Have American Christians Simply Given Up the Biblical Theme of Spiritual Warfare?
First, to ward off expected critical responses, let me just say that this subject is fraught with pitfalls. During the 1970s, for example, American evangelical Christianity was shaken by various “deliverance ministries” that went to extremes with exorcisms and methods of “spiritual warfare” that were unbiblical and even superstitious. It is my thesis that the popularity and fallout of this extreme movement led (again) to throwing the baby out with the bathwater—among many, perhaps most, evangelical Christians in America.
My question and proposed answer is not in any way intended to revive or promote extremes such as those remembered from the 1970s especially. I won’t name names here, but anyone who was in the thick of evangelical Christianity in America during that decade cannot help but remember the numerous teachers of “deliverance” who claimed that (for example) even Christians had demons and needed “deliverance” (exorcism). This became an obsession for many (especially) Pentecostal and charismatic Christians.
As I say often here, however, the cure for abuse is not disuse but proper use. My concern is that an important part of the New Testament and ancient Christianity has been discarded. In some forms of Protestant Christianity, of course, it never had any place. But I find it ironic that those Christians who claim to take the Bible seriously have by and large dropped this theme entirely.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Here I will offer a concrete example that recently jumped off the page of a hymnal to remind me of this change. One of my favorite hymns is “This Is My Father’s World.” One verse includes this: “The battle is not done; Jesus who died shall be satisfied and heaven and earth be one.” These words have been discarded by some modern hymnal editors and replaced with words from a different (often not included) verse: “why should my heart be sad? The Lord is King; let the heavens ring!”
In any case, the words “The battle is not done…” used to appear in most hymnals; I see that now many hymnals use the altered wording of verse three. Why?
My opinion, open to correction, is that many Christians have confused language about spiritual warfare with language about physical warfare and have opted to change the words of hymns, sometimes dropping entire hymns, in order to express a preference for peace if not an abhorrence of war. But the problem is that the Bible is full of language about spiritual warfare. It simply can’t be escaped. And, especially in the New Testament, it is about passionate, petitionary prayer and not about weapons of this world such as swords and etc.
Here are some songs I remember singing as a child and youth: “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?”, “Keep on the Firing Line,” “I Am on the Battlefield for My Lord.” None of them had anything to do with physical violence; they all spoke poetically, using figurative language drawn from the Bible, of spiritual warfare.Both Jesus and Paul referred to Satan as the ruler of this “present world” (age or world system) and called Christians to fight against “principalities and powers in heavenly places.” The “struggle” Paul spoke of meant spiritual warfare.
My friend and former colleague Greg Boyd has done much to renew spiritual warfare among contemporary American evangelical Christians—with his books God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil. But few have joined him in that.
When I was growing up in evangelical Christianity almost every church had at least one “prayer warrior”—often a woman but sometimes a man. These were people noted for sustained, powerful praying—often against Satan, his minions, and their wiles. C. S. Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters was extremely popular and taken seriously if not literally. During the 1980s American Christians attended “concerts of prayer” to join God in his fight against the already defeated foe who was still struggling to take down as many people as possible with him.
Where has all this gone? Some of my international students from Africa and Asia inform me that Global South Christianity still does this (viz., spiritual warfare). Some of my African-American students inform me that it is still common in at least some of their churches. But, by and large, white, middle-of-the-road, American evangelicalism seems to have discarded this biblical theme and practice.
Could the rise of Calvinism have something to do with it? According to Calvinism Satan and his empire of evil is part of God’s glorious plan. Satan and his minions may seem to us to be God’s enemies, but, in a hidden way, they are instruments of God—predetermined to work their evil. The inner logic of Calvinism requires that the “powers and principalities” are under God’s control and are only doing what God intends for them to be doing. Nothing at all, whatsoever, can resist God’s will, so even Satan and his evil empire are only doing God’s will (to the glory of God!). So why engage in spiritual warfare?
I come back to my motto about God’s sovereignty: “God is in charge, but not yet in control.” Admittedly, that involves a mystery. Why? How long? We know God will win in the end, but in the meantime, we are called to view this world (evil age, world system) as occupied territory and join God in doing battle royal against the occupying power. God is on his throne and gives us every power to fight against Satan and his evil empire, but God expects us to use that power. He doesn’t want to do this alone. Apparently. If we take the New Testament seriously.
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