One of the most important tasks we can do as Christians is reflect on our culture and to take notice of how our culture affects our thinking. Such practice will reveal ways that we have misconstrued the Gospel and other elements of Christianity. As an American I think a major part of our story is fighting for freedom or standing as a bastion of freedom. We have been tangled up in wars in intervals of roughly 50 years and that interval has increased as of late with the ability of presidents to go to war without having to declare it. Most of these wars are somehow tied with the preservation of democracy. The Revolution, the Civil War, WWI, WWII, and even the wars and conflicts thereafter are linked to freedom to one degree or another.
Whether you think the story is true or not, Americans at their best truly do want freedom for everyone else in the world. At our worst we can be imperialist snobs who impose our version of democracy on others. And so a major part of our story is war and warfare has also become a metaphor of choice for many Americans.
I remember my younger sisters singing songs about being in the Lord’s army, have heard preachers speak on intercession warfare, and have even seen a woman (with a big bag of props next to her) wield a large plastic sword during worship on Sunday morning. The warfare metaphor is quite pervasive in America.
In pulling nose out of Paul just long enough to a whiff of Jesus and the aroma of his message, I realized that the metaphors of Christ are quite different from America’s. He describes the church as a flock of stupid sheep, not warriors. He seems to favor farming metaphors over against military conquest when speaking of the spread of the Gospel (see Spencer Burke’s article “From Warriors to Gardeners” or his book Making Sense of Church). Could it be that our colonial/imperialistic enterprises of the past have colored how we envision the Gospel spreading? Do we not tend to think of missions in colonial terms at times (that is what A LOT of missiologists seem to be saying, see David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission). We first make a beach head at the mission compound and then send “raiding parties” out to the heathen. Yikes! That’s a far cry from the image of gardening that Jesus utilized.
I grant it that we are not part of an agrarian society, so the farming metaphors surely do not work for us. Even the use of the word “shepherd” in many of our churches really has a flimsy meaning. Few of us know what it means to shepherd anything, and so we just wing it and it probably ends up looking like a business leader or a military commander by cultural default. So our task is to evaluate the veracity and usefulness of our current metaphors and seek out alternatives that truly speak to our hearts and convey the truth of the scriptures.
For example, when speaking of evangelism or the preservation of Christian influence in America (i.e. the Christian Right’s battle to preserve Christendom), the warfare analogy is not good. We are not soldiers who use the Bible to cut down our enemies, to fight off “liberals” who want to ruin America’s Christian heritage and destroy our freedom, or to forcefully coerce sinners into the “fold” of God’s people. No, no, no! Jesus never spoke of the Gospel in militaristic terms, so let’s not even go there. Is there something similar to farming today that will convey the same truth?
In fact, we can probably only use the warfare metaphor when speaking of spiritual warfare. I can assure you that the entire context of Ephesians 6 is spiritual warfare, standing against the devil’s schemes. If we think we are hearing the spirit to view this passage as a way to fight our ways into the hearts of the lost, then we really need to submit our thoughts to some other Christians for evaluation.
If we want to talk about a true enemy, let’s talk about the devil and then we can have all the fun we want with the warfare metaphor. The rest of Ephesians 6 comes into sharper focus. The Bible is the sword of the Spirit (not of the Christian, the pastor, the elder or any one else for that matter), and it will be of tremendous use in combating the enemy, Satan. That’s what Jesus did in the wilderness, and so Paul follows Jesus’ lead. Everything else described as the armor of God is all for use in spiritual warfare and it’s neatly wrapped up with an injunction to pray in the Spirit on all occasions. And so while we still want to view ourselves as warriors, Paul reminds us that the battle belongs to the Lord. Even if we’re engaged in warfare, God still doesn’t call us warriors. Are we back to being stupid, defenseless sheep again? That’s right, it’s for our own good too, lest we rely on our own strength and steal the glory from God.
And so the end of the matter is that God is the warrior who is mighty in battle and receives all of the praise. We’re just his sheep and our bleat is stronger than our bite.