June 2021 Pulse
As therefore you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so live in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe by according to Christ.
These words, penned by the Apostle Paul to the Christians at Colossae, were purposed to warn them of the danger of being held captive by the pervasive teachings within the Church that are antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In verse 8, Paul dives into the heart of the problem as he warns them about the danger of being seduced by ‘philosophy’, ‘empty deceit’, ‘human tradition’ and ‘the elemental spirits that rule the world.’
The expression ‘elemental spirits of the world’ deserves special attention. This refers to the influence of demonic spirits that came in the form of the doctrines and practices promoted by false teachers in the Colossian church. These heretical teachings sought to sabotage the Gospel by diminishing Christ and his work for human salvation and by replacing the Christian faith with a syncretistic religion.
Whatever form these false teachings may have taken in Colossae (we have a rough sketch of its basic features: asceticism, superstition, worship of angels, visions, esoteric teachings, etc), Paul made it very clear that they are ‘not according to Christ’ (2:8). Not only are they distortions of the Gospel; they are also enslaving and dangerous. Hence, the Colossian heretics are called ‘men-stealers’ – they entice believers into rejecting the freedom promised by the true Gospel in favour of a false one that enslaves.
Writing to these Christians, Paul emphatically instructs them to ‘see to it’, that is, to be on their guard, that they do not fall prey to these heresies. The Greek word for ‘prey’ (sulagõgein) rarely appears in the NT. It means to be ‘kidnaped’ or ‘ambushed and imprisoned’, and it clearly indicates that the apostle was fully aware of the malicious intent of these false teachers.
The modern church is certainly not spared of heresies, even if that word has fallen out of favour and Christians today (including Church leaders) have taken a somewhat relaxed attitude towards it. In similar vein, modern Christianity is not immune from syncretism, that toxic mixture of the Gospel and pagan elements.
On 1 October 2018, the Pew Research Centre published a study on New Age beliefs among religious and non-religious Americans. In an article that discusses the findings of the study, Claire Gecewicz reports that:
… many Christians also hold what are sometimes characterised as ‘New Age beliefs’ – including belief in reincarnation, astrology, psychics and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects like mountains or trees.
According to the study, this is the discernible pattern across the Christian denominations, including Catholics and Evangelicals. The study shows that Christians across the denominations believe in as least one of these New Age doctrines and practices – spiritual energy in physical objects, psychics, reincarnation, astrology.
Here are the findings:
Christians in general 61%
Perhaps this explains why new and radical forms of charismatic Christianity, with its emphasis on prophecy, angels, signs and wonders, miracles, teleportation, etc., are attracting so many American evangelicals.
There are several explanations for this sad state of affairs. A comprehensive discussion of these reasons would require a much longer article than this present one. But allow me to briefly mention only two.
The Erosion of Doctrine
The first reason for the gullibility displayed by modern Christians when it comes to neo-paganism is the serious erosion of doctrinal and theological literacy in the Church today. I have discussed this phenomenon, which has been flagged by significant evangelical scholars from Alister McGrath to Mark Noll, in a number of my writings.
It was David Wells who provided the evangelical churches with a thorough assessment of this predicament in a series of insightful books published in the final decade of the last century. The observations that Wells made in these works are sadly still relevant to the evangelical church in the twenty-first century.
Several reasons can be given for this situation. Certain interpretations of the Reformers’ emphasis on the authority of Scripture (sola scriptura – Scripture alone) have engendered a naïve biblicism that is often accompanied by an unarticulated and visceral distrust for doctrines and tradition.
In some Christian circles, the word ‘theology’ has invited suspicion. The true Christian, some maintain, must have no creed but the Bible. This has resulted not only in reductionistic views of the nature of the Christian faith, but has also allowed subjectivistic and idiosyncratic interpretations of the Bible almost free rein in some churches.
Alongside this disdain for doctrines and anything ‘theological’ is the shift towards pragmatism on the one hand (the development of skills for the ministry) and spirituality on the other. The latter, however, is not established on and nurtured by the inexhaustible richness of the spiritual tradition of the Church, but on personal experiences instead.
This has resulted in a dangerously ‘minimalist’ understanding of the faith. David Wells explains this thus:
Evangelical today only have to believe that God can work dramatically within the narrow fissure of internal experience; they have lost interest (or perhaps they can no longer sustain interest) in what the doctrines of creation, common grace, and providence once meat for Christian believers, and even in those doctrines that articulate Christ’s death such as justification, redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation. It is enough for them simply to know that Christ somehow died for people.
The erosion of theological literacy, the emphasis on the practical, the false dichotomy between doctrine and spirituality has not only resulted in a diminished and minimalist faith. It has also created a sense of restlessness and rootlessness.
We run from trend to trend, eager to embrace the latest fad, which are often couched in high-sounding spiritual lingo such as the ‘the Lord is doing a new thing in our midst’. With only a superficial understanding of Scripture and a scant appreciation of the traditions of the Church, the modern Christian clamours after the new and the sensational.
In his book, The Once and Future Church Loren Mead describes this as the ‘Tyranny of the New’. ‘When the new way is considered the only way’, writes Mead, ‘there is no continuity, fads become the new Gospel and in Paul’s words, the church is “blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine”’.
Christians that fit this description would be especially vulnerable to what Paul has called ‘vain philosophies’ and ‘empty deceit’.
Secularism and Consumerism
The second reason may come as a surprise to some readers. What has secularism and consumerism to do with the Church being more vulnerable to false teachings?
Scholars have long discerned that there are two ways in which secularism can impact religion. The first is to snuff out religion altogether. Scholars have pointed to a reasonable but imperfect example of this in what has been described as post-Christian Europe where religious adherents have dwindled to a precious few.
But secularism can impact religion in another way. It can exist side-by-side with religion and shape it in ways so subtle as to be almost imperceptible. The secular worldview can govern the lives of Christians while leaving the veneer of ‘religion’ such as the superficial retention of a certain vocabulary or practice.
It is also important to note that secularism or a ‘secular mindset’ does not necessarily require one to be a card-carrying atheist. It is possible for a Christian to attend church regularly and be active in its various ministries to have a secular mindset and be governed by secular principles.
Needless to say, the second, more subtle way, in which secularism affects religion and the people who deemed themselves to be religious is more insidious and dangerous. In 2 Timothy 3:5, the apostle Paul alludes to this when he speaks of Christians who hold ‘the form of religion but denying the power of it’.
Religion or religiosity becomes only a thin and superficial shell that camouflages and conceals a profoundly secular mind and temper.
The topic of consumerism – in particular, religious consumerism – is profoundly related to the condition that was discussed in the paragraphs above that dealt with the restlessness and rootlessness of the modern Christian.
Consumerism, which is a phenomenon that pervades our modern, capitalist, and acquisitive culture, intrudes into the Church causing Christians to treat religion or Christianity as something which is meant to satisfy their wants and fancies. Consumerism commodifies religion or Christianity.
Driven by consumerist sensibilities, the modern Christian wanders from Church to Church in the hope of finding one that has the right ‘product’, the kind of worship or preaching or ministry or fellowship that can meet his or her most immediate needs.
Once these needs change, or the Church in question is no longer able to meet them adequately, the wandering resumes until he or she finds another Church that is able to bring satisfaction.
Paul addresses the problem of religious consumerism in 2 Timothy 4:3, using the analogy of having ‘itching ears’: ‘For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings.’
These twin realities – secularism and consumerism – have made the modern (evangelical) church more susceptible to what we have been calling the ‘Colossian predicament’. They have made Christians who only superficially understand the Bible and the teachings of the Church extremely vulnerable to the ‘empty deceit’ of nefarious actors that Paul talks about in Colossians 2.
The Colossian predicament is not only a threat for evangelical churches in the West. It is also a clear and present danger in the churches here as well.
Pastors and church leaders must not only develop the theological astuteness and spiritual perceptiveness to discern its presence in the churches. They must also, like the Apostle Paul, have the courage to expose it and to reject it for the good of God’s people.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.