see T. K. Abbott p. 246. In Moo's commentary on Colossians he argues against the singular and makes notes of parallel constructions in Matt.24:4/Mark 13:5.

DJP said...

Thanks, Andrew.

I really should have said "do not recall seeing," or some such. Because that's the truth. But I sure don't recall everything I've seen!

Again, thanks.