The church of Colossae features prominently in the New Testament as the recipient of two Pauline epistles, though its history and significance after the first century is unclear. The church was probably founded in the city of Colossae sometime in the middle of the first century AD while Paul was in Ephesus (Acts 19:10). It is debatable whether Paul himself went to Colossae before writing to the church there, though the evidence seems to indicate that he did not (Colossians 1:7; 1:9; 2:1). The church was presumably established through the preaching of Epaphras, one of Paul’s friends and coworkers (Colossians 1:7; 4:12–13).
Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians probably sometime around AD 60. He was encouraged by reports of their faith and love and wanted them to continue in their dedication to God and one another. He warned them against false doctrines and reiterated key truths about Christ and the church. As a city, Colossae was noted for its broad acceptance of diverse beliefs and the prevalence of syncretism, making Paul’s admonishment against false teachings and harmful religious practices highly relevant.
The letter of Philemon is also addressed to a church in Colossae and may have been delivered at the same time as Colossians. Paul urges his friend Philemon, apparently a prominent member in the Christian community at Colossae, to forgive his runaway slave Onesimus and “welcome him as you would welcome me” (Philemon 1:17). The pseudepigraphal Apostolic Constitutions, written centuries after the apostles died, asserts that Philemon later became the bishop of Colossae. This claim is impossible to verify or disprove with the historical data currently available.
The church of Colossae continued for several centuries in one form or another. How long it continued, and what significance it maintained, is a debated topic. Theodoret, a Christian theologian in the fifth century, claimed that Philemon’s house remained at Colossae and could still be viewed (Colossae in Space and Time: Linking to an Ancient City, Cadwallader, A., and Trainor, M., ed., Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011, p. 303). Epiphanius, the bishop of Colossae, was recorded present at the Council of Chalcedon, while Kosmas, a later bishop, apparently participated in the Quinisext Council.
The city of Colossae was an important economic hub for much of its history, renowned for its textile production. It was located in the region of Phrygia, which is now a section of modern-day Turkey. Scholars throughout history have generally agreed that the city had declined sharply by Paul’s time, retaining only a shadow of its former glory. It was ravaged by an earthquake around AD 60 and eventually faded from prominence, with most of its population slowly drifting into more favorable locations nearby. This view has recently been challenged by several scholars who contend that Colossae retained more importance than has traditionally been acknowledged, even into the Byzantine era. Due to the lack of archaeological excavation at the site of Colossae, this remains an ongoing debate. Some sources treat the city of Chonai as a continuation of Colossae, while others regard them separately.
While some historical questions remain, the reality and vibrancy of the early church in Colossae are certain. The believers’ faith and love were founded upon the “hope stored up for [them] in heaven” and “the true message of the gospel” (Colossians 1:5). By the grace of God, we have this same hope today, and, like the faithful Colossians millennia ago, it should motivate us to love Him and love others more every day.