Colossians chapter two makes me nervous. It makes me nervous because it tells me that without great attentiveness and care, churches and Christians drift, not toward truth, but error.
Like a car out of alignment, when a hand the slightest bit off the wheel is followed by the car drifting out of its lane, so, too, churches and Christians, our hearts being out of alignment, without a steady hand, drift away from authentic and biblical Christianity.
Can you tell Paul is a little nervous in chapter two of Colossians?
Verse 4, “Let no one delude you with plausible arguments.”
Verse 8, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit.”
Verse 16-17, “Let no one pass judgement on you in questions of food and drink, with regard to a festival or new moon of Sabbath … Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angles, going on about visions.”
Verse 21-23, essentially reads, “don’t be pressured into submitting to man-made regulations and tools, which may appear wise, but have nothing to do with what you’ve been taught about Jesus Christ.
This drift toward error is a fact of history. From its earliest days down to the present, the church, and Christians, drift, not towards truth, but error.
I am often asked what my vision is for The Falls Church. I’ll tell you something it includes, which if we fail at we fail at all else: my vision includes this church not drifting into error, but remaining steadily committed to authentic, biblical Christianity. We would be blind if we thought remaining faithful to the Gospel will happen by chance, or with ease. Like every generation since Paul’s letter to Colossae, we must be warned against drifting into error.
Paul’s message in these verses to avoid error, strewn across chapter 2, is not a “feel-good” message. Rather, it’s a word of warning and exhortation. It’s meant to stiffen our backs and clear our vision. I want to take his words and tone seriously this morning, and ask together, what is error, and how do we avoid it?
We’ll seek to better understand error and its remedy by making three observations from our passage: (1) The Face of Error: what it looks like; (2) The Cause of Error: what makes us vulnerable to it; (3) The Remedy for Error: how we protect against falling into it.
I: Face of Error: What does error look like?
Paul gives not detailed definition of what the errors were that were threatening the Colossians. He gives us instead little glimpses: “plausible arguments,” “philosophy and empty deceit,” “dietary codes,” “worship of angels.” We need not try to define just what these schools of thought involved in the ancient world, but we can make out some contours of their faces—what they looked like, generally speaking. These errors involve two qualities: teaching and practice.
Teaching: arguments, philosophy: explanations about the world, spirituality, how it worked: worldview stuff. Who God really is, what He is really like, how God thinks about things.
Practices: food, calendars, asceticism, worship of angels. This speaks to practices one does based on their worldview. What do all these practices have in common? They all deal in some way with how a person connects to God, or to the divine. Keeping a holy diet meant you were holy enough to be close to God. Worshiping an angel meant you needed a few intermediaries to help your prayers climb up to God. Asceticism meant you needed to really beat yourself up in order to stop sinning long enough to be liked by God.
Error takes something you are already believe or are practicing, and says there is a better way to understand it, and a more efficient way to bring about the results you want.
Consider an analogy for how error works. Let’s say someone has started a strict diet and exercise regime because they are committing themselves to good health. They start with enthusiasm, but soon realize it’s tough to avoid fatty foods and hard to wake up and run every morning. Then another so-called health guru comes along and says, “I totally support your commitment to health. But you’re making it way too hard on yourself. You can take this pill that flushes your system and will cause you to lose weight without all the hard work.”
In other words, the new guru of health is saying the things they were taught about how to get healthy, and the practices they are using, won’t work or are too much. Instead, there is another, more sufficient and more trustworthy way.
This is what the error was like facing the Colossians. They were all in for wanting true spiritual health. They wanted to be cleansed of sin and to enjoy a connection with God that would satisfy their souls and give them true and lasting life. Paul’s teaching team taught them that the key to all this was Jesus—his teaching and following his practices.
Then other gurus came along. They said it’s good to want a healthy spiritual life. But weren’t they finding the Jesus diet a little slow in terms of results? Wasn’t it hard to keep those practices, and weren’t his teachings hard at times? These other gurus questioned the reliability and sufficiency of the Jesus way, and offered alternatives for a strong spiritual life.
The problem was they were selling something that won’t work—a fake. And nothing is worse than buying a product or putting time into a practice just to learn it’s a phony.
So here is my definition of what error looks like: in our desire for connection to God and true and authentic life, error is anything that makes Jesus and Jesus’ teaching appear insufficient or untrustworthy. If we, as a church or as individuals, believe or practice anything that upon scrutiny would make Jesus Christ and His teaching appear insufficient or untrustworthy, we have been taken captive by an error.
Now, what would make us susceptible to being drawn into a form of spirituality that made Jesus and His teaching seem insufficient or untrustworthy? This takes us to our second point: The Cause of Error.
II: The Cause of Error: What makes us prone to error?
What makes someone susceptible to error? It’s hard to decipher why exactly the Colossians were susceptible to error, outside the general fact that they are humans, like us, and therefore prone to err. Certainly, there is an intellectual element to the cause of error. The Colossians may not be entirely clear in their own minds how to understand Christianity, and may be wrestling with various other explanations for how the world works, who God is, and how they find true life.
However, I don’t think the slide into error is typically a purely intellectual matter. Although error may involve the head, it often has far more to do with the heart. Here is my suggestion for the cause of error in Colossians, or, the reason the Colossians are vulnerable to other, inauthentic versions of Christianity.
I think two things caused the Colossians, and cause us, to be vulnerable to error. And they both have to do with heart matters: (1) our heart’s assumptions about how faith will work, and; (2) our heart’s experiences of how life goes. The heart’s assumptions and experiences are often the deeper cause for error.
(1) Assumptions. How might our heart’s assumptions leave us prey to falling into error? Often when we come into Christianity, we affirm certain things about God and Jesus with our mouths, and to the best of our ability we believe them in our head. However, we also often have certain hopes and expectations of what faith in Jesus will mean for our lives. I call these, heart assumptions. Sometimes we aren’t really fully aware they are there, but they shape so much of how we handle life.
I wonder if perhaps the Colossians had assumed in their hearts that Christianity would lead to an immediate victory over sin and temptation, or that their experience of God would always be ecstatic and sublime. When their experience didn’t cohere with this heart assumption, they were prey to false versions of spirituality that perhaps promised a quicker fix for struggles with sin or a more potent experience of the divine.
Assumptions are things we believe in our heart about how God should and will act, but which are not necessarily so. As Mark Twain once quipped: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
(2) Experiences. A second and related heart matter that can cause us to be prone to error has to do with the heart’s experiences. Much of what we believe has more to do with what our heart experiences than we may realize. Often a difficult or disorienting experience will make us question what we have believed about God, and this will in turn leave us vulnerable to taking on another view of God, which, although ultimately false, seems more acceptable to our hearts at the time.
I know of a young woman who lives a few states away. She was raised in a strong, thoughtful and loving Christian family, went off to a Christian college, and became very involved in a solid, biblically sound, local church post-college. She even led at youth group.
However, as the years went by, her experience of life was not what she’d hoped for. This was particularly the case in the relationship department. After years of prayers and waiting, a guy came along who she liked, but he didn’t share her faith. Being so exhausted and down in this area, she fell into a relationship with him. He wasn’t interested in marriage, but was interested in intimacy. Soon she was crossing all the boundaries she had held about Jesus’ view of relationships and sexual ethics. She slowly justified this to herself, however, because she said God wanted her to be happy, and she’d waited so long.
Soon her practices made life at her church hard, so she and her boyfriend found a new church that was looser in its views of Jesus’ teaching. When asked about this church, she said, “I like how they really focus on Jesus’ teachings about the poor, and about love. And I like how they aren’t judgmental about other things, like one’s relationship choices.”
I’m not so close with this old friend anymore, but I often wonder about her. I wonder if she’s happy.
She now espouses an erroneous version of Christianity. It’s a version that says two things, subtly, but deeply: (a) Jesus is not sufficient for satisfying your heart—you need sexual experience for that, and; (b) Jesus’s teachings are not trustworthy or reliable, so you have to pick and choose which ones to obey.
You see, what caused my dear friend’s errors was not an intellectual quandary. It was due to assumptions she had about how God would work in her life and experiences she had in her heart. I feel for her. She is trying so hard; she is often so well meaning and earnest. But she’s been, as Paul would say, “deluded and carried off by false teaching.”
Let’s summarize what we’ve said so far. We’ve talked about the Face of Error, what it looks like. We’ve said, error is anything that makes Jesus or his teaching look insufficient or untrustworthy. Second, we’ve asked what about the Cause of Error—what makes us susceptible to it? We’ve just learned that although intellectual matters may lead us to error, it’s more often matters of the heart. Error is often caused by assumptions and experiences of the heart, that leave us prey for a version of Christianity that may work better, or work faster.
So the second chapter of Colossians makes me nervous. Because Paul shows us that without great attentiveness and care, we will fall, not into more truth, but into error. I take this matter really seriously. So far, this aspect of Colossians—Paul’s pleading and warning against falling into error—does not make for a simple or feel-good sermon. This is Paul warning, this is Paul admonishing. It’s a sobering and strong word, but so good for us. Do not fall into error; do not be persuaded by false teaching, no matter how expedient it may seem or feel, no matter how hard following Christ may currently be.
Do you know that when a pastor is ordained in a denomination, he makes a promise to take error seriously? In one prayer book service from 1928, the pastor being ordained is reminded that he is a “Watchman” over God’s people. He not only is called to “feed and provide for the Lord’s family,” but also this:
“See that ye never cease your labour, your care and diligence, until ye have done all that lieth in you, according to your bounden duty, to bring all such as are or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of [maturity] in Christ, that there be no place left among you, either for error in religion, or for viciousness in life.” (1928 Book of Common Prayer)
Later, in the same service, the Bishop charges the pastor:
Bishop: Will you be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God's Word?
Candidate: I will, the Lord being my helper.
So let me follow Paul’s example, and my charge, and plead with us to be on guard against any teaching, or any practice of life, that makes Jesus or his teaching appear insufficient or untrustworthy. And let me leave us with three ways to do this. And with this, we have our third point: The Remedy of Error. What protects us from falling into a form of Christianity that makes Jesus Christ, the living God, appear insufficient or untrustworthy? Three remedies:
III. The Remedy for Error: how do we avoid being carried off into error?
Ask yourself often, is my view of Christianity rooted in Scripture, or my own assumptions about how God works? This means you need to know scripture. Buy a study bible—ESV or NIV, join a small group that studies the Bible, stop watching TV for the next six months and instead start a Bible reading plan. Then, when you have questions, write them down, go to someone who is a little more knowledgeable about Scripture, and ask for help.
If our faith is rooted in a Christian cliché, such as, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” and not Scripture, such as Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:8, “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. We were so were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself,” then we are prone to espouse a shallow, therapeutic version of Christianity that isn’t Christianity at all. To reframe the aphorism based on Scripture, “God will never give you more than He can handle.”
Ask yourself this second question often: Am I a Christian to get a god other than Jesus Christ? The question here probes what idols and what motives lie in your heart. If you are in Christianity so God will give you a great life, a great job, a great marriage, great children, but not because you want Him to give you Himself, then you are on shaky ground.
This is not at all to say that God does not love to bless us, or that it’s wrong to want good things deeply, like vocational enjoyment, like familial blessings, like physical and mental health. But if somewhere in your heart you would trade Jesus for marriage, or trade Jesus for success, or trade Jesus for anything in the world, then you are prone to be pulled away by a false version of Christianity. You are in danger of error.
If you revere the teacher, you’ll keep his teaching. I could summarize this sermon with this sentence: “Error often begins in the heart, so its remedy lies not only in the mind’s assent to Jesus’ teaching, but the hearts reverence for the Teacher. If you love and revere the teacher, you’ll have a much easier time following his teaching.
I’ll illustrate this last point with a story, and with this we’ll close.
I switched schools during high school, and being shy, found it difficult. There was one particular teacher at my new school however, Mr. Dietzel, who was not only taught a specific subject, but was also my homeroom teacher. On an early day of the year, I got to homeroom 15 minutes early and was the only student. Mr. Dietzel came and sat in the desk next to me. He asked me all about myself, my family, my background. He took a liking to me. He used to stop me in the hallway just to see how I was doing. I came to deeply trust and respect him. I still remember how he gave me a book on my graduation day.
Because I had such respect and love for Mr. Dietzel, I couldn’t imagine being late for his class, or being disrespectful to him. And I took what he said so seriously. I wanted to learn everything he wrote on the board, not only because I trusted his mind, but because I wanted to honor him by taking in what he thought. I believed every word I learned from Mr. Dietzel, and I took it to heart, because I loved Mr. Dietzel and knew he loved me.
Friends, this is the key to avoiding error: to not merely learn the teachings of Jesus, but to take them in because we love and revere Jesus, our Teacher.
Paul is nervous about the church. He pleads with them not to be taken captive by false teaching. But rather, the Apostle says to them, and to us, “As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
by Sam Ferguson. Sermon given on July 14, 2019