Paul and the Elemental Spirits in Colossians and Galatians

In Colossians 2 Paul urges his readers to be set free from the elemental spirits of the world (ta stoicheia tou kosmou; Col 2:8,20).

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? 22 All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.

What were these elemental spirits?

Well, the Greek word translated in this was is stoicheion. According to James Dunn, these stoicheion were the elemental cosmic powers that somehow held sway over how things happened on the earth. Dunn’s perception is one of the dominant ones in scholarly thinking right now; so, this is why the NRSV translates it as elemental spirits of the universe. Clinton Arnold wrote about this phrase (stoicheia tou kosmou) in Paul’s thought in his Powers of Darkness: Principalities & Powers in Paul’s Letters (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 1992.). He saw them as enslaving spiritual powers. Others scholars think that the meaning is less about spiritual beings or powers and more about a spiritual principles reflecting the nature of the unseen reality. Thus, the NIV in its footnotes translates the phrase as the basic principles of the world. But, what are these principles and how do they work? The translations do not help to answer either question. So, they do not help me meaningfully access the meaning of the Greek word stoicheion.

Paul uses this word twice in Galatians 4:1-11 and it appears to have the same intended meaning:

My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; 2 but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. 3 So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the stoicheion of the world. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. 8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. 9 Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly stoicheion? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? 10 You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. 11 I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted.

Here the meaning seems to be less about “spirit beings” and more about “principles” because Paul refers to observing days, months, seasons, and years. How can we begin to unpack the meaning of this word? To help us, let me suggest a way of analyzing that comes from missiology. Missiology is an interdisciplinary subject that draws from the different social sciences to help analyze what we see in our world. And there is a concept in anthropology that can help.

This is the concept of worldvidew, by which we mean the shared, schematized assumptions, beliefs, and values which are embedded in story, narrative, folklore, and ritual. All these aspects of worldview exert a significant amount of control over our thinking.

Now, Paul did not have the anthropological concept of worldview; but, Paul, being the incredibly observant person that he was (under the guidance of the Spirit), understood the unseen power of stoicheion – the unseen power of our schematized assumptions, beliefs, and values (worldview) that frame the way we see our world and shape us accordingly. Worldview serves a positive purpose by helping us look at our world and understand it. The problem comes in when the things we assume to be true are not really true.

Now, worldview works at the deep assumptions and values level. The level at which we do not question our assumptions and values. We think: “Everyone knows these things to be true.” This is where worldview becomes the stoicheion Paul is talking about.

Since worldview assumptions and values require tacit allegiance, there is a strong unseen psychological (translate: spiritual) dimension behind them, and there can even be a spiritual power (translate: personal spiritual being) behind them. This is why the word stoicheion has enough elasticity to include both dimensions and why scholars are having problems determining if the word refers to spirits or principles.

The effect of this worldview or these stoicheion is that they conform us to the way we see and understand our world. Therefore, they exert a very real and powerful shaping influence upon us. Now, it comes without question that some of our fundamental assumptions and values are wrong. When that happens it is exceedingly difficult for us to see how our fundamental assumptions and values are wrong. And if these assumptions and values then get an evil spirit to support them, then things get very complicated. It can become very difficult for us to discover what assumptions and values are wrong and be set free from them.

Paul in his letter to the Colossians was warning his readers that the stoicheion they had accepted were wrong. His point is this: Though these stoicheion appear to be “good” – they are not. Paul goes on to say that we who are in Christ are not to be subjected to these stoicheion.

This is where the discussion gets really complicated. For those Jewish followers of Christ in Colossae, these stoicheion would have been rooted in their traditions that came out of the Torah. And even though their traditions were rooted in the Torah, Paul emphasizes that their stoicheion are human traditions. That had to be hard to swallow for those Jewish followers of Christ. Torah was God’s revealed word to them.

For the Hellenized Gentile followers of Jesus in Colossae, their stoicheion would have come out of their speculative philosophies and from their own cultural traditions and values. Every culture warns its members about the things that they should not do: what they should not eat, should not touch, etc, in order to be a good person. Paul knew that he was touching upon the very deep levels of their thinking when he was writing them. So, Paul says in verses 20-23:

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? 22 All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.

This surfaces in Galatians 4:1-11. There Paul was clearly saying that if the Galatians submited to the requirement that they become Jews (by coming under the Jewish understanding of the Torah of God through Moses) they will be submitting themselves again to the stoicheion of the universe. Thus, their understanding of the Torah of God – taken as an absolute and ultimate definer of human existence rather than as an vital instrument in the story climaxing in Christ – would become an instrument of enslavement (Stephen Taylor, personal correspondence, 2017).

This notion of worldview captures better the full breadth of what Paul is asserting both in his letters to the Colossians and in Galatians. There is an enslavement exercised (certainly aided by unseen evil powers) through cultural and social frameworks (worldviews) which are accepted as true.

So, let’s move from the first century world of Paul and the Colossians to our world today. Each community has its own culture and its own worldview. Our worldviews exert a powerful influence upon us for good and for ill. God through Paul is warning us that some of the very assumptions and values that we hold dear are seriously wrong and we need to reflect upon them and change them.

So, my question is this: How do we identify which of our assumptions and values are wrong and get free from them? Let’s remember: these are our most fundamental assumptions and values, the things that we most definitely assume to be true, but they are not, and they are hindering our growth in Christ. This is such an important question. The way we answer this question may determine how Christlike we become.

So, how do we discover which ones are right and which ones are wrong? Paul guides his readers in Colossae the same as he guided his readers in Romans 12:2-3.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God— what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Paul gives us some good advice. First, we are not to be conformed to the world. This means that we all have to take a position as learners with regard to following Christ. We have to allow everything to be put on the table for fresh evaluation. This is necessary because we do not want to be conformed to the norms of the society around us. That is the negative side of Paul’s advice. The positive side is that we are to give our full allegiance to God in Christ and offer ourselves as living sacrifices. Offering ourselves to follow Christ in humble obedience is what we need to do to make us pliable and ready for the work of the Spirit in transforming us.

Second, Paul then exhorts us to renew our minds. This means that we are to seriously learn, to seriously consider and reconsider what we assume to be true in the light of the gospel, in the light of who Christ is and what he has done, in the light of God’s Word. The transformation God wants to bring in us will comes through the enlightening ministry of the Spirit. The Spirit will reveals to us how our assumptions and values are wrong in the light of the Word. But, this is not easy. Remember, there are opposing forces both within us and in our communities that oppose these changes. Remember, our communities want us to conform to their way of thinking. God wants us to be transformed into his way of thinking.

So, how does this practically work out? The way this works itself out is that we are to live our lives as prayerful, dependent, and reflective followers and learners. We have to depend upon Christ because he is our life and he is the one who brings us into the fullness of God. We express this dependence by being prayerful. We ask and plead for his wisdom and insight. Second, we are to be constantly reflecting on what we read in Scripture, and reflect on the values and assumptions we make as we interact with those around us. This ongoing process of reflection is essential. This is where we discover what do we really think and believe.

For example, right now in many countries people are talking about the poor and the immigrants. What is being said? Why are the stories behind what is being said? What do you and I think and assume about “the poor”?

In the USA many in the middle class have an image that the government is inept and the poor take advantage of the many benefits the government offers so they don’t have to work hard. This is a stereotype about the poor and it is very demeaning. It lumps all the poor into one large negative barrel. The Book of Proverbs over and over again talk about how we are not to demean the poor. Here is one example:

Whoever mocks or demeans the poor 
shows contempt for their Maker (Proverbs 17:5; see also 14:31).

The rationale for respecting the poor in this verse is rooted in the fact that God is their Creator – just as he is the Creator of everyone else. This is reiterated in Proverbs 22:2:

The rich and the poor have this in common:
the Lord is the maker of them all.

And it isn’t like the poor are somehow less than those who aren’t. Look how the writer of Proverbs puts us all on the same level playing field:

The poor and all who abuse them must each depend on God for light (Proverbs 29:13).

Taking these thoughts one step further – the Scriptures expect us to not just refrain from demeaning the poor, the Scriptures exhort us to stand up for the poor:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, 
for the rights of all who are destitute. 
Speak up and judge fairly; 
defend the rights of the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:8-9).

Yet, demeaning memes, stories, comments about the poor surface everywhere and go unchallenged by many of us. We overlook all the hard-working poor who are just trying to make it while we notice the few who are freeloading. We don’t take the time to realize that these miscreants only comprise a small percentage of the whole. This is not good. And this is just one of the ways our weak and beggarly stoicheion work against us.

How are we transformed? It is in reflecting on what is being said by everyone around us and reflecting on all that in the light of God’s word that we are challenged by the Spirit. And in this challenge the Spirit works within us and reshapes our assumptions and values. In this way we stop being conformed to the world. It isn’t an easy process; but it is a glorious one.

Oh, my friends, we have been given entrance into a wonderful life of prayerful dependence upon God, of learning and reflecting on his wonderful word. This process of learning is not easy. Remember, our most basic and fundamental assumptions and values may end up being wrong.

May the Lord make this wonderful process of transformation by the renewing of our minds, this wonderful process of being set free from the stoicheion a reality in each one of our lives!

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