This post accompanies the sermon on Colossians 2:16-23 on 3/23/14.
In Colossians 2:20-21 there is a direct link between the elemental spirits of the world and the Christians submitting to regulations that they need not follow: "Do not handle. Do not taste. Do not touch." Why would placating the elemental spirits lead to regulations?
For ancient peoples the elemental spirits (greek, stoichea) probably represented spiritual beings which stood behind the powers of the present world age. They could have been a reference to the planets and sun and moon, but this is uncertain. These forces had to be placated so that you would not run afoul of them. In other words, submit to their regulations, or else. These regulations appear to have been ascetic in nature. The truth is that the commentaries are mostly speculating about this. However, based on what we know of Roman Culture, Jewish and Essene culture, and proto-gnoticism we can be sure that we are in the right ball-park.
But if you ask how this affects someone today there are two answers. First, Christians should not engage in astrology for fun. The planets do not represent deities who rule the fate of mankind. In the words of Deuteronomy they are demons who are not really gods at all. In other words demonic beings gain their power when humans worship them instead of the True God.
Secondly, and more practically for most, If a basic power of this world-say money, beauty, sex, or political connection-still hold power over the life of a person they will always be tempted to follow rules and regulations in order not to be harmed by that power. For instance for a Christian to say, "I will not have sex with my wife because sex is powerful and I must not engage in it so that it won't master me." Is, in effect, saying that it still does have mastery over you. So for a Christian who has died to this world, strict regulations to keep you from offending the powers of this world are out of line with your death and new life in Christ.