Contrary to the opinions of some people, I do believe that Christians must actively engage in spiritual warfare. 1 Peter 5:8 makes it plain that the devil exists, and that he’s on a mission to destroy those who love and obey Jesus. Scripture discusses Satan, demons and spiritual warfare so often and with such candor that we dare not ignore those realities.
Yet many evangelicals (usually Charismatics) understand spiritual warfare in terms of rebuking Satan during times of prayer and/or casting demons out of people. This past summer brought that concept into mainstream evangelical circles through the movie War Room. And, while I don’t want to debate the advisability of seeing that movie, I have been wanting to address misunderstandings about the nature of spiritual warfare since the film came out.
The most helpful approach to understanding the nature of spiritual warfare comes from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.
4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. ~~2 Corinthians 10:4 (ESV)
Although Charismatics embrace this passage as a proof-text for their forms of spiritual warfare, generally inferring that the “divine power” entitles them to command demonic beings. They view the “strongholds” as demonic influences that lock people into severe sin patterns such as alcoholism or sexual addiction. As they “take authority” over the evil spirits responsible for these strongholds, the person experiences release from the power of the devil.
Okay…except they completely ignore the context and meaning of 2 Corinthians 10:4. If you study the letter, you’ll know that Paul wrote (in part) because false apostles had infiltrated the Corinthian church. In order to convince the Corinthian believers to accept their false doctrines, they sought to discredit Paul’s ministry. As a result, Paul needed to remind the Corinthians of his apostolic authority, assuring them that he and those who ministered with him had the resources to refute false teachings. The context of 2 Corinthians 10:4 demonstrates this point.
I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away!— 2 I beg of you that when I am present I may not have to show boldness with such confidence as I count on showing against some who suspect us of walking according to the flesh. 3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, 6 being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. ~~2 Corinthians 10:1-6 (ESV)
Verse 5 highlights the point that Paul viewed spiritual warfare in terms of battling ideologies that oppose sound doctrine. The majority of his New Testament epistles, as a matter of fact, were written for the very purpose of correcting doctrinal error. Essentially, Paul devoted much of his letter writing ministry to battling ideas that came against sound doctrine.
When we understand 2 Corinthians 10:4 in this light, we can see the obvious distortion that Charismatics make and applying this verse. Spiritual warfare has more to do with correcting theological error than it does with yelling at demons or “praying” against Satan. Proper spiritual warfare upholds the teachings of Scripture against human philosophies that contradict it. To make spiritual warfare anything other than the refutation of unsound doctrine defeats a Christian’s purposes by perverting the very Scripture that warfare should defend.