Colossae – The Least Important Church?

Commenting on the city of Colossae , J. B. Lightfoot said “Without doubt…the least important church to which any epistle of Paul is addressed” (Colossians and Philemon, 16). Colossae was, in pre-Christian times, a station on a highway through the Lycus and Meander valleys, a highway that connected Ephesus and Phrygia.  This route was a main road connecting the East with the West.  By the first century, the city of Colossae could only be described as a “small town” by Strabo, (Geography, 7.8.13.)   Little is known about the town in this period other than it was nearly destroyed by an earthquake in A.D. 60/61.  The cities of Laodicea and Heiropolis are quickly rebuilt; Laodicea can even be described as “rich” when the book of Revelation is written thirty years later.  Colossae probably never recovered from this disaster.

The Lycus Valley appeared to have had a sizable Jewish population, perhaps explaining the establishment of churches in Colossae, Laodicea and Heiropolis and the type of problem described by the book.  The Jewish Population is an inference drawn from Cicero’s description of the proconsul Flacus who seized the Temple tax in Laodicea in 62 B.C. (Flac. 28.68).  Cicero was the “defense attorney” for Flacus who was accused of illegally taking the Temple tax (Bruce, 4).

The church of Colossae was not founded by Paul, although there is no reference in the book of Acts to him visited the city before the church was founded.  It is known that on Paul’s first missionary journey he went as far as Pisidian Antioch, which is 200 kilometers from Colossae, and that a great number of men from other areas came to Christ at that time.  Sometimes it is assumed that since Colossae was connected to Pisidian Antioch it is likely that some converts there were from Colossae and they carried the Gospel back to their town, as well as to Laodicea and the rest of the Lycus valley.

Paul has only heard of their faith (1:4, 9) and has not yet met the church personally (2:1).  They do seem to know one of Paul’s co-workers, Epaphras (1:7) who was from the city of Colossae (2:7).  Both the Colossian letter and Philemon imply that Paul has older connections with the church at Colossae and Laodicea.  it is thought that on his third missionary journey he made a swing through the area, very generally reported in Acts 18-19.  It would be at this time that he made contact with the church and led Philemon and Epaphras to the Lord, as mentioned in the letters.

Bibliography:
C. Arnold, “Colossae” in ABD 1:1089-1090.
F. F. Bruce, “Colossian Problems  –  Part 1: Jews and Christians in the Lycus Valley,” BibSac 141 (1984).

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15 thoughts on “Colossae – The Least Important Church?

  1. According to John Polhill, there are were three “Pauline” churches in the Lycus River Valley. They were Colosse, Laodicea, and Hierapolis. Like P. Long said, Polhill believes that Paul did not directly found any of the churches, but rather a man named Epaphras founded these churches with Paul’s theology after his hearing of Paul’s gospel in Ephesus. Polhill says that Colossians came about when “Epaphras turned to the apostle for guidance and assistance. Colossians is the product of that relationship. (pg. 330)” Polhill does not believe that Colosse was not a major Christian center, but Laodicea and Hierapolis were. In fact, Laodicea was a major city in general with a medical center, thriving industry center, judiciary center, and tax-collecting center. Colosse was not this thriving city of wonder, and much of it has not been excavated to this day.
    As the title of this post says, Colosse was among the least important churches that Paul claimed. So why did he write this letter? Paul writes to cities that are important like Rome and Corinth and Thessalonica, so why bother writing to tiny Colosse? We are called to minister to the ends of the Earth and Paul writes in Colossians 2:1-2, “I want you to know how hard I am contending for you and for those at Laodicea, and for those who have not met me personally. My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full rices of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ.” Paul was encouraging them to continue in faith. Even though he hadn’t met them, he was praying for their faith and he continues later in the book that they should in turn, pray for him. No matter how small the city or few the believers, we should continually pray for and support them. God was willing to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for one believer, this small city of believers was worth supporting for Paul. Shouldn’t we support the small cities of believers throughout the world, not just the big ones we see and hear of every day?

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  2. So this might be a stretch but… weren’t the least of these very important to the life and work of Jesus (Matthew 25:40)? Could the act of giving “food and drink” to the lowly Colossian church, in the form of a letter, be a message about carrying for the least of these? Could it be a message about the structure and ordering of God’s Kingdom as opposed to those of this present existence? Could it be that the writer(s) of Colossians were giving a message about priorities and inclusion just by writing a letter concerning this church of little importance?

    With one of the main themes of Colossians being the supremacy of Christ is the very writing of Colossians a message about supremacy over great and small (Colossians 1:17-23). “Christ created them all, and you are secure in him” (Polhill 341). “As God’s chosen people” (Colossians 3:12) “raised with Christ” (Colossians 3:1) “united in love” (Colossians 2:2) “devote yourselves to prayer” (Colossians 4:2). This letter was not only for the benefit of the Colossians but also the Laodiceans (Colossians 4:15-16). Which again brings up the question again as to why it was not written to the Colossians and Laodiceans or just the Laodiceans?

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  3. I like that point that you brought up here Anna. It’s interesting to see the spread of the Gospel message through Paul’s ministry whether directly, or indirectly. We’ve been talking about Paul’s ministry being focused on the culturally relevant, thriving, city centers and synagogues. He went to larger, more important cities, and preached the Gospel in synagogues and market places. Because of this focus it makes sense that Paul wouldn’t have traveled to Colossae to preach and start a church. I’m most impressed by the definite spread of the Gospel through Paul’s mission work even though he didn’t visit this city. By focusing on the more “culturally relevant” cities and preaching where some of the most influential people of the time lived, he still was able to reach some of the smaller, “less significant” cities. In a February, 2008 sermon about the Emerging/Emergent movement, Mark Driscoll preaches about the need for Christians to engage cultural hubs. He says that cultural centers act much like rivers to the rest of society. They spread ideas, art, politics, music, etc to the rest of society. He says that Christians need to be here, engaging culture, and preaching the Gospel at the beginning of these cultural rivers. It seems like this same sort of thing happened through Paul’s ministry. The most important part of this is in the follow up. Paul writes to the Colossian church and encourages them that they are just as important and meaningful in the body of Christ. He assured them of their salvation and “of their securing their lot among the people of God.” (Polhill 340) While the people of Colossae weren’t Paul’s initial focus, he made sure to follow through with them and encourage them in their faith just like with some of the more culturally relevant churches that he actually helped to set up. This is an excellent reminder of us to be wise and purposeful in sharing the Gospel, not to doubt the power of the truth to spread, and to treat all in the same light.

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  4. I think that Anna’s post about the importance of small cities is an interesting thought. Colossae was by no means a major city that would fit Paul’s missionary strategy of going to major cities (which was a good strategy because he was able to reach out to the most people). Also, the church at Colossae was not established by Paul, but instead by Epaphras. However it does seem that Paul considered it his church (Polhill 330). I think that he considered it his because Epaphras came to Paul for help in the church. It is interesting to think that Paul may not have intentionally brought the gospel to Colossae. It may have not been in his plan on his missionary journeys, but it seemed to have been God’s plan to bring the gospel to Colossae. Paul recognized that God ultimately wants everyone to know Him and when he heard about Colossae he joyfully got involved. Verse 9 shows his attitude clearly: “For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” Paul eagerly prayed for them to grow as believers so that more could know God.
    God wants everyone to come to Him, so He sends out His children to preach the gospel. That is why He did not just send Paul, He sent Epaphras and many, many others to preach the gospel to the ends of the world. This leads us to the inevitable truth that God calls us to preach the gospel to all the world.

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  5. Courtney and Anna are correct in saying that “We are called to minister to the ends of the Earth” and that “the least of these are very important to the life and work of Jesus”. However I think there could be a much bigger reason that Paul wanted to write this letter. I think to get a better understanding of why this is, we need to look at the very reason Paul wrote the letter. Polhill says, “Paul’s main purpose in writing Colossians was to put the Colossians on guard against those who propounded a false teaching” (335). Colossians 2:16-17 says, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or A Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” It goes on to talk about worshipping angels as well. It seems to me that the people are struggling with following food laws and festivals when there is no need to. The things they are doing may appear spiritual but it is not leading them any closer to Jesus Christ. Polhill listed many different possible “religions” the church of Colosse may have fell into but I don’t think that is the point. The biggest thing is that they are falling away from the pure gospel of Christ. That is the reason I believe Paul wrote this letter to them. Could Paul have wrote it to “the least important church” to stop the false teaching? If he waited or didn’t write the letter to at all, could this heresy have polluted other healthy churches? I think Paul possibly heard of what was going on throughout the city and wanted to put a stop to it before the problem got worse.

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  6. My immediate reaction to the quote about Colossae being the least put me on the defensive and my first thought was the same as Anna’s – what about Matthew 25:40? I find it so intriguing that Paul wrote the letter of Colossians to this church he did not personally know – he did not personally know them, but he knew them from their deeds and heart! Paul said in his letter, “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints,” (Col 1:3-4). Of course, this does not portray the church of Colossae as perfect for, “They felt the need to add to their worship…in order to ensure their full salvation. They also had inadequate ethic. Their would-be piety led to serious social problems…” (Polhill 338). But still, in spite of these problems, and in spite of Paul’s writing them to warn them against false teachings, Paul had “heard of [their] faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that [they] have for all the saints” (Col 1:3). This today should stand out as an example for us in the church today (not that we should fall for the lies of false teachers) but that our love should be so great for one another, that we can minister to other through that. I have rarely seen a church (and maybe never heard of a church) that is actually known for their love and faith in God. This should be a challenge, not only to our churches, but also to us in our walk with God as well. The Colossians love proved that they were not the least important in all the ways that really matter.

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  7. In the case of Collasae being “without doubt…the least important church to which any epistle of Paul is addressed,” according to J.B. Lightfoot, I wish I would know more about his reasoning for such a statement. I know that in those days the amphitheater was a very big deal when it came to the size of the city, and “ruins of the acropolis and a few seats of the amphitheater” (Polhill, 331) were the main existences of the once great city at the time, so the size may have been a factor in the statement. There really has to be more to it though, as the size of a city really cannot determine the importance of the church. Prominence must have also been an issue, as Polhill states, “unlike Laodiciea and Hierapolis, it had no prominence as a subsequent Christian center” (Polhill, 332). Also, the intent of the statement may not have been as much of a “diss,” but more of a statement, since he does not say it was not important, but he just says it was the least important. It is obviously an important church to address in Paul’s eyes, as his wrote the letter, and it is very evident in Colossians 1:3-13 that Paul and Timothy have really stressed the importance of thanks and also prayer for the church.

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  8. Today’s missionaries could only wish to spread the gospel with the quickness and effectiveness of Paul on his journeys. The fact that the Churches of Lycus Valley experienced frequent Earthquakes makes me wonder how the early Christians responded to natural disasters in their surrounding towns and neighborhoods. Did this play a role in the spread of Christianity? Sure they didn’t have TV so the news would travel as fast as the wind would take a sail or as fast as a horse could take them. Did Christians show their love through the meeting the needs these disasters caused. Specifically in Colossians “one might assume it never recovered from the great earthquake of 60/61(Polhill 332).” I wonder if the surrounding Christians lent a hand to the Colossians. Even though there is no record of this possibility Christianity grew rapidly. Even though we have all these tools nothing ever comes close to the effect of Paul’s missionary journey. The busyness of the western world could possibly have something to do with this. Missionaries don’t function in the same way as Paul because the world has changed. Perhaps we can still learn something from the way Paul worked.

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  9. So far every post I have read has said something along the lines of “surly Colossae is not the least, there is no least” and quoted Matthew 25:40. So, following my nature, I’ll go the opposite way.

    **DISCLAIMER** don’t crucify me if you don’t agree with what I am about to say. I may not even agree with what I’m about to say. I’m probably just saying it to get you to think!

    The quote that this question is posed from is “Without doubt…the least important church to which any epistle of Paul is addressed” So, to clarify what we are talking about, we are dealing with any church that a Pauline letter was addressed, not just any early church in general. When Paul was writing the letter, he was yet to visit the church, and had only heard things about them!
    Okay, so let’s take a quick peek at these two points.
    1. Considering that Paul was human, and believe it or not he was, it is quite possible that Paul wrote this letter out of obligation. Paul very well could have felt obligated to write Colossae a letter because it was a church. Sure, Paul had a massive heart for the early church, but being human, Paul was super busy and was probably working on his next sermon/where he would travel to next.
    2. Next, we know that Paul had only heard things about this church. While this is also true about the Thessalonica church, Paul did not have the same sort of relationship with Colossae as his did with Thessalonica. This goes back to Paul possibly feeling obligated. He heard some stuff about them, so he felt obligated to write them a letter.

    **DISCLAIMER** don’t crucify me if you don’t agree with what I just said. I may not even agree with what I just said! I’m probably just saying it to get you to think!

    Okay, I think I’ll use that disclaimer more often from now on : D

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    • Hmpf, Seems like most people are reacting to my Lightfoot quote negatively, except Anton. And that cannot be a good thing . Lightfoot’s point, and mine, is that Colossae was not a major city in Asia Minor, and the church was not founded by Paul. These are facts, nothing we can do about that now.

      A couple of things are are important about this. First, it does tell you something about how Paul worked – evangelize a big city first then let the church go into the suburbs and smaller villages to plant more churches. Nothing bad about that, it is just a strategy that works well.

      Second, Paul thinks he has authority over a congregation he did not found, although he could be the “grandfather” of the church, Still, this tells us about Paul’s relative “weight” in Asia Minor. Or, perhaps, Colossae was considered a satellite church or sister church to Ephesus, so Paul can speak to them directly.

      Third, the relative size of Colossae is not the real issue, and maybe I obscured that point with the Lightfoot quite. The small church in an unimportant town has quite a unique problem – see the Colossian Heresy post! Paul seems to think that it is enough of a problem to correct the church despite not having a personal relationship with them (as he did in the Galatian churches).

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  10. I actually kind of agree with Anton that maybe Paul just felt obligated to write Colossae. The church was not the least just not on Paul’s mind because he did not start the church. He wrote to it but it was not a major city and like P.Long said he would evangelize to big cities and let them overflow into suburbs and smaller areas.

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  11. I like a lot of what is being said here. Paul succeeded in his ministry by way of being culturally relevant to his people so that they might see the gospel for what is truly is. i think Paul was more concerned about going into places where the most influential people lived in order for him to impact others with Jesus Christ. In return to going to these big cities, he was able to reach the smaller cities as well. It is good to be culturally relevant because that is how Paul did it and succeeded

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  12. Practically speaking, I don’t see anything wrong with Paul’s missionary/church planting strategy. It seems to work well. In theory, it would be wonderful as a leader, to be able to reach even the “least important” aspect of you ministry (whether it be churches, people, etc). But in reality, that just doesn’t work. There must be some kind of system set in place that no aspect falls through the cracks, yet the responsibility didn’t have to fall on Paul alone. “Paul followed his usual missionary strategy of establishing himself in a major city, with his coworkers fanning out into the countryside to establish churches in the wider region… Still, Paul considered them his churches. They were the product of his apostolic ministry.” This just seems like a really well run mission organization to me. Kudos to Paul for training his coworkers enough to trust them to establish churches under his apostolic ministry. Last year as an RA, we had a similar proposed theory on how to reach everyone, and not allow anyone to fall through the cracks. We would do what we could to reach as many as we could, but also made an effort to really mentor some of the upperclassmen, so that they in turn would reach out to other girls, and these girls to even more (and so the process continues. You get the picture). This is obviously an example to a much smaller degree, and all this to say, I don’t fault Paul for implementing such a strategy. I think there is practical application for us to implement a strategy much like it.

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    • I do not think there is a right or wrong about it. On the one had it worked (obviously), and on the other hand Paul’s strategy was prompted by the Holy Spirit (so I cannot really fault it anyway!) I think that there is a problem saying “since Paul did it this way, we must as well.” I know plenty of ministries that work well in rural areas and would flounder in an urban area, either because of style or the people involved.

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  13. Although the church in Colossae (small c) is seen as the least important because of its size and location, this does not mean that Paul saw each individual person who is a member of the Church (big c) as less important. Each person has a part to play in the body of Christ. The hands cannot say that they are more important than the feet. Each part is important and cannot function well with missing parts. (1 Cor 12:14)

    Paul picks churches based on size and location, not on the value of each individual in the church. One of Paul’s reasons for choosing an area to evangelize in was to make as large of an impact as possible.
    When large groups of people gather together, things happen! Smaller churches generally mean smaller impact. It is logical that when more people hear the gospel they can in turn reach more people than only a few people. The large amount of people would have more accountability and momentum to carry the Gospel to people with a higher power of exponential growth. The Colossian people are no less important in the grand scheme of God’s will they are simply apart of a smaller church that is less important in Paul’s vision for his ministry.

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