THE BOOK OF COLOSSIANS:
Were there two churches at Colossae—or only one?
One question that may arise in studying Colossians is:
"Was the church Paul addressed in Colossians (Col 1:2) the same church
that met in Philemon's house (Phm 1-2)? Or were they two separate congregations, meeting in the same area?"
Pros and cons of the two theories
Consider the following "pros and cons" of the two theories:
In summary, although I'm currently in favor of the One Congregation theory, I don't think either theory is conclusive, and the unearthing of
further internal or external evidence for the "Two Congregation" theory could tip it back the other way for me.
Philemon probably lived in or near Colossae, and Onesimus was Philemon's slave, so there is a good probability
the Christians addressed in the book of Colossians met in Philemon's home.
Many people seem to think this proves there existed only one congregation, but let's take a closer look.
Remember, we are not told in the Bible exactly where Philemon lived. Technically, it requires speculation
and educated guessing. But Paul plainly indicated that both Onesimus and Tychicus (companions of Paul when he wrote) were
coming to visit the Colossians (4:7-9), and that Onesimus was "one of you [Colossians]."
Since Onesimus was considered a Colossian, and because he was Philemon's slave (Phm 16),
then Philemon probably lived either in or near the city of Colossae.
If Philemon lived in Colossae, there likely was only one congregation, since Colossae was small.
But if Philemon lived near Colossae (say, a few miles from the city), it might have been convenient for him to have met
in his home—and for the "city folks" to have assembled in the city itself (a very common scenario in our day and age).
Furthermore, it's not entirely unreasonable to suggest Onesimus was planning to attend a separate area congregation, even if
Philemon was meeting in his home. A change of scenery could be understandable, especially if Onesimus was relatively young.
There had also previously been an uncomfortable situation involving Philemon and Onesimus, which may have precipitated
Onesimus' leaving (Phm 8-21). Also, Philemon and Archippus seemed to be neglecting the work of the Lord (Phm 6, Col 4:17), and
both met in Philemon's home (Phm 1-3).
Onesimus might have desired to be involved in a more active congregation.
As you can see, the "One Congregation" thinking is certainly not a given.
But if one were required to guess, I'd guess this particular evidence leans slightly towards One Congregation.
- Philemon's name is not mentioned in Paul's "greeting list" of Christians in Colossians (Col 4)—which seems to favor the
Two Congregation theory.
Even though a separate letter is written to Philemon and the church in his house, to leave him out of the greeting list in Paul's general
letter to Colossian Christians seems odd.
For example, when Paul mentioned a congregation in Laodicea (Col 4:15), he identified it by mentioning that Nympha's house was
the meeting place.
Furthermore, in addition to not referring to Philemon, Paul also failed to mention Apphia [Phm 1-2]—and although
Archippus [Phm 1-2] is mentioned
in Colossians [Col 4:17], it's in a way that suggests he wouldn't be reading Paul's Colossian letter with the other Colossians
(more on this later).
Remember, the letter to Philemon was not a "private letter" as some have suggested: it was written to the entire
church (Phm 1-2). If the book of Philemon was simply a private letter, one could understand not mentioning Philemon
at the introduction to the letter, or in the formal greeting list (Col 4).
So, Paul's failure to mention Philemon in Colossae certainly requires some explaining.
However, I still believe it's reasonable to think that it was because Paul was writing separately and more directly to Philemon,
therefore no mention of his name was necessary.
I also think it's reasonable to assume that perhaps Philemon was not as active as he should have been in the church (Phm 6), and therefore
was not referred to in Colossians.
- Why did Paul tell the Colossians to tell Archippus "to complete the work" (4:17)—that is, if Archippus
actually met in the same church as the Colossian Christians, and
would presumably be reading Paul's letter along with the other congregants?
Was he out on a mission trip? Or, did he simply not belong to the "other congregation" not meeting in Philemon's home?
As you can see, speculation is involved with either theory, but this particular evidence
probably slightly favors the Two Congregation theory.
- Paul does not refer to Archippus (Col 4:17) as "one of you"—which seems to favor the
Two Congregation theory (but actually does not).
Since Paul did say "one of you" about Epaphras and Onesimus, one might be led to believe this meant Archippus was not considered
"one of the Colossians." This might then suggest Archippus, who is addressed in the letter of Philemon as being part of Philemon's home church,
simply attended a second congregation in the Colossae vicinity.
However, please note that when Paul said "one of you" about Onesimus and Epaphras, he seemed to be referring to his companions that were from the area of Colossae,
versus his companions from different areas (Tychicus, Aristarchus, Mark, Jesus [also called Justus], Luke, and Demas—see Col 4:7-14).
Please note that all the men listed were companions of Paul at the time of his writing, with Onesimus and Epaphras being set apart by the
fact they were from the vicinity of Colossae. So, I believe Paul points this out so the Colossians would know that these men were in fact
the same men they knew personally.
On the other hand, it would have been ludicrous for Paul to have mentioned Archippus being "one of them" if they saw Archippus on a regular
basis. Thus, the absence of the "one of you" phrase regarding Archippus neutralizes this evidence to (in my mind) favor neither theory.
- Paul mentioned only that the book of Colossians was to be shared with Laodicea (Col 4:16),
but failed to mention the need of "sharing his Colossian letter with second church closer than Laodicea" (which one would
expect him to mention if a second congregation indeed existed in the area).
While it could be argued that this would have been understood inherently,
(since Onesimus was returning presumably to Philemon), it seems to lean more toward the One Congregation theory.
Of course, which conclusion one reaches matters little as far as anything vital in our Christian faith is concerned,
one way or the other. But I believe accuracy in teaching is a good thing.
Additional recommended reading:
The Book of Colossians: Invaluable teachings for the modern Christian
Is your Bible accurate—Three common misunderstandings.