We like rules. We like them a lot. Rules seem to make things easier, right? Everything boils down to either black or white. “Do this. Don’t do that.” No in between, no grey, no guesswork, and no mess.
While there are clear-cut areas in life, the unfortunate truth is that most of our lives aren’t lived in black and white – not only are there grey areas, but life comes at us in a full spectrum of colors. How do we deal with such a variety of circumstances and people? How would God want us to deal with them? When faced with difficult questions and situations in our relationship with God and with others, we often start looking for rules to clarify our course of action.
The believers in Colossae were dealing with a “new” teaching that was likely taught as a guideline for interacting with God and others, but it seems that the teachers were also insisting on rules to prove one’s spirituality. From Paul’s letter we see that the rogue teachers were advocating rules for food, drink, festivals, sabbath days, worship of angels, and visions. Paul took issue with these performance-based, surface-level-focused teachings primarily because they took the believer’s focus off of Jesus and put the attention on themselves. Paul summed it up this way:
If you died with Christ to the elemental forces of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”?
All these regulations refer to what is destroyed by being used up; they are human commands and doctrines. Although these have a reputation of wisdom by promoting ascetic practices, humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value against fleshly indulgence.
In the centuries since Paul wrote these words, the church has struggled with human commands and doctrines. Attempting to earn God’s love, people have given in to legalistic, rules-focused teachings. Teachings such as earning one’s salvation by doing enough good works, or maintaining one’s salvation by doing enough good works, or trying to live under the Mosaic Law are all examples of false teachings based on human ideas and desires.
Others have tried fasting with the intention to force God to decide in their favor. Some have lived in isolation with the intention to avoid the temptations that could arise when around other people. People have even gone as far as self-mutilation to try to keep their sinful urges in check.
On the surface, these ideas seem to have merit…but the truth is they’ve all failed to do what God desires to do in our lives. God desires to make us Christ-like. Paul was right when he said that the man-made rules have a reputation of wisdom by promoting ascetic practices, humility, and severe treatment of the body, [but] they are not of any value against fleshly indulgence.
These practices don’t get to the heart of the problem – because our ultimate problem isn’t our behavior, it’s our sinful nature. These practices distract us from the real solution. So we have to be just as careful as Paul wanted the Colossians to be – watching out for false teachings and ascetic practices.
Warren Wiersbe accurately described the dangers that modern believers must be wary of:
“When we make Jesus Christ and the Christian revelation only part of a total religious system or philosophy, we cease to give Him the preeminence. When we strive for ‘spiritual perfection’ or ‘spiritual fullness’ by means of formulas, disciplines, or rituals, we go backward instead of forward. Christian believers must beware of mixing their Christian faith with such alluring things as yoga, transcendental meditation, Oriental mysticism, and the like. We must also beware of ‘deeper life’ teachers who offer a system for victory and fullness that bypasses devotion to Jesus Christ. In all things, He must have preeminence!”
If the purpose of the rules, principles, or guidelines we follow are doing anything other than pointing us toward Christ or making us more Christ-like…then they are a waste of time and they will eventually lead us astray. Our first clue that a particular practice is potentially dangerous is to ask the question “Where is the focus placed, on Jesus or on me?”