“Your enemy the devil prowls around looking for someone to devour. Put on the full armor of God, the armor of light. The weapons of our warfare are divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. You are fellow soldiers. Be a good soldier of Christ Jesus. Who will prepare himself for battle?“
I grew up in the church, very accustomed to such military metaphors used throughout the New Testament. There’s no doubt that we are in a struggle in the spiritual realm, against created spiritual beings who continually oppose the Creator by trying to undermine the ones that the Lord designated as His heirs. Given that struggle, it’s natural for us to use military language – speaking of battles and weapons and warfare.
However, a couple books I have read recently got me thinking about the extent to which that metaphor has deeply invaded the thinking of many Christians. Perhaps more importantly, that metaphor has affected the actions of many Christians too – not just their thinking. Look at Twitter or Facebook or various blogs or religious video programming today, and you’ll find a constant stream of military-style language leveled against unbelievers and the culture. Perhaps the clearest recent example was the rhetoric surrounding January 6th, 2021, with clear calls for fighting to take the nation back for God, and many dozens of battle-garbed men invading the Capitol building.
Even worse, there is a steady rise in the use of this warfare rhetoric against fellow Christians from different doctrinal positions. Conservative Christians are attacking “woke” believers, and those who seek social justice against racism or feminism or LGBT interests. Liberal Christians are attacking their opponents who they accuse of racist, patriarchal, homophobic, transphobic thinking and actions. And it all is smothered in a flood of military language. Far from being focused on spiritual opponents, it’s focused on human opponents, usually believers.
What the Bible Says
But here’s the thing: While it is definitely true that the New Testament does use military metaphors and language to describe the struggles we encounter, exactly zero of them reference struggling against other humans, even against unbelievers. Every single use of military metaphors refer exclusively to fights in the spiritual realm, against spiritual opponents.
In fact, the only explicit example of Jesus’ response to military might was to instruct Peter to put away his sword, which he’d tried to use to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
There are a fair number of verses that use the word “prisoner” or “captive,” but most of them (by Paul) refer to being a prisoner of Christ. And some of them are better translated as being the prey of a predatory beast, not a military prisoner of war.
Here is a good sampling of the various verses referring directly to military matters:
- For though we walk in the flesh, we do not wage battle according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying arguments and all arrogance raised against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete. (2 Corinthians 10:3-6)
- The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let’s rid ourselves of the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. (Romans 13:12)
- But I thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger and minister to my need. (Philippians 2:25)
- Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house. (Philemon 1:1-2)
- Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him. (2 Timothy 2:3–4)
- For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle? (1 Corinthians 14:8)
- 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. (Ephesians 6:10-11)
- The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:4-5)
- Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. (1 Peter 5:8-9)
- No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:37)
- And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Colossians 2:15)
- …another war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members (Romans 7:23)
- But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. (2 Corinthians 2:14)
Notice the complete lack of identification of any believer or unbeliever as an opponent.
We Need an Enemy
I suspect that a lot of this battle focus is due to politics. To win political power, you need to win votes. To win votes, you need to show people that you’re different from your opponent – the more different, the better. To create difference, you need to increase the separation between your mutual positions. And the more extreme your accusation against your opponent, the more passionate your followers will be to help you win.
So if your focus is on bringing about change through politics, focusing on – or even manufacturing – and sustaining conflict is a really productive way to advance a political agenda. Demonizing – literally demonizing – one’s political opponents is a therefore a powerful rhetorical method for someone seeking to appeal to a religious voter base.
That kind of appeal is also very useful to a demagogue seeking to gather people to himself. When you create or deepen the conflict between your group and the “other,” you create a deeper group cohesion and identity in your own group. It only takes a willingness to demonize the other.
Of course, to sustain this kind of culture, you constantly need an enemy. The scarier, the better. So if you win a fight, you go looking for another opponent to battle, lest you lose that valuable battle posture.
What it Does
This demonization of our fellow man, believers or secular, has a number of practical effects.
It dehumanizes the opponent. When we’re fed a constant stream of invective telling us that our opponent is demonic, or at best demonically-inspired or deceived, we begin to focus less on the Imago Dei in them.
It breaks apart the society or culture. When our focus is solely on the perceived evil of the “other,” we lose focus on our shared values and attributes. This is true not only of secular culture, but also of the Church.
Also, a constant focus on conflict causes stress responses that affect us physically and emotionally. It creates a sustained traumatic state in the human mind and body, with well-documented health impacts.
So when we constantly feed ourselves a diet of warfare, we rip asunder the fabric of the Body of Christ, damage our earthly culture, and set ourselves up for illness.
The Alternate Reality
As I noted above, our Scriptural example is that the war we fight is against spiritual forces, not our fellow man, even though man may be involved. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 6:12, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.“
And more to the point, we’re assured time and time again in Scripture that the battle has already been won.
So this constant focus on the attacks levied against us is misguided. It’s drawing our focus to the fiery darts, not to the shield of faith which DOES protect us. It’s like Peter, looking down at the water and beginning to sink, when his focus left the Lord. By spending our mental energy on identifying and fighting those demonic forces, we’re destroying our own peace, and making Christ’s victory of no consequence to us. Arguably, and quite ironically, it’s giving victory to our opponent in the mistaken belief that our strength is necessary to win the fight.
Christ already won.
As Moses said in Exodus 14:13, “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.“
Worshiping Political Power
I think it’s worth considering one ramification of the political focus that leads so many pastors and so-called prophets and Christian influencers these days to use this warfare language about everything. Mixed up with the constant identification of demonic attacks and deceived believers, there is a constant call that American must take back its place in the world as God’s means of global salvation and bringing about the return of Christ. It’s called Christian Nationalism, and it’s absolutely pervasive in right-wing evangelical churches today.
At the core, here’s the problem I see in this focus: it makes us responsible for the victory. WE have to recognize the demonic influences. WE have to fight. WE have to achieve the victory by winning elections. WE have to gain political influence so we can set about changing the laws and forcing people to act according to Christian standards, so that WE can transform our nation and then the world.
But David wrote in Psalms 46:10, “Stop striving” (or, “be still”) “and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted on the earth.“
Nothing in there puts the burden on us to win the victory. God says “I WILL” – He doesn’t say “YOU will on my behalf.”
If it’s true that God will accomplish His will in our stillness, then we also don’t bear a responsibility for demonizing anyone.
Jesus was offered the chance to rule all the kingdoms of the world, if only he worshiped a false god. He rejected that offer. That temptation continues today, and a lot of Christians are worshiping the wrong thing, in a fleshly attempt to gain power over the kingdoms of the world. But they’re kingdoms of the WORLD, not the Kingdom of Heaven, which already exists and (as God says) will take over the whole earth anyway. We can rest.
On another note, we Christians use the military term “surrender” an awful lot. I had assumed that there are many verses that use the word “surrender” as a means of achieving victory – the concept of surrendering our lives is strong in Christian vernacular. I was surprised to find that there is exactly and only one use:
And if I give away all my possessions to charity, and if I surrender my body so that I may glory, but do not have love, it does me no good. (1 Corinthians 13:3)
The word translated “surrender” is paradidómi (Strongs 3860) and it doesn’t have a military context at all, but just a general sense of “to hand over” or “to deliver.”
Rather than “surrender,” the language used throughout the New Testament for the believer’s response to Christ includes words like “submit yourselves” (James 4:7), “humble yourselves” (1 Peter 5:6, James 4:10), “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1), “deny himself and take up his cross daily” (Luke 9:23) “take my yoke upon you” (Matthew 11:29).
The important thing here is that every one of these phrases or words implies a free choice, not one demanded by overwhelming military force (“surrender”).
And thus, we see the challenge of focusing on a military mindset of battle and victory and surrender: it implies that the use of force to achieve desired results is appropriate. But the overwhelming example of Scripture and of Jesus’ clear example is entirely the opposite: be still, turn the other cheek, go the second mile, lay down our lives, trust God for the victory and not our own might.
Just because the Bible USES a metaphor doesn’t mean we have to LIVE BY that metaphor.
A Metaphor or a Command?
This seems to me to be great example of the importance of knowing the context in which something was written. (I’m currently reading two different books discussing how easy it is to misread Scripture when we don’t understand the context of the author or audience.) Pretty much the entire New Testament was written by and to militarily-oppressed people. They constantly saw occupying Roman soldiers walking the streets. It was a vernacular that was intimately native to them, and therefore the military language was by far the easiest and clearest set of metaphors available to the authors to convey the spiritual principles.
But it’s easy to over-translate that into our world. It might make sense today for people in other cultures or situations, and it absolutely made sense to the original audience, but for free Americans in a peaceful nation, it can easily be abused. And in my opinion, it IS being abused.
If you’d like to study this topic further:
This article discusses Paul’s use of military metaphors:
This article discusses Jesus’ teachings and actions related to warfare: