Who’s Your Enemy?

Recently I was in a discussion with someone about the book “Faith After Doubt” (a great book, by the way, and well worth reading; you can find it here), and the discussion turned to tribalism, and in particular how we Christians seem prone to creating boundaries around our “tribe.” Those boundaries necessarily position those with whom we disagree as our opponents, if not our enemies. While this has always been true, in the last few years it’s gotten particularly intense, with the “othering” rhetoric becoming quite pointed. I routinely see Christians referring even to other Christians of a different doctrine as “demonic.”

At some point in the discussion, my friend asked me, “who are your enemies?”

That question caught me off guard for a moment, and once I recaptured my thoughts, my answer surprised me. I said, effectively, that I don’t think I HAVE any enemies now. In fact, I’m not sure we Christians are SUPPOSED to have any enemies, at least human enemies.

Let’s poke around the New Testament together for a few minutes.

The Greek word ἐχθρός (echthros), Strongs 2190, is usually translated “enemy.” It shows up 32 times.

In the Gospels, Jesus uses the term “enemies” frequently:

Jesus most notably says “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:43-44, Luke 6:27-35)

He does describe the trouble we will have with fellow humans, saying “A man’s enemies will be the members of his household” (Matt 10:36) and “For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side” (Luke 19:43).

In Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares, the ruler accuses his enemy of sowing tares among the good crop (Matt 13:25-39).

Matt 22:44, Mark 12:36, and Luke 20:43 all describe the same instance where Jesus talks about God making Christ’s enemies His footstool, a reference to Psalm 110:1 in the Jewish scriptures. Note that these are Christ’s enemies, not our enemies.

Jesus refers in Luke 10:19 to giving His disciples authority to tread on all the power of the enemy – referring to enemy spirits, not humans.

Jesus tells a parable that ends with a reference to enemies: the ruler in the parable says to bystanders “But these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence” (Luke 19:27).

So in general, Jesus acknowledges that we do have enemies, both human and spiritual, but that our responsibility is to treat the human enemies well.

Beyond Jesus’ own words, other verses in the New Testament generally refer to our spiritual enemies, such as Acts 13:10, or being an enemy of God, as James 4:4.

Like Jesus quoted Psalm 110:1, Peter in Acts 2:35 and Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:25 also refer to God placing His enemies under Christ’s feet or under His footstool.

In Luke 1:71-74, there’s also a verse about Jesus bringing salvation from Israel’s enemies when Zacharaiah prophesies over the newborn Jesus.

Other relevant words might be ἀντίδικος (antidikos), Strongs 476, usually translated opponent or adversary, referring to one’s legal adversary, or πονηρός (poneros), Strongs 4190, usually translated evil or wicked. Jesus used antidikos to tell two parables about being at odds with someone, but it also refers in 1 Peter 5:8 to our adversary the devil. Jesus used poneros to describe someone who is evil (Matt 5:39 or Matt 18:32 as two of many examples) as well as many other discussions of evil itself.

The way I read all this is pretty straightforward: We must acknowledge that there are humans who will hate us and wish us harm and actively try to harm us, and following Jesus increases the number of such people. All of those are recognized as being our enemies. But as far as I can tell, in the New Testament we are never instructed to TREAT any human as an enemy. In fact, much to the opposite, we are instructed regarding those we might view as our enemies, even those who directly consider us as enemies, to treat them instead as our neighbors, in love and care beyond all reason.

Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus intentionally selected a situation to illustrate the meaning of a neighbor, that used the historic enemies of the Jews as a foil. In essence, He was flipping the trope on its head: a traditional enemy of His listeners was the “good guy” in the story, demonstrating the right way to care for our fellow humans.

When you get right down to it, the thrust of Jesus’ ministry was to not have any human enemies at all. Even those who consider themselves our enemy deserve to be treated as our friends or even family. If we’re supposed to treat them so well, we can hardly continue calling them our enemy, no matter how they treat us. Even when Jesus made it clear that following Him would increase the number of our enemies, He also indicated that our response ought to be rejecting the very human desire to treat them like an enemy.

I think this is all partly because Jesus understood that the way we think about people will necessarily change how we treat them. If our concept of people unlike us, or of different beliefs than us, is of having human enemies, then naturally we will treat them like enemies. If we instead think about them as brother and neighbor, no matter how they treat us, we will be inclined to treat them with love and respect, not anger and hatred.

Now, it’s also clear that there ARE spiritual forces that are enemies of our souls, and spiritual enemies of God Himself and anything that He loves. We’re instructed to be on guard against such forces. But when we encounter situations where a person appears to be channeling evil, or acting as an enemy, we’re not at liberty to attack the person as an enemy. In fact, we’re required to do the opposite. Even in the very rare instance where we are supposed to break fellowship, the ultimate goal is restoration of relationship, not discarding them. There’s never a case where our goal should be to excommunicate them; it’s always to win them back to relationship with Christ and His Church.

So when I see social media post after post demonizing fellow humans, especially fellow Christians, over matters of belief or doctrine or practice, the only conclusion I can reach is that the spirit of antichrist is at work: deliberately making other humans our enemy actively opposes the Spirit of Christ, who commands love and true compassion for those who oppose us.

Here’s the crux of the problem: they’ll know that we are Christians by our love, not by our being right about doctrine or truth or practice. When we get caught up in trying to defend our doctrine or truth or practice by turning our fellow man, much less a fellow Christian, into our enemy, we walk away from the very real intent of Jesus and the Father to make us one, even as They are One. In His final great High Priestly prayer for His disciples in John 17, Jesus made it clear that the Body of Christ’s oneness that is revealed to the world will be what draws the world to righteousness, “so that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:21) and that we may be “perfected in unity” (John 17:23) and may see His glory (John 17:24).

So when we use these tribal boundaries to make enemies of our fellow man, especially our fellow Christians, I believe it’s the spirit of antichrist at work. Instead of protecting the purity of the faith, or bringing about the Kingdom, it does the opposite: it pollutes the faith and pushes back the encroachment of the Kingdom into the world.

I grew up believing that all the language about spiritual warfare in the New Testament indicated that it was up to us to defend the faith, to protect the Kingdom, by fighting against those who would weaken it.

I now believe the exact opposite is true. Not only does God not really need me to defend anything He does, or anything He says, any “othering” and demonizing that I do against other humans does exactly the opposite. It really doesn’t matter how vile their behavior is, or how wrong their doctrine might be. God’s in charge, and I’m not, and I’m not supposed to be. I’m called to demonstrate something very different, very other, very far above this earthly realm. Making enemies, and trying personally to put them under His footstool, is exactly the wrong thing to do; God said HE would do it, and I’ve got to stop trying to do it myself.

None of this, in any way, means I have to let sin or unrighteousness go unchallenged. But it does mean that I have to be incredibly careful about how I address it, and it means that I can never make an enemy of the sinner or the unrighteous.

So invite the Holy Spirit to nudge you to repentance the next time you “other” people, the next time you speak about them or treat them as enemies – even the next time you think about them as enemies. Let Christ fill you with His love, so that (as it says in Romans 5:10) while we were yet His enemies, we were reconciled to Him through Jesus’ death: He chose to lay down His life for us, and treat us as His friends and brothers instead, bringing reconciliation with God and with each other.

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