Gimme that old-time religion
Human precepts and doctrines
An appearance of wisdom
The reader may be wondering why the title ‘Gimme that old-time religion’ was considered by myself to be such an appropriate title for these few verses.
Perhaps I just wanted to wake the reader up and encourage them to access the file?
Or did I want to shock the reader into recoiling in horror at one of the phrases the Church has been known to use and apply it to something which Paul condemns?
That’s more than likely, I confess.
I know how my mind works...
But the point of the apostle’s words here are reflected in the title for he urges his readers not to hark back to the ‘old way’ from which they were delivered and to which they’d died in the body of Jesus Christ. They weren’t to think that man-made rules and regulations were now a way of achieving acceptance before God because their conversion had undermined that position and they weren’t to move back into such a lifestyle would be to renounce their faith in Christ.
To those men and women who’ve been converted out of the cults and sects such as belong to Protestantism or Catholicism with their heavy insistence on observance to law and superstition, the apostle’s words come as a timely reminder that, when a commitment was made to follow Jesus, there was a death to the old way which needs never to be revived.
The freedom that’s in Jesus Christ can be somewhat scary to men and women who’ve built their lives on the security of knowing that by doing ‘x’ each week, they’ve secured acceptance with God for, in Him, no religious observance or rite is of any use in gaining acceptance.
Rather, the freedom which is given can be used by the conscience to condemn the new relationship with God and some ‘crutch’ or ‘structure’ which underpins their experience can be hankered after, the believer turning back into rules and regulations which actually deny the work of Christ and the free gift of God.
Christianity means freedom of service - man-made rules and regulations were never meant to be a part of it even though we’ve sought really hard to justify them. And we work really hard at applying them to ourselves.
The end of Col 2:23 is an unfortunate place to conclude the chapter seeing as the section we’re now dealing with seems to run more logically to the end of Col 3:4.
Paul opens with the idea of death (Col 2:20) before going on to thoughts about the resurrection and ascension (Col 3:1) and an appeal to strip away those thoughts and attitudes which belong to the old way of life and which would seek to rob them of the life they’ve received by faith in Jesus Christ.
Paul will go on from Col 3:5 to contrast the way of life which is indicative of both the old and new ways before directing his attention on more general guidelines and principles for the recognised sections within the fellowship (Col 3:18-4:1 - another unfortunate chapter division!).
Colbruce begins his own section with a paraphrase-cum-interpretation of these four verses which is well worth reading. He seems to encapsulate the burden of Paul’s writings in about five times as much volume as the original words but doesn’t seem to go off too far from the apostle’s meaning.
It would be good to reproduce the words here but I think it could be misconstrued that I was simply cheating and infringing copyright by such a lengthy quote so I’ve desisted!
Gimme that old-time religion
Paul begins another appeal here for the Colossian believers to realise what Jesus Christ has done both for them and in them and so to react positively to the manner of living which should be consigned to the past.
The RSV’s translation of Col 2:20 makes the reader think that false religion has already gained infiltration into the fellowship, even though we’ve already noted that the church was in good order (Col 2:5) and that Paul’s warnings are of a pre-emptive nature.
Therefore, we should follow Colwright’s observations that the phrase should be taken
‘...not as a rebuke for a lapse but as a warning of danger...’
and read the verse as
‘If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, how could you choose to live as if you still belonged to the world?’
where Paul is arguing for stability in the believer’s lives in the way of life they already have rather than for them to see the new teaching which could come attractively to them and to give themselves over to it. If they truly perceive the teaching for what it is - as the apostle has been trying to reveal it to them in the past verses - then the conflict with Christ’s work should be able to be plainly seen.
A note of explanation should be given for the phrase ‘the elemental spirits of the universe’ which has occurred previously in Col 2:8. It seems inconceivable that such a phrase could mean widely different things in each of the two places where it occurs and the meaning which we retrieved from it on here should suffice for an application here.
Many commentators see the mention of ‘spirits’ to have to be taken to refer to angelic or evil powers. However, this appears to be a phrase where the individual parts of a phrase shouldn’t be taken literally but that they should be viewed as a single unit to convey a concept which the Greeks understood as something quite different.
Although not entirely similar, we might take the phrase
‘How are you?’
to be a clear indication that someone cares for another so much that they’re asking after their welfare. And, in a few hundred or a thousand years’ time we might postulate that the society in which the ancients lived (that’s us in my analogy, by the way) were a very caring race who frequently tried to determine the welfare of others met and so do something about it.
Actually, it means nothing of the sort and is only a formal greeting that expects a response of
‘Fine. How are you?’
If men and women started getting responses such as
‘Well, this lumbago is really getting me down and the spasms in my leg are giving me some real problems walking. And there’s my finances, too - we’re struggling to make ends meet and could do with some more income but, you know, that’s almost immaterial to the health of our pet cat. She’s been right ill this past week and we’re having to cope with her projectile vomiting all over the carpets and furniture’
then you can be assured that the greeting wouldn’t be used. So, the literal meaning isn’t a person’s intention when spoken and it’s to be taken as a cultural formula used when encountering either a friend or acquaintance.
Therefore, when I dealt with the phrase on the previously cited web page, I quoted Kittels who noted that
‘Outside the NT, the term would denote the four elements or the basic materials of the world of which the cosmos and humanity within it is composed’
and went on to define the phrase as meaning
‘the basic principles [elements] of the world [universe]’
explaining it as a reference to
‘...those things that the world holds as being the building blocks of its existence whether in religion or secular life. In the context of Col 2:8, Paul’s saying that just as human tradition is a source of empty and deceptive reasoning that would lead the believers into captivity away from the freedom that’s in Christ, so too the underlying principles of the world’s existence produce futile arguments and concepts that, although appearing to have a semblance of wisdom, are merely traps that take captive those who ally themselves with their way of life’
It seems better, then, to accept Paul as speaking about basic worldly principles in Col 2:20 rather than to take the words as literally as we tend to do - and this makes good sense especially when we consider how Paul ends the sentence. For, if spiritual forces were being referred to, why would the apostle then continue by asking his readers why they should consider reverting back to a lifestyle which showed their service to the world.
We might have expected him to have spoken about being in bondage to spiritual forces, of serving those gods who were no gods at all but, instead, he speaks of them having been delivered from the world’s basic principles and then continues by asking them where the logic would be in reverting back to serving the affairs of the world.
Colcar states the alternative view well but, personally, I see no logic in the argument which is being urged upon the verse if we imagine that Paul is speaking about evil spiritual forces. He notes the contrast by first stating that
‘...in dying with Christ, they were delivered from the control of the spiritual powers of evil’
something which is difficult to show from what he’s previously written. We saw in Col 2:15 that the defeat of the principalities and powers came about in a life of perfect obedience - that is, in Christ - but the believer’s ‘death with Christ’ isn’t there associated with their defeat in the follower’s life or their own personal deliverance from their influence. But Colcar goes on to associate the deliverance from the spiritual powers with a
as Col 2:21 would demand. The problem is that submission to the evil powers would have to be associated with legalism in the observance of human rules and regulations which have nothing to do with the service of Jesus Christ. Colcar, then, interprets the verse in the way that’s necessary if the verse is taken as a reference to spiritual powers which sit over men and women outside Christ and we would have to accept that legalism was another manifestation of life
‘...under the control of the spiritual powers of this world’
While there’s no doubt that some men and women who live dictated to by rules and regulations seem to be bound into their way of life and need deliverance from forces which seem to hold them captive to a vacuous attempt of gaining acceptance before God, I don’t believe that this could be pressed as the meaning of Paul’s words. After all, he speaks in Col 2:22 of
‘human precepts and doctrines’
rather than of demonic commands which men and women eagerly obey and the idea seems to be of an earthly, fleshy attempt at pleasing God rather than something which is centred in demon possession or oppression.
Although not a strict translation - indeed, not a translation at all, some would say! - the Living Bible seems to hit the nail fairly and squarely on the head when it renders Col 2:20
‘Since you died, as it were, with Christ and this has set you free from following the world’s ideas of how to be saved - by doing good and obeying various rules - why do you keep on following them anyway, still bound by such rules...’
There’s a great amount of interpretation added in to this verse, it has to be said, but it’s nothing more than the content of Paul’s arguments which have preceded it. There’s no point following the religious practices of the world and thinking that, somehow, acceptance before God will be achieved because Jesus Christ is all and no man-made system of religion can ever raise a man or woman to an acceptable level.
The idea of the crucifixion and of the believer’s union with Christ in it is clearly the major argument in Paul’s appeal for the Colossians to be careful not to revert to the world’s way of religion but, although he’s spoken about dying to the flesh (Col 2:11), the statements here about dying aren’t fully expected.
Indeed, they come as somewhat of a shock to the reader. The apostle has been consistently showing the all-sufficiency of both Christ’s work and of Christ Himself and one would have expected a few words about the insufficiency of worldly, man-made religion - but he ties it up with the work of the cross and envisages the crucifixion of the old nature as being the basis of the argument that his readers should consider themselves separated from any way of salvation which belongs to their old way of life.
Paul clearly thinks of conversion as a dramatic cutting away (a circumcision - Col 2:11) of the old way of life - and not just in the manner in which we tend to take it today of the crucifixion of the old nature but in severing connection with everything which had gone before that newness of life might be solely relied upon.
Even though Paul is speaking about the Law in Gal 2:17-20, his well-known statement that
‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me...’
must surely be applied to all things that existed before his conversion - that is, the apostle saw his old way of life as crucified and dead not just in the area of Law but in everything. As if the slate had been washed clean and that, now the foundation of Jesus Christ had been built in his own life, he must be careful to only allow those things to become a part of him that were consistent with his new way of life and relationship to the Saviour.
Here in Col 2:20 the appeal is not to revert to the old way - not just that they might not move back into a moral lifestyle which would be opposed to their new position in Christ in Heaven (Col 3:1,5-8) but that they must also be careful not to turn into the worldly ways of achieving acceptance with God that were put to death when they came to know Christ.
Colwright notes that Paul’s expression is similar to his ideas of being set free from service to the Law - and indeed it is. In Rom 7:4, he writes
‘...you have died to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to Another, to Him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God’
and, in Rom 7:6, that
‘...we are discharged from the Law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit’
but Paul’s words here transcend the limited application to the Mosaic Law for in Col 2:20-23 he looks at all manner of the ways of salvation which are based upon ‘human precepts and doctrines’ (Col 2:22), a statement which must include the Law and the interpretations placed upon it (Mtw 15:1-3).
All man-made rules and regulations (Colwright defines the sphere of the laws as not ‘any regulations at all’ but only ‘those that belong to the world’) stand opposed to the way of Christ, therefore, which is another reason why the first Church Council in Jerusalem were careful to limit their ‘rules’ to a very limited number of statements (Acts 15:29) because they were assured that Jesus was able to guide every individual into a life that was both pleasing and acceptable to Him.
When the basis of the covenant is that the Law will be written within (Jer 31:33), external rules are superfluous. Reminders must be given as to the correct expression of the life of Christ through a believer as Paul will go on to do (Col 3:5-17) so that one doesn’t slip back into expressions of the old nature but, fundamentally, obedience comes from within.
Human precepts and doctrines
We should take the three regulations of Col 2:21 as being statements concerning literal commands which, although they may have been cited without having any particular sect or cult in mind, seem at first glance to all be concerned with the food and drink regulations that Paul’s previously mentioned in Col 2:16. If this is a correct interpretation then the apostle certainly could have a Jewish belief system in mind, but the regulations could equally well apply to a pagan religious order so that we can’t be certain as to his intentions.
Leviticus chapter 11 deals will all three of the ‘handle, taste, touch’ prohibitions but the difference between the first and last Greek words (Strongs Greek numbers 680 and 2345) isn’t too clear. Most commentators see the former as being a ‘stronger verb’ than the latter so that the three words in sequence provide an element of increasing finickiness, of greater attention to minute detail as one reads through them (there may also be something in mind more akin to the ‘traditions of the elders’ which Jesus dealt with in Mtw 15:1-20 and which I’ve briefly dealt with below - see also here).
The English word ‘handle’ would then be an attempt by the RSV to yield a meaning something more akin to an ‘examination’ rather than simply making physical contact and ‘touch’ would mean something even as remote as ‘brushing passed’ an object.
Some have suggested that the first descriptive word might be referring to sexual intercourse and that the sect in mind were forbidding marital relationships, but Paul speaks of the three prohibitions all being directed at ‘things which all perish as they are used’ (Col 2:22) so the application would be somewhat strained to say the least if it were pressed to yield this meaning, unless the idea was of the transience of the experience. This is highly unlikely, though.
The middle word (Strongs Greek number 1089) is the most interesting of the three employed and is the only one which would point categorically to the commands needing to be applied to the subject of food. It’s used fifteen times in the NT and isn’t always indicative of eating. On five occasions it means to participate or to experience death (Mtw 16:28, Mark 9:1, Luke 9:27, John 8:52, Heb 2:9) and in three other places it’s used figuratively of experiencing something from God’s hand (Heb 6:4,5, I Peter 2:3). The final six usages (ignoring the one here in Colossians) are all to do with either eating or drinking (Mtw 27:34, Luke 14:24, John 2:9, Acts 10:10, 20:11, 23:14).
As this is the only place in all Paul’s letters where the word’s used, we can’t be sure whether he had a wider meaning that he expected to be gathered from its use. However, the idea of ‘eating’ seems the best interpretation to give the word but, as the opening words of Col 2:22 (my italics) refer simply to
‘...things which all perish as they are used’
it may be more relevant to think of the wider concept of all types of material objects and, by implication, the application to the prohibitions mentioning handling and touching would also be necessary. The Greek word employed to render the ‘used’ of Col 2:22 (Strongs Greek number 671) occurs only here in the NT but it’s a compound word coming from another which occurs eleven times in the NT (Strongs Greek number 5530).
Unfortunately, the wide variety of applications of that root word give us no indication whether we might expect a direct reference to food although it’s used on one occasion to refer to wine (I Tim 5:23). It’s best to look at the compound word as it stands, but we have to be warned that its use in other ancient Greek writings implies that it’s primary meaning is ‘abuse’.
However, Paul comments that all three prohibitions refer to objects which perish or are ‘corrupted’ as they’re used. Colwright observes that this idea of perishing in normal use
‘...does not just mean “may wear out in time” but indicates that “the things could not be used without rendering them unfit for further use”’
Colbruce echoing this interpretation by commenting that
‘The transitory character of the things in question is emphasised by the consideration that they disappear simply by being used in the proper and ordinary manner’
The application, then, must be to all things that become unfit for reuse after a proper application of what they’ve been designed for (contrary to the meaning of ‘abuse’ from other ancient Greek sources which would, perhaps, point towards a wrong use of the items concerned). Primarily this has to do with food and drink but it could equally refer to any material object that passes away as quickly as it’s employed - thus eliminating things like cars which pass away after considerable amounts of time (unless you drive them like some of the people I know) but including computer screen wipes and floor polish (okay, silly examples I know, but you get the idea).
The major application, however, must be to food and drink.
As Colbruce notes, the reason for the inadequacy of such prohibitions is that
‘...it shows a gross lack of any sense of proportion to make such transient and perishable matters so central in religious teaching’
especially when the centrality of the imperishable God and His Son, Jesus Christ, is a much surer foundation upon which to rest one’s whole life and from which flow the knowledge of what’s morally both right and wrong. When ‘religion’ centres on earthly matters and prohibitions, it shows that it hasn’t grasped the importance of the heavenly implications of the Gospel - earthly restrictions cannot reap eternal rewards because they’re based upon considerations which come from the mind of man. God’s work in Christ, however, is something declared from Heaven which has earthly consequences but it comes about not from the imagination of men and women but from the declaration and revelation of the Spirit.
These considerations which deal with material objects, because they centre upon those things which are earthly and transient are therefore brought into existence by
‘...human precepts and doctrines’
and are worthless in achieving peace with God. One of the great truths of the Gospel is not that man can now reach out and achieve the level of perfection that God requires of him but that God has done something about that impossibility so that man can be considered to be cleansed and raised to his rightful position according to the intention of the initial Creation by the work of Jesus Christ.
This idea of a man-made religion is also mentioned in Is 29:13 of the people of God who were confessing the name of God but, inwardly, they were as rebellious as those who hadn’t taken it upon themselves to serve Him. YHWH observes of these people that
‘...their fear of Me is a commandment of men learned by rote’
interpreted by Jesus to the Pharisees and scribes in Mtw 15:9 as meaning that they taught the doctrines that had been thought up by men as being what was laid upon the followers of God. In the Isaiah passage, however, the burden more concerns the legalistic teaching of men and women with credal statements and formulae rather than for them to establish a living relationship with God Himself.
We should note the record of YHWH’s words carefully here for a person who takes upon himself the name of brother may have all their doctrines in place and know the Scriptures ‘inside out’ when it comes to orthodox viewpoints because they’ve taken time to learn those things which are deemed to be important. When it comes to knowing God, however, of living in a manner that’s pleasing to Him from the heart and allowing that to overflow through their own lives, it becomes obvious that there’s a lack of what’s needed.
The passage in Matthew interprets God’s words as speaking about man-made rules and regulations whose origin was earthly and whose ultimate aim would also only target fleshy results (see also my notes on Mtw 15:1-20 under the heading ‘What was Jesus opposing?’ for more information on the Jewish aspect of adding man-made commandments that were expected to be binding upon the children of God).
The follower of Christ, therefore, is brought into fellowship with God through an act of God whereas those who impose regulations and rules are seeking to achieve something that will gain them acceptance. Instead of being liberating precepts, then, they simply bind the believer into a series of restrictions that tie him into a legalism and bondage.
An appearance of wisdom
This verse presents the commentator with some difficult choices that have to be made before an attempt at an interpretation can be made. Most writers spend a great amount of space dealing with all the options and coming to a decision based upon which selections they make as to how the Greek is meant to be taken.
It would be preferable if there was a variation in the manuscript transmission so that there were at least some choices of alternative constructions but the text has come down to us intact and all the commentator can do is to try and understand the verse ‘as it stands’.
I don’t intend dealing with all my own decisions as to how I’ve taken the verse but it seems best to accept Colbrien’s general translation and to slightly amend it where I’ve felt that a better rendering of the words could have been offered. I take the verse, therefore, to run
‘...which things lead - though they are considered as having wisdom in the areas of voluntary service, self-abasement and bodily severity, they are of no value - to the excesses of the flesh’
where it can be seen that the first and last phrases should be taken as being Paul’s original statement until he got sidelined into almost a parenthesis of explanation as to the outward appearance of specific actions that are seen by those who watch the adherents. I’ll deal with these two parts in a moment under ‘Interpretation’ but, first, I need to explain a few of the more unusual choices of words that have been employed.
for the translation see above
‘Voluntary service’ renders just one word in the Greek (Strongs Greek number 1479) which occurs only once throughout the NT and never in ancient Greek before it’s use in the NT. Most commentators prefer the word ‘worship’ in place of my ‘service’ but, in today’s church, the former word has come to mean a time of chorus singing (contrary to the Biblical definition of the concept) and the idea behind the word here employed is more to be thought of as the service of a Deity as a slave would perform duties toward a master than it is to think that singing is meant.
The word, according to Colcar describes
‘...a form of worship which a man devises for himself’
where Kittels summarises it as a ‘self-made religion’ that’s devoid of the reality of Christ, being, as it is, centred in ‘human precepts and doctrines’ (Col 2:22). Colbruce quotes Deissmann who describes the word as meaning a ‘self-made cult’ which is also another aspect. The shortest way of rendering it is probably ‘self-service’ but that means something totally different in today’s society! The idea behind the word, though, is that of something which springs from earthly considerations and which has been adopted by men and women as being obligatory upon them.
The hyphenated word ‘self-abasement’ is nothing but a copying of the translation of the place where the word’s occurred previously in Col 2:18 and, being so close, it seems a mistake to take it as meaning something different to how we took it there. Because of the repetition of this word, some have also adjudged ‘worship of angels’ (Col 2:18) to be identical to the previous ‘voluntary service’ (Col 2:23) but there’s no direct evidence that we should make the connection here.
I’ve opted for the less expected ‘excesses’ in the last of the three sections, a word which again appears only once in the NT (Strongs Greek number 4140). The word normally carries with it the positive sense of ‘satisfaction’. As I’ve taken the comment concerning ‘no value’ to be linked to the three aspects of the false religion, the interpretation given would be to render Paul’s thoughts as speaking of man’s religion as leading
‘...to the satisfaction of the flesh’
which is a difficult phrase to accept if ‘satisfaction’ is taken in its positive sense. In the LXX, however, the word is also employed in the sense of filling up to a measure of self-satisfaction where rebellion against God comes as a natural consequence (Hosea 13:6) or where the filling up is, in itself, the judgment of God (Ezek 39:19). Kittels goes on to note the possibility of its use here in Col 2:23 as teaching that
‘Precepts that forbid the use of earthly gifts give these undue significance and serve the satisfaction of a selfish desire clothed in the garb of religion’
so that, far from severity restricting the manifestation of the sinful nature, it actually serves it well in being able to point to itself as maintaining a manner of life which is considered to be godly. Self-effort leads to a glorification in those things that are performed and, instead of achieving acceptance with God, they serve the person more to gain acceptance before their fellow man.
We might say, then, that the flesh finds ‘satisfaction’ in those things which are religiously performed or that the flesh ‘overflows’ in its demonstrations of piety in man-made religion. Either way, man-centred service can be seen to give the flesh free-reign rather than deal with it.
I’ve chosen ‘excesses’, therefore, to try and bring this across.
Part of the interpretation of the verse has already occurred in my notes on the translation but there are a few other principles which need dealing with. I want us to try and move away from the application of this verse to either the pagan mystery religions or the more legalistic aspects of Judaism (see Mtw 15:1-20) - which they undoubtedly can be used to refer to - and think about, rather, their application to the present day Church.
It seems to me that we’re well-versed in identifying heretical or erroneous religions outside our own experience - whether they be sects and cults which still hold to the label of ‘brother’ or ones which are well-separated from us because of their disregard for the centrality of Jesus Christ and the cross.
Where we seem to struggle is in an identification of what’s wrong within or own local fellowship or denomination and, if we were to truthfully apply Paul’s teaching here to our own experience, we might begin to see the areas that need reform or removal and those other areas that need adopting and living to bring us in line with the type of relationship with God that the early Church had.
Although I disagree with Colbruce in his primary application of the apostle’s words to the local fellowship or the denomination, he makes a statement which clearly shows the reader how the verse might be relevant. He writes that
‘...The term which Paul uses [‘voluntary service’] implies that these people thought they were offering God a voluntary addition to His basic requirements - a supererogatory [that which is over and above what duty requires] devotion by which they hoped to acquire superior merit in His sight’
This ‘extra devotion’ was a point whereby the flesh was able to elevate the doers into a unique position of being regarded with more worth and respect than those who weren’t participating - notice that the apostle speaks about these actions having a ‘considered wisdom’, along with self-abasement (which is literally just ‘humility’ - the context causes us to infer that it was an outward show of meekness which wasn’t acceptable to God) and bodily severity.
We might point the finger at a great many people, it’s true, but whenever we perform religious actions we must be incredibly careful that, firstly, we aren’t putting on a show for those watching us and, secondly, we aren’t negating the all-sufficiency of the work of Christ.
Therefore Jesus spoke to His own followers and warned them not to give alms in order for the action to be seen (Mtw 6:2), not to pray in public places that their piety might be admired (Mtw 6:5) and not to draw attention to their fasting that they might be held in high regard (Mtw 6:16 - for all three aspects see here). Rather, if they felt that they needed to give, to pray or to fast, they perform what they felt was their obligation in private and, as Paul would observe, make no opportunity for the flesh to get glory from a personal relationship with God.
There are some things that can’t be hidden, it’s true. But, very often, those who have a greater demonstrative display of piety in a local fellowship are the very ones who find themselves lifted into places of authority over others who aren’t seen to be doing anything substantial.
Secondly, though, such deliberate and open demonstration of piety can seriously negate the all-sufficiency of God’s work in Jesus Christ. We’ve seen consistently how Paul has been careful to lay down the foundation that Jesus is everything necessary for the believer’s salvation, provision and welfare - but such acts of devotion can begin to take the place of the free gift.
We can begin to divide the church up into the ‘nominally saved’ and the ‘really saved’ and apportion individuals to each party as we see those things which the man or woman does openly. There’s a great need for believers to correctly assess the state of a person who attends meetings so as to be able to edify them in the manner they need but it isn’t those who recite lengthy prayers, who use ‘eths’ and ‘Thous’ or those who can stand for twenty minutes with their arms outstretched through a chorus time who are the ones who’ve arrived.
Even in the Church there can be introverts and extroverts - and those who shy away from the spotlight by getting on with the will of God privately. Others, who want to be accepted, may push themselves to exhibit the signs of a true follower of Jesus and yet, all the while, be spiritually bankrupt.
Spiritual discernment is vitally important for a fellowship to employ, for spirituality can be interpreted in terms of fleshy manifestations that are devoid of the presence of God. Personally speaking, I’ve been in a number of different gatherings in my time when the one line prayer in a meeting has caused the heavens to be opened in a way that twenty minutes of hymns hasn’t (even though there were more ‘amens’ and ‘hallelujahs’ said during the latter than the former).
But, to tie this in more fully with Col 2:21, we should, perhaps, think about the abstentions which often seem to be a necessary part of acceptance in our fellowships. We don’t do this and don’t do that, thinking that by our abstentions we bring pleasure to God - but voluntary restrictions based upon ‘human precepts and doctrines’ again do little more than draw attention to our outward religion.
There’s certainly a need for an abstention from those things which are sin in and of themselves, of those things which are traits of the old way of life (Col 3:5-9) but, when you stand in a meeting and hear a personal testimony of how God has delivered someone from wearing jeans on Sunday (I kid not!) then you know that we’ve begun to invent our own regulations to govern our own lives and which promote our own holiness and acceptability to God. After all, we’re not saved by what we don’t do but by what we actively did and are continuing to live out.
The Church must be careful, therefore, for outward exhibitions of spirituality can often be opportunities for the flesh rather than for the flow and ministry of the Holy Spirit.
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