This term (stoicheia) is defined as

1. fundamental principles (cf. Heb. 5:12. 6:1)

2. basic elements of the world, such as earth, wind, water or fire (cf. 2 Pet. 3:10, 12)

3. elementary spirits, (cf. Gal. 4:3, 8-9; Col. 2:8; Eph. 6:10-12)

4. heavenly bodies (cf. Enoch 52:9-10 and the early church fathers who thought it referred to the seven planetary spheres, cf. Baur, Arnt, Ginrich, Danker's A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 776)

The basic etymology was "something in a series" or "row."

Paul viewed life as a spiritual struggle (cf. Romans 7; Eph. 2:2-3; 6:10-18). Humans were beset by evil from within (a fallen nature, cf. Genesis 3), by a fallen world system (cf. Genesis 3) and by personal evil (Satan, the demonic and the stoicheia).

James Stewart's, A Man in Christ, has an interesting comment:

"Sin was not something a man did: it was something that took possession of him, something the man was, something that turned him into an open enemy of the God who loved him. It brought outward penalties: ‘whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.' But far more appalling than these were its inward results. It tormented the conscience: ‘O wretched man that I am!' It brought the will into abject slavery: ‘the good that I would, I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do.' It destroyed fellowship with God: men were ‘alienated,' ‘without God in the world.' It hardened the heart, and blinded the judgment, and warped the moral sense: ‘God gave them over to a reprobate mind.' It destroyed life itself: 'the wages of sin is death.'

Such is the apostle's estimate of sin's overwhelming gravity. And through it all, even where sin is regarded as an external force waiting to take advantage of human nature in its frailty, he will allow no blurring of the fact of personal accountability. Principalities and powers may lie in wait, but in the last resort man's is the choice, man's the responsibility, and man's the doom" (pp. 106-107).

However, in his book Christ and the Powers, Hendrik Berkhof states that these powers are impersonal structures (such as politics, democracy, social class, public mores, sports, education, medicine, etc.) in our natural, fallen world which tend to unify mankind apart from God (cf. p. 32). They become mankind's way to meet all of his/her needs (i.e., humanism).  They are not bad things in themselves,but become evil when they become ultimate.  This interpretation fits the biblical examples.

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