See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, and not according to Christ.
Reading this, I am tempted to understand it as worldly philosophies coming from outside the church, but the context has Paul warning against those who have their rules of Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch! (v21) and those are, primarily, folks in the church. This is not to say that folks outside the church have no opinion as to what a believer should and should not do — everyone has an opinion — I am just far less likely to be swayed by how non-believers think I should work out my salvation than I am fellow believers.
In essence, this is a warning against legalism and against worldly philosophies that creep into the church; a warning to have sound doctrine. Paul lists four things that might take me captive: philosophy, empty deception, tradition of men, and principles of the world.
There will be folks in the church who find some philosophy that they think has worked wonders for them — and, to be fair, it may very well have been used by God to do good things for them — but these folks will then turn around and tell me that I must submit myself to that philosophy. The only One to Whom I must submit myself is God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. After that, God gives me others He wants me to submit to, but none of these are philosophies or traditions of men. It is a submission to God Who then appoints others to whom I should be in submission and, possibly, who should be in submission to me. The metaphor often used in The Bible is that of a military. God’s “army” consists of every believer and God orders us as He wants us that He might accomplish His purposes on Earth. It is not that I am less than those to whom I am submitted or that I am more than those submitted to me, but rather that God has so ordered us as to make us the most effective body we can be for Him. My electrical knowledge is sparse, but I learned that resistors placed in line offer less total resistance that those placed in parallel. The arrangement of things can make all the difference in the world. And God knows that better than we.
There will be empty deceptions. There have been believers who thought they knew when Christ was coming back. Pro tip: The Bible says that no one knows the hour or the day, so when someone claims they know when Jesus is coming back then we actually know when He is NOT coming back. There have been — and still are, somehow — believer who claimed that Christ had already returned and that this was the thousand year reign. Pretty sad. The deceptions are empty; hollow and easily fail the test if I just take the time to test them.
There are traditions of men all over the church. The Catholic church has a boatload of tradition, as do Episcopals and Anglicans and Lutherans and a host of others. Lent is a tradition of men. It was not mandated by Christ or anywhere in The Bible or any such. It is not to say that traditions are without their use, but I am not to be a captive to them. If traditions are taking me prisoner and weighing me down in my walk with Christ, then they have ceased to be useful and should be abandoned.
Lastly, principles of the world. I see this often in churches that want to see growth. They start using the principles of the world to “drive growth” and forget that Christ compared His church to a grape vine which simply grows, no driving involved. The principles of the world, to which I am sometimes tempted to resort as well, have no place in the church or the life of any believer. What the world has to offer is antithetical to what God wants for me and for His church. The church does not need growth “driven” but for us to abide in the Vine and He will cause the growth. The church does not need “self-help” because Christ teaches that apart from Him we can do nothing that pleases God.
All this boils down to a very simple truth: I must be submitted wholly to Christ and to no one else.