Once again Paul uses the difficult but important catchword stoicheia, translated "basic principles," to call attention to his opponent's preoccupation with the four basic elements of earth (see 2:8), which make up the very things not handled, not tasted, not touched. From the beginning of his letter, Paul has underscored the importance of relating the material world to the spiritual: the one should always bear witness to the other. Indeed, in the next passage Paul will again admonish his readers to understand the "earthly" in terms of the "heavenly" (3:1-4). This integration of spirit and heaven with matter and earth provides the foundation for Paul's ethical program (3:5--4:1), where the moral emphasis falls on transformed relationships rather than the regulations of ascetic piety.
Perhaps it is prudent to point out that Paul's concern is not so much that a Christian's spirituality be abundantly "worldly"; rather, he is concerned that the rigors of Christian devotion not be viewed as means for acquiring God's grace. In fact, our devotion to God should include a measure of self-denial (compare Mk 8:34-38) coupled with a resolve not to conform to the norms and values of secular culture. However, these virtues are the fruit of participating with Christ in the salvation of God. Our rejection of middle-class materialism and our embracing of a simple lifestyle, then, constitute a positive response to Christ's lordship rather than a negative response to a world we suppose is inherently evil.
Paul reminds his readers of an accepted fact (ei indic): you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world. The moral response of true religion does not consist of codes having to do with earth's elements, even if we are denying ourselves the use of those elements (compare 2:8). In fact, Paul will go on in chapter 3 to describe the moral life of Christian faith in terms of codes of human virtue and relationships.
Colosse's spiritual umpire has been teaching that spiritual maturity is reflected more by the believer's self-centered asceticism than by transformed relationships. Logically, Christians who place greatest priority on otherworldly experiences will tend to deny the value of this world, even (ironically) to emphasize its denial. In Colosse, where some equate spiritual maturity with otherworldly visions of angels, certain religious behaviors give concrete expression to their world-denying orientation. Thus, it is claimed, the mature believer will abstain from certain foods (2:16) or activities (compare 3:5-11): Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch! Such are those who are not yet liberated from the basic principles by affirming in practice the lordship of Christ over earth and its elements.
Paul may well be mocking actual prohibitions used at Colosse, probably to express religious (do not taste certain foods) and social (do not touch certain people) commitments. While the background of these prohibitions is not known, it is not difficult to find similar sayings in both Jewish and pagan literature of Paul's day (for these see O'Brien 1983:149-50). Again, the problem for Paul is not really the idea of religious asceticism; he even encourages certain ascetic practices on occasion (compare 1 Cor 7). Rather, his primary concern is what religious motivation prompts this lifestyle and whether it ultimately enhances the believer's relationship with Christ and neighbor. Clearly, he believes that submission to these moral codes tends to denigrate Christ's redemptive work and promote enmity between believers. They simply do not have much spiritual cash value.
The verb submit (dogmatizo, from which we get "dogmatic" and "dogma") in this context means to submit to certain official decrees or legal obligations, presumably in order to be freed of some debt or to keep from being indebted (and worse). If this debt is owed to something or someone other than Christ, then such devotion is wrong-headed. Further, we may presume from Paul's teaching that to encourage legalism, as such codes surely do, is to discourage the grace that is available to all who have died with Christ.
Paul further justifies his criticism of Christian asceticism through a twofold appeal to common sense. First of all, he says, any rule of faith that is based on prohibitions such as those listed in verse 21 could not possibly be effective, because they are based on things (such as food) that perish. Why determine the eternal by the temporal? This seems as foolish as idolatry, which substitutes what is created for its Creator. Further, perishable items lack eschatological value, since they belong to the world order that will perish at Christ's return. Second, this same ascetic rule of faith is based on human commands and teachings. Not only are the prohibited commodities perishable, but their disposition is determined by human patterns ("dogma") of consumption (such as etiquette), whether ascetic or hedonistic.
To conclude his polemic against the champions of Colossian philosophy, Paul returns to his initial concern (2:4) over any purportedly wise teaching in a cultural environment that responds favorably to "fine-sounding arguments." When one scratches the surface of such teaching and finds that it fails to insist on the Lord Christ's singular importance, Paul asserts, the church must condemn it as "hollow and deceptive" (2:8). Any Christless version of truth has no redemptive value. Likewise, the regulations of ascetic piety have no redemptive value because they too are based on human commands and teachings (2:21-22; compare 2:8) rather than on Christ. They too have an appearance of wisdom (compare 2:4) in a religious environment where self-denial is honored, but in reality they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
Paul's final word is "flesh" (sarx), which the NIV takes in its pejorative sense, "sin nature." When coupled with his earlier phrase treatment of the body (soma), Paul's criticism is ironical: a legalistic concern to abstain from bodily indulgence will result in a concern for the physical that is actually "fleshly," lacking in any spiritual value. Not only does legalism demote the importance of divine grace, it also focuses primary attention on the physical "what" rather than the theological "why." In this sense self-denial is actually counterproductive for faith.
Perhaps in reaction to a culture dominated by impersonal technology, today we hunger more than ever for a personal experience with God. Yet because of technology, we have also come to expect the spectacular even in the ordinary routine of life. Technology makes life easier for us. More and more Christians seek spectacular experiences of God; we demand "signs and wonders" that will make our lives easier. God is just another name for technology. Paul would brook no compromise with any religious philosophy that promotes a spectacular brilliance or a mystical experience as the badge of an abundant spirituality (see 2:16-18). He would interpret our current emphasis on personal, dramatic religious experiences as a threat to the centrality of the congregation's relationship with Christ and the spiritual disciplines that fortify that relationship (2:19).
This passage is also an important corrective to any version of Christianity that is world-denying (2:20-23). If Christ is Lord over the created order (1:15-18), his people should be actively engaged in transforming all things to accord with the Creator's good intentions for them. Ironically, believers who legalistically follow codes that deny or limit interest in the material or sensual are routinely seduced into another kind of sensual indulgence--one that replaces selfless devotion to Jesus with self-centered concern over the proper handling of those very natural elements he rules as Lord.