Such a man is puffed up without basis by his unspiritual mind, and he loses connection to the head, from whom the whole body, supported and knit together by its joints and ligaments, grows as God causes it to grow. (Colossians 2:18b-19 BSB)
There is a common essence in all spiritual error. Truth by its very nature is always narrow — and this is true regardless of whether we are speaking of scientific truth, historical truth, or philosophical truth. Although spiritual error comes in many different shapes, the essence is all the same: a rejection of the Lordship of Christ.
Examining the ways that different translations interpret this passage shows the challenges in conveying the complete thought. There is no significant disagreement over the words themselves, only in the means of translating them and conveying the fullness of the original message.
False Humility and Real Arrogance
The false teachers were noted for their “false humility” (Col. 2:18a). They appeared to be honest enquirers, even humble learners, but they had dismissed the gospel of Christ and embraced falsehood. They were guilty of the most appalling arrogance for rejecting the inner witness of the Spirit of God. Their minds were puffed up in their sense of self-importance.
Such people are common, and I have known many like this over the years. They simply reject sound teaching and embrace some strange philosophy which they want to be respected for believing. Later Paul described such people as: “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). Albert Barnes explained these people with clear words:
They may learn many things, but the true nature of religion they do not learn. There are many such persons in the world, who, whatever attention they may pay to religion, never understand its nature. Many obtain much speculative acquaintance with the “doctrines” of Christianity, but never become savingly acquainted with the system; many study the constitution and government of the church, but remain strangers to practical piety; many become familiar with the various philosophical theories of religion, but never become truly acquainted with what religion is; and many embrace visionary theories, who never show that they are influenced by the spirit of the gospel. Nothing is more common than for persons to be very busy and active in religion, and even to “learn” many things about it, who still remain strangers to the saving power of the gospel. (Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, 2 Tim. 3:7)
To me the essence of the error is to consider the study of the Christian faith as mere theoretical discussion, with no compelling moral obligation to believe. Such people are deceived by the devil to imagine that they are doing the same thing that Christians are doing, in that they are searching for the truth. But they have failed to bow their knees and their hearts to Christ once He has found them and shared with them His gospel.
Loses Connection to the Head
The original words mean “not holding the Head” and is not a statement that they had lost their salvation — it does not speak from the position of God, of what God did to these people — rather it is a reference to the attitude and actions of the individuals themselves. They let go of Christ.
Now the statement itself fits two classes of people. It first of all refers to the Jewish legalist with Pharisaical sympathies, who claimed to believe the Old Testament as the word of God, but rejected the witness to Jesus Christ in the Old Testament. They had the teachings of Christ in their hands and claimed to believe the Book, but they let go of Christ in their interpretation and held to a salvation-by-works-theology. Christ said:
You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:39-40)
It secondly, however, could refer to some true believers who had momentarily drifted into error, having been influenced by false teachers. They had let go of Christ, but Christ had not let go of them. “If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). I am comforted by the softness of this description, for doubts and troubling ideas float across every heart. The words here, in fact, serve as a warning to those who were on the fringe of following this error, even to those who had thought that the false teachings held some truth. These words serve to warn and awaken those who are being tempted to drift into error.
There are some true believers who are tempted to flirt with serious heretical beliefs their entire lives. We may wonder, sometimes, if they are truly saved, and, of course, some that we consider sincere might not be. But others, I believe, are truly saved. But somewhere in their minds this kind of teaching is attractive. A false teacher, if they are kind and gracious, will be trusted by them, and when confronted they will likely say something like, “But she was so nice!” or “He was so humble!”
But I will keep on doing what I am doing, in order to undercut those who want an opportunity to be regarded as our equals in the things of which they boast. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. (2 Cor. 11:12-15)
A Stern Warning of Romanism
If there is a demonstration in the broader Christian family in today’s world of acting out these words, it is in the Roman Catholic Church. Not all Catholics are lost. I have known many through the years who hold to a sincere saving faith in Christ. And since Vatican II, the church has begun to again preach the gospel in some quarters.
However, the error of Romanism is the notion that it is the Church that saves and not Christ. They teach that as long as they believe in the Church, are in the Church, and participate in the mass, then they are saved, or so they claim — even if that part of the Church that the people had come in contact with teaches Mariology, superstitious notions of praying to saints, or to angels, or notions of the spiritual power of physical things, etc. Even if the only “gospel” the people have heard is the false gospel of salvation by good works, and unbiblical superstitious nonsense. And their leaders do puff themselves up with “false humility.”
The real problem is that they have let go of the biblical Christ, and substituted Him — who is the One and Only true Lord and Savior — for a “Christ of Culture” or a “Christ of the Church,” or any number of other aberrations.
The Church of Christ
Christ’s true body, however, continues to grow. All those who trust in the biblical Christ, who have placed their faith in Him through the miracle of conversion — something that is possible only by the Spirit of God — and follow Him as Lord have a new spiritual reality. The true church is “supported and held together” in a miraculous way by God. Like the physical body is held by “ligaments and sinews” so Christ’s spiritual body is connected.
Like spiritual pheromones, we are mysteriously attracted to other believers. We are to one another a “fragrance of life” (2 Cor. 2:16). God places some who serve like the sinews of the body to connect one part of the body of Christ to other parts. This is the common denominator of true believers: they believe in the biblical Christ and follow Him as Lord.