Here’s the sermon I preached for my home church this week on Colossians 2:4-15. It explores how Christ is sufficient and why as Christians we ought to avoid speculative ideas and teachings
Here’s the sermon I preached for my home church this week on Colossians 2:4-15. It explores how Christ is sufficient and why as Christians we ought to avoid speculative ideas and teachings
Conspiracy theories are never far from the public imagination. In the midst of a turbulent event or changing culture, rumours and speculations emerge which attempt to offer an explanation. Conspiracy theories don’t rely on accessible knowledge, reasoned argument, and evidence, but rather, they join the hidden dots that allegedly lay behind the scenes.
Two weeks ago The Atlantic published a disturbing piece, The Prophecies of Q: American Conspiracy Theories entering a dangerous new phase. Written by Adrienne LaFrance, this is a lengthy and detailed description of the short history of QAnon. Q is an anonymous figure who began posting messages on the internet in October 2017. The messages are cryptic and relate to current socio-political dramas in the United States. These online notes suggest a world of intrigue that is taking place behind the scenes against President Trump by the so called ‘deep state’. For those interested, in addition to LaFrance’s article, Joe Carter has written an important summary of QAnon on The Gospel Coalition. Marc-André Argentino’s piece for The Conversation is another informative article.
At the time of reading The Atlantic’s exposé, I sent out this tweet.
“In light of the growing proliferation of nutty conspiracy theories, I’m pleased that we’re currently studying Colossians at Church. Colossians presents a clear repudiation of gnosis. Christians are to be people of reason not speculation, love not fear”.
In case I had doubt as to whether QAnon was a thing, within minutes I had people replying to the tweet, espousing QAnon ideas and carrying QAnon references on the twitter bios. Somewhat ironically, they have since deleted their comments and disappeared in the dark web once more. What was interesting about the comments are these 3 points: 1. They referenced belonging to a chapter of QAnon in Australia, 2. They used Christian language/categories, 3. They obviously exist.
The connection between QAnon and ‘Christianity’ (I stress the inverted commas here) became highly visible when Joe Carter wrote his article for TGC. Many comments were made by people who identify with QAnon. It is quite astonishing and concerning.
QAnon is connected to misinformation campaigns on COVID-19, suggesting it is a hoax, and also offering miracle cures for the pandemic.
This conspiracy theory is now national security in the United States. It is important to note that some QAnon members have been identified by the FBI as a domestic terror threat, and with good reason: there have been cases of threats of violence, people arrested for making bombs, and even a case of a man storming a Washington DC restaurant with an AR-15 rifle because he believed it was a front for a child sex ring that was being run by Hilary Clinton.
Joe Carter also points to the spread of QAnon overseas,
“While most are presumably peaceful, some QAnon followers have allegedly been involved in terroristic threats against Trump and his family, an arson that destroyed 23,000 acres in California, and armed standoffs with law enforcement. The conspiracy theory has also spread to Europe with a QAnon-inspired mass murder in Germany, arson targeting cell towers, and attacks on telecom workers in Belgium, Cyprus, Ireland, and the Netherlands.”
In its short history, QAnon has morphed from a tiny political conspiracy into a religious movement. While it remains fringe and most of us had probably never heard of it until recently, its tentacles have extended into churches, taking Christians captive to its dangerous ideas.
“it is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end. The group harnesses paranoia to fervent hope and a deep sense of belonging. The way it breathes life into an ancient preoccupation with end-times is also radically new. To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.”
One QAnon exponent has now published several books. Take note of the religious themes in the titles, Hearing God’s Voice Made Simple, Defeating Your Adversary in the Court of Heaven, and American Sniper: Lessons in Spiritual Warfare.
The theory revolves around the idea of a coming “Great Awakening”,
“It speaks of an intellectual awakening—the awareness by the public to the truth that we’ve been enslaved in a corrupt political system. But the exposure of the unimaginable depravity of the elites will lead to an increased awareness of our own depravity. Self-awareness of sin is fertile ground for spiritual revival. I believe the long-prophesied spiritual awakening lies on the other side of the storm.”
“The language of evangelical Christianity has come to define the Q movement. QAnon marries an appetite for the conspiratorial with positive beliefs about a radically different and better future, one that is preordained.”
There is now a gathering of QAnon members, which Argentino argues is essentially a ‘church’. It’s known as Omega Kingdom Ministry.
QAnon sounds as though it is more prevalent in the United States than here in Australia. Although as I experienced last week, there are adherents in Australia and at least one organised groups of followers (on the Gold Coast). Christians should at least be aware of its existence so that we can respond pastorally, should anyone in our congregations be drawn in. Let’s be clear, as Joe Carter writes,
“Christians should care about QAnon because it’s a satanic movement infiltrating our churches.
Although the movement is still fringe, it is likely that someone in your church or social media circles has either already bought into the conspiracy or thinks it’s plausible and worth exploring. We should care because many believers will or are being swayed by the demonic influences of this movement.”
I am writing this blog post, partly to raise awareness of this dangerous movement but also to demonstrate from Scripture (Colossians in particular) that conspiracy theories, in general, are anti-Christian.
In writing to the Church in Colosse, the Apostle Paul notes an emerging group of false teachers, which Bible scholars observe are a form of proto-Gnosticism. These teachers are spreading new ideas that spring from secret knowledges and that in contradiction to the true Gospel of Jesus Christ that had been received by the Colossians. In this letter, Paul is both calling the Church to remain firm on the Gospel of Christ and to reject these new and unChristian teachings
“My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 4 I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. 5 For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.
6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.
9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.” (Colossians 2:2-9)
Firstly, God’s mystery has been revealed. In the Old Testament, the fulness of God’s purposes were not revealed and made clear. The Apostles stresses that in Christ this mystery is now made known. Indeed Christ and inclusion into Christ is the mystery.
“the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (1:26-27)
Secondly, God’s revealed mystery, which is Christ, is sufficient in every way. The fulness of God is in Christ, for he is fully and eternally God. This fulness has been given to us through faith. The exhortation is to remain in Christ, not shifting from him and onto something new and different. Why not? Because God’s promises and blessings and purposes are all wrapped up in Christ and are already ours in Him.
In chapter 1 Paul offers what is a superlative picture of the Lord Jesus Christ, detailing that he is supreme and sufficient,
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
Thirdly, in contrast to the true and sufficient knowledge given us in Christ, Paul warns Christians about being attracted to new theologies. He refers to these as deceptive yet persuasive (2:3), as hollow and deceptive philosophy, and as arising from human traditions and elemental forces rather than Christ.
The origins of this new and secret knowledges is human speculation. As Paul adds in 2:15 behind these movements are devilish ‘powers and authorities’. These have been defeated by the cross, but are lingering about and trying to take God’s people ‘captive’ and uprooted from Christ.
Conspiracy theories succeed because they play into pre-existing assumptions, and they justify irrational political and religious beliefs. Conspiracy theories don’t depend on evidence but on capturing those seeds of doubt or inquisitiveness that otherwise may lay dormant in the consciousness.
Christians should avoid conspiracy theories because they depend on rumours and spreading speculations. Christians should ignore conspiracy theories because they reject well-established truth and they regularly turn to gossip and slander. There are clear examples of this in relation to QAnon.
Conspiracy theories also encourage suspicion and hatred, where the Christian ethic requires us to love our neighbours.
The issue is heightened when the conspiracy theory links itself to Christian teaching in some form. Paul insists that churches are to be on their guard and refute ideas that undermine the person and work of Christ, that suggest new and improved spirituality beyond Christ, that promote eschatological prophecies regarding the future, and that creates discouragement and division in the Church (2:2). It’s a car crash waiting to happen.
These Apostolic concerns regarding Proto-Gnosticism can be easily linked with modern day cults such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some forms of Pentecostalism and Christian liberalism would also fall under this umbrella. The reason being is that in different ways they deny the supremacy of the Lord Jesus or reject the sufficiency of the atonement. And like other those ancient heresies of Arianism and Montanism, that cause believers to doubt the clear teaching of Scripture and the fulness of God’s revelation in Christ, these contemporary storylines depend on new and secret knowledge.
We measure Christian doctrine according to the measure give to us by God, namely the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. When we find ourselves being pulled by extraordinary and too-good-to-be-true stories and understandings, they most probably are too good to be true. Be careful lest you step yourself away from the fullness God has already given us in Christ, and drag others with you.
“the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace” (Colossians 1:6)
This year we decided to escape one month of the Australian summer by heading for the northern hemisphere. Susan and I had the opportunity to take an overseas holiday with our children, and so we packed our winter coats and gloves, grabbed the passports, made a dash across the equator and didn’t stop for 18000km.
We marched up The Mall to Buckingham Palace. We joined the Tottenham hoards at Wembley Stadium for an EPL game. We toured Lord’s Cricket Ground, wandered the galleries at Tate Modern, drove through Flanders and the First World War battlefields, spent days walking through the beautiful city of Paris, eating a ridiculous amount of tasty French breads and cakes, and finally, a mountain of bbq pork and daily yum cha in the enticing city of Hong Kong. Yes, it was amazing and alluring and many other adjectives beginning with the letter ‘a’.
Amidst visiting and enjoying many wonderful sights, foods, and experiences, there was something else even greater and most astonishing, something we didn’t want to miss out on. To non-Christians, this may sound daft, and sadly, even among many Christians. What could possibly outdo the many places and tastes that garnished our holiday? What beats lunch in Paris and shopping at Selfridges? Answer? It was spending time with God’s people each Sunday. That’s right, the highlight of our trip was Church.
I admit it, I don’t leap out of bed every week for church, let alone when I’m on holidays. It’s not that I don’t want to be with church, but rather, I’m exhausted, in every sense of the word. Nevertheless, I take Hebrews 10:23-24 seriously, and I have a beautiful wife who spurs me on even when I’m lacking motivation. And after all, when Christians in China are facing arrest and imprisonment for gathering together as Church, how can I justify nonattendance because I’m on holiday?
I remind my own congregation that regularly meeting with God’s people is both a command and a comfort, an exhortation and encouragement. Just as eating food is necessary and delicious, so church for the Christian is both vital and pleasing, nourishing the soul and feeding the body. That means, we need time with God, in his word, and with his people, even when I’m on vacation.
We visited several churches during our time away: 3 in London, 1 in Lille (France), and 1 in Hong Kong. We met people for the first time, who were already brothers and sisters on account of Christ. We sat among a French-speaking Church and heard the name of Jesus sung and preached with joyful earnestness. We watched another Church not only accommodate but love special needs children in the most natural and beautiful way; their spasmodic noises and motions were not an interruption to the service but were warmly embraced as part of their worship to God.
On our final Sunday before heading home to Melbourne, we listened to a sermon which captured wonderfully a truth that we experienced throughout our time away.
An old friend, John Percival, serves as the Senior Pastor of Ambassador International Church in Hong Kong. John opened the Scriptures to Colossians 1:1-8.
I was immediately struck by verses 3- 6, which reads,
“We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people— the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel 6 that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace.”
What I noticed is how the churches we visited are an embodiment of Colossians 1:3-6 (at the very least, this was our experience of them, as it is has been our joy and privilege in serving at Mentone Baptist for the past 14 years).
Each of the Churches we visited prayed for the nations and for the Gospel to advance throughout the world. They gave thanks for God’s grace at work in bringing people to Christ. The preachers pointed people to the Lord Jesus and called them to believe in him and put their hope in Christ and not the things of this world. It is always exciting to see these words spoken to a small town church 2000 years ago are still working today in the lives of congregations in different parts of the world, and knowing that it is the same Gospel at work in our own lives. And so, just as Paul thanked God for the Gospel at work among the Colossians, I am thankful to God for evidence of his grace among these churches
Our time away was beneficial for many reasons, and among them was seeing again how the Apostolic word is continuing to bear fruit all over the world, just as God said would happen. The same good news that we believe at Mentone Baptist is held by women and men 17000km away. The same message that is preached at Mentone is being proclaimed to people across continents in other languages. The same message that Paul speaks to the Colossians is, 21 Centuries later, still bearing fruit all over the world.
As in the years that have already past by, 2019 will no doubt provide us will another onslaught of church naysayers and Gospel skeptics. We’ll hear unbelievers knock the message of the cross and laugh at the notion of resurrection, and we’ll read about clergy doing the very same thing. New leadership gurus and theological “pioneers” will give advice about how we need to be more ‘radical’ and more ‘revolutionary’ in our approaches to ministry (as though innovation is the Gospel).
Instead, I have been refreshed by words that speak of a faith, love and hope that is growing among churches, born from hearing and understanding God’s grace, “true message of the gospel”.
You see, if we had chosen the ‘easier’ path and not bothered to find a Bible-believing local church, if we had instead skipped church so that I could catch up on lost sleep or see more sights and try new things, we would have missed out on this great encouragement from God. I would have given up Divine food for stuffing myself with a few stale chips, such are medieval buildings, fashion houses, and restaurants, in comparison with what God is growing throughout the whole world.
So as I return to Melbourne and to a new year of pastoral ministry at Mentone, having enjoyed a time away and seeing God’s world and taking pleasure in many wonders of human intellectual and creative exercise. More importantly, I am reminded of the one Gospel which in 2019 will give birth to faith, love, and hope, and being reminded how these things grow together in and through the life of the local church.