The Rudiments of Capture
"Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power:" Colossians 2:8-10
First things first: When Paul warns his readers not to let any man "spoil" you, he isn't talking about becoming rotten or corrupt, or over indulgence in something. He is using a word (sulagogeo) that refers to booty captured in warfare. So it's "spoil" in the sense of the spoils of war. What Paul is going to teach about is how to avoid capture.
I have been studying and pondering Colossians chapters two and three for over a week and every time I thought I understood what it was about I would come back later and see a different perspective on it. It's almost as if Paul decided to throw in everything but the kitchen sink into this one short passage. He jumps from one thing to the next on every single sentence. That's unusual since normally Paul picks out some theme and goes on and on for page after page on that one thing. So, I keep thinking, what's the theme here?
The one thing that seemed to jump out at me was this phrase "rudiments of the world." I began to concentrate on that thinking if I could get an understanding then the rest of the passage would fall into place. So I began to dig for information only to run into an ongoing theological "pissin' contest." (Pardon my vulgarity, but that's exactly what it is.)
The problem is the word "rudiments" translates a Greek word, "stoichieon" that has four (or five) different meanings. Depending on which meaning you pick, you can claim a different intent to the rest of the chapter. So I'm thinking, now what? If all these Bible scholars and ancient language experts can't agree, how am I suppose to understand? Of course, you say, just ask Jesus. That's what I did to start with and he's the one who told me "dig deeper" in the first place. I dug and dug until I had what seemed to be a hole that kept caving in on itself. Hmmm. . .
Maybe that's the answer? Maybe what the scholars are doing is exactly the thing Paul is warning about? The root word of "stoicheion" means to put every thing into a line and thus the "rudiments" are the things that are ordered into a specific arrangement. In other words, it refers to parts of a systematized, regulated arrangement. This can be in the sense of ritual practice, but can also be in the sense of a set of fundamental propositions (rudiments) of a philosophy or religion. The word is also used by Greek philosophers to represent the elements of the world - earth, air, fire, water - as well as the celestial bodies and over time evolves into a representation of "elemental spirits" that rule the world. But set all those varied definitions together and in the abstract they overlap in meaning. In all cases, what is represented is something that is in itself is only "elemental" and thus less than complete. Paul contrasts these limited elements with the fullness which is put on display in the person of Jesus. That is the theme of this chapter -- the contrast between limited, elemental things, and the completeness that is fond only in Jesus Christ.
Paradoxically -- trying to come up with a tight, regulated, concise understanding of "stoicheion" and then use that as the "rudiment" to interpret the chapter is the kind of thing Paul is warning against. We end up concentrating on all the little bits and pieces and forget the big picture. Similarly, we don't build up righteousness by adding up elemental things. It doesn't matter if the systematized approach to faith is built up from worldly philosophy, science, religious doctrines and rituals, enlightened revelation or secret doctrines known only to some self-proclaimed guru. There is no need to appeal to "angels" (i.e. spirit guides) or to appease the "principalities and powers" that rule over the world. It doesn't matter what rituals you perform, food you eat, festivals you keep, or day you worship on since all of those things are elemental types and shadows that reach their fulfillment in Christ. The purpose in all these is to lead to spiritual understanding and are not in themselves righteousness. To assign them a place of importance equal to faith in Jesus is to then take away from and diminish the completeness of Jesus.
To concentrate on the rudiments can result in capture of the person. The person can become more concerned with these limited elements than with the fullness of unity with Christ. They never reach unity in Christ because they are always trying to add something to him that is of their own will power; to build up knowledge bit by bit or act by act. As Paul says, it is a "shew of wisdom in will worship" and nothing more.
It would be possible to think that we don't do today the things Paul is talking about. But, the same spiritual principle applies in modern terms as well. People trust to our own talents and "career" for material provision and become captured by material things. Others try to syncretize multiple religious systems into some universal, everybody is included, philosophy where Jesus is only one of many moral teachers. We are told that Jesus saves, but you must go to church, or receive the church's blessings, or speak in tongues, etc. You must be a "good citizen" in order to be a good Christian and the political state gets merged in to the religious system. And lets not forget the endless arguments about what food you should eat, what clothes you should wear, and what day you should worship on. It's all the same old stuff dressed up for the modern world. All of it can capture the mind to the point where it directs the heart away from the fullness that is only in Jesus Christ.
This is where the spiritual battle line is drawn. It is not drawn between religious rituals, Bible interpretation, political systems or philosophy. The dividing line between those teaching truth and those teaching falsehood is simply this: Anyone who seeks to add on to or replace Jesus with anything else is using vain philosophy and deceitful speech for the purpose of capturing the heart, mind and soul of others.
"If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth." (Colossians 3:1-2)