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The Danger of Dogma

Death by crucifixion, aside from being immensely painful, was a humiliating experience. It was a punishment reserved for criminals. They were tied or nailed to the cross naked, and the cross placed in a location for passers by to see. It was a deterrent, shaming the criminals so that others might heed the warning.

What does Paul mean, therefore, when he tells us Jesus being nailed to the cross “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, triumphing over them in him.” (Col. 2:15)? Surely, it’s the other way around. How could Jesus’ crucifixion shame the rulers and authorities who put him there?

A clue is found in the previous verse where Paul also tells us Jesus’ death saved us “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” That sounds like Jesus’ death ending the law of condemnation. But let’s unpack what Paul says a bit further focusing on the phrase “legal demands”, which is translated from the Greek word dogma. The Greek word has a similar meaning to our word dogma, which is defined as a principle laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. You might think the dogma of the first century refers to the Law of Moses, which was done away with in Christ, and this verse in Colossians seems to suggest that. But it’s not so much the Law of Moses itself Paul is talking about, because, after all, that law was given by God and the principles that govern it are eternal. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament defines the Greek word dogma with the basic meaning of “what seems to be right” or “opinion”, and it came to mean an official ordinance or edict.

What the word seems to mean, in the context Paul uses it, is the opinions and edicts that came out of the man-made interpretations of the Law which were common in first century Jewry. That’s confirmed by the use of the word dogmatizo – which is basically the same word as dogma – at the end of the chapter: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? (v.20-22). Notice Paul calls these things “human precepts and teachings”, so he’s not talking about the Law of Moses itself.

Paul uses the same word, in a similar context, in Ephesians 2:15, but it’s also used twice of decrees made by the Roman emperor. For instance, in Acts 17:7 the house of Jason, one of the brethren in Thessalonica, where Paul and Silas were staying was attacked. The reason given was “they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”

It was the dogma of the Jews that got Jesus killed. He disobeyed their human precepts and teachings and for that they crucified him. When people are so attached to their dogmatic opinions that it causes them to do terrible things you know there’s something wrong. Jew and Gentile, each with their own dogma, combined to crucify Jesus of Nazareth. If you think about it, what they did to this innocent man was shameful. And that’s the point of what Paul says in Colossians – what was on display on the cross was where the dogmatic edicts of men lead to, the murder of an innocent man.

Which leads to our need to be wary of the danger of our own human precepts and teachings. Sometimes we can get so invested with things we’ve come up with ourselves, things that we’ve convinced ourselves are fully based on scriptural principles, that they can end up overriding the Word of God. That’s what happened to the Jews in Jesus’ day, with their rules about the Sabbath, for instance, causing their extreme antagonism towards the Son of God. What tends to happen, because we’re invested in our dogma, we persecute those who break the rules.

But that’s not to say dogma is always wrong. There’s one other occurrence of the word, and it concerns the edict put forward by the apostles in Acts 15. One of the things Paul and his companions did, as they went on their journey through Gentile territory, was to deliver the letter written in Acts 15: “As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem.” (Acts 16:4). The word “decisions” is our word dogma, but this time it’s used in a positive light. If you think about it though, the edict of Acts 15 – “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:29) – isn’t much different from what Paul mentions regarding the dogmatizo in Colossians 2:21 – “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch.” It’s not that we shouldn’t make decisions in our ecclesias. We have to make rules and sometimes those rules are formalized. But here’s the difference with the dogma of the apostles. It was designed to bring brethren together, to solve disputes and enable unity of Jew and Gentile. That’s an entirely different mindset from the basis of the Jewish dogma, which came from the mistaken idea that things outside the body can defile us. Jesus covered this in Mark 7 where the Pharisees said Jesus’ disciples did “not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands” (v.5). Jesus called that “the tradition of men” (v.8) and went to say “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (v.15). The proof was on display on the cross. Those who held to their dogma were put to an open shame. What came out of them was the works of the flesh and they were defiled by such things as envy, betrayal and murder. The questions we need to ask ourselves is this: are the decisions we make and the opinions we form, going to bring brethren together or destroy the unity of the body of Christ?

Richard Morgan,
Simi Hills, CA

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