There are often discussions among holiness-minded Apostolics about avoiding worldliness. And this is a good thing. Lord knows, we need to avoid being worldly. The warning of John stills thunders, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.” But in our carefulness to avoid worldliness, we sometimes miss the worst worldliness in the world–what Paul calls “self-made religion.” Look at what he said:
“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch ( referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:20-23)
The key here is “the elemental spirits of the world.” This is the stoicheia (rendered “elements,” “rudiments” and “principles” in the KJV) that Paul speaks of now and then. The stoicheia are the “spirit-systems” that make up the religious, political and social structures of the world. If I may oversimplify it a bit, the stoicheia are the systems of the world that the principalities and powers indwell in order to control the affairs of men.
When scripture warns us about the evil of the world, this is “the world” being referenced. There are two “worlds,” as it were: the world of God’s good creation, which God loves; and the world of the fallen system that lies in darkness under the control of rebel powers who resist the irresistible rule of King Jesus. This is the world that stands in defiance as the enemy of God, and this is the world that God hates and that we must refuse to love.
The stoicheia that Paul condemns here in Colossians 2 is the stoicheia of Judaism. Paul preaches against “human precepts and teachings” that flow out of tradition and not out of Christ. This alerts us to a sobering reality: self-made religion becomes a stoicheia. a spirit-system that evil powers indwell in order to control the souls of men. This means that any form of religion that is based on regulations that flow out of human tradition rather than out of the teaching of Jesus is actually a part of the world system that God so deeply hates.
Think about this now. Self-made religion, and that would include any and all forms of Apostolic practice that do not flow out of Jesus, is a part of “the world.” And, since this form of worldliness masquerades as holiness, it is the most dangerous of all worldliness-es. (Pardon the ungrammatical plural there. Couldn’t think of better way to say it.) There is no worse way to be worldly than to be falsely religious.
I think we need to think about this. Everything we teach and preach must flow out of Jesus, out of His teaching and the teaching of His apostles. Whatever we embrace and preserve that is nothing more than tradition must be discarded before it becomes a house that is “empty, swept and garnished.” This sort of religious chicanery is exactly what Jesus warned against when He used the empty house example–the empty house was Israel’s temple that had become the habitation of demons. It had become the stoicheia.
The bottom line is that our holiness doctrine must conform to Christ. Otherwise, our “holiness” becomes the worst worldliness in the world.