The biblical rhetoric of spiritual conflict has been hijacked, unfortunately, by culture warriors. Calls to engage in spiritual warfare often involve mobilizing voters to support this or that candidate, this or that initiative. The assumption here is that the work of the people of God is accomplished through grabbing hold of and manipulating the levers of earthly power. Some Christian leaders imagine that the church advances God’s cause by allying with national political parties hungry for power. On this conception, Christian people are militant toward others, aggressive in pursuit of leverage and power within culture.
This is a perversion of the biblical rhetoric of spiritual warfare.
In Ephesians 6, the New Testament passage that most explicitly utilizes spiritual warfare language, Paul calls the church to a strategy of resistance.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
Spiritual warfare, then, does not involve aggression against other people, but a struggle to resist the schemes of the evil powers. Who are these entities?
According to the worldview Paul inherited from Israel’s Scriptures, God created a number of cosmic rulers to assist him in overseeing life on earth. They were commissioned to rule with justice, to uphold God’s shalom among human cultures, and to ensure the worship of the one true God. But they have rebelled and now enslave the nations by orienting life on earth so that it is idolatrous and self-destructive. They pervert creation so that human life is characterized by greed, inordinate sensual lust, and overpowering selfish ambition leading to self-destructive exploitation, manipulation, and injustice.
A consideration of the role of the powers throughout Scripture and early Judaism indicates that one of their key strategies is to tempt the church to compromise its holiness. The church is called to be a “holy people,” appointed by God to conduct its life in radically different and wonderfully redemptive ways. We are to operate according to God’s resurrection logic, not the logic of the world. The powers, however, pressure the church to conform to the patterns of corrupted creation. Spiritual warfare, then, is the effort to remain a redemptive force in the world, radiating the life of God to the world.
To gain a clearer vision of just how this works, let’s consider Israel’s history. Israel was called as a light to the nations, a kingdom of priests to the nations. They were called to bring the nations to God and God to the nations. Israel was to be a nation of justice and shalom, looking out for the poor, the orphan, and the widow. They were to participate faithfully in the rhythms of creation, taking one day a week to celebrate, rest, and enjoy God’s creation. In their lifestyle and witness, in their cultural patterns, traditions, and celebrations, they were to proclaim the greatness of God to the nations. Their national life would itself be a demonstration of what the one true God was really like, along with providing a model for how he wanted all the nations to enjoy his blessing.
Israel, however, compromised its holiness. Rather than being a light to the nations, they wanted to be like the nations. They didn’t have much concern for justice and shalom, and they quickly abandoned any thought of doing good to the poor, the orphan, and the widow. They refused to enjoy God’s goodness. They failed to trust that if they truly enjoyed God’s good world by taking a day off to rest and enjoy creation, that God would supply their needs. In all of this, they became utterly unholy. They were no longer God’s special people, but became just like all the corrupted surrounding nations. Because of this, they failed to be national agents of redemption to the nations—those whom God longed to save and restore. In fact, just as they became like the nations, they looked to their election by God as a privilege to hold over the nations. They arrogantly looked down on their neighbors and longed for their destruction. God had sought to redeem the nations through Israel, but his plans were frustrated by the unholy nation that Israel had become.
In this sense, Israel compromised its holiness. And the powers were complicit in all this. According to the Scriptural worldview, the supra-human cosmic powers were at work to tempt Israel to take on the idolatries of other nations. The worship of other gods involved the cultivation of national ways of life that were idolatrous, exploitative, and oppressive. Just as the faithful worship of the God of Israel would have manifested itself in a national life of shalom, their idolatries were reflected in their corrupted cultural patterns.
In the same way, the church must resist compromising its holiness by participating in the culture wars. We fail to faithfully perform our roles as God’s holy people when we ally ourselves with any one “side” in the culture war; or with any one political party over another. The culture wars have become so tragically intense over the closing several decades of the last century. It’s very tempting for Christian churches to “get involved” and become drawn into supporting the cause we feel stands for righteousness. Unfortunately, however, this often involves vigorously and unquestioningly supporting one political party and its leaders while demonizing another side and its leaders. It doesn’t take too long before Christian people are loudly denouncing certain public figures, speaking foolishly in anger. Such behaviors have become a commonplace in American culture so that the term “evangelical Christian” is virtually synonymous with “angry, judgmental bigot.”
When this happens, the church aids the destructive cause of the powers. We become partners in the powers’ project of corrupting God’s good world. Their aim is to set groups of humanity over against each other, so when we participate in the destructive culture wars, we fail to embody our identity as God’s holy people. The contemporary political rhetoric is so heated and we’re constantly assaulted by our cable news channels with the “need to get involved” and “stop the moral slide in Washington,” that it’s nearly impossible to maintain a sane vision of our national life. But the church must battle to be different. We must maintain our holiness, embodying the joyfully redemptive character of Jesus. The people of God are not just like any other demographically isolated group. The church is that body of people on earth among whom God dwells by his Spirit. This means that the way we conduct ourselves within our various cultures must be radically different from any other group.
I haven’t given any specifics, of course, but just to make the broader point that employment of spiritual warfare rhetoric is only appropriate when Christians focus on being less militant within culture. We are faithful to God in Christ when we resist being drawn into the culture wars by the power of God’s Spirit.