A local politician used the phrase spiritual warfare to describe his political viewpoint. The phrase has always left me puzzled. I know the meaning. I know it grew out of the Satanic panic of the 1970s and 80s. It is as though Christians need their own word for jihad. The phrase is not Biblical. The idea is false. In fact, it is a destructive trap for Christians who fall into this mindset.
Warfare Against The Powers
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 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 heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:10-12)
The writer of this letter attributed to Paul gets back to the point of “the whole armor of God.” What composes this armor? It is a simple list.
- A belt of truth
- A breastplate of righteousness
- Shoes made of whatever we need to proclaim the gospel of peace.
- A shield of faith
- A helmet of salvation
- A sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.
I suppose one size fits all for these items. The language makes clear that this “preparedness” is not against human beings. But most Evangelical and Charismatic interpreters will focus on the “sword of the Spirit” as “the word of God.” Here is where the biggest mistake is made. To these interpreters the “word of God” means the Bible. Earlier in the letter it does not mean that.
Word of Truth
“In him you also when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him were marked with the seal of the promise of the Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory”(Ephesians 1:12-14). The “word of truth” is defined here as “the gospel of your salvation.” The next problem is the pronoun at the beginning of the sentence. Ephesians 1:3-14 is a long doxology. Each section ends “to the praise of his glory.” The pronoun refers to Christ. But the preposition indicates the subject is “the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Whatever God has done, has been done through Christ. The “word of truth” and “the gospel of your salvation” are both references to Christ.
The “word of God” in 6:17 is Christ who is “the sword of the Holy Spirit.” That is to say the action of God for the salvation of the people of God. Putting on the armor of God is the writer’s way of saying rely on Christ – be faithful and live by righteousness – to overcome “the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places.”
Warfare For The Spirit
Far right politicians followed preachers who used the concept of spiritual warfare for the culture war. The culture war idea was a product of the political right that merged the concept of spiritual warfare Pentecostal and Charismatic preachers. Frank Perretti’s novel This Present Darkness introduced the idea of prayer as a weapon against dark spiritual forces to many evangelicals. I recall a neurosurgeon from my church constantly made references to it. The election of Bill Clinton as President gave a face to the powers of darkness for these believers. Prayer warriors became culture warriors.
Bill Clinton and his moral failures were the indicator that evil was winning. Hillary Clinton presented a far graver threat. She is smart, arrogant, and politically savvy in her own right. She served as a First Lady in the image of Eleanor Roosevelt. And she is the most libeled public figure in America today. She has her own failings. But she is not a criminal mastermind ordering the deaths of political opponents and sex-trafficking children. It is really strange that a mainstream United Methodist can be called such things. But she is.
Spiritual warfare is a lie. A big lie that is used by people perpetuating The Big Lie.
The lie is the trap. Lies are always traps. They can be used to ensnare an innocent. They can be used to destroy an opponent. And they are always believed by those who want to believe them. A recent rally near where I live the words “spiritual warfare” was used by a Congressman while a local politician who participated in the January 6th insurrection attempt claimed it was almost time for people to take up arms and further said on January 6th, he and others “tried it.”
The language of warfare, spiritual and cultural, is toxic and destructive. The rallying spirit is not the Spirit of God. It displays the wrong attitude toward the rest of the world. Ephesians says the enemies are not flesh and blood. Therefore any call to shed blood does not reflect the Gospel. It is the opposite of the gospel. It is anathema for us.
Churches are falling into the trap of brutes. Warfare language has gone beyond the cynical use made of it 30 years ago. And continued use of it will not end well.