Loving disagreement: Paul addresses heresy

I confess that I usually pass over the first few verses of Paul’s epistles without paying much attention. After all, they’re just greeting formulas and opening remarks before getting down to the real meat, right?

So I have just prepared a Sunday school lesson based on the first fourteen verses of Colossians. Colossians has fewer verses to skip over than some epistles. It begins with an account of how Paul prays for that church. I have studied that as an intercessory prayer. The assigned lesson is about faith within a community, so I have had to take a fresh look at this passage. That’s never a bad thing.

In this post, I will share my thoughts on the first four verses, and I even found some meat in the first two!

Paul wrote this letter while he was sitting in a Roman jail awaiting trial. The Romans allowed him to have visitors. Scripture doesn’t provide a lot of detail about how many he had, who they were, where they came from, or how far they’d come, but according to what we read here, Epaphras left the town of Colossae to visit Paul in jail. This letter results from the conversations they had.

It certainly appears that Epaphras had started the Colossian church and that Paul had been his mentor. Since the letter directly addresses a heresy that was growing in that church, it appears that Epaphras had more in mind than visiting a friend in prison when he left his small town in modern Turkey to go all the way to Rome.

Some other teachers had come to Colossae proclaiming a message different from what Epaphras had learned from Paul. Colossians is Paul’s response to that false teaching.

The first thing I notice is that Paul addresses the letter not to the church at Colossae, but to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters there. For whatever reason, it is not addressed to those who adhere to the false teachings. On the other hand, all the people who heard when it was read for the first time would have naturally assumed that they were included in the greeting.

You may have encountered the works of some seminary professors, or others who fancy themselves scholars and intellectuals, who take that as a sign that maybe Paul didn’t actually write this letter. Those folks are as uninformed and misinforming as the bunch Paul wrote against.

Paul said that when he prayed for the Colossians, he gave thanks for the faith, hope, and love that he had heard characterized the saints there. How wide was the circle of love?  If the faithful saints loved only each other and snarled and criticized the ones who were seduced by the false teaching, it’s not a very impressive love.

At least one ancient pagan remarked that the trouble with Christians was that they fed and clothed not only their own widows and orphans, but everyone else’s. Therefore I conclude that the true believers showed love to the others.

In this day and age, where some churches have split into warring factions over what color carpet to put in the sanctuary and similarly petty things, that’s an important lesson.

God calls us to love each other in spite of whatever differences we may have. As the song goes, “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” If we can’t love members of the same congregation who disagree with us on something or another, what kind of witness is that?

I believe the church today suffers from heresies within it just as much as the Colossian church did. Unfortunately, those who uphold the literal truth of the gospel as proclaimed in Scripture and the ancient creeds rarely speak lovingly of or to the “modernists” or “liberals” or whatever other label they go by now. The sniping and war of words has been going on for the better part of a century now.

When dealing with error within the church, I suggest it’s past time that the “holy and faithful brothers in Christ” stop resembling political attack ads, late-night comics, and too many syndicated newspaper columnists. Sarcastic zingers neither constitute biblical arguments nor biblical love.

Let’s deliberately try to learn gracious, loving faithfulness instead. Paul’s opening prayer is a good model of graciousness toward those whom he will later, and still graciously, call on the carpet.

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