In the power of the Spirit, the gospel forms a society in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, a society that is characterized by unity, long-suffering, patience; love. The gospel forms a culture whose participants do not steal but labor and give, who are not angry and bitter but kind and tender, who speak to edify. The gospel shapes families where husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church and wives submit to their husbands as to the Lord.
Peaceable as the aims are, the gospel inevitable brings conflict. The gospel is a militant message, a message about the condemnation of the world, a message about sin and death. It is not possible to proclaim the gospel faithfully without challenging a world that is dominated by wickedness. Nor is it possible to form a gospel-shaped culture without coming into conflict with the existing culture of the world. When the church enters a culture with its own stories, its own rituals, its own codes of conduct, a culture war is inevitable.
Famously, in Ephesians 6, Paul describes our enemies as powers in heavenly places. We struggle against “the devil” (v. 11). Our enemies are not “flesh and blood” but rather rulers, powers, forces, spiritual realities (v. 12). The devil is a personal being, not just an “evil principle.” There is a conscious, willing, personal being that stands in opposition to Christ.
When Paul talks about principalities and powers and spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places, he’s talking also about the institutions, structures, and patterns of life that powerfully shape human behavior. These institutions and structures are not evil in themselves, but they can become perverse and demonic, controlled by demonic powers. Perverse tradition and custom, ideologies and widespread prejudices, institutions of authority and the influence of symbols and “role models” all come under the heading of “principalities and powers.”
Paul didn’t write against individual Judaizers only, but against a perverse tradition of Judaism. He was not only confronting Caesar when he proclaimed Jesus as Lord; he was confronting an imperial religion and ideology. We face not only individual “liberals,” but an ideology of liberalism that has exalted tolerance and assumes that religion should not make a public display.
Paul’s description shows that we have to evaluate our opponents and enemies in a double perspective. On the one hand, they are responsible before God for their hostility to the gospel. On the other hand, they are controlled by powers that they don’t comprehend, ultimately by Sin, Death, and the Devil. Viewed from the latter perspective, they are victims of oppressive powers. We oppose them, count them as enemies, for the sake of the gospel, but we also recognize that they are in need of the liberating message of the gospel as much as anyone, and we proclaim that gospel to them in our words and actions.
Our attitude to our enemies must be the same attitude as Jesus displayed. He fought His enemies zealously, pronouncing woes, setting argumentative traps, condemning them for not hearing His words or believing because of His miracles. Yet, when he looked over Jerusalem, the city that would reject Him and the city that Jesus Himself would one day destroy, he lamented: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is left to you desolate.” Jesus was compassionate toward those who were blinded; but Jesus also sought first the kingdom of God, and His justice, and His glory. He wanted His Father exalted above all, and knew that Jerusalem had condemned herself.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.