Defining “The Elementary Principles of the World” (Article)

This article will be an investigation into the nature of “the elementary principles of the world” (ta stoicheia tou kosmou) – a phrase penned by Paul, the apostle. We will look into the meaning of the Greek word, stoicheia; review the passages of scriptures in which Paul uses the term “elementary principles of the world”; reference the major interpretations of the term; state what seems to be the most consistently accurate meaning of the term; and discuss the sacralization of Christianity which has given rise to the various manifestations these “elementary principles of the world in the worship of the Church throughout its history and into the present.

Galatians 4:1-11

1”Now I say, as long as the heir is a child, he does not differ at all from a slave although he is owner of everything, 2but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by the father. 3So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world. 4But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, 5so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. 6Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God. 8However at that time, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature are no gods. 9But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? 10You observe days and months and seasons and years. 11I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.”

Colossians 2:8-23

8”See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. 9For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, 10and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; 11and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. 13When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. 15When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him. 16Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— 17things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. 18Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, 19and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. 20If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as,21“Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22(which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.”

“The Elementary Principles of the World”
“Of the World”

The Greek word, “stroicheia” has been translated using various English words such as “elementary principles” (NASB), “basic principles” (NKJV), “rudiments” (KJV), “elemental spirits” (EVS & NRSV), “elemental forces” (HCSB), “elemental spiritual forces” (NIV), et al. Personally, I prefer the term “elementary principles”. But before we delve into exactly what these “principles” are, it would be beneficial to take note of their context, or better, their nature: Namely, they are “of the world”, not of the Holy Spirit, but “of the world”. The apostle Paul teaches that “the course of this world operates according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that now works in the sons of disobedience”[1]; and that through these “elementary principles” the world holds people in bondage[2]; therefore we “wrestle”[3] and are at “war”[4] with these things.[5]

To correctly understand the apostolic perspective, particularly Paul’s, one must be aware that there are “tools” employed by powers and principalities “behind” the idea and practice of “sacred” times, places, and things. These are the spiritual forces which Paul identified as adversaries in apostolic warfare. In 2 Corinthians 10:5, he refers to them as “speculations” (NASB) or “imaginations” (KJV)[6] and “proud obstacles” (RSV) or “pretentions” (NIV)[7]. It bears repeating: These are “tools” employed by powers and principalities “behind” the idea and practice of “sacred” times, places, and things. Of course, it is quite likely the reader is hesitant to accept that as being true. It is the purpose of this article to demonstrate the veracity of this statement.

Again, I am proposing that “the elementary principles of the world” are “tools’ used by the “principalities”, “powers”, “world-forces of darkness”, and “spiritual forces of wickedness” referred to in Ephesians 6:12.

Various theological works have attempted to identify exactly what the apostle Paul was referring to when he wrote of the “powers”.  The various views run the gamut of interpreting these “powers” to be solely spiritual, to “demythologizing” them to be solely human.  I personally hold a median view and understand these “powers” to be spiritual entities which influence and work through human entities – specifically the ideologies and cultures of the world, including the political leaders and governments of the nations, as well as religious leaders and organizations. Colossians 1:16 illustrates this view by explicitly combining the categories of “in the heavens” and “on the earth” and “visible” and “invisible”.[8]


The Greek word, stroicheia[9], means “any first thing, from which the others, belonging to some series or composite whole, take their rise; an element, a first principle”.[10] It can refer to both material and non-material things. In 2 Peter 3:10 & 12, it clearly refers to the material elements of the universe. In Hebrews 5:12-13 and 6:1-2, the writer is referring to basic or elementary religious teachings. This is more akin to the usage Paul makes of the term in his letters to the Galatians and Colossians, which are the scripture passages we are dealing with in this article.

Thayer’s Greek Lexicon states that these “elementary principles” are “the elements, rudiments, primary and fundamental principles of any art, science, or discipline.” Thayer goes on to say: “In the N. T. we have (in Hebrews 5:12 & 13) the rudiments with which mankind were indoctrinated before the time of Christ, namely, the elements of religions training, or the ceremonial precepts common alike to the worship of Jews and of Gentiles, (and) Galatians 4:3 & 9, specifically, the ceremonial requirements especially of Jewish tradition, minutely set forth by theosophists and false teachers, and fortified by specious argument (Colossians 2: 8 & 20).”[11]

Defining “The Elementary Principles of the World”

Reviewing the major commentaries, one encounters three classical interpretations of “the elementary principles of the world”:

The Law of Israel[12]

The strength of this view is that it stresses the fact that Paul connects being “under the law”[13] with being “under the elementary principles of the world”.[14] It also stresses the fact that the false teachers Paul refers to are prescribing Old Covenant laws.[15]

The weakness of this view is that Paul also uses the term “elementary principles of the world” in reference to false teaching from non-Jewish sources as well.[16]

Spirit Beings which Govern the Planets[17]

Support for this view comes mainly from extra-biblical literature citing astral deities associated with various heavenly bodies, the movements of which supposedly affect humanity’s life on earth.[18] Paul speaks of the “worship of angels” and of “beings that by nature are not gods” and associates these with “the elementary principles of the world”.[19] Associating “the elementary principles of the world” with spirit beings is not the same as saying they ARE spirit beings. In fact, I believe the “principles” are tools of spirit beings, but not the beings themselves.

One weakness of this view is that it is most difficult to imagine that the Judaizers were advocating the worship of these spirit beings and astrological observances as part of the Law of Israel.[20] And, the dietary and calendar injunctions in Colossians 2:16 and Galatians 4:10 are obviously based in Old Covenant ritual and not in pagan Greek practices. Also: George E. Ladd states that the word, stroicheia, was not associated with astral deities until the 3rd century;[21] and Gerhard Delling claims that the term, stroicheia,  was not used to refer to spirit beings until the 4th century[22] – centuries after Paul wrote Galatians and Colossians.

Religious Principles[23]

According to this view, “the elementary principles of the world” refer to religious principles before Christ and apart from Christ. Paul places ALL other religions – including Old Covenant Judaism – in a negative category compared to The Way in Christ. To turn away from Christ and return to Old Covenant Judaism, as the Galatians, Hebrews and others were tempted to do, was to place oneself in the shadow of a “weak and worthless”[24] spiritual system similar in some way to pagan religions and philosophies.

This view allows for the Jewish meaning of the prescriptions in Galatians 4:10 and Colossians 2:16 & 21. And it explains why Paul can refer to the Law of Israel as “weak and worthless.”[25]  Paul can speak negatively about the Law of Israel even though it was originated by God, because God meant the Law of Israel to be only a shadow of Christ.[26] And, now that Christ has come, it is a “weak and worthless” system which leads to bondage[27], and therefore He has made it obsolete and abolished it.[28]

This view also explains why Paul can link the Law of Israel with the various pagan religions and philosophies into the one category of “elementary principles of the world”. To receive the Spirit of God, become a son and an heir of God, to know and be known by God in an intimate relationship,[29] only to return to some impersonal religious system, is, with regards to spiritual reality, no better than paganism; and therefore, is “of the world”, in that sense. While the Law may not be false with regards to doctrine, if one were to analyze the choice of an external religious system over the fellowship of the Spirit, one will surely find idolatry at its base. This self-same analysis and idolatry are the subject matter of this article.

The one thing questionable about this view is that it would have Paul designating the Old Covenant Law as “of the world”.[30] But this is not so problematic, if one understands that God’s purpose for using the Law was to foreshadow Christ. God accomplished that purpose and “moved on” to His next purpose which was to establish the New Covenant. In a manner of speaking, God “moved on” from shadow to substance. The Old Covenant rituals, customs and traditions indeed had material substance, but did not have spiritual substance or spiritual reality that came only with Christ. These material things were “in the world” casting shadows pointing to Christ, but the spiritual reality is only in Christ.[31] George E. Ladd offers this explanation: “’World’ is used as the whole complex of human earthly relationships, which though not evil in itself can stand between man and God.”[32] And that is, in fact, the point – namely, the phenomenon and tendency of humanity to put the material religious thing before the God who is Spirit. This is, in fact, idolatry.

As I’ve said, the establishment of the New Covenant abolished the Old Covenant Law and made it obsolete. Therefore, to be operating under the Old Covenant Law now would be like operating under a pagan religion or philosophy of man – that is, “of the world”. All law outside of “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” operates in an outward material context, whereas the “Law of Christ” operates in an inward spiritual context. That is not a Gnostic statement. Jesus Himself said: “God is spirit and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”[33] If one cannot embrace that statement, one cannot understand nor enter into the New Covenant – one cannot understand nor enter into Eternal Life – one cannot understand nor enter into the Kingdom of God[34] – nor can one understand or be part of the Church which Jesus is building. “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh profits nothing.”[35] It is “a new covenant not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”[36] “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.… you must be born of the Spirit.”[37] For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.”[38] “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”[39] “The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy IN THE HOLY SPIRIT.”[40] “(You) are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”[41]

Investigating all the possible interpretations of the term, “elementary principles of the world”, while insisting on no contradiction in interpretation between both the Colossian passage and the Galatian passage, the only sound conclusion one can come to is the one which Gary DeLashmutt puts forth, which I quote here:

“In conclusion, the view that explains “the elementary principles of the world” as pertaining to all religion (including the Old Testament Law and especially its ritual system) before and outside of Christ is the most tenable position.”

“Paul’s usage of “the elementary principles of the world” obviously warns against syncretism of the gospel with any other human philosophic or religious system. This is the application most commonly pursued by preachers and expositors today. But another important application of this phrase lies in the way Paul views Old Testament ritual and the role of ritual in general.”

Imposition of Old Testament Ritual

“Clearly, these two passages warn against the imposition of Old Testament rituals on Christians. It is not just looking to those rituals as a means of justification before God that is condemned; the observance of them as a sign “spirituality” is inappropriate for the Christian because those rituals merely foreshadowed the “substance,” or reality, which Christians now enjoy in the person and work of Jesus…. Both direct and indirect implementation of this ritual law pervades much of the church.”

 New Testament Ritualism

“These two passages also warn in principle against the danger of ritualism even when the rituals involved are prescribed by the New Testament. “Ritualism” is being used here in the sense of making ritual observance a primary focus of the Christian life and means of its expression. Water baptism and communion are the two rituals most often employed in such “New Testament” ritualism, although foot-washing and other practices are sometimes also included.”

“The Galatian passage in particular pits the religion of ritual observance against the great privilege of personally relating to God through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Ritualism was legitimate (even necessary) during the Old Testament economy because this kind of personal relationship with God was not possible. But now God has made it possible to relate to him as Abba. The work of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit have made it possible for us to be adopted into God’s family. To go back to relating to God primarily through ritual observance is to reject God’s assessment of this gift. This is spiritual regression which is reprehensible enough to make Paul fear that he had labored in vain (Galatians 4:11)! …. ritualism as the means to relating to God has been ‘outgrown’ and rejected. This is also the argument of the Book of Hebrews (especially chapters 7-10).”[42]

(End quote)

* * * * * * *

“Defining ‘The Elementary Principles of the World’” is an excerpt from the eBook “The Elementary Principles of the World Found in Worship Praxes Past & Present“, pages 5-19.  This material is also found in the eBook “A New & Living Way”, pages 113-128. See the corresponding eBooks on our website.

At Christ’s Table – ACTpublications © 2018

“Explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.” 1 Corinthians 2:13

* * * * * * * 


[1] Ephesians 2:2

[2] Galatians 4:3

[3] Cf. Ephesians 6:12, Greek: palle, Strong’s # 3823

[4] Cf. 2 Corinthians 10:3-6, Greek: strateuomai, Strong’s # 4754

[5] Ephesians 6:12; 2 Corinthians 10:3-6

[6] Greek: logismos, Strong’s # 3053.

[7] Greek: hupsoma, Strong’s # 5313.

[8] This view is widely held by many others including Marva Dawn, Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, William Stringfellow, and Robert E. Webber. On this subject, I highly recommend the writings of Michael S. Heiser, specifically The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. Chapter 37, “This Means War”, deals with some of these very terms. 

[9] Plural of stroicheion – Strong’s # 4747.

[10] Thayer’s Greek Lexicon

[11] Ibid.

[12] This view is held by J.B. Lightfoot, John Stott, and Merrill C. Tenney.

[13] Galatians 3:23 & 4:5

[14] Galatians 4:3

[15] Galatians 4:10; Colossians 2:16 & 21

[16] Colossians 2:8; Cf. Galatians 4:8-9

[17] This view is held by James Boice, F.F. Bruce, and Donald Guthrie, among others.

[18] Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, Strong’s # 4747: “#3. the heavenly bodies, either as parts of the heavens, or (as others think) because in them the elements of man’s life and destiny were supposed to reside…. Hence, some interpreters infelicitously understand Paul’s phrase τάστοιχεῖ α τοῦ κόσμου, Galatians 4:3, 9Colossians 2:8, 20, of the heavenly bodies, because times and seasons, and so sacred seasons, were regulated by the course of the sun and moon; yet in unfolding the meaning of the passage on the basis of this sense they differ widely.”

[19] Colossians 2:18; Galatians 4:8-9.

[20] Cf. Exodus 20:3-5

[21] George E. Ladd, “A Theology of the New Testament”, p. 402.

[22] Gerhard Friedrich, Editor, “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament”, Volume 7, pp. 682-683.

[23] This view is held by Colin Brown, Gerhard Delling, George E. Ladd, and Herman Ridderbos.

[24] Galatians 4:9-10

[25] Cf. Ephesians 2:15; Hebrews 7:18-19, 8:13.

[26] Colossians 2:17

[27] Galatians 3:22-23, 4:9

[28] Hebrews 7:18-19, 8:13; Ephesians 2:15

[29] Cf. Galatians 4:6-8; Romans 8:14-17

[30] Cf. Galatians 4:3-5

[31] On the issue of Old Covenant rituals being “of the world”, Gary DeLashmutt offers this in a footnote to his article “Paul’s Usage of ta stroicheis tou kosmou”: “Both Colossians 2:22 and Mark 7:18 draw attention to the ‘this-worldliness’ temporality of the dietary laws. Colossians 2:17 implies the same ‘this-worldly’ status of the Old Testament religious calendar; it was only an earthly ‘shadow’ of the spiritual ‘substance’ of Jesus.”

[32] George E. Ladd, “A Theology of the New Testament”,  p. 399

[33] John 4:24

[34] John 3:3-8

[35] John 6:63

[36] 2 Corinthians 3:6

[37] John 3:6-7

[38] Romans 8:14

[39] Romans 15:50

[40] Romans 14:17

[41] 1 Peter 2:5

[42] From “Paul’s Usage of ta Stoicheia tou Kosmou” by Gary DeLashmutt   I highly recommend a reading of this paper. It is the most complete treatment and sound interpretation of Paul’s meaning of “the elementary principles of the world” I have come across.

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Quo Vadis

God is always moving forward in His kingdom plans and purposes. He never moves backward. And for those who love Him, He never stops moving in our lives for His glory. But to continue moving on with God “from glory to glory” requires our living “from faith to faith”. It takes an act of faith