The following is a sermon based around the concept of asceticism, using Colossians 2 as a central text.
As you may already know, I am a Canadian. Though I’ve only been living in the United States for three years, I actually grew up on the border of Michigan and Ontario. Furthermore, the Lord obviously wanted to really integrate me by bringing me an American wife whom I cherish dearly.
In regards to traditions that we share within Canadian and American culture, sometimes they’re the same but with a different twist to them. For example, we both have the Thanksgiving holiday but during different months and for slightly different reasons.
Another example is in regards to what a bride and groom do after the wedding is over; the groom carries his bride across the threshold. For those of you who were thinking something different, and that it fits into the tradition category, make sure you grab our counselor’s number on your way out. In both Canadian and American cultures, a groom shows his love for his bride by carrying into the home in which they now share.
However, there was one Canadian tradition that my wife didn’t know about and I obviously did not realize Americans did not have. After a groom carries his bride across the threshold, he gives her the bride’s list. This list is the dos and don’ts for a bride to serve and keep a Canadian husband’s love; giving his bride a clear indication of what he expects from her. This way, she will have far more success in obtaining and keeping his love.
Now, all of you are likely thinking “that is terrible tradition! How could a groom give his bride a list of rules in order to win his love?” And you’re right. If such a tradition exists (in any culture) it would be terrible! PLEASE NOTE: This Canadian tradition does not exist! I definitely made it up, but for good reason!
What about in our marriage to Christ as a church? How often do we look at our relationship with Christ in this manner? As the Bride of Christ, we get this idea in our head’s that if we do all of this and don’t do all of this, somehow our Groom will love us more. It’s ridiculous, but it’s the reality of most of Christendom.
Christian’s have been doing this type of Checklist Christianity for centuries. A good Christian should do this and this and this. Also, a good Christian should not do this and this and this. If a good Christian can achieve all of that, they will obtain a greater holiness than the rest of us and therefore God will love them more!
The Colossian church was having similar ideas and creating their own Christian checklist. I’m so thankful that God led Paul to give us some answers. Turn to Colossians 2:20-23.
“Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Col. 2:20-23)
As always, I am amazed at how pact with information, even just a few verses of God’s Word can hold. The key to these four verses and fleeing from Checklist Christianity, is really found in verse twenty and I think I could preach a message solely on that verse alone.
However, in order to get the full brunt of what Paul is stating here, I have decided to explain verses twenty-one through twenty-three first. Then I want to end with the foundational statement in verse twenty. So, for you Bible scholars, don’t raise your criticism too quickly. I am not neglecting the foundational verse of the text; I will get there!
FALSE TEACHING OF ASCETICISM:
Half way through Colossians 2, Paul starts hitting pretty directly on some false teachings that were taking place within the Colossian church. One of these false doctrines that he mentions is referred to as asceticism. Asceticism is defined as “the doctrine that a person can obtain a high spiritual and moral state by practicing self-denial, self-mortification, and the like.” (Dictionary.com)
Paul explains to the Colossian church with pretty harsh terms that these ascetic rituals and thought patterns will not get us any closer to Christ! Look at verse 21. ““Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”” (Col. 2:21). These Believers were getting corrupted by false teachers, trying to suggest that a list of rules will provide a better stature or position with God.
As we look further, we need to note Paul’s instruction that these are based on “human commands and teachings” not Godly ones. Paul makes sure that we understand that this checklist of ascetic rules and regulations were not issued by Christ!
Furthermore, as it states clearly, though they may “have an appearance of wisdom;” they “are all destined to perish with use.” But what does this ascetic checklist include? Paul lays it out pretty clearly.
First, he mentions “self-imposed worship“. These are the empty rituals that were being placed on the church. As soon as a Believer moves from thoughts of “I want to do this for Christ” to “I have to do this for Christ,” it’s a slippery slope.
Throughout history, many churches have fallen into this lie that on certain days or at certain times, during certain circumstances; a Believer MUST perform a certain act of worship in order to obtain a closer union with God.
For the church today, what’s included in our worship checklist? Perhaps, church attendance is something that we have to do instead of something we want to do. Do we worship here because God demands it or because the devil’s going to get us if we don’t? What about our dress code checklist?
I normally wear a collared shirt and khakis when I preach. This morning I struggled heading out the door with jeans and a t-shirt and yet I wear that every other day of the week. I even debated wearing a hat up here, but decided it might be going too far, too fast. Does God turn away when we don’t dress a certain way for worship?
As a guy who grew up in a Baptist church, that’s a checklist that’s been hard to shake! What about our worship service checklist? What are our dos and don’ts of worship style, order of service, time of worship? Are we making decisions on style, order or time based on what we think God would prefer?
Next, Paul mentions “false humility.” Some of these ascetic teachers believed that they could achieve a lowlier humility by rejecting day-to-day blessings like food, drink or clothing. This has continued throughout Christian history where people may eat plain foods like stale bread, wear plain clothing like burlap robes, and live in silence and solitude. All of this to show or prove that they are humble and meek.
In evangelical circles today, our false humility checklist often comes out in our speech. We’re always excited to tell the story of how someone wronged us and that we took the high road. Many times, as we explain some particular situation where we’ve been hurt in some way, we move to explaining how the Holy Spirit led us to some higher level of behaviour. The fact that we’re telling a story like that, proves our false humility.
We also embrace the false humility checklist in our service to the church. Many of us cannot simply serve for the sake of Christ. We often keep a tally and in turn, tell others where we’ve served and what we’ve accomplished, seeking out praise for ourselves. This again, false humility.
Now we move to a disturbing area of teaching, where one would embrace “harsh treatment of the body” in order to bring about holiness. This false teaching often starts with a false view of fasting; rejecting food or drink through pride or guilt instead of authentic worship.
Furthermore, many ascetics would not take spouses or start families; again, not based out of worship or service but to look more committed or holy. If you can stomach it, feel free to Google it at home, but be cautious around your children. Many a Believer has been convinced that Christ wants them to starve themselves to the point of being on their death-beds.
Some of our fore-fathers have sadly taken celibacy to grim levels of self-mutilation, believing that God would desire their castration to better serve Him. Even more gruesome, are some practices of Christianity today, where people are beating and whipping themselves.
And even worse, asking to be nailed to a cross, thinking that if they could feel the pain that Christ felt, they will achieve a closer union with Him. It’s a disgusting list of harsh treatments of the body.
In today’s western church, thankfully we tend to shy away from this dangerous checklist of bodily harm. However, we too can fast or serve for the wrong reasons. Also, in some liturgical denominations, celibacy and solitude can be taken on under false motivation instead of authentic worship.
OUR CHECKLIST VS. CHRIST:
So, we’ve looked at this false teaching of asceticism in the Colossian church, throughout Christian history and in our churches today. But note the last line of this chapter. Paul writes “they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” To be clear, note that sensual indulgence in this passage, is not solely referring to sexual sin.
In Biblical context, Sensual means all areas of temptation and sin.
We need to understand that no amount of rules and regulations will help us. The longest Christian checklist in the world will not prevent us from having sinful desires, nor will it prevent us from performing sinful acts.
Let me say that again. The longest Christian checklist in the world will not prevent us from having sinful desires, nor will it prevent us from performing sinful acts. Our Christian checklists have no value in restraining our sensual indulgences!
So now what? Should we abandon everything we’ve been doing? Should we stop corporate worship and other Christian gatherings? She we start dressing down for Jesus? Should we stop praying and fasting? Should we neglect all the spiritual disciples that we’ve learned and put into practice? Not at all!
If all we received out of this passage and this message was to abandon everything that Christianity has to offer, we would have totally missed the mark. Thankfully, that’s why Paul started this ascetic rebuke with verse twenty! “Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules:” (Col. 2:20)
Paul’s saying, don’t you remember that you don’t belong to this world anymore? Don’t you remember that Christ freed you from all this? Why would you ever consider all those earthly rules and regulations, when you’re dead to all that? You are already in Christ and nothing you do or don’t do will get you any closer than you already are!
Do we truly understand what this means? This statement destroys every Christian checklist we’ve ever made! Now, because of Christ, we don’t HAVE to do anything. We belong to Christ now and He deeply desire fellowship with us! The beauty is that because we died with Him, we’re free to have fellowship with Him all day, every day!
If we have a desire to fellowship with Him in a worship service, we can! If we have a desire to worship him through prayer and fasting, we can! If we have a desire to take a solo trip into the mountains, for a private time of worship, we can!
He created us to be creative and now because we’re dead in Him, we can worship and have fellowship at anytime, anywhere and with anyone!
Some of you may be asking yourselves, “what about all these temptations and sinful desires? What happens if I mess up and fall out of communion with Him?” But that’s the best part of being dead with Christ; we can’t fall out of communion with Him!
Furthermore, Christ said that upon belief in Him, we now have access to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit dwells in us and walks with us, preventing us from being forced into checklists. But instead, leading us in faith and discipline, and comforting us in times of failing and shame.
As we walk through this life, we are destined to fall deeper and deeper in love with Christ and eventually go to spend eternity with Him.
If you have been living a Checklist Christianity and you’re sick of it, you can change it today. You can recognize that you are dead to all those dos and don’ts and you have received freedom. Christ desires communion with you and the Bible’s clear that once we have placed our faith and trust in Him, the checklists are destroyed!
I encourage you, it’s time to let Christ know that you’re all in and ready to live apart from Christian rules!
What rules or Christian checklist items need to be removed from your life?