Christ: Ritual or Reality?
Daniel Homer concludes his article, exposing some dangerous misconceptions of Christ and Christianity in the Colossian church. In these days many of the same errors are arising to engulf the unsuspecting.
The Error of Pseudo-mysticism
Another error of the early Colossians was a false mysticism. This also springs from a desire for a special wisdom, but is the internal, subjective manifestation. It involves a false abasement of the creature and in Colosse was ending up in the worship of angels, and as Paul says, “Not holding the Head.” I think it is significant to see that Paul is not fooled by the pseudo-humility of this inroad, but says that in reality their protestations of “unworthiness” only led them to be “vainly puffed up by their fleshly minds” (v.18). It is always good to be a bit suspicious of the brother who is constantly proclaiming his “nothingness.” There is a truth in this, but we could well ponder Spinoza’s remark, “One who despises himself is the nearest to a proud man.”
The Church has always had problems with excessive mysticism. (Although perhaps in some segments of the church there is a need for a rebirth of the genuine variety. As Thomas Merton points out it is really but another name for spirituality.) This is one of the major dangers of the Roman Catholic writers. Those who have experienced the new birth are still many times encrusted with a preoccupation over their own mortification. This is one of the dangers of Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, or Madame Guyon’s writing where she supposedly grew so near to Christ that the “stigmata” or nail-prints appeared on her hands. Before those of our present day laugh, however, let them count their wounds for Christ. But as Robert Murray McCheyne put it, “For every look you take of yourself take ten of Jesus Christ.” Many of the nineteenth century poets also sound like Christians until one understands their identification of God and nature and their communion with this pantheistic Over-soul. Their reaction leading to a stress on God’s immanence was perhaps because of the excessive stress on God’s transcendence in the Puritan movement. And as C.S. Lewis points out, it is these Romanticists who serve as the watershed into the present deification of man, rather than the Renaissance itself. So there are deadly dangers in an oversubjectivity. The Jesus Movement excesses are already reaping some of these fruits, but perhaps even here it was a reaction against the dead form and ceremony of the churches. And of course the worship of some other intermediary between God and man besides Christ is still common practice, especially in the worship of the Virgin Mary. Cardinal Manning, in fact, recently said that 1974 was to be the year of “the Virgin” with a return to the Word of God!
The Error of Ascetic Legalism
But the last form of error is one that seems to especially touch all believers. It could probably be termed “legalism.” The Colossians were endeavouring to establish their spirituality by lists of rules and I’m sure that everyone’s list was different. “Touch not, taste not, handle not” was the order of the day (v.21). Many of these abstentions required real will-power and one could glory in his “victories.” Also, one is now able to judge all others who do not conform to his particular list of rules. But Paul sees through all this and says dogmatically (Williams Translation): “But they are of no value; they really satisfy the lower nature.” Detached from Christ they become just ascetic practices that bring glory only to the creature.
I remember in my own life how legalistic I was when I was disturbed by a C.S. Lewis picture on one of his books in which he is smoking a pipe. Or the letter to the editor I saw in a Christian publication in which Spurgeon’s spirituality was questioned because at one phase of his life he smoked cigars. The list goes on in endless variations, from the American stress on complete prohibition (what about the wine at the Lord’s table?) to opposition to all forms of dancing, apparently even the religious dancing of the Old Testament. Certainly man has debased God-given instincts and joys in many of these practices, but the Christian who becomes preoccupied with “lists” in his Christian life will soon find himself losing the Head. Martin Luther sounds like a hedonist to the legalist when he says, “Love God and do as you please.”
Finally, it is unfortunate that there is a man-made chapter division between Colossians 2 and 3 because the first four verses of the third chapter give the antidote for all these previous errors, and the antidote is—a return to the Head, “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.” You’re dead to mere human reasoning, to law observances with their form and ceremony, to an over-zealous introspection with manmade rules and ordinances, because, brother, the Church does not merely have a Head who’s a way off somewhere. No, He is here, and He’s in us and should be functioning. After all, it’s Christ who is our life. Isn’t it about time the Body got back to letting Him run things again? Or as Lona M. Fowler puts it:
Jesus Christ is the Completer
of unfinished people
with unfinished work
in unfinished times.
May He keep us from sinking,
That we may be for Him
Associates in Accomplishment.