Galatians 4:1-3. I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, 2 but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. 3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.
Here again Paul takes us back to pre-“To live is Christ.” Before we had the life of Christ in us, we were enslaved to guardians and managers. Which he has already told us was the Law (see 3:24). But then Paul gives us an even bigger umbrella under which the Law fits- the elementary principles of the world.
Why create this umbrella? Because many of the Galatian Christians are Gentiles. So convincing them that they were enslaved under the Law of Moses is a bit of a tough sell. They were never under the Law of Moses, so were they ever really enslaved? And for that matter do they really need Christ to free them? Answer: Yes. Why? Because they are still enslaved under something even bigger than the Law- those worthless elementary principles of the world.
What are the elementary principles of the world? Elementary principles is the Greek word stoicheia. This is a very complex word. In some Greek writing it refers to the basics of any philosophy or subject. The “ABCs” if you will. Paul describes the stoicheia even more in verses 8-11.
Galatians 4:8-11. Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles (stoicheia) of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.
Ok so let’s go one step deeper. The elementary principles of the world can also refer to the spiritual powers that control the elements of this world (earth, wind, fire, water). In this way the Pagans would offer sacrifices to the gods of these elements in order to appease them. Paul teaches us that these gods are fake and unreal, BUT there are spiritual forces at work- demons if you will (see 1 Corinthians 10:20). And yes, we can be enslaved to spiritual forces. I don’t mean by demon possession. I mean by following the worldly concept of self salvation that Satan sells to us every day.
I know this idea is getting deep, and you’re probably thinking “I’m not enslaved to any elementary principles or spiritual forces.” And of course, positionally, if you are In Christ, you are no longer slaves. But conditionally we all often run back to the elementary principles as the way we relate to God. The elementary principles are any system of self salvation. And yes these systems of self salvation still trap us, even as Christians.
The Christian who thinks they are better because of their political view – elementary principles.
The Christian who thinks that financial planning will bring them hope and peace – elementary principles.
The Christian who thinks that staying busy makes them more valuable – elementary principles.
The Christian who thinks that their own lack of motivation proves their need to prove themselves to God – elementary principles.
The Christian who feels the need to compare themselves to all the other Christians – elementary principles.
The Christian who goes to church because it is what a “good Christian” is supposed to do – elementary principles.
The Christian who walks away from church because they are “spiritual but not religious” – elementary principles.
The elementary principles enslave us. They pose as gods but are not God. Every false religion is rooted in these elementary principles: the worship of creation over Creator or self over God. But In Christ we have been set free from these weak and worthless principles.
“To live is Christ” graduates us way past the elementary principles of this world. We no longer need to appease the gods or God. We no longer find salvation in ourselves, and our own ability to decide what is “best for me.” Rather we live released from the slavery of principles and free to live from a the love of a family- Christ’s own family.