Cafeteria-Style Religion

You’ve probably heard the term “cafeteria-style” religion. This is the religion of “a little of this and a little of that.” Beliefs are chosen from a variety of theologies or religions or philosophies because they seem right or appeal to us. Rituals or practices are chosen because we like them, they suit our tastes.

Sometimes this is a matter of Christians mixing the doctrines of various Christian theological traditions that results in an odd fit. But we won’t be talking about that this week. More often, and what is of more concern to us, is the way Christians sometimes mix non-Christian beliefs with Christian beliefs.

I saw this illustrated in a story published a few years ago about a young woman who had been a Methodist but became a Baptist after studying Baptist theology. She’d clearly put some thought into her decision which I applauded. However, it turned out that, along with her Baptist doctrines, she also held the belief that Christianity isn’t necessarily true for everyone. She was mixing Christian doctrine with a postmodern attitude about the nature of truth. Christians mix in a variety of false beliefs with true doctrine. Some Christians read horoscopes and take them somewhat seriously. Some base their ethical decision-making on what works. Some believe in reincarnation. And some, like the woman I mentioned, believe Jesus isn’t the only way to God.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. The apostle Paul faced the same kind of situation. Some Christians in his day were trying to mix Jewish and pagan beliefs into their Christianity. Paul discussed this issue in his letter to the church in Colossae. The second chapter of that letter will be the focus of our consideration (you might want to grab your Bible). In fact, may I be so bold as to ask you to read the chapter before you continue reading this? It’s really more than a chapter: chapter 2, verse 1, through chapter 3, verse 4. If you have more time, go ahead and read chapter 1 also.

Paul starts chapter 2 by expressing his desire for the Colossians, that they “may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (v. 3). The believers needed to be clear on this so they would be able to spot “fine-sounding” but deceptive arguments that led away from Christ.

Greek Philosophy

What were the false doctrines being taught in Colossae? What was being taught was a mixture of elements of Jewish beliefs and Greek philosophy with Christianity. The net result was that Christ was diminished in His person and His work on our behalf. This is clear from the corrections Paul makes in chapter 2 of Colossians and from the strong Christological statement in chapter 1, verses 15-20.

Let’s look first at the ideas imported from Greek thought.

From chapter 2, verses 21 to 23, we can deduce that people were being taught the pagan or Greek belief that physical matter is evil. “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” People were taught to restrict themselves from certain pleasures that God didn’t forbid. More importantly, if matter is evil, how could God come as a man in a physical body like yours and mine? If God couldn’t become man, then Jesus couldn’t be the divine Son of God. You see how that would be a problem!

The Colossians were also engaging in angel worship. Look at verse 18: “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize.” Some Greek philosophers had taught that the One, or the ultimate being, was too pure to get close to evil matter. So there were many levels of lesser beings between the One and the material universe. It was a simple step to associate angels with these beings. If people couldn’t approach God, maybe they could these intermediate beings. Hence, angel worship.

Lastly, false teachers were promoting a special knowledge that apparently only a few had. Paul speaks of people puffed up with idle notions, in verse 18. He also mentions the “appearance of wisdom” in verse 23. He responds that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (v. 3). This knowledge is available to all who are in Christ, and provides no reason for our being puffed up (1 Cor. 2:16).

These three beliefs developed into what is called Gnosticism.{1} Paul saw this as a very grave danger. Why? Just because Christians might be deprived of some rightful pleasures? Well, that was a problem. But something much more important was at stake. Because of these beliefs, the person and work of Christ was diminished.

Jewish Beliefs

What was being imported from Judaism?

In chapter 2, verses 16 and 20 through 22, Paul cautions against a wrong emphasis on traditions carried over from Judaism including dietary restrictions, and the observance of religious festivals and the Sabbath. From this we can deduce that these things were being promoted by the false teachers. Apparently, from what Paul says in verse 11, they were also requiring circumcision.

Does this mean it is wrong to have traditions or to restrict our diet in any way? No, not at all. The point is that our standing before God is not related to such things. Christians are no longer under a legal code because Christ has taken it away and nailed it to the cross (v. 14). Paul wanted the Christians to know they were free from such things. Why? Well, the most important reason is that such works don’t work for getting us to God. There’s no reason to carry that burden on our shoulders; God put it on Christ’s who has done all that needs to be done.

Not only were such things incapable of getting the Colossians to God, they couldn’t even accomplish the goal of reforming people. Look at chapter 2, verse 23: “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” Paul doesn’t just say that these things don’t stand us in good stead with God; they can’t even make us good people. Why? Because our root problem is our fallen nature. We can observe all the practices and rituals we want, but that won’t change what we are inside. And what is inside will show itself as we sin again . . . and again . . . and again.

No, our problem isn’t met by observing rituals or by putting our hopes in the wrong places such as in heavenly beings or in our special knowledge. It is met in Christ in whom we have all we need. Verses 9 and 10 read: “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete . . .” Literally, “you have been filled up.” It is a passive verb. We have been given what we need in Christ.

The only way to God, given our fallen nature, is through Christ. The Colossians had turned back to worthless things. And these things weren’t neutral in value; they served to turn the focus off of Jesus where it belonged.

Being Thinking Christians

What was and is to be done in response to this mixing of false with true? The solution lies in first knowing what is true. Speaking of Colossians 2 verse 2, nineteenth century biblical scholar John Eadie wrote this: “‘The full assurance of understanding,’ [or “full riches of complete understanding” in the NIV] is the fixed persuasion that you comprehend the truth, and that it is the truth which you comprehend.”{2} Why is that so important? He goes on to say that if we don’t have the full assurance that comes from understanding, we will be more likely to abandon what we believe today for something new tomorrow; new ideas will chase away previously held convictions. If we are “‘ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth,'” he says, ‘then such [doubtfulness] and fluctuation present a soil most propitious to the growth and progress of error.”{3}

The apostles wanted the members of the churches to understand Christian beliefs. “The fixed knowledge of these things,” Eadie writes, “would fortify their minds against the seductive insinuations of false teachers,” who mix just enough truth with falsehood to make their teachings believable.

Imagine Paul setting on his left side the false beliefs and practices being taught in Colossae and on his right, Jesus and His finished work. Pointing to his left he says, “You think matter is evil? Then [pointing to his right now] you might as well abandon Christ altogether, because it was His deity that made it possible for Him to obtain our salvation. You believe [pointing to his left] that worshipping angels will help? [Pointing to his right] Jesus, who is the exact image of God, God in flesh, to whom we have direct access, created the angels! [Pointing to his left] You think keeping all these rules will make you a good person? They don’t! You just keep sinning. It is in Christ [pointing to the right] that your sin can be dealt with at the root.”

We can believe in all manner of things in the current “true for me” way of thinking. But if something isn’t true (in the classical sense), believing won’t make it so.

Things to Be Aware of Today

The Christians in Colossae were guilty of folding in false beliefs with true ones. To avoid doing that ourselves, we need to be thinking Christians. We need to think biblically. The Bible is our final authority for faith and practice. Does the particular idea or activity find support in Scripture? We need to think theologically. If the Bible doesn’t directly address a given idea, does it fit with what we do know about God, Christ, human nature, etc.,? We also need to think logically. We need to be able to think well, to spot contradictions between beliefs.

What false notions are we susceptible to today? I’ll name just a few.

A major issue today is religious pluralism. We are tempted to follow along with our culture and think that Jesus is just one of several valid ways to God.

Subjectivism is a big problem that grows out of the skepticism of our age. If I can’t know what’s really “out there,” I’ll just have to form my own beliefs based on my own thinking, feelings, desires, and circumstances. But our knowledge is too limited and our sin nature biases us in ways that lead us astray.

Pragmatic religion is also a temptation. “Does it work?” we want to know. If so, it’s right. We treat our lives like we would a machine: if what comes out at the end is good, then clearly the machine must be working correctly. This becomes an end-justifies-the-means way of living.

Therapeutic religion is also an issue today. It’s God’s job to make us happy. We think it’s more important for pastors to be counselors than theologians. We want them to fix our problems and make us happy again.

Then there’s materialism—a greater desire for wealth and material possessions than for the kingdom of God and His righteousness. There’s the temptation in an advertising age to market the gospel—fitting it to the sensibilities of the market rather than bringing those sensibilities under the scrutiny of the gospel.

Then there’s style over substance—we’re more concerned with being hip than with being good.

I could go on. Instead I’ll invite you to look for a copy of Os Guinness’s book Fit Bodies, Fat Minds{4} for a more extended discussion of these problems.

Even if you don’t read that book, let me encourage you to become conscious of your beliefs, and to become settled in your mind about at least the very basic Christian teaching, namely, that in Christ dwells the fullness of Deity, that in Him we have been made complete, that we are made alive with him through faith. And be on your guard so that “no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy.”


1. Curtis Vaughan, “Colossians,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 11. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978. (Software; 166 in hard copy)
2. John Eadie, Commentary on the Epistle to the Colossians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957), 111.
3. Ibid.
4. Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994).

© 2006 Probe Ministries

Rick Wade served as a Probe research associate for 17 years. He holds a B.A. in communications (radio broadcasting) from Moody Bible Institute, an M.A. in Christian Thought (theology/philosophy of religion) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Master of Humanities (emphasis in philosophy) from the University of Dallas. Rick's interests focus on apologetics, Christianity and culture, and the changing currents in Western thought. Before joining Probe Ministries, Rick worked in the ship repair industry in Norfolk, VA. He can be reached at [email protected].

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