02 March 2010

Colossians studies 4: the false teacher's teaching (1)

by Dan Phillips

In the last post, I introduced and defended my idea that the Colossians were being troubled by one particular charismatic false teacher. By the way, I did not mean to say that no one else has ever had that idea, which is unlikely. I may even have read it, in 35+ years of loving and reading on Colossians. But I honestly don't recall anyone advancing the position, and I do continue to see and hear the plural + Gnosticism as the standard, default position.

Now let's approach a closer look at the shape of the false teaching. After that, I plan to shift to focusing on how Paul responded to it.

As TruthStands observed in the last post's meta, Colosse was ideally situated for syncretism. In case that's not a regular word for you, syncretism is basically playing religious mix-n-match. You take a bit from various religions and mix it together, so that what you have is a little of several religions, but not any particular religion — until it itself becomes a religion. I'd say that Christian Science, Religious Science, and Roman Catholicism are three syncretistic religions, for example. You could name others.

Why was it ideal for syncretism? Here is where introductory matters matter, in interpretation. As I observed in the first post, Colosse hosted travellers going to and from Rome and the Euphrates Valley, and was home to native Phrygians, Greek settlers, and Jews — specifically Jews who had been imported not from Israel but from Babylonia and Mesopotamia.

What that means is that the populace featured folks presumably influenced by paganism, Greek thought, and Judaism that had been uprooted from the holy land and put through a wringer for a few centuries. It was not singly rooted anywhere, nor in anything. It was eclectic, and not in the best sense of the word. The framework would have been not to have a framework.

Kind of like us.

One can over-generalize and say that false teachers can come at Christianity in one of two ways.
  1. Confrontation. They can initiate a frontal, head-on collision, trying their mightiest simply to undo Christian truth-claims. "Not that, but this" would describe this stance. Atheists, Orthodox Jews, Islam today are often of this stripe.
  2. Assimilation. This approach tries more at collusion than collision. Assimilators labor to give the impression of shared common-ground, so as to make room for their bringing in what really matters to them. Mormons are attempting this today, as are many Roman Catholics. This apparently was the approach of the Judaizers in Galatia. They were not kin to apostate Jews today who would try to discredit Jesus' Messianic claims. They would affirm faith in Jesus as a terrific starting-point... and then say "here is what you really need to be fully saved."
If you think it through, you see that the Serpent utilized both approaches, in Genesis 3, starting more with the second, and ending up with the first.

The Colossian teacher was of the second variety. Piecing together what clues we have in Colossians, it does not appear that he flatly denied Jesus. I gather that from the fact that Paul did not deal with him by asserting the truthfulness, or the reality, or the qualifications of Christ.

Rather, I think his approach was to "Yes, yes of course" the whole Jesus-thing... but then, by emphasis and omission, to substitute the distinctives he brought as the real heart of the matter (according to him). Like the Colossians, he was ready to admit Jesus as important, and to affirm him as a tremendous starting-place.

Christ just wasn't enough. Having Jesus alone didn't get you all the way there. Christ wasn't everything one needs.

To get all that, you needed what the false teacher was bringing, which he would be delighted to share.

This is why Paul's pro-active response is not to stress the truthfulness of Christ, but the absolute sufficiency of the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Next time, Lord willing, we'll get into the specifics of the false teacher's doctrines. After that, we'll begin looking at Paul's response, in overview.

Dan Phillips's signature


donsands said...

"..so as to make room for their bringing in what really matters to them."

What really matters will eventually come to the surface, if we are patient.

I have discuused Christ with Mormons, Catholics, and JW's, and even though they all start with "It's God's grace that saves us", -it's not long before the discussion turns to works salvation.
Catholics have their priests and sacraments, Mormons have Joseph Smith, and his book, and JW's have their own bible to tell them how to be good and humble and so on.

Thanks for the study. Good words.

Sheldon said...

The idea of syncretism being the primary problem in the Colossian church is also the position of Matt Chandler at Village Church in Texas. He is preaching through Colossians now. I don't know where he stands on the false teacher/teachers concepts.

DJP said...

Mm; forgive me if it seems nit-picky of me, but I'm not arguing that syncretism is the problem, but that a lone syncretistic false teacher is.

olan strickland said...

A syncretistic false teacher will feed you his syncretism where he has taken this and that from various religions and sewn them together as a crazy quilt. I'm with the late Vance Havner on this one - "They call it a syncretism; I call it hash. I never eat hash when I'm away from home because I don't know what's in it and I never eat hash when I'm at home because I do know what's in it."

olan strickland said...

But I would eat that syncretistic ice-cream cone! :)

John said...

Brian Mclaren, anyone?

Keith B said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keith B said...

When people always want 'something' more than Jesus as presented in Scripture it causes me to wonder if they really know Him. Enjoying the study.

David Regier said...


Don't you know that the all-sufficiency of Christ has been thoroughly deconstructed to undercut the hegemony of systematic authority? So in order to make sense of Christ-ness (if you will) in an intentionally pluralistic paradigm, we must consider Christ as the ur-Self, or rather, ur-Being. In that way, we can see the sufficiency of Our-Self, or rather, Our-Being.

I was a pretty good syncretist in college. It's easy once you get the hang of it.

TruthStands said...


I'm hoping you'll address the possibility that Paul was addressing the religious milieu of Colosse, not necessarily one partilular person.

As you mentioned in the previous article, it is clear in Paul's other letters when he had specific false teachers in mind. At this point I'm not convinced that Paul has one false teacher in mind here... particularly because of the array of false teaching he addresses (e.g. defending the deity AND humanity of Christ).

Looking forward to the next installment.

Unknown said...

But don't we still have the problem of why Paul didn't respond in the same manner as he did in Galatians? Isn't the problem in Galatia and Colosse essentially the same: Jesus +/- anything = another gospel?

Or is Paul dealing with an error in Colosse and a heresy in Galatia? Is that the difference?

If so, then it seems we have to change the aforementioned equation to something like: Jesus +/- anything important = another gospel.

Now, I understand the problem in Colosse to be more serious than the problem in Galatia. (Remember, Paul got upset with Peter for changing seat mates at lunch and a little bit of skin, painful though it may be to remove.) So, if, this understanding (i.e. the relative seriousness of the problems in Galatia and Colosse) is true, then Paul should be going ballastic with the Colossians.

I'm surprised that he's not!

Stefan Ewing said...


In the 5th paragraph, "ringer" should be "wringer."

I'm looking forward to your analysis of what the substance of this false teaching is, although I personally have been struck by Paul's mention of asceticism and visions in 2:18, and self-denial in 2:16 and 2:21.

Long before I surrendered my life to Christ, I was attracted by monasticism: the Desert Fathers; the mediaeval mystics; meditative, experiential prayer; and so on. Colossians 2 seems to be a direct response to the illusion that such a life makes a person somehow more "spiritual" (which is supposed to be the intention).

DJP said...

"Ringer" could be made to work, but you're right.

Darn! if only I had an email account where people could send corrections... must look into that....

TruthStands said...


Actually the problem in Galatia and Colosse is different. You could say they are fundamentally similar, but practically different.

Galatia was dealing specifically with Judaizers who were advocating adherence to the Mosaic law for salvation. Colosse had a much more diverse set of false teaching, which Dan will likely point out in the next article.

Additionally, it appears the church in Galatia was giving in to the false teaching, but it doesn't appear that way in Colosse.

Stefan Ewing said...

Hmmm, through the "ringer...." Well, there is the deuterocanonical story of "Bel" in the Greek version of the book of the exilic prophet Daniel....

Unknown said...


But doesn't the issue of Christ's supremacy (or as Dan put it, "the absolute sufficiency of Christ") appear to be a more serious problem than separating from Gentiles during a meal and being circumscised?

In Galatians it appears that Paul is dealing with the unforeseen (hence why Peter and Barnabas are lead astray) implications of certain actions that stem from an incomplete understanding of what Christ has accomplished for us on the cross. In Colossians though you could say this is also happening, it appears to be happening in a blatant manner: it appears to me that Paul is dealing with outright denials of who Christ is.

Is my eisegesis too good and my exegesis rotten?

TruthStands said...


Is my eisegesis too good and my exegesis rotten?

:-) Neither. I think it's a matter of emphasis. If you wanted to boil it down getting real close to oversimplification, you could say that Galatians focuses of the work of Christ, and Colossians focuses on the person of Christ. Both certainly deal with more than that, but that I think that is the difference in emphasis.

Whether the supremacy of Christ is more important issue that the sufficiency of Christ is hard to quantify. One of the differences that made Galatians a more serious situation, according to my understanding, is that the Galatian church was buying into the false teaching, but Colossian church wasn't.

Unknown said...


When you say "absolute sufficiency of Christ" are you using "absolute" synonymously with "complete" or "total"? If not, what would be a synonym for what you have in mind?


Unknown said...


Are there any overt textual clues leading you to believe that the Colossian church had not bought into these ideas?

If there is nothing overt, what are you looking at to infer that they didn't buy into the ideas?


P.S. I hate being "neither" right nor wrong! There's no chance for me to learn. :o)

TruthStands said...

Are there any overt textual clues leading you to believe that the Colossian church had not bought into these ideas?

Definitely. In the Greek Paul uses predominently present imperatives (as opposed to aorist imperatives).

The present imperative generally assumes that the person is already doing it, and it is telling them to keep doing it. The aorist imperative assumes they are not doing it and they should start.

The only aorist imperatives are in 3:5, 8, 12; and 4:10, 15, 16, 17. Every other command is in the present.

Stefan Ewing said...


The "absolute" in "absolute sufficiency of Christ" does mean just that—absolute, complete, total.

It is solely through the person and work of Jesus Christ that our sins can be atoned for and we can be made right with God.

If anything more were required, Jesus Christ alone isn't enough; if anything less were required, then the Cross was unnecessary.

mike said...

John said
"Brian McLaren anyone"
i would think that by now we can see that he has unmasked himself pretty well. the problems are those who seem to be half way between him and where we should be. (or even 90%)
there are many (large names) that reside comfortably within the encampment of evangelicalism who fit the description well, and not nearly enough are willing to point out the garbage in the groceries as it were.

J♥Yce Burrows said...

In the last post, I introduced and defended my idea that the Colossians were being troubled by one particular charismatic false teacher.

Dan, does it help or hinder to look at those individual words and learn how they are used elsewhere in the NT? For instance, vs. 18...the word is also used in Romans 13:8. There is it only speaking of one specific individual that we are to love out of all people we will ever meet? Or each one out of all? So does it mean there could be many false teachers... yet deal with each and what each teaches the same? Or ???



J♥Yce Burrows said...

And contextually in a further verse in chapter 2 ~ 22...commandments and doctrines of men.

I'm behind in reading, appreciate these studies...and thinking/stretching/digging on "teacher" vs. "teachers". Not to the exclusion of absolute sufficiency of the person and work of Jesus Christ. :-)

DJP said...

Not sure your point, Joyce. Responded to that in the previous post.