An Exploration of Galatians: Children Held in Bondage
Galatians 4:1-3; Colossians 2:8 - Legalism binds us back into an immature childhood of faith; Grace removes us from these elemental things and “cause and effect”.
“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, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by the father. So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world.”
Galatians 4:1-3 NASB1995
Paul begins chapter four of Galatians by talking about a child as an heir. This child will eventually become owner of everything in the household, but really has fewer rights in childhood than a slave in the household until he comes “of age”. Enduring Word has some relevant commentary about verses 1 and 2 and gives us some insight into Roman customs:
The heir, as long as he is a child: The word child has the idea of a minor. It doesn’t suggest a specific age, rather someone who is not yet legally recognized as an adult.
In both Jewish and Greek cultures, there were definite “coming of age” ceremonies where a boy stopped being a child and started being a man, with legal rights as an heir.
In the Roman custom, there was no specific age when the son became a man. It happened when the father thought the boy was ready. When Paul used the phrase until the time appointed by the father, he shows that he had the Roman “coming of age” custom more in mind than the Jewish custom.
“A Roman child became an adult at the sacred family festival known as the Liberalia, held annually on the seventeenth of March. At this time the child was formally adopted by the father as his acknowledged son and heir and received the toga virilis in place of the toga praetexta which he had previously worn.” (James Montgomery Boice)
“There was a Roman custom that on the day a boy or a girl grew up, the boy offered his ball, and the girl her doll, to Apollo to show that they had put away childish things.” (William Barclay)
As long as he is a child, does not differ at all from a slave, though he is master of all: Think of a wealthy ancient household, with a young boy who is destined to inherit all that his father has. When the boy is just a child, he actually has less day-to-day freedom and authority than a high ranking slave in the household. Yet, he is destined to inherit everything and the slave isn’t.
In fact, the heir is under the strict care of guardians and stewards until the time appointed by the father.
Paul is addressing the Galatians as being like children, wanting to go back to the legal guardianship and stewardship of their lives. They think that by adopting the requirements that the Judaizers are bringing to them that they will have spiritual maturity, but the opposite is true. This commentary from Precept Austin quoting the late Baptist preacher and writer Warren Weirsbe (from his book “Be Free: An Expository Study of Galatians”) is spot on:
One of the tragedies of legalism is that it gives the appearance of spiritual maturity when, in reality, it leads the believer back into a “second childhood” of Christian experience. The Galatian Christians, like most believers, wanted to grow and go forward for Christ; but they were going about it in the wrong way. Their experience is not too different from that of Christians today who get involved in various legalistic movements, hoping to become better Christians. Their motives may be right, but their methods are wrong.
This is the truth Paul is trying to get across to his beloved converts in Galatia. The Judaizers had bewitched them into thinking that the Law would make them better Christians. Their old nature felt an attraction for the Law because the Law enabled them to do things and measure external results. As they measured themselves and their achievements, they felt a sense of accomplishment, and, no doubt, a little bit of pride. They thought they were going forward when actually they were regressing. Such people are in a situation similar to the airplane passengers who heard their pilot announce: “Our navigator has lost our position, folks, and we have been flying rather aimlessly for over an hour. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that we are making very good time.”
This reminds me of the days we attended an ELCA church and worked as ushers at one of the services. There were many little processes that seemed like a good idea at the time we were there, like doing head counts during the service and picking up the sheets that were in a book at the end of each aisle after the last service of the weekend where people could sign their names and indicate whether they were members or visitors. In fact, we helped the church by creating a process manual for the ushers so that nothing was missed, including cleaning out the coffee pots. We were “doing things” and “measuring results”, although I don’t know if anything was really done as a follow-up for the people who were visitors. Apparently, all of these numbers had to be turned over to the Synod on a regular basis (something to do with distribution of funds, I think). We were making good time!
As anyone who attends a Lutheran church knows (and this is true of many other denominations), there is a complicated series of rituals associated with the “church calendar year”, with different colored robes and altar linens and even the types of hymns that would be sung and what is read at the readings (which are directed at the Synod level). These rituals (really thinly disguised tiny legalisms) make people “comfortable”. I’m not criticizing these rituals as they have a centuries-old foundation that is quite noble and they help people feel at home who love order and ritual in their lives, but it is a truly different life for us now in a non-denominational church, where the focus is on Jesus from January 1 through December 31 and not on the “elements” of the “15th Sunday after Pentecost”.
Speaking of elements, the third verse of this passage today in Galatians is quite intriguing.
So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world.
The picture above makes sense if you dig into the word “elemental”. It comes from the Greek word στοιχεῖον or stocheion and has the following meanings:
any first thing, from which the others belonging to some series or composite whole take their rise, an element, first principal
the letters of the alphabet as the elements of speech, not however the written characters, but the spoken sounds
the elements from which all things have come, the material causes of the universe
the heavenly bodies, either as parts of the heavens or (as others think) because in them the elements of man, life and destiny were supposed to reside
the elements, rudiments, primary and fundamental principles of any art, science, or discipline
i.e. of mathematics, Euclid's geometry
As a trained engineer, I became used to the concept of “stochastic” processes. That word “stochastic” derives from a similar Greek word as the one in this passage (same root) and it is used to characterize “randomness” in processes (like noise in an electrical signal) that can be modeled in a randomized statistical distribution. The movement of water (known as Brownian motion) is a “stochastic” process, as are the movements of subatomic particles. So we are held in bondage to the elemental (and often seemingly random) processes of the material world when we are mere children in the faith.
Once again, I am impressed with the commentary in Enduring Word, emphasizing a shift from elemental processes (in this case, “cause and effect”) to Grace:
Elements of the world: Paul uses an interesting phrase here. “To describe it Paul uses the word stoicheia. A stocheion was originally a line of things; for instance, it can mean a file of soldiers. But it came to mean the ABC, and then any elementary knowledge.” (William Barclay)
[Alan] Cole translates the idea: “So too, we, when we were ‘young children,’ were kept in slavery to the ABC of the universe.”
The idea of the “ABC of the universe” is important. If there is any “ABC of the universe” (elementary principle) that we must break free from, and that is stressed in pagan religion just as much as Jewish law, it is the principle of cause and effect. One may call it karma or “you get what you deserve” or something else; yet it rules nature and the minds of men. We live under the idea that we get what we deserve; when we are good we deserve to receive good and when we are bad we deserve to receive bad.
Paul told the Galatians to go beyond this “ABC of the universe” into an understanding of God’s grace. Grace contradicts this “ABC of the universe,” because under grace God does not deal with us on the basis of what we deserve. Our good cannot justify us under grace; our bad need not condemn us. God’s blessing and favor is given on a principle completely apart from the “ABC of the universe.” His blessing and favor is given for reasons that are completely in Him, and have nothing to do with us.
The “ABC of the universe” is not bad in itself. We do and must use it in life, and God has a proper place for it. But we must not base our relationship to God on this principle. Since we are now under grace, He does not deal with us on the principle of earning and deserving. Because this is such an elementary principle, it is so hard for us to shake this kind of thinking. But it is essential if we will walk in grace. When we live on the principle of earning and deserving before God, we live in bondage under the elements of the world.
Our physical existence relies on the elemental structures of the Universe. But God created this universe and the mathematical laws that govern material properties. We can step outside of our bondage to mere “cause and effect” and come under a radical concept of Grace, which is given by Him, who is apart from and above the “ABC” of the universe. Our “good” is not good enough; our “bad” need not condemn us. False teachings come to us under these elemental principles, as referenced in Colossians 2:8 (referenced in the Enduring Word commentary above):
“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.”
Colossians 2:8 NASB1995
My next devotional examines Galatians 4:4-7, Celebrating Abba our Father.
Heaven on Wheels Daily Prayer:
Dear Lord - Thank You for GRACE, the supernatural and marvelous outpouring of Your Love that helps us step out of bondage to the elemental principles of this physical life and the trap of legalism and “cause and effect”. Amen
Scripture quotations taken from the (NASB®) New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved. lockman.org
Commentary from Enduring Word by David Guzik is used with written permission.
The Blue Letter Bible was accessed on 12/1/2023 to review the lexicon for the word “elemental”
The personal testimony of Bruce Hurt, creator of Precept Austin, can be found Here.