Throughout his epistles the apostle Paul employs very specific phraseology to explain the weakness of false religion. The difficulty of explaining the phrase he uses–in its various contexts–is that he uses it with regard to two seemingly opposed worldviews. In Col. 2:8 the phrase “κατὰ τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου” (“according to the elementary principles of the world”) clearly has reference to the erroneous and vain attempt to structure reality through means of human philosophical speculation. This is set in opposition to understanding that all creation was “κατὰ Χριστόν” (“according to Christ”). Attempting to structure reality “κατὰ τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου” (“according to the elementary principles of the world”) in opposition to structuring it “κατὰ Χριστόν” (“according to Christ”) is to espouse false and anti-Christian religion. If what we believe is not “according to Christ” then it inevitably is “according to the elementals of the world.” If someone rejects the Christian interpretation of reality they necessarily adopt a pagan worldview. This may seem reductionistic to many (after all, aren’t there many religions to choose from?), but, the apostle Paul brings it all together in Galatians 4.
The problem in the Galatian churches was the threat of false teachers who were seeking to bring believing Gentile believers into subjection to Jewish legalism. The Judaizers insisted that the Gentile converts needed to believe on Christ, be circumcised, and observe the festival laws (“days and months and seasons and years”) in order to be accepted by God. In doing so they had jeapordized the freedom they possessed in the truth of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. In In Gal. 4:3 Paul suggested that unbelieving Old Covenant Israelite’s had been “ὑπὸ τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου ἤμεθα δεδουλωμένοι“- being under the legal administration with its demands and curses. When unbelieving Israelite trusted in their own works they were “in bondage under the elemental principles of the world.” In short, Jewish legalism was the same as paganism–if not more refined and dangerous on account of its biblical proximity. In Gal. 4:9 Paul explained that Gentile converts to Christ had been converted from “τὰἀσθενῆ καὶ πτωχὰ στοιχεῖα” (the weak and worthless elementary principles). How does Paul can classify paganism (out of which Gentiles had been converted to Christ) and Jewish legalism (from which Jewish believers had been brought out) as being of one and the same essence? William Still explained it so well when he wrote:
That both heathenism and Jewish legalism, very different from one another, are here bundled together in contrast with the liberty of the Gospel is plain from the fact that the observances which are referred to are applied to both. The law observed externally as a superstitious system without faith was doubtless a bondage to elemental spirits of this age, as heathenism was. Not only the bad, but often and much more the good, is the enemy of the best!1
1. Still, William Notes on Galatians (Aberdeen: Didasko Press, reprinted 1972) p. 59.