How Not to Do Spiritual Warfare

Daniel Hopfer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Three Old Women Beating a Devil, by Daniel Hopfer [Public domain]

If you find yourself treating the Christian life like a war against worldly “enemies of the Church,” you’re doing spiritual warfare wrong.

I think modern North American Christianity has too often confused spiritual warfare with cultural warfare, and it has left us easily distracted from the real battle in each human heart.

In spiritual warfare, the enemy is always and everywhere the Enemy. Every soul is a battleground. Your soul is your battleground.

Spiritual warfare is not warfare against other humans, but against spiritual powers and principalities.

This confusion is evident to me every time someone writes about how Christians can proclaim God’s love to the world or tend to the spiritually wounded and is reminded, forebodingly, that we are called to battle as “the Church Militant.”

It took me a while to realize why that response bothers me. When “spiritual warfare” or “the Church Militant” is invoked in the context of a discussion about how to interact with the world around us and non-Christians, it implies that the battle we are called to is an earthly one, where spiritual warfare is waged in the public square against non-believers. Essentially, it invokes the 1990s-era version of the “Culture Wars” that Pat Buchanan famously said was being fought “over the soul of America,” through public policy and public morality.

The image of the believer standing firm against an opposing tide, fighting over control of institutions and policies, looking for a “win” against an ideological opponent at all costs–these things do not come from scripture or Church Fathers. Military imagery is common in early Christian writings, but they don’t refer to political battles or wars over public opinion. Ephesians 6 is very specific about who the Enemy is:  

Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh. Not political enemies, not ideological enemies, not atheists or secularists or sinners of any kind. The mission of the ecclesia militans–the Church in the world–is to be armed against sin so as to win victory over the temptations we each face on our journey towards greater unity with the mind of Christ.

I will give the final word to a better writer and thinker, one who lived through a culture war that used real weapons and inflicted physical damage, but yet never lost sight of the primacy of the battleground within:

It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel…. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there rotting on prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us it oscillates with the years. And even within the hearts overwhelmed with evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an un-uprooted small corner of evil. Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions on the world. They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being).

—Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The Gulag Archipelago”