The new century has brought many changes. For Christian leaders the most significant are not new technologies or worship styles. They are the shifts in how people think. Moral absolutes no longer exist, and societal structures that have served us for centuries are being eroded. We view the legislative agenda of government with incredulity and question our politicians’ decisions relative to issues of social and fiscal policy. Commentators from all sides of the political spectrum question whether our representatives are in tune with the needs of their electorate. It is possible to feel at times that there is a growing agenda that is not friendly to Christian life and belief.
These changes represent a new kind of spiritual warfare: a battle of ideas, concepts, and thoughts. There is no visible enemy to curse, no sulphur-breathing demon to cast out, and no manifestation of evil spirits to bring down. These ideas, concepts, and thoughts have invaded our educational system and drive our social sciences. Some call this secular humanism, but it is more complex than that. It is a postcolonial, postsuperpower, and postmodern-worldview driven by the popular media. It imposes itself on all aspects of our lives — our churches, youth groups, and colleges.
New expressions of pluralism provide evidence of this spiritual warfare. It is not uncommon to find a hybridized religious worldview in many who attend our churches. The paradox of embracing a Christian spirituality and a secular morality at the same time does not seem a challenge to them. Classrooms, media, and coffee-shop discussions — rather than worship, preaching, and Bible teaching — increasingly forge views on marriage, sexuality, debt loads, loyalty, or how to manage the environment. The consequence is a mishmash of ideas and values that often results in good people struggling to make sense of their lives.
Pastoral ministry is at the forefront of this battle. Dysfunctional living is epidemic. Social pressure and increasing regulation by legislative authorities make it difficult to confront issues as forthrightly as our theology suggests we should. This pressure forces us to walk cautiously while dealing with the many issues people face, lest we create opportunity for some form of litigation against us. Pastors have sued churches for dismissing them on moral grounds based on what someone does in his or her private life that has nothing to do with employment. No wonder we sometimes feel as though there is a menacing dark cloud on the horizon threatening to bring a storm on us that will swamp dearly held convictions and threaten our faith.
This battle is an ancient one. Although the expressions of this warfare have changed, the primary force behind them is evil. Paul, the apostle, speaks about hollow and deceptive philosophy taking people captive (Colossians 2:8). He reminds us that our battle is against arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:5). People most often cite this passage in terms of spiritual warfare.
In my view, we can sometimes be in danger of misusing the New Testament in our defense of a certain view of both the theology and praxis of spiritual warfare. Let me explain.
Central to Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians 10:3–6 is the issue of loyalty in the church at Corinth. Certain “super-apostles” were disseminating alternate ideas and conflicting theological perspectives (2 Corinthians 11:5). These were often accompanied by personal attacks on Paul, the founding apostle of the church. As a result, the church lost some confidence in Paul and opened themselves to a myriad of concepts and ideas that were creating spiritual uncertainties and internal warfare. Paul’s admonition was to take captive every thought and to make it obedient to Christ. He also made clear that they should tear down strongholds by God’s power. While we can never exclude the activity of demonic forces, a contextual exposition of this passage reinforces the position that spiritual warfare often takes place in the realm of ideas, thoughts, and concepts.
Allow me to suggest some of the arenas in which this battle is taking place around us:
THE CULTURAL ARENA
Culture is complex and difficult to define. It has multiple subsets, but it is nevertheless possible to identify overarching structures that define how a society works. The total of language, values, norms, and behaviors contribute to defining a culture. Overwhelmingly, the forces of globalization forge the 21st-century culture. As the world began to rebuild after the devastation of World War II, colonized nations and people — whom the exploitative aspirations of Western nations had disempowered — began to assert their rights to independence and freedom. The scramble for nations was over and now the agenda was driven by human rights, civil rights, and the passion for self-realization. The continuation of racial practices in many parts of the world, the devastating effects of regional wars such as the Vietnam War, and the rapid development of technology that allows us to send graphic images around the world in seconds, molded these complex forces. Who can forget the image of the young Vietnamese girl running naked from a napalm attack or the atrocious police brutality against innocent township dwellers in Sharpeville, South Africa? By the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, these forces emerged as coherent attacks on the status quo. The Civil Rights movement had significant success; the pro-choice movement won in the courts and changed society globally.
Into this radically different world millennials were born. As a result, they have grown up with a mindset that rejects big stories. To them, those who have all the answers sound like the warmongers of the 20th century. They have a hermeneutic of suspicion and, just like the Corinthians, have low trust levels and reject the claims of those who say one thing and do another. A battle is going on. No longer can Christian leaders enjoy an authority of position. Having a title or a leadership responsibility does not impress a large cross section of our society. The church is not molding thoughts and ideas. Rather, a society that questions everything, chooses values randomly, and believes it has a right to act in any way it chooses molds today’s thoughts and ideas. The reality is that an entire generation is predisposed to a skeptical view of the Christian faith and all we hold dear.
As a Bible college president in the United Kingdom, this reality confronted me almost daily. Young people recruited from churches, claiming a Christian testimony, and receiving pastoral references, arrived for their freshman year with serious levels of biblical illiteracy. A comprehensive biblical worldview was largely absent. They had a widespread view that love was the only prerequisite for sex. Debt burdens that would cripple people’s choices for decades were completely acceptable; and, if default took place, it was not their fault. The government or the big banks were to blame. Same-sex relations were not really an issue. Paradoxically, these same young (Bible college) students had a strong commitment to the environment and were offended if recycling rates were not increasing. The good news is that not all students had this worldview. Through engaging this spiritual battle in classrooms, chapels, and mission trips, the majority graduated with a passion for Christ and a love for His Word.
The point is that we should not be ignorant of the current cultural milieu and the level of spiritual warfare it creates. We must meet this battle with confidence. The suggestions at the end of this article should help confront it.
THE SOCIO-POLITICAL ARENA
The recent presidential election in the United States signifies huge socio-political shifts in a population that has historically been center-right and relatively conservative. Demographic changes have occurred at a rapid rate. Mainstream news channels are increasingly partisan, and society is now distinctly post-Christian.
Again, this represents a subtle form of spiritual warfare. It is more than an uncooperative city official or a difficult member of the local planning authority. Rampant secularism with its high priests in organizations that are increasingly respected by larger and larger groups in our society drive this socio-political onslaught. Civil liberties seldom have to do with protecting individual rights; they are vehemently opposed to any expression of Christianity. Thus government is removing any vestiges of our Judeo-Christian roots from the public square. In recent years, despite clear majorities voting in favor, officials are removing plaques containing the Ten Commandments from almost every public space. The raging battle over what the Founding Fathers meant when they insisted on the separation of Church and State has taken on forms that the founders could never have imagined. People now take it to mean the eradication of all faith from the public arena. No founding father ever imagined that.
And it does not end there. Any church board trying to take new initiatives in its vision for positively impacting a community knows the invasiveness of legislation on employment, gender issues, and other things our father’s generation never had to deal with. Having spent the past 8 years living and working in Europe, I have seen this post-Christian and secular agenda played out in ever more blatant ways. The church has been marginalized and secular humanism has become the new religion of a once Christianized Europe.
This is not a new phenomenon. Professors in university classrooms as early as the 1930s were laying out the tenets of secularization, pluralism, and the broader philosophical system we now identify as postmodernism. A Lausanne committee identified these factors as dominant trends in a secularizing society nearly 30 years ago. What is different now is that these ideas, concepts, and thoughts have entered mainstream and now dominate the social structures of our societies.
It would be naive to presume this is just some legislative agenda mildly out of control. I have no doubt that wickedness in high places, demonic forces, and subtle anti-Christ agendas drive these changes. As a result we must confront them for what they are. We will not resolve them through the ballot box but through concerted prayer, deeply committed fellowship, and a willingness to give our lives for the cause of Christ.
THE MORAL ARENA
Although all that I have written thus far has obvious moral implications, it is worth mentioning that the battle of ideas, thoughts, and concepts has invaded the core of our society’s moral fiber. Society has almost entirely relativized morality so everything is acceptable as long as it feels good. This has produced an individualized morality that is tolerant of almost everything and brings with it the chaos of a unraveling society that judges everything from getting rid of an unborn child to euthanizing the weak and feeble in pragmatic ways.
For pastors this means that ministry is now in a context where they can presume nothing. Marriage is not as valued, relationships are often shallow and graphic, sensual images have become a part of everyday life for many. It is senseless and shortsighted to state that this is just the natural development of our society. Pornography is destructive, degrades women, and damages those families where there is a dubious commitment to moral standards.
Perhaps even more destructive is the way our society has undermined morality and made what was unacceptable the new normal. For those in ministry this introduces a whole new level of spiritual warfare. Guarding our hearts, caring for our marriages, and leading our children is more complicated than it was a generation ago. This is spiritual warfare in a violent form. Keeping a commitment to purity of life, avoiding damaging images from getting into our minds, being committed to responsible lifestyles, and loving God in such a way as to impact every area of our lives is a battle we must engage. And, engage it we must or else we will lose the battle little by little, opposing ideas will win the day, and our mission as salt and light will become of little effect.
Let me suggest four areas in which to engage these expressions of spiritual warfare:
BE COMMITTED TO A BIBLICAL WORLDVIEW
A biblical worldview is much more than believing that the Bible is God’s inspired Word. It is developing a deep commitment to the overarching value system described in the Bible. It is having an imagination birthed from the narrative of hope, justice, and a future that is in God’s full control. It is also a deeply ingrained understanding of redemption. Put another way, the hope of God as revealed through the work of Christ in His death and resurrection is now among us. He works in us; He changes lives; He heals; He restores hope. A biblical worldview gets rid of dualistic views that allow us to believe one way and act another. Word and deed become consistent. We are what we are by the grace of God and this impacts everything, absolutely everything 24/7 and 365 days of every year.
HAVE AN EXPERIENCED SPIRITUALITY
The New Testament speaks of the Holy Spirit acting as a down payment of what is to come. This means that our faith has an experiential dimension. We can and should expect a deep reassurance of our salvation. It might seem a simple proposition, but a deep and internal experience of God’s assurance of salvation and the future He has planned should condition everything about our lives. It should make us alert to the work of the devil (1 Peter 5:8), determined to withstand attacks (James 4:7,8), and confident we can be more than conquerors through Him who gives us strength (Roman 8:37).
BE A PART OF A COMMITTED COMMUNITY
A careful reenvisioning of our churches should form a part of our determination to win in this spiritual war. There is nothing quite as powerful as a community of committed Christ followers who are determined to be God reflectors in their world. In these communities, redemption finds its fullest expression. People care for each other, serve each other, and stand alongside each other in every battle. This is possibly why the apostle Paul was so forthright in addressing the Corinthian church. A church that loses its redemptive purpose becomes powerless in the attacks people face every day. It loses relevance to the next generation. Should this article spark a renewed interest in the spiritual warfare encapsulated in ideas, thoughts, and concepts, it should equally spark a renewed engagement with the church of Jesus Christ.
DEVELOP A LOVE FOR THE POOR
To state this slightly more theologically, a strategic element of our spiritual warfare must be a well-developed understanding of justice. A condescending lip service to mission leaves us powerless. Making mission the central focus of our lives emboldens us, strengthens us from the inside, and equips us to deal with spiritual onslaught in a more informed way. God’s love for widows, orphans, and the poor should inform every aspect of how we live. This, in turn, will alert us to the spiritual world in a way that is not easy to replicate elsewhere. The most spiritually alert people I know are those with a well-developed commitment to the poor. They are more alert, better equipped for spiritual warfare, and clearly more victorious as Christ followers.
I hope this article will broaden the discussion on spiritual warfare. We are encountering sinister spiritual forces on every front. Leaders, pastors, parents, and Christians in general must educate themselves in the use of our weapons which are not, as God’s Word reminds us, carnal but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:4).