Toward a Clearer Definition of “Spiritual Warfare” – Ephesians 6 as a Call to Justice and Peace
|Kurt Willems||May 1, 2017|
• 17 Minute Read
The following is a seminary paper I dug up from the archives. I might say a few things differently today, but I think this paper is quite helpful for understanding “spiritual warfare” from a biblical perspective.
Although there is debate to whether or not the Apostle Paul was the author of Ephesians, this paper assumes he was (although, that is inconsequential to the argument being made). It is also a possibility that this letter was penned by a Pauline disciple, to honor his legacy (not to manipulate or distort it) as was common in ancient practice.
Either way, I think this essay will give you an inside track to understanding Ephesians 6.10-20, through the writer’s lens of warfare in the Hebrew Scriptures. Enjoy and comment!
We live in a culture that is intrigued with the idea supernatural activity. This does not necessarily mean that most people believe such things, but that the concept serves some entertainment value. The movies that have come out of Hollywood during the past few decades illustrate this in compelling fashion.
The first movie that I ever owned as a child was called, Ghostbusters. This movie claimed that spirits or “ghosts” could appear and torment people. In more recent years, although there are several movies that could be noted, the Exorcism of Emily Rose awakened many to the possibility that there is an unseen realm that is dominated by powers of darkness.
These demonic forces, although usually unseen, can inhabit and torment humans in mockery of God. This movie left people with a sense of wonder, fear, and curiosity. Do such powers truly exist and could they interact in the lives of normal people?
Not only is our culture intrigued by odd supernatural inquiry, but there also has been a rising interest in issues of social and global justice. Led by celebrities such as Bono of U2, many people in our culture have begun to ask difficult questions about global poverty and systemic evil.
How do regimes that oppress people rise to power? Why do most people lack daily necessities? Is there something more than the simplified answers we were given in our youth?
What if both of the above cultural questions, those of demonic forces and also of systemic injustice could be discussed simultaneously through the lens of the Bible? In order to attempt such a conversation, the reading of Ephesians 6.10-20 may prove to address two questions that are in many ways in the pulse of our culture.
Overview of Ephesians 6.10-20
To begin this conversation with the text of Ephesians 6.10-20, it will be helpful to examine the pericope in a broad stroke. “Finally” is the word that begins this section of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It functions as a transition into the final part of the letter’s exhortation to the churches. Finally, serves to turn the attention of the reader/ hearer to realize her or his calling to stand firm in the face of a world dominated by evil.
The powers of this age are compelled to do whatever possible to resist the gathering up of all things in Christ (Eph 1.10), so the writer calls the church to be attentive to what it will take to hold their ground in this cosmic war. “Henceforth” may be a more accurate translation of this opening word from the original Greek, which has led many commentators into discussion about its implications. Such a translation more fiercely demonstrates that this pericope is the climax of the exhortation of chapters 4—6.
Lincoln is not sure that henceforth is the best rendering of the Greek word because it can push the importance of the imperatives to the future rather than pertaining to the present. With that noted, henceforth indicates “in the future” or “in the time that remains,” but this does not eliminate the imminent importance of the admonitions to follow. Rather, it seems to denote the ongoing battle that will take place until the end of the age.
As far as the overall structure of Ephesians 6.10-20, some basic observations can be made. Most commentators understand this text to be a unified whole that can be broken into three sections. The first section (v. 10-13) deals with the real necessity of fighting the powers with the weapons of God. The second section (v. 14-17) details the various pieces of armor that must be put on. The third section (v. 18-20) calls the community to pray against the powers and for the imprisoned Apostle. One source would alter this arrangement of the pericope slightly by using verse 10 as an introduction, and thereby beginning the first section with verse 11.
Also, some may be tempted to make the third section (which finds its emphasis in prayer) as a separate textual unit, but there is not a legitimate reason to do so. The call to battle against the powers and the necessity of prayer within that struggle must work hand in hand. Failure to put on the armor or a lack in prayer will result in being overcome by the evil in this world.
The pericope [which is a fancy word for unit or passage] could be compared to what is often called a “peroration” (peroratio) in ancient rhetoric. In this section of an ancient letter or speech, the writer would bring into the argument some persuasive elements that would have functioned to arouse the emotions of the hearers. At this point, the author would bring everything to its climax, while also tying together the basic themes of the letter, so as to call the people to action.
Paul implements this device by borrowing basic elements of motivational speeches that were often given by generals before their troops were to go into battle. These speeches called “paraenesis,” were common in Greek literature and often had many things in common.
“…exhortation not to disgrace this heritage by suffering defeat, a comparison with enemy forces with a reminder that it is ultimately valor and not numbers that will prevail, a detailing of the prizes that await the victors, a pointing to favorable auspices and to the gods as allies, an appeal to patriotism, a reminder that this enemy has been conquered before, a depicting of the wrongs inflicted by the enemy, and praise of the commander as superior to the leaders of the opposing forces.”
Paul writes this part of the letter as an adaptation of military rhetoric that most people in antiquity would have been familiar with, while also drawing on some major themes that are found in the Hebrew Scriptures; thus, he crafted an exceptional peroration.
Now that the overall flow of the textual unit has been discussed, our conversation can turn its attention to the direct topic of our discussion: the biblical usage of “powers” language.
Discerning “Powers” Language
In verses 10-13, Paul reintroduces who the enemy of the Christian faith is, namely, the “powers.” There has been much discussion about what/ who the powers are and how they interact in the natural world. “Spiritual warfare” has become the popular rhetoric when dealing with this passage. Widespread confusion has been stemmed from the various interpretations of powers language.
This is because the texts about the powers, including this section, are ambiguous. Our purpose in this section will be to discern an approach to the powers that is both practical and biblical. In doing so, perhaps our conversation with the text will lead us to fresh answers to our questions.
Personal Interpretation or Systemic Interpretation of Spiritual Warfare?
The primary mode of understanding the language of the powers (in spiritual warfare) in modern evangelicalism has been to see them as been personal demonic tempters of the individual Christian. How this actually is understood to affect daily life varies. Many Christians have, by all practical means, dismissed the powers as being separate from most human affairs, with the exception of major acts of evil. Others often portray themselves as being demon hunters behaving as if there is a “demon-under-every-bush.” Whatever the case may be, the powers are often limited to the influence that they have on individuals.
One voice that attempted to speak into the conversation on the nature and activity of the powers was John Stott. Believing that the Scriptures depict the powers as “personal demonic beings and that this cosmology must be preserved,” he challenged those who would “demythologize” the language of the New Testament. From his perspective, powers in the bible are not in reference to the structures of humanity, but only to personal angelic beings.
Others would share this basic understanding of the language of powers. Lincoln describes the powers as able to “threaten and menace” believers. Arnold gives clarity to how to define this basic viewpoint of the powers describing them as “angelic beings, both good and evil, but most commonly in reference to the realm of Satan.” This interpretation would bring some insight to our cultural inquiry about the invisible sphere of demonic beings, but there is more to be explored before we jump to any conclusions.
Another understanding of the language of powers would be the definition that has been put forth in the work of Walter Wink. In his book, The Powers That Be, he describes the language of powers in the following fashion:
We might think of “demons” as the actual spirituality of systems and structures that have betrayed their divine vocations. When an entire network of Powers becomes integrated around idolatrous values, we get what can be called the Domination System. Do these entities possess actual metaphysical being, or are they the “corporate personality” or ethos of an institution or epoch, having no independent existence apart from their incarnation in a system?… My main objection to personalizing demons is that by doing so, we give them a “body” or form separate from the physical and historical institutions through which we experience them. I prefer, therefore, to regard them as the impersonal spiritual realities at the center of intuitional life.
In the above statement, Wink determined that the powers are to be understood as the “ethos” at the center of systems of institutions. The powers are therefore depersonalized and acknowledged as a cosmic force that is impersonal, as opposed to the view of Stott and others. The character of the demonic has more to do with the determination to manipulate the minds and actions of humans within a system, rather than having a personal transcendent nature.
In one sense, it could be argued that Wink demythologizes the powers by “concluding that they have no separate spiritual existence outside the structures of society.” This theory about the powers seems to have some validity when it comes to the influence of institutions, but it fails to bring a strong view of Scripture, especially in regards to the personal nature of demons that is attested to in the New Testament. If one chooses to hold on to this view, perhaps some questions that have been spurred on in regards to systemic injustice could find some resolution.
Many have had difficulty with the view of Wink, yet at the same time, most scholars are grateful for his academic contribution to the subject. Those who hold to a more personal understanding of the demonic will accuse scholars like Wink of allowing Western thought to influence and secularize such interpretations. That which is unable to be analyzed by the human senses is dismissed as illusion and myth.
Kraft, who is part of the so-called “Third Wave” or “signs and wonders” movement, accuses many evangelicals of not taking the bible seriously enough in this area. He contends that Enlightenment rationalism has clouded the thinking of many Christians.
It has been demonstrated that there are two basic polarities of thought in regards to how one is to understand the powers. On one end of the spectrum is the view that emphasizes spiritual warfare against the powers of the age.
The other end of the spectrum acknowledges that fallen powers operate within systems, structures, or institutions in order to oppress and marginalize others. The interesting thing about these two poles is that most Christians would likely land somewhere in-between. Is this an idealized belief or is it legitimately possible to hold these two views in tension? Perhaps doing so would answer both of the cultural questions simultaneously.
Towards a “Both/ And” Understanding of the Powers
Holding two views in tension is often a difficult task for the modern person. Oftentimes, the desire to ‘figure it all out’ is frustrated by ambiguity. In the New Testament, the issue of defining and combating the powers seems to need to include both of the views that have been presented above. Yoder Neufeld supports this “both/ and” approach stating:
Any restrictive definition of the powers undervalues and thereby defeats the central argument in Ephesians, that God’s design is to gather up all things. A full appreciation and a faithful translation for our day of what the author of Ephesians has in mind requires that we not force and exclusive choice between and exorcistic and a prophetic view of evil and the church’s response to it.
Basically, Yoder Neufeld seems to argue that the text of Ephesians does not try to resolve these issues and so perhaps it is good to embrace some understanding that would not exclude. The language of the powers should therefore be seen as dealing with the cosmic forces “great and small, personal and impersonal, individual and systemic, that resists the saving activity of God among humanity.”
In other words, the church ought to resist the powers who have a hold on individuals, and seek God’s power for their personal liberation. Along with that, the church must also recognize that these same demonic powers can manipulate the institutions and structures of society, creating systems of systemic injustice. God is a liberator of both and is calling the church to put on the full armor of God to resist the powers of evil. In order to take such a stand, it is necessary to discern the weapons that are at the disposal of Christians.
Weapons of Spiritual Warfare
In verses 14-17 the armor of God is expanded upon so that the reader knows the practicalities of fighting the powers. The obvious parallel to the first century reader would be the armor of a Roman soldier. The pieces of armor that are described in this text would be typical pieces for any combatant at the time. The Apostle did not intend to describe every piece of armor that would be worn by one in combat.
Rather, he attempted to capture the reader/ hearer’s imagination to realize the great resources that are at the disposal of the church in the intense struggle against the powers. The focus is not to be on the armory per se, but on what the equipment actually represents and how it empowers the believing community for battle.
Where would the inspiration for this elaborate simile have come from? One possibility that immediately may come to mind is that Paul drew from an image that he had become familiar with while in prison. The practice of the day was that an inmate would often be chained by the wrist to a Roman guard, so it is possible that Paul was inspired by his immediate situation .
At the same time, a soldier that was assigned to guard an individual would not have had a need for a large shield (as described in v. 16), so it may be reasonable to insist that the insight for such a metaphor came from elsewhere.
Without much variance, it is generally agreed that the writer of Ephesians drew from Second-Temple Judaic writings as a main referent for the armor. Much of Old Testament tradition depicted Yahweh as a mighty warrior and as a source of divine strength for battle. This certainly was in the backdrop of Paul’s mind. The main source of these allusions employed in Ephesians 6 refers to the armor of Yahweh and his Messiah can be found in the book of Isaiah (see 11.4, 5; 49.2; 52.7; and 59.17). Indeed they ought to be understood as allusions and not as exact citations although Barth would beg to differ.
The purpose of borrowing these themes from Isaiah was so that the writer of Ephesians could encourage believers that they have more than regular weapons provided, they have God’s own armor for the ongoing battle!
Contemporary readings of this text usually apply the armor as a resource primarily for the individual Christian. Although it is true that there is an individualistic side to this, the author’s main objective throughout the letter was to deal with the church as a whole. The putting on of the armor of God and the fight against the powers is first and foremost a call to the whole community to utilize the resources of the Divine Warrior.
A final observation can be made in basic regards to the armor. A majority of commentators on the subject of this pericope will discuss how the battle with the powers is primarily defensive. One example of a biblical scholar who takes this approach is Ernest Best. He concluded that Christians “are not summoned to attack the powers but instead to defend themselves.” In this way, believers are able to hold their ground in the war that Christ has already won. If it is true that Christ has already defeated the powers, the vocation of the church is to “keep them defeated.”
Although the preponderance of scholars views the battle in this way, there are some who challenge the assumption of a primarily defensive posture towards the powers. Yoder Neufeld believes that because this metaphor finds its basis in the divine warrior tradition, that the stand against the powers ought to be understood as offensive in nature. Even if the victory already belongs to the risen Christ, “such assurance always and necessarily precedes divine warfare in the Bible; it in no way underplays the gravity of the struggle that is about to ensue.”
Christians are to “stand” in the sense of “drawing up a military formation for combat.” The entire body of Christ is in this passage called to “take up arms against spiritual powers aligned with Satan.” The believing community is not to merely defend themselves when attacked, but to ultimately undo the tactics of the powers.
The first piece of armor is described as a belt of truth. The admonition is that one is to gird the loins. Truth is a main theme that runs throughout the letter to the Ephesians (1.13; 4.15, 21, 24-25; 5.9). This truth is that God has acted in the world in Jesus (4.21) and is demonstrated by those who follow Christ through their relationships to each other (4.15, 25).
The gospel in its essence is true and this truth must hold everything together. This illustration would find much of its roots in the Greek (LXX) version of Isaiah 11.5, “where God’s anointed one will gird himself with truth.” Taking on the weaponry of the anointed one means that the truth in Jesus will dismantle the lies of the powers.
The second piece of armor is the breastplate of righteousness/ justice. Most English translations have chosen to transliterate the Greek word, dikaiosunē as righteousness. This very word can also mean justice, so it is important not to miss the implications. In Isaiah 59.17 (see also, Wisdom 5.18) God wears a breastplate representative of righteousness/ justice.
The reason that this is significant is because the larger story of this text describes God’s just intervention on the behalf of those who were being tortured and killed without cause. God’s justice and judgment were grounds for him to intervene. Now, it is the role of the church to wear justice and judge the affairs of the powers as evil for the sake of the oppressed. In this way, the holy community’s actions are a signpost towards the final consummation of God’s justice when he will “put the whole world to rights.”
The third piece of armor has to do with wearing shoes that will “make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” Initially this seems a bit paradoxical. How can there be peace in the midst of warfare? Does peace function in order to prepare one for this cosmic battle? Yoder Neufeld insists that no paradox is present in this passage.
In Isaiah 52.7, the messenger announces the good news of peace, which is where Paul draws from for his illustration. It is good news because victory has already been achieved through the end of conflict. The situation of the Ephesians text speaks of “the readiness to announce peace” which “…means that peace is not yet fully present.” 
When Christ has finished his work of gathering up all things, then peace will be fully realized; but until then, the assault on the powers will include proclaiming the peace that will one day be brought in its fullness.
The fourth piece of armor is the shield of faith. The Greek word pistis can mean faith (traditional rendering in this passage), trust, or faithfulness. In order to better discern what a proper translation into English should be, perhaps the question of ‘who does the faith belong to’ ought to be asked? It has already been demonstrated that the armor is that of God himself.
Logically, it is not as though God needs human faith to be able to attack and shield evil. God’s own faithfulness is what is useful in battle.  In Genesis 15.1, God is Abram’s shield and in Psalm 91.4 his “faithfulness is a shield.” The faithfulness of God will protect the church as it marches on the offensive, while battle is waged against the powers.
The fifth piece of armor is the call to grasp the helmet of salvation. Many commentators, including Best, understand this to be a reference to the salvation that one receives from God by faith and the assurance thereof. The rhetoric in Scripture often uses the word salvation how many might think of the term. In Isaiah 59.17, God is the liberator who puts on the helmet of salvation to rescue those who are bound. The Greek word that is used in both the Isaiah (LXX) passage as well as in verse 17 is sōtērion for salvation.
Earlier, in Ephesians 1.13, the more common word for salvation, sōtēria, was employed. This comparison highlights the fact that Paul was intentionally using the Isaiah passage as the backdrop of his statement about the helmet. What this implies is not the individual security of the believer, but is rather “meant to place on the church the task of bringing liberation to those in bondage by imitating the God of Isaiah 59.”
Spirit/ Word of God
The sixth and final piece of armor is the sword of the spirit, which is clarified as the word of God. Many have been tempted to claim this to be a direct reference to the whole Bible. Others, refute this and hold that the word is that which is spoken under the power and influence of the Holy Spirit.
It certainly cannot refer to the Bible, since when Paul wrote this letter, the cannon was not yet completed. The ‘word’ is the message of the cleansing work that Christ accomplishes in the lives of those who belong to his body (compare to 5.26). It most likely finds its roots in Isaiah 11.4-5 where the Messiah’s mouth is like a rod (sword).
Prayer’s Role in the Midst of a Spiritual Warfare Battle
After Paul has listed all of the weapons of the armor, he turns the attention of the reader/ hearer on the importance of prayer. Prayer is seen by some as an extension of the armor of God listed in the previous verse. Others discredit this understanding by pointing out that prayer is not compared with a physical weapon, and therefore ought to be understood differently.
Whatever the case may be, it is clear that in the struggle to fight the powers prayer is a critical component. Prayer is needed so that everyone stays alert (verse 18) in the midst of warring against evil. It unites the body behind their common purpose, creating a sense of solidarity. Prayer also empowers the body through the infilling of the Spirit in order to bring courage in the midst of the battle.
Calling the Church to Her Mission Against the Powers
In light of the research presented in this paper, there are many things that could be drawn out that would call the church to its mission against the powers, while simultaneously answering the two questions posited at the beginning of this paper. The first thing that the church must to do is to return to a Christus Victor understanding of the atonement. When facing the powers, it is crucial that the believing community understand that Christ’s victory through the cross is already victorious over them.
Earlier it was discussed that Christ victory has often been used as an excuse to approach the powers in a defensive posture. In this view, the church does not need to look for ways to defeat the powers but only to defend itself when the finicky powers attack. The problem with this comes when consideration is given to the totality of the mission of Christ.
He is gathering up all things, and using the church to bring forward this process until the day of his Parousia. The powers stand in direct opposition to this mission through their unjust work in the world, so the church must be called to stand and march forward in this worthy spiritual fight.
Therefore, it is critical that we teach those in our congregations that the armor is meant for offensive attack. The church has the role to name evil on all levels (both in individuals and systems) and to expel it by the authority of Christ. The church must not wait for the powers to come to it, defensively; rather the church must offensively name the powers for what they are and to undo their works of evil.
The people of God are called to actively seek the restorative justice of God in order to heal the systems and individuals that have been victims of all kinds of demonic domination. In this way, the divine armor must have an offensive connotation. When this is taught in our churches both personal oppression and systemic injustice will be actively sought out and expelled by the warring church!
Not only do we need teach the church to realize that it must be on the offensive against the powers, but it must be taught to view itself primarily as a community that fights the demonic by putting on God’s armor. Individualism has often been read into New Testament material that was originally intended for the gathered church. This is a mistake that should be evaluated and corrected when necessary, while being careful not to overreact by completely eliminating the role of the individual.
If this is the case, then the fight against the powers is not accomplished unless each member of the community takes a stand in unity with all of the others. In this fight there are no rankings of any kind that separate people by level of importance. All people of the body of the Messiah have a part to contribute. Lone ranger Christian combatants will not stand against the vices of the powers unless they embrace the reality of their dependency on the rest of God’s people.
In some ways, it could be argued that loner-believers have not only become weak in the struggle against the powers, but have themselves become their victim by disassociating with God’s family. Only as a united front can an effective battle against the powers be waged.
If the church would take this vocation seriously, perhaps the fractured people and systems of this world could be ‘exorcized’ as a sign of hope. Perhaps our culture might even be drawn into relationship with the God who is gathering up all things in Christ!
Arnold, Clinton E. “Principalities and Powers.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York, New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Barth, Markus. Ephesians: Translation and Commentary on Chapters 4-6. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974.
Best, Ernest. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Ephesians. The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark Ltd, 1998.
Dawn, Marva J. Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001.
Eckel, Paul T. “Ephesians 6:10-20.” Expository Articles: Interpretation, ATLA Serials (Accessed: April 2008): 288-293.
Kraft, Charles H. Confronting Powerless Christianity: Evangelicals and the Missing Dimension. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Chosen: Baker Book House Company, 2002.
Schnackenburg, Rudolf. Ephesians: A Commentary. Translated by Helen Heron. English Translation; Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark, 1991.
Van Rheenen, Gailyn. “Cultural Conceptions of Power in Biblical Perspective.” Missiology: An International Review, ATLA Serials, XXI, no. 1 (Accessed: April 2008, January 1993): 41-53.
Wimber, John, and Kevin Springer. Power Healing. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1987.
Wink, Walter. The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. New York: Galilee Doubleday: Random House Inc., 1998.
Wright, N.T. (Tom). The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, 2d ed. Paul For Everyone. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
________. Evil and the Justice of God. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2006.
Yoder Neufeld, Thomas R. Ephesians. Edited by Elmer A. Martens and Willard M. Swartley. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Waterloo, Ontario and Scottsdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2002.
Footnotes for Download!
I have included the footnotes as a pdf document, rather than bogging down this page with a long list of them!
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