Galatians 4:3 So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world
“when we were children” I don’t think Paul is being literal here, but referring to our lives before we knew Christ.
“we were in slavery” The concept implied by the comparison with being a literal child under Roman law discussed in Chapter 4:1 is stated directly here. As a child, we had no rights, we had no hope of freedom. This is similar to other themes voiced in this letter – the curse of Galatians 3:10-14; the prisoner of 3:23, and now, the slave/child of 4:1.
“under the basic principles” The original Greek phrase here literally means to place things side by side in a row, and was used for explaining simple order in the basics of life, like the alphabet. Its not unlike the common trite phrases we use in American slang to explain the same thing – e.g., “simple as ABC,” “easy as 1-2-3.” Paul is implying the fundamental principle or basic elements of life. The context points to the “basic principles” or elemental forms of religion and spiritual life that existed for the Galatians prior to knowing Christ. So far, Paul has been emphasizing concepts as they existed in Judaism, under the Law of Moses, and he will continue to do so (very soon, in fact, down in 4:5), but he is also referring here to the religious customs of the pagan Gentiles, which he will begin to touch on in 4:8. Thus, not only was the issue of the Judiazers and their heresy a problem, but even the old pagan customs of the Gentiles were creeping back into the Galatian churches too!
“of the world” In their pagan life style, the Galatian Gentiles had worshiped the elements of the earth, sky, and the personification of nature and all its forms (e.g. earth, fire, the sun, the moon, trees, rivers, animals). Most of the ancient world was concerned about the concept of “fate,” which ruled the lives of men in an impersonal manner through the pagan deities. Paul is concerned that even the Jewish believer has been subject to belief in these sorts of concepts – relying on a sort of “folk magic” to guide their lives, like modern American society uses Astrology and other pagan elements (Paul implies the Jews are subject to similar issues down in 4:9). “World” in verse 3 means what we use that term to mean in modern evangelical and charismatic Christianity – the pagan world, the “flesh,” “worldliness.” Before we knew Jesus, we were slave to all the concepts of the “world,” – For some of us, this was the obvious immoral, narcissistic, and hedonistic sinfulness that is at the center of the pagan world. For others, we might have for the most part lead good, moral lives by the objective standard of the “world,” but delved into more socially acceptable “paganism,” the sort of thing that was “Christianized” – you know, immoral practices that didn’t seem so bad because they were coated with religion and much more socially acceptable. The problem is, both kinds of sin are really the same. Some of it seems like its good, or at least “better” when compared to the really immoral pagan or self centered, “fleshy” behavior (“I don’t do drugs, I haven’t killed anyone, I’m not promiscuous” etc.), but, unfortunately, its all sin.