spiritual warfare

Spiritual Warfare: A reflection on its definition

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I have recently done some research on spiritual warfare and its relationship with praying in tongues. The topic of spiritual warfare itself is a topic that has interested many Christians. It is an important topic addressed no less by the Lausanne Movement. Insatiable fascination of the supernatural further fuels the interest and results in many different interpretations on what it really is.

spiritual warfare

To really know what spiritual warfare is, we will need to examine its definition. Despite the terminology, there remains a diversity of perspectives. There are at least four different definitions of what spiritual warfare is in Christian literatures. In my reflection of this topic, I have referred heavily on a compilation of essays edited by Paul Rhodes Eddy and James Beilby

1. World System Model of Spiritual Warfare

We can first define spiritual warfare as the church’s engagement with the world structures which have become “oppressive, demonic systems of domination.” Proponents of this definition believes that Satan has become the world’s corporate personality and Christians are fighting a warfare with Satan, represented by the world. The world structures mentioned in this definition can include systemic evils such as racism, sexism, classism and violence and politics. In short, Christians need to fight these spiritual battles by entering into these arenas. 

When I read this definition, I think of the marketplace theology of the seven mountains. This believes that areas such as education and business are there for the taking by marketplace Christians. While I am not sure if the theology of the seven mountains is a result of this definition, it will certainly resonate with proponents of the definition. 

2. Ground Level Deliverance Model of Spiritual Warfare

The deliverance model defines spiritual warfare to be dealing directly, through exorcism and deliverance ministry, with demonic agents who are taking up residence in people’s lives. Adherents of this view believe that we should understand every aspect of Jesus’ life, such as healing and deliverance, as part of his battle against, and a victory over the power of darkness. Such acts advance God’s kingdom and reduce Satan’s stronghold on this world. Therefore, a Christian “lives in revolt against the powers and demons.” They are required to engage in this spiritual warfare against these forces.

In some sense, this is the definition of spiritual warfare that most Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians will adopt. Some, such as William Kay, have argued that the prayers in such spiritual warfares are not conventional form of prayer. Instead these prayers proclaim God’s victory over the evil forces. 

3. Strategic Level Deliverance Model of Spiritual Warfare

The third definition of spiritual warfare is the Strategic-level Deliverance model. This is a modification of the Ground-level Deliverance model view. This view argues that there are high-ranking principalities and powers, referred to as territorial spirits, assigned to geographical territories and social networks. Their assignment is to keep groups of humans in the form of social institutions in spiritual captivity. Results of this oppression include but are not limited to “the rampant injustice, oppression, misery, hunger, disease, natural disasters, racism, human trafficking, economic greed, wars, and the like now plaguing our world.”

The means to fight spiritual warfare is done through two main processes. The first process is “spiritual mapping.” This is the practice of identifying the spiritual conditions at work in a given geographical boundary. Once the people unveil the sins of the boundary, the battle will go into “identificational repentance” process. This is a two-stage intercessory action that involves an acknowledgement of corporate sins that one’s group has committed and a prayer that God will move this personal repentance as the beginning of the redemption of the larger community.

4. The Christian Struggle Definition of Spiritual Warfare

The above three definitions of spiritual warfare have their own support from the Scripture. And they are not mutually exclusive. But I do think that they are inadequate by themselves to explain the biblical evidence. Also, I think that they do not adequately describe the Christian experience in spiritual warfare. In short, they are too narrow a definitions. So I chose to agree more with a broader definition – that spiritual warfare is our daily struggles as Christians. 

The Historical Context of the Epistle of Ephesians

My key biblical evidence is the classic passage on spiritual warfare, Ephesians 6:10-20. I first examine the historical setting and purpose behind why Paul wrote Ephesians. In researching this passage, I referenced to a number of good commentaries, namely the ones written by Clinton Arnold and Harold Hoehner.

The City of Ephesus

The ancient times knew Ephesus for its worship of Artemis which cult permeated every area of life known to the city. Along with Artemis, there were up to fifty other gods and goddesses being worshipped. Also, many people were involved in the practice of magic and sorcery. And many of this group eventually joined the church in Ephesus, as depicted in Acts 19:13-20. The account in Acts 19:13-20 suggested that there was a strong pull that certain features of the spiritual atmosphere had on the Christians in Ephesus as magic represented a means of harnessing spiritual power and managing life’s issues through rituals, incantations and invocations.

spiritual warfare

The Recipients of Ephesians

The recipients were likely struggling against the pervasive influence of their previous religious practices in all aspects of their lives. This required Paul to address the issue by pointing them to their identity in Christ. Paul most likely wrote the letter to Ephesus to “affirm them in their new identity in Christ as a means of strengthening them in their ongoing struggle with the powers of darkness” and “to stimulate an ever-increasing transformation of their lifestyles into a greater conformity to the purity and holiness that God has called them to display.” This means that the epistle  addresses an audience/readership currently struggling in their daily lives in a manner that the spiritual and physical realms intertwined with one another deeply.

So what about Ephesians 6:10-20?

Zooming in deeper into Ephesians 6:10-20, the grammar provides more clues into the situation of the recipients. In the passage, Paul was ending his epistle with an exhortation to the church to be strong in the Lord and “put on the full armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11, NIV). The Greek form of the word “put” suggests a sense of urgency for the those who receive the command. The grammar of the passage thus indicates that the recipients were already in a situation that they should be putting on the armor of God without delay. The rest of the passage supports this as Paul proceeded to describe the reason for putting on the armor – that is for the church as a corporate body to stand against the devil’s scheme in a struggle that is against the spiritual forces of the world.

Considering the spiritual influences surrounding the Ephesians, Paul meant the daily struggles in all aspects of life that the Ephesians were facing. For the Ephesians, just being in the church did not mean that their struggle with the spiritual forces has ended. They needed to be strengthened continuously and empowered by God to face this struggle not only as individuals but also as a corporate entity of Christ disciples.

The consistent theology of spiritual warfare as Christian struggle

The above proposed view is consistent with what the Scripture describes as the Christian reality. Christians today live in a time when the present evil age overlaps with the age to come. Entering into a relationship with Christ means that we are already participants in the age to come. However, we continue to live in a world where we continue to feel the impact of sin around us. We continue to struggle with the effects of sin in our daily lives until the second coming of Jesus. This is the tension that the church lives under in this current world. Other parts of the Scripture, such as 1 Timothy 4:10, Hebrews 12:4 and 2 Corinthians 10:4 also allude to the Christian struggle with the current world and further describes the Christ disciples as soldiers in this struggle.

This suggests that the struggle also includes resisting the tendency to dishonor God in their daily lives. It includes also combating the evils and brokenness that we witness on a daily basis, even as we know that Jesus has already won the war for us. This means that the struggle goes beyond the first three definitions earlier. It is a struggle that all Christians will experience in their daily lives.

spiritual warfare

I have given a quick overview of what I think spiritual warfare is. But I am also interested to hear your views. Let me know in the comments below what your thoughts are? Do you think we should define spiritual warfare more narrowly? Or do you think the proposed definition is adequate? Maybe you may feel that the language of spiritual warfare is unnecessary. Share your thoughts and I will try to respond.