Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
20 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— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. Colossians 2:16-23 [ESV]
John Ortberg is a gifted author, and inspiring teacher. In one of his books he makes a challenging observation. In essence, people have different ways of identifying themselves as followers of Jesus. Some wear crosses. Others have a very pious manner of speech and mannerisms. Still others have a unique way of dressing. He asked (I think in regard to a particular type of clothing and unworldly lifestyle) whether we’ve decided that if we can’t be observably different from the world, we should be weird.
I have friends who have a peculiar way they hold their hands as they walk to Holy Communion. I have other friends who wear clerical collars almost everywhere. A friend of a friend even wore his on a canoe trip! You may know I don’t wear a clerical collar any longer – though I used to. And here’s the marvelous thing about the true Christian faith: we’re free in regard to all these things: clothing choices, clerical garb, crosses, crucifixes, or any other outward expression of our faith that is in keeping with love for God and love for neighbor.
That’s part of what Paul is getting at here as he writes to the people in Colossae. Don’t let people judge you by outward expressions of religion, or the lack thereof. And in regard to the things identified by Paul, the issue had to do with the impact of the Judaizers, a group of supposed Jesus-followers who wanted to require things beyond that which had been determined in Acts 15. There, the requirement was simple:
“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements: 29 You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell.” – Acts 15:28-29
To add a requirement of circumcision or other Old Testament observances to the requirements of being true Christians was a stumbling block of man, not of God. So Paul doesn’t just say that it’s OK not to observe these Old Testaments rituals. He implores them not to let anyone tell them they must.
Why would he do this? Perhaps it’s the same reason Luther refused to baptize by immersion: Because people were saying that the only valid baptism was by immersion. He would not acquiesce to that demand. In fact he refused it. He didn’t want to cause people who had not been immersed to doubt the validity of Jesus’ words, and God’s promises.
I have no quarrel with my collar-wearing brothers. I don’t really care if someone walks a certain way to go to the communion rail. As long we we are not being offensive or provocative, we are free to follow these customs or not. But that’s not often an issue I wrestle with.
More important is whether any of these things actually help us live more godly lives. In the eyes of the world such a life is way more weird than any garb. And God just might provide the opportunity for witness through such true weirdness.