Issues Facing Missions Today: 15 Tolerance, Unity, and Love
15 March, AD 63
Thank you for your letter [Colossians] last year. Our Reconciliation Committee, led by the chief elder, the retired Roman centurion, Onychocrypton, has been studying it for the past year. The following are the three points on which we disagree, and we have every reason to hope that we can find a way to live together in the great Body of Christ despite our differences.
First, thank you for your good words about our faith, love, and hope. Indeed, we do desire, as you say, to grow in the knowledge of God [Col. 1.10]. This is, actually, why we have given some attention to philosophy and have devoted no little amount of time to a study of the various spiritual powers and authorities, the thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers [Col. 1.16]. We consider ourselves very spiritual people, sensitive to the spiritual forces of the universe. Onychocrypton likens the Christian life to military service, where there are various levels of authority that need to be heeded if one is to obey the supreme Emperor of our faith, as it were. It is in this obedience to spiritual powers that we have rules about eating certain foods, drinking certain things, observing certain holy days on the calendar [Col. 2.16]—about what we handle, taste, and touch [Col. 2.21]. We love our rituals; they help us to present ourselves as pious, humble, and self-disciplined [Col. 2.23].
Thus, when you reduce the spiritual life to Jesus Christ alone, saying that all the fullness of God dwells in him [Col. 1.19; 2.10] and that he alone is the image of God [Col. 1.15], the one for whom and in whom all things were created, the only one holding the created order together [Col. 1.16-17], we hear a tinge of fundamentalism on your part. Surely we are not to denigrate the diverse spirituality of various faiths and claim so exclusive a way to God as this! We live in a very diverse world, with many gods and many temples, and each person has his or her own personal devotion to a deity alongside the god or goddess of the city where he or she lives. We pride ourselves in affirming everyone’s spirituality. We do not want to live in opposition to our neighbours’ experience of the Divine and various expressions of faith, as though they need to be converted. We interpret the great peace of Rome, the pax Romana, as the gift of an age of tolerance in which unity through plurality might rule. Therein lies our strength. You say that God’s mystery is Christ himself, ‘in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Col. 1.2-3). The Jesus you are proclaiming in this letter strikes us as a threat to the great syncretism or ecumenism that we have worked so energetically to achieve. When you set Christ up as the ‘head of every ruler and authority’ [Col. 2.10], you disparage alternative paths to God. If we really are to abound in love, we need to be more tolerant of other people’s gods. Your own experience in Ephesus, where there was a riot over your teaching because people understood you to be saying that Artemis was not a goddess [Acts 19], is not something that we wish to repeat here in Colosse. Your attempt to explode such myths does not preserve the unity of the Church or of our society.
Second, several of the committee found that your language of our once being ‘dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of our flesh’ [Col. 2.13] harbours a terribly negative view of human life. We all admit to mistakes, and we sometimes do things we shouldn’t and other times leave things undone that we should do, but surely you overstate the matter when you suggest that we were actually dead in our trespasses. (And, do you really have to use phrases like ‘the uncircumcision of our flesh’?) Many of us have relatives and neighbours who are not believers, but we don’t go around suggesting that they are spiritually dead, that they are not saved. After all, we are not out and out sinners! We slip up, we make mistakes, but we are not in essence bad people.
This view of yours about sin has no doubt led you to say that Christ has reconciled us to God by making peace through the blood he shed on the cross [Col. 1.20]. In fact, in the very next sentence you say we were ‘once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds’ [Col. 1.21]. We prefer, though, to see Jesus’ death on the cross as an expression of love, not a blood sacrifice for our sins. We’d really like to move our gory culture away from all this sacrificial and 'substitutionary death' thinking and just promote the value of love. (We have kept the lovely music to 'Oh, Sacred Head Now Wounded' but replaced the words with those in 'Kumbaya.') You see Jesus forgiving us our sins through his death, but we are uncomfortable with the idea of sin and with the notion of Jesus having to die for our sins. This whole notion is also very exclusive, since it suggests that those who do not acknowledge their sinfulness and who do not accept Christ’s sacrificial death for them are not included among God’s people. Our whole impetus, though, is to fit into society, not to oppose it. Our goal is to be a community that loves its neighbours and serves them, not a community that tells them they are sinners and need Jesus.
Third, and related to this last point, we firstly want to say that we loved your words about getting rid of anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language [Col. 3.8]. Precisely such attitudes of intolerance are what we strive to remove in our community. The virtues that you list are equally wonderful: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience and so forth, with love binding everything together in harmony [Col. 3.12-14]. Yet we thought that this positive statement of Christian life is simply at odds with what you said about putting to death practices such as fornication, impurity, passion, and evil desire (although we do agree that we should get rid of greed) [Col. 3.5]. If we are going to practice kindness, humility, and love, why should we tell people what they can or cannot do in the bedroom? Love doesn’t tell people what they can or cannot do but affirms them in their choices and cares for them if their choices do not turn out well. We know you mean by ‘fornication’ all the things that the Jews mean by that term, that is, sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman. To condemn this is not only counter-cultural, it is also intolerant of people’s orientations and lifestyles.
The committee here does not represent everyone’s view in the church. It is concerned to help you and the others not feel threatened within the larger Christian fellowship that we intend to form, a fellowship that will encourage unity among differences. Even though we find your exclusive, gory, unloving, and judgemental version of Christianity distasteful, we want to be inclusive and tolerant towards you. We wholly reject your version of Christianity, Paul, but we still want to hold out a hand of grace and love towards you. Thus, we have firstly decided to call for talks to promote understanding and tolerance over the next ten years. We have every reason to believe that your followers will come around to our way of thinking, perhaps helped by some special gifts to show how much we care for them and the unity of the Church. Second, however, if you break fellowship with us over these differences and take some people with you, we intend to take you to court to get the property where you have been worshiping. We will throw them out of their houses because, we believe, the property belongs to us and not to those who use it. This is not greed on our part because the law is surely on our side.
In the Love of God/s,
The Reconciliation Committee at Colosse