top of page

New Testament Words and Verses
Colossians 2:23 and the Futility (Inutility) of Moral Exhortation

Most religious systems include not simply a belief system but also an ethic or style of life that is compatible with or flows out of their belief system.  Some scholars have even suggested that the most basic definition of a religion consists of two things:  a world view and a way of life. That way of life often includes not just lists of religious duties but also directions on how one ought to live one’s personal moral life.  Thus, when we turn to early Christianity and ask what it basically is and believes, it might not be bad to look at it through the “world view” and “way of life” lenses.

That way of life, as I have indicated in an earlier essay, includes about two dozen moral or ethical terms that characterize the Christian life. There is no need to state them again here, but the standard virtues of patience, self-control, gentleness, hopefulness, humility and so forth are easy to document.  Yet, the mere presence of this many terms describing he moral duties of the Christian raises the inevitable question:  what is the value of these exhortations or lists of virtues?  The burden of this essay is to suggest that they have little value to people today.  The verse that I am using to anchor my thoughts is Colossians 2:23:


23 ἅτινά ἐστιν λόγον μὲν ἔχοντα σοφίας ἐν ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ καὶ ταπεινοφροσύνῃ [καὶ] ἀφειδίᾳ σώματος, οὐκ ἐν τιμῇ τινι πρὸς πλησμονὴν τῆς σαρκός.


“Which things having the word of wisdom in do-it-yourself religion and humility and the unsparing attitude toward the body, and not with any value in (checking) the filling up/satisfying of the flesh.”


                                                Setting the Context and Examining the Words


In order to understand Col. 2:23, we have to return to the beginning of the paragraph, in 2:20, where the Apostle excoriates his hearers for taking on a new set of regulations now that they have embraced the Christian faith. Apparently there was a group of people (certainly not approved by Paul!) who wanted to lay on the new believers a series of rules: 


21μὴ ἅψῃ μηδὲ γεύσῃ μηδὲ θίγῃς,


“Don’t touch, don’t taste, don’t hurt/touch violently”


We don’t know who these people were, but they certainly stood in contrast to the tone of the letter, where the “fulness of Christ” is the dominant theme.  The Apostle recognizes the apparent value of these rules—and I repeat the verse from above, though with a slightly different translation:


23 ἅτινά ἐστιν λόγον μὲν ἔχοντα σοφίας ἐν ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ καὶ ταπεινοφροσύνῃ [καὶ] ἀφειδίᾳ σώματος, οὐκ ἐν τιμῇ τινι πρὸς πλησμονὴν τῆς σαρκός.


“Which things having a (seeming) value/word of wisdom in do-it-yourself religion and humility and unsparing conduct to the body, but they aren’t of any value in (controlling) the filling up/satisfying of the flesh.”


So, some group wanted to lay a series of ascetic practices on the new believers, and Paul strenuously disagreed.


What is interesting are the rare words that especially appear in vv 22-23.  We have the word ἀποχρήσει (v 22), which means “in use/by making use of.” Then, the word ἐντάλματα (“commands,” v 22) is rare and appears in the NT when it is quoting the same Isaiah passage (29:13).  Then, the word ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ (v 23), which I translated as “do-it-yourself religion,” is so rare that this may be its only appearance in the whole of ancient Greek literature.  Then, we have ἀφειδίᾳ (v 23), which consists of an alpha-privative and the verb “to spare.”  Interestingly, according to the big LSJ, the word can be rendered in contrary ways: “lax towards the body” or “unsparing toward the body,” but the latter seems more fitting here because of the three-fold command listed in verse 21. Finally, the word πλησμονὴν (v 23), which I rendered the “filling up/satisfying,” is literally, the “fulness” of the flesh.  Too bad we have no idea who is putting these contrary ideas into the minds of the Colossians or what they really mean.


                  The Subject of the Essay—Value or Inutility of Moral Commands


With all of this as a rather overlong introduction, we are now ready for the subject—the value or worth of moral exhortations for the religious life.  My thesis here is that they are not valuable, and that for three reasons.  First, the multiplication of moral terms, with no hierarchy given, and no precise definition given means that terms frequently overlap in unhelpful ways.  We simply don’t know what the extent or meaning of “kindness” is.  We don’t know the difference between “self-control” and “self-punishment.”  Often not more than two or three large ethical or doctrinal concepts can be held in the mind at once.  To lay twenty or more terms on one simply leads to confusion.


                                                Contrary Meaning of the Same Term


Making matters worse is the fact that even in the New Testament, the same ethical term is both good and bad, both approved and disapproved.  We have it in this very passage. We are told that the opponents of Paul urge on the Christian believers the following:  ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ καὶ ταπεινοφροσύνῃ, or “do-it-yourself religion and humility.”  These are things that are not approved by Paul.  But, wait a second.  Isn’t the second term used elsewhere, and elsewhere in Paul himself, as a commended practice?  Indeed, ταπεινοφροσύνῃ has appeared in another letter of Paul, Phil. 2:3 in a favorable context.  Paul wants his hearers to do nothing of empty conceit/vanity (κατὰ κενοδοξίαν) but in humility (τῇ ταπεινοφροσύνῃ) to consider others superior than oneself.  In this passage in Philippians 2, humility is a prized and cherished virtue.  Again,  in the Colossian letter itself, Paul lists the Christian virtues, and ταπεινοφροσύνῃ is smack in the middle of the list (3:12).  Of course, we can argue that the same word can have contrary meanings based on the context, but that fits well into my argument.  If the same word can have contrary meanings, then that word isn’t very valuable as a moral category for us. And, one need not stop there.  One can understand how “meekness” might become “unseemly docility” or something like that.  So, potential for contrary meanings of the same term diminish their value for moral exhortation.


                                                            The “Commonsense” Approach

Finally, one might argue that moral exhortation isn’t needed because of the fact that religious exhortation generally comes into a person’s life after their moral system is established.  One might ask, “Do you not murder because the text says not to murder or because of some other reason?”  No doubt people would say, “I knew, either by training or by intuition that murder was wrong before I ever read it in a text or heard about it from the pulpit.”  The same thing could be said for a variety of other Christian virtues.  Commonsense reasoning and practice gets you further than command.


Thus, even though a variety of moral terms fill the NT, they aren’t particularly useful for the direction of life.  The definitions are difficult to ascertain (and they overlap with each other); they sometimes are read in fully contradictory ways; and they probably have been inferred from the early process of living rather than from an apodictic order.

Philemon 1
Back to NT Page

bottom of page