What is "not holding fast the head" (Col. 2: 19)?
It is not unusual in most Christian circles for teaching to be delivered on the subject of the body of Christ. However, the theme of Christ’s headship of that body is much less often taken up, and you certainly hardly ever hear anything on the "one new man" (Eph. 2: 15). There must be a reason for this. For an answer look at the Corinthians. They needed to understand the practical working out of the body of Christ in that "if one member suffer, all the members suffer with [it]; and if one member be glorified, all the members rejoice with [it]" (1 Cor. 12: 26)—particularly in view of their abysmal attitude to one another (see 1 Cor. 1: 12, 13; 3: 3; 4: 6; 6: 1; 8: 12; 11: 21 etc.). However, Paul could not take them much beyond that basic truth, because they were still inexcusably "babes in Christ" (1 Cor. 3: 1). The same appears to be true of many today: they may well appreciate the horizontal, earthly aspect of the Assembly (or Church) but give no more than nominal assent to the vertical, heavenly element in which Christ "is the head of the body" (Col. 1: 18). Nor does it stop there. The Pauline doctrine of how Jew and Gentile have been formed by Christ "in himself into one new man" (Eph. 2: 15, my emphasis) is set on aside as a mystical concept—it has to be because it implies what seems incomprehensible, namely that the members of the body are just as really united to the Head as to each other! The thought is repeated in chapter 5: "no one has ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, even as also the Christ the assembly: for we are members of his body; [we are of his flesh, and of his bones]" (vs. 29, 30). While this is certainly a "mystery" (v32), it is not mystical.
Now if the Corinthians were at fault for not progressing spiritually, the Colossians were guilty of regressing for they were "not holding fast the head" (Col. 2: 19). Admittedly they were very committed and active, but they had been deceived into chasing shadows of the real thing: "Let none therefore judge you in meat or in drink, or in matter of feast, or new moon, or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come; but the body" (or substance, in contrast with mere shadows) "[is] of Christ" (vs. 16, 17, my emphasis). Now there is a unfortunate tendency to read a Scripture like this in an abstract fashion, congratulating ourselves that we are not so backward thinking as to have subjected ourselves to ordinances ("Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch etc. —v21). This is to be blind to the fact that there are more subtle ways of practising a form of ‘Christianity’ of which Christ is not practically Head. Why do we so often see decrease rather than increase? Is it not because we have forgotten that it is from the Head and nowhere else that "all the body, ministered to and united together by the joints and bands, increases with the increase of God" (v19)?
So what is headship, and how can we hold it fast in relation to Christ? As a natural being, man has been placed in a chain of command headed up by God: "Christ is the head of every man, but woman’s head [is] the man, and the Christ’s head God" (1 Cor. 11: 3). The same principle applies between Christ and the Assembly. From His side, He "nourishes and cherishes" us, for "we are members of his body" (Eph. 5: 29, 30), but from our side, "the assembly is subjected to the Christ" (v24). That subjection is a fact, but it needs to be made a practical reality in our lives. Where the Head is held fast (and the language implies an opposing force and the spiritual energy and watchfulness needed to resist it) then the body "increases with the increase of God" (Col. 2: 19). Where the Head is not held fast, then there is increase of the opposite sort: "vainly puffed up by the mind of his flesh" (v18). Again, headship implies the dictation of the will, for in the same verse we read of one "doing his own will" (v18, my emphasis). The way to be kept in a good state therefore is to "have your mind on the things [that are] above" and to "let the word of the Christ dwell in you richly" (Col. 3: 2, 16). That is where the Christian is to get his direction.
Now if Corinth knew little or nothing of Christ’s headship of the body, and Colosse had let go what they had once held, then it would appear that many today are following in the footsteps of one or the other. If this seems a little harsh consider the confused and contradictory response from God’s people to recent world events. Just as human wisdom and human leadership were dominant to varying degrees in both Corinth and Colosse (with disastrous consequences) so they are just as dominant now. What is of man never leads to the "increase of the body to its self-building up in love" (Eph. 4: 16). Where the body is practically disjointed from the Head you get chaos. Why? Because Headship implies dictation—everything the body does is determined by the Head and by nothing else.