Colossian Problem V—Basic Principles: Galatians 4:8-9
In the first century the Greek term stoicheia, which may be translated “basic principles,” commonly referred to the gods and spiritual powers that were associated with the stars and planets. Stoicheia was also used to refer to the four basic physical elements: earth, wind, fire and water. These basic principles or elements were thought to influence and even control the fates of men and women.
Paul clearly used stoicheia in this way in Galatians 4:8-9, where he wrote:
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods… how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? (Galatians 4:8-9).
Here, the word “principles” translates the Greek word stoicheia, and it refers to those who by nature are not gods. That is, it refers to the demons that masquerade as pagan gods. This same meaning of stoicheia is also the one Paul intended in Colossians 2:8, where he condemned these basic principles:
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ (Colossians 2:8).
Paul pointed to the basic principles or stoicheia as the basis for the philosophy of the false teachers. In other words, he was arguing that the religious traditions of the false teachers should be rejected because they appealed to false gods.
Interestingly, similar ideas about the elements and spiritual powers were held by some branches of Judaism, especially during the intertestamental period. This seems to have set the stage for the Christian heresy that appeared in Colosse in Paul’s day. The false teachers in Colosse appear to have combined Jewish legalism, pagan religion, and Christianity, and to have encouraged the worship of these astral or cosmic powers commonly known as basic principles or stoicheia.
The church in Colosse faced some real challenges in the first century. Unlike other churches they apparently had never received apostolic training. Although the church had been planted by godly men, it had not been solidly grounded in the theology of the apostles. This made the Colossian Christians particularly vulnerable to false teaching. So, when false teachers began to bombard them with corruptions of Judaism and pagan idolatry, it was hard for them to tell the difference between truth and heresy. Wisely, they recognized their problem and appealed to Paul for help.