You may have noticed here in my blogs that I speak often about conflict, confrontation, the cultural battle, and the need for a more muscular Christianity. Invariably, when the themes of ‘struggle’ are raised in Christian circles, many quickly reference a particular verse – often to temper the fire of the zealous for the Lord and to offer the idea that, when the scriptures call us to fight under the banner of Christ, that fighting is ‘not against flesh and blood’ and, as a result, our fight is entirely pacifist. I thought, therefore, it might be good to take a prolonged and fresh look at this passage and see what it might be saying to us.
The first thing to observe is the instruction to “be strong in the Lord;’ a practice which requires the necessary discipline and a discourse on how. Sadly, this is nearly extinct from the pulpits of the English-speaking world. We do not encourage people to take pride in their Christian identity. We do not equip them to do so; nor do we teach them the apologetics and polemics necessary to give an answer for the hope we have or tear down the strongholds that set themselves up against Christ. We do not cultivate the sentiments of the warrior or build up collective acts of unity against the very real enemies of the Church. We do not do such acts, either public or communal, that convey strength through vibrant confident mass rallies. Rather, the effeminate energies (of themselves entirely good) are focussed upon to the exclusion of the masculine energies of competition, team, defence, and conflict. How, then, are our church fellowships embodying this clear and oft-repeated instruction of the Lord’s Apostles? (See Php. 4:13; 2 Tim. 2:1) Why should Christians ‘fear any man’ if the victory is already won? (See Rom. 5:18 21; 1 Cor. 15:56-57; Heb. 2:14)
The Scriptures are clear; we are in a struggle, a real struggle, with a real enemy. Yet, when you look at our fellowships, especially the NGO and Club churches, you would hardly be aware of it. One has turned it merely into liturgical lip service and the other hardly speaks of it at all, except as a personalised ‘life can have challenges’ kind of pep talk! No! We, the Christian Church, are at war! And we now come to that detached-out-of-its-context verse, the appeal of all pacifists everywhere and all those trying to pour cold water on the warriors of the Church, ‘not against blood and flesh.’ The battle is very much fought in this world, in the flesh and the blood, of our bodies against others, and by the flesh and the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Those who we struggle against are in the sway of the enemy, captured by them and enslaved by them; they now serve their masters in resisting the Church.
John Chrysostom said the following:
“This is the rhetoric Paul always employs when he is about to conclude his discourse. Did he not already indicate at the very beginning that every person’s house is a bit like a military camp? Now you see he has drawn up every regiment ready for battle. He is ready to arm them and lead them into the struggle.“
In Paul’s day, the movement of stars was believed to influence the lives of those on Earth. The dark powers in the heavens were thought to be the heavenly bodies we now know to be stars, galaxies, and planets, but were thought to be celestial objects that were either under the sway or were themselves the spirits. We now know better. So, what is it, then, that moves men to evil but the lies or the narratives of the devil? These lies of the devil are the ideologies that rail against Christ: Communism, Fascism, Islam, and Nazism… amongst others. Whether rooted in a this-world religion or an otherworldly religion, these anti-Christ ideologies are not ‘for’ Christ; so they are ‘against’ Christ and they ‘scatter abroad’ for men to fight and die. All that opposes the gospel is accursed and from the devil, our true enemy. The militants of these opposing systems are real flesh and blood foot soldiers; slaves of demons which we must seek to set free or limit their ability to harm and oppose the gospel in freeing others. They work in the non-natural world, in the heavens. Influencing the mind, they are, as it were, in the atmosphere in which our minds wander and are exposed – that non-physical emergent property that is aware of the supernatural. (See Eph. 1:20 – onwards; 3:10; Phil. 2:10) They can take the form of elemental principles and work to distort natural passions to entrap us. (See Gal. 4:3; Eph. 2:2) We who are saved and set free because we ‘know the truth’ must now do battle to free those of our race! (See Eph. 1:19-21; Col. 1:13; 2:15 & 20;
Clement of Alexandria said the following:
“We must therefore put on the panoply of God, that we may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil; since the weapons of our war fire are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds, casting down reasonings, and every lofty thing which exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into captivity unto the obedience of Christ”
We should not underestimate our opponent Satan, this anointed cherub, this ruler of demons, this world’s god, the prince of the power of the air; this enemy of the faith. For he has waged his ancient hate-filled campaign against our race for thousands of years as he and his demons prowl the earth ‘like a roaring lion seeking the ruin of souls.’ He is a cunning and accomplished liar; ‘the father of lies.’ What are you, little one, on your own against such a foe, separate from the army, and vulnerable? Remain in the ranks of the legion – do not go it alone! The ancient enemy of man is an organised army, and it organises men to reflect it here on earth. The lies he has spun have taken on real ideological forms; such as Sharia or Communist Dictatorships. It is structural, as when men in mass believe the lie that life does not begin from conception and that pregnancies are the invasive inconvenience of a parasite. They will set up abortion mills to get rid of it. Once men are addicted to the ‘forces of wickedness,’ such as substance abuse, they bend to keep their addictions; heaping upon themselves one evil upon another. To ‘tear down these strongholds,’ it will take more than the preaching of the evangelist, but the work of the Christian who is called to be a politician and judge; working in consort. Thus, it will take an army-like movement to stand and struggle against this foe. As Christ had ‘legions of angels’ at His disposal in heaven, surely He should have ‘legions of men’ at His disposal to throw themselves against the enemies of Christ so that it might be ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’
John Chrysostom said the following:
‘The enemy does not make war on us straightforwardly or openly but by his wiles. What are the devil’s wiles? They consist of trying to capture us by some shortcut and always by deceit…. The devil never openly lays temptation before us. He does not mention idolatry out loud. But by his stratagems, he presents idolatrous choices to us, by persuasive words and by employing clever euphemisms.’
The word we translate as ‘stand’ ἀνθίστημι (anthistēmi) is the language of conflict: it carries the connotation of opposing someone or something, or resisting; it is not a passive idea or stubborn refusal of just not going along with something you disagree with; but actively preventing or forcing back – in the sense of doing battle; it is underscored by its use with στῆναι (stēnai) & στῆτε (stēte); it is battle imagery! The language of war! It is not suggesting that our fight is something to be won; by shouting at the sky as some Christians like to think of it; but through real and meaningful acts for change and renewal in this world. It is a call to the Christian to be an activist; a ‘soldier on active duty’. Again and again; in this passage, we are called to be ‘firm’ in our opposition to the enemy; not gushing some gooey love; that is forced, fake, and sickening belonging to some cartoon characterisation of how a Christian is supposed to act; but a real ‘presence and purpose’ of intent and action; that forces an adjustment in the world around us!
Ambrosiaster said the following:
‘We are waging war against the fiercest of enemies. He is skilled in every deceit. We must therefore keep on the lookout, with all circumspection and care, that wherever they test our resistance they will find us protected and ready…. Against earthly foes the body must be strengthened with food and the mind aroused by drink to become bold enough to fight back. So against the spiritual weapons of iniquity, we must fight spiritually. But our weapons must be sobriety and abstinence, that, having been imbued with the Holy Spirit, we may vanquish the unclean, warring spirits.’
We as Christians are called upon to prepare for this real battle in this real world of flesh and blood; by: fastening…putting on…fitting…taking up… the armour of GOD; The battle imagery continues; not of knights; as we might be inclined to imagine but of the Roman Legionary. This is militant imagery, warrior imagery, army imagery, war imagery – how have we lost sight of this normative discourse in the Church; except that the Church lost its courage in the face of the enlightenment? There is an imperative here ‘to take’ – nothing about this is passive; nothing here suggests; as many priests do; ‘to live your lives in quiet devotion bearing silent witness to the truth’. Such guidance no longer makes sense or is effective and should be thrown off by all but those called to that life. We are entering into a war; not a hobby, a war in which there are real flesh and blood casualties; the martyrs and confessors; and in which there are real anti-Christian pogroms; and real church burnings and shootings! Away with your milk toast theology; give me the cross of Christ; not your ‘prosperity all will be well – no struggle’ for your gospel! I want the war Christ promised me; the glory He offered me; and I am willing to ‘take hold of it’ violently. This putting on the Armour of GOD synergises with the imagery of putting on the new man in Eph. 4:24; to struggle for the cause of Christ; is to grow in the way of Christ; and is a clear sign of spiritual maturity.
We are to be fearless and firm in our commitment to the truth; whatever the cost, whatever the consequence! If the collapse of social cohesion results from this – so be it! Should people feel offended; so be it! Should we find ourselves social outcasts, so be it! Cancelled; so be it! All the better; and we gird ourselves with it so that it permeates our life; and upon which we affix all other things. Truth; does stand out from error; certainly over a long scope of time; therefore we should be fervent activists for the truth; arguing for it; to the best of our ability; and working for it as the guiding principle of all human activity; through the use of law, economy, politics, art & culture; family; and community. The compliment to truth is ‘righteousness’ and to achieve this we must cultivate virtue the praxis of the habits; that lead us to righteousness: faith, hope, love, justice, prudence, chastity, and fortitude; When we practice these virtues guided by truth; we will embody righteousness. Then we will defend the weak; help the destitute; orphan and widow, save those being taken to their deaths; free the captives; give succour to those who mourn; fast, pray, remember the prisoner, heal the sick and the other good works we are ‘predestined to walk in’; the more you busy yourself with these works; the less time you will have for sin; and the more you will need to lean upon your brethren. All that hinders in this regard; is to be girded up away in the truth see: Ez 12: 11; Lk 12: 35; 1 Pet 1: 13; so that we might not stumble upon it; as such Christians should use the law when opportunity affords; to remove stumbling blocks to godliness.
Ignatius of Antioch said the following:
‘For when ye come frequently together in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and his “fiery darts.’
The peace we Christians are committed to is real peace; primarily with GOD which is GOD’s gift to us; wrought through and accomplished by the Trinity. We should therefore rest on this peace we have in the knowledge of our salvation and therefore from that peace act; not acting from other motives, like vanity, or fear, or hatred! See Rom 8: 31 – 39 The peace we seek is as a reality in the world; a counter to the devil who comes to ‘kill, steal and destroy’; and we should pursue the making of peace; as part of what it is to be a Christian; through acts of reconciliation and filling all our sentiments, hopes and aspirations with charity. However, to make peace in the real world; is to restrain the hand of evil men; and those ‘who live by the sword’; and this at times will and does result; in peace-making by the sword. We are to live in the peace of Christ with one another as Christians; in deep bonds of love and solidarity. We are sent out – ‘from Jerusalem’ to conquer this world; and our weapons are our good deeds – so that Christ ‘might rule in the midst of His enemies’; ‘subjecting all things under His feet’.
George Leo Haydock said the following:
‘Your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel; i.e. prepared to walk in the ways of the gospel, as a soldier must be prepared and in readiness to march or to fight.’
We are in everything to take up the θυρεός, thureos or shield; a reference to the scutum of the Roman Legionary. One of the missed images being conveyed here is the collectivism of the imagery. This was not the shield of the medieval knight in a jousting contest; that was being pictured but a 4 ft high, leather-covered block of wood. The legions of Rome as part of their battle preparation would wet the leather to help extinguish the flaming arrows of the enemy. The Roman legionaries would close tightly packed ranks in which their collective ‘shield’ proved almost impenetrable to the missiles of the enemy. See Ps 18:30; Pro 30: 5 – 6; 1 Jn 5: 4. The legionaries would cover and protect one another; this was not the imagery of go-it-alone Christians we have cultivated in modern times, but collective units working together; supporting one another, backing one another up. This common faith and the close-knit community that lives it helps to reinforce the narrative of the individual believer. Christians in the Western world; our lines have been broken – the watchword of the moment is consolidation. One way to the consolidation of resources, energy, and people is a greater sense of unity between the Churches. We can not defend one another if we are fighting one another. When the snare of the passions and the flesh attack and are thrown against us, living in a tight community helps us to overcome! It is not as some imagine it, that ‘faith alone’ helps us to overcome; but rather that collective faith and its collective practice which protects us. Faith in GOD should be the assurance to us that whatever comes – the Church will be victorious. Empires, kings, and caliphates have come and gone, but the Church is still here! For Christ says, ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ Therefore, we must act from this ‘assurance of things hoped for the conviction of things unseen’. Consider Christian, do you do better when you are with other Christians to live out the fullness of the faith?
This image compliment well the use of the μάχαιρα, machaira – or sword; which was a reference to the legionaries’ gladius, a short sword about 2 ft long, used in battle for close-quarter combat. That is the word of GOD; which is itself ‘sharper than any two-edged sword’; the word of GOD – when handled by those who are sufficiently trained, cuts at the bondage of the ‘captive’ shattering their chains and setting them free; but when handled improperly, can endanger the user, and harm the one we are trying to liberate. The most ‘offensive’ of the imagery in this passage – is a metaphor for the use of the word of GOD; which in Paul’s day would have been the Old Testament; and the ‘word of GOD’ in the Church; in its living tradition of the Apostles, that gave rise to the Gospels. The word of GOD and our prayers; especially for the Church; which transform us to be vehicles of the change we are praying for; are the principal weapons in freeing others, and ourselves; from enslavement and destruction at the hands of our enemies. We are to persevere in the use of these things; notice please; that virtue ethics is assumed backdrop of Paul’s ethical discourse. We must use truth; to cut through lies.
Paul’s use of Armour; is making reference to the imagery in Isaiah; in which GOD is described as a warrior – once again the passage is not passive in nature, the allusion is to a GOD of war; who will save and protect! The imagery is of one who will act! The Holy Spirit is drawing us into this imagery. (See Isa. 59)
16 He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him. 17 He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.18 According to their deeds, so will he repay, wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies; to the coastlands, he will render repayment. (See also Ws: 5:17-23. Isa. 11:4-5)
We must have ‘the mind of Christ’; and for this protection of our mind, our thinking our habits; intentions, purposes and sentiments; we must guard our mind with the helmet of ‘the hope of salvation’; for ‘what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world; but to lose his own soul.’ We must act from the certain hope, that our wise and prudent actions; can have a real impact to our lives and those of our society. Be encouraged then! (See Jn. 6: 37-39; 10:28 – 29; Rom. 5:10; 8: 31-39; Php. 1:6; 1 Pet. 1:3-10)
Christians must act – because we embody truth and virtue – and our churches should feel more like an ‘army at war’: (akin to a political; social; cultural and economic pressure group); than the cushy, social networks we have made them into; working as a bloc; to bring about change, and to establish justice; with zeal! We must constantly wage war; against any evil in the world; in a way appropriate to its expression. The demons; are defeated, but not yet neutralised, and their lies still bring about the ‘ruin of souls’. We Christians are the first wave of a future heavenly invasion of the present earth; we are the ones who must take the enemy’s territory in society; as light, excludes darkness. Filled with the energies of GOD we must overcome all competing ideologies, in whatever space they seek to camp. (See Eph. 1:19-23; 3:16-21)
Paul asks the Church to pray that he might be given the right words, to convey the message of the Church, thus showing that Christianity is about the message of the Church, not some kind of Bible-based faith. The point is to communicate the truth, not dogmatically repeat a ‘formulaic’ presentation of the Gospel, as many street evangelists do today; thinking that to not speak about the cross, the resurrection, and hell and heaven is to have not preached the gospel! The Bible serves as a resource and a tool to the Church in the completion of its commission and the execution of its holy crusade; to its heavenly home against all opposition. Note well that the Apostle does not ask to be spared the trials and tribulations but only the boldness to face them. When we say, ‘lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil’ we are not asking to be spared the fray but to be ‘more than conquerors’ in it. This is an armed pilgrimage; a people fighting forward to a land of which they hope to inherit as their own! The Church must walk with the Spirit of the living GOD; and be in submission to tutelage, in the confidence that He will ‘guide us into all truth’. (See Eph. 1:16; 3:14 – 21; 5:20) We must support those who minister to the Church with our prayers especially; the deacons, presbyters; evangelists, teachers, prophets; and apostles. The Christian who ‘walks in the Spirit’ and ‘sows into the things of the spirit’ can not avoid conflict. Prayer is integral to the Christian walk. (See Rom. 12:12; Php. 4:6; 1 The. 5:17; Rom. 8:26 – 27; Mat. 26:41; Mk. 13:33; Lk. 11.9; 18:7-8; 1 Sam. 12:23)
Methodius of Olympus encourages us thus:
‘Do not, therefore, lose courage on account of the schemes and slanders of the beast, but bravely prepare for the battle, armed with the helmet of salvation,’