In Colossians, traditionally understood to have been written by the apostle Paul, Christ is described as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation,” and it is said that “in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.” This presentation of glorious majesty, apart from reflecting the reality of Christ’s lordship, seems also to have been written directly in response to what biblical scholars call the “Colossian heresy.”
What was the Colossian heresy? It is difficult, on the basis of Paul’s letter, to be precise, though Col 2:8-23 gives us a sense of some of the practices and beliefs of this group in the city of Colossae, and there seem to be elements of Greco-Roman philosophy, Jewish practices, perhaps even incipient Gnosticism added to their belief in Christ. More significant than the precise contours of the heresy, though, is that Colossians is arguing against any system or belief that would reduce the sufficiency of Christ for salvation. As Michael Gorman writes, believers “are not to be seduced and captured by any supposed alternative or supplement to Christ that is ultimately only an empty, deceitful philosophy (worldview and practices) stemming from human tradition and, worse, from the (hostile) elemental powers of the universe, not from God’s revelation in Christ” (Apostle of the Crucified Lord, p. 485).
Colossians is not an argument against philosophy but an argument for Jesus Christ, “for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” The teaching of the sufficiency of Christ, and the cross of Jesus Christ, for salvation means that no secondary lords are necessary, which the Colossian heresy seems to have on offer. To say Christ is lord of all means precisely that. It does not mean he is lord when it suits my personal desires, or combined with some other gods, or when it suits my country, right or wrong.
Why should an ancient, vaguely defined Colossian heresy engage us today? Because every heretical impulse is ancient and vague, promising us a little of this politician, a little of that god, a little less Christ, a little more us. We are all challenged to decide daily, and never more than in the midst of political campaigns, who and what we accept as lord. Biblical scholars today see more of a theo-political aspect to Paul’s thinking than previous generations did, not in terms of Paul wanting to get mixed up in day-to-day politics of the Roman Empire but in terms of seeing the Lord Jesus Christ as the true alternative to political leaders, emperors, who would be lords of this world. But Paul was clear that there is only one Lord, in this world and the next.
How does one apply the rhetoric of “lord of heaven and earth” to daily life, political and otherwise? Rhetorically, and in reality, it seems too majestic to apply to our lives, but its application comes in the nitty-gritty of daily life. Jesus gives us the example in the parable of the good Samaritan. It is in the acting out of God’s love for each creature that we show whom we serve. Our political lives, seeking the good of the city of man, are felt most profoundly when we help the neighbor in need. This is how we demonstrate Christ is lord of earth. But in caring for our earthly neighbor and acting out God’s love, we are also building up the city of God, and showing that Christ is lord of heaven. When we live for love of God and love of neighbor, we show that Christ is “the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.” That is always the answer to the Colossian heresy in any age: Christ has the first place in everything.