Elemental spirits have come to be known as spiritual forces that attach themselves to a physical area or an area of human endeavor affecting the area of their influence in a negative way. Paul recognized this as he was teaching the Galatians and Colossians. “So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world” (Galatians 4:3, New Revised Standard Version. hereafter NRV). “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” (Colossians 2:20, NRV).
Additional scriptures refer to the elemental spirits of this world and beyond. “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?” (Galatians 4:9, NRV). And: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8, NRV).
“Elementary principles” in English is a phrase used to describe the building blocks for further development of a given subject. The Greeks used the word "stoicheia" to mean “elementary or rudimentary principles,” but the word can also be used for the “physical elements” of the world: earth, water, air, fire, or it could even mean “elemental spirits.” All three meanings are found in the New Testament writings. As seen above the NRV translates the word “elemental spirits” as do other versions. Satan is the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4) and thus the ordinary and rudimentary principles are controlled by his kindred elemental spirits ruling over various areas and endeavors. What we see as normal is often the deception of Satan coloring our perception of reality.
In three passages, the meaning of "stoicheiōn" is clearly “physical elements” (Heb. 5:12; 2 Pet. 3:10–12). In antiquity, the word also commonly referred to the letters in a word, notes in music, the “elementary” rules of politics, or the basic principles in science, art, or teaching. “Elementary principles” clearly was the meaning of the word in the letter to the Hebrews, which describes people’s need to have someone teach them the elementary truths of God’s Word (Heb. 5:12).
However, in comparison, the meaning of "stoicheiōn" in four other passages, all in Paul’s writings, is different (see quotations above). Many Bible versions use the difficult phrase “the elements of the world” in three of the four passages (Gal. 4:3; Col. 2:8, 20). As seen this is translated “elemental spirits” in others. The meaning of “elements” in the fourth passage (Gal. 4:9) is probably the same as in the other three because of its similar context. One can understand “elements” to mean “spiritual beings” and view Paul’s reference to “elements” as similar to his mention of the principalities and powers (that is, in Eph. 6:12). Translating Galatians 4:3 according to this view (as in the RSV), Paul would be saying that before conversion a person is enslaved to evil spiritual forces.
Thus, in Galatians 4:9, he asks how the Galatians could ever want to be enslaved to these forces again. Paul’s refers in this passage to “beings that by nature are no gods” (Gal. 4:8) and to angels through whom the law was mediated (Gal. 3:19) Both are used to substantiate the meaning of “elemental spirits.” Similarly, Colossians 2:8 would be warning Christians against being led captive through the philosophical speculations and empty deceit that are perpetrated by human traditions and elemental spirits. False teaching about pagan gods or Jesus Christ still seems to carry the meaning of false elemental spirits
Whether stoicheia refers to spiritual elements, human traditions, or basic religious teaching—the bondage Paul warned against is bondage to elementary religious thinking, which comes from people or spiritual forces against God. Bondage to such thinking would be equivalent to remaining at a kindergarten level of thought, instead of learning the advanced teaching of Christ. As mature believers, we ought to always be on guard for false teaching. We need to filter what we hear and experience with what we know for certain from the Bible. Since the spirit of Satan touches upon all areas of human existence the term “elementary spirits” is the correct root of all false teaching and false prophets. Our was is not against flesh and blood but is a spiritual battle.
As Paul explained in Ephesians 6:12, NRV: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”. This is consistent with his expressions of elemental spirits examined above. What has occurred is that Satan and his hordes have infiltrated areas of geography and fields of endeavor, areas that have to be retaken by the Sons of God.
As David said: “The LORD [THE FATHER] says to my Lord [Christ the Messiah]: “Sit at My right hand Until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet” (Psalm 110:1; quoted in Hebrews 1:13). The enemies are those mentioned: powers, cosmic forces, spiritual forces of evil and the elementary spirits that rule the mundane world. These forces need to be identified spiritually and banished by the word of God. The godless nature of most areas of human endeavor (education, medical, the arts, law, politics, government, etc.) makes it obvious that these areas are ruled by godless Satan using the elemental spirits under his control.
One clear example in the scriptures comes from the Book of Daniel. In Daniel 10 Daniel was praying and fasting regarding the future of Israel. While by the bank of the Euphrates River a heavenly being appeared to him and said, among other things: “Do not be afraid, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart on understanding this and on humbling yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to your words. “But the prince of the kingdom of Persia was withstanding me for twenty-one days; then behold, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I had been left there with the kings of Persia” (Daniel 10:12-13). The elemental spirits ruling the Kingdom of Persia were even able to withstand/delay the word of God coming to Daniel. At the time Persia ruled most of the known world so the elemental spirits and principalities and powers were very powerful requiring Michael the powerful Angel to assist in battling them. Many times when we pray, and the answer is delayed, the same forces as in Daniel may be hindering the answer.
It should be noted that elemental spirits also control “normal” processes like the weather. It has been stated that the elemental spirits are neutral and can be converted to righteousness. With the prevailing rulership of the world by Satan they are influenced to do his will. They can be turned to do the will of God.
We Sons of God must reach in and learn to discern the elemental spirits so they can be rooted out and judged or converted. Only when God’s enemies become the footstool of His feet can we say with certainty that the kingdom of God has come fully. “For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:13-14).