q&r: the armour of God in ephesians 6?
This post is dedicated to the late Walter Wink who died on May 10, 2012. The content of this post is indebted to him, and without his life’s work I could not have come to this understanding. Presente!
From a life.remixed reader:
I have a question. I have been advised on more than one occasion recently to apply Ephesians 6:10-18 in my life, as in daily putting on the Armour of God. I have been told to physically put it on, going through each piece aloud whilst going through the motions of actually putting on said armour.
This doesn’t quite sit right with me and seems somewhat ritualistic. Has the passage been taken out of context? What are your thoughts on how you apply God’s Armour?
Great questions. It seems there are at least two considerations here, one is the pastoral aspect of your question, and the other is the more “theological” element (i.e. what is the context and meaning of the armour of God? How do we apply it?).
From a purely pastoral point of view I would encourage you to stop “going through the motions” as you have been instructed if it is not helping you. The person who gave you this instruction obviously meant well, and intended the exercise to be an exhortation for your faith. However it seems that this is not the result, and as such you should not feel pressured to keep going.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that physically enacting metaphors is a bad thing – indeed that kind of symbolism can hold much power! However if the symbolism is not an encouragement for you then in this case it would seem to hold no meaning, and without meaning it really is simply a “going through the motions”. If the ritual is meaningless then feel liberated to stop doing it.
It may be that hearing a different perspective on the meaning of the armour of God may actually help bring meaning, and may give you a new desire to continue with the symbolic action. On the other hand it may not. In any case you asked for my view on Ephesians 6:10-18 and I’m more than happy to oblige the request.
When Paul lists the armour of God in Ephesians 6 we should ask ourselves – what is the purpose of putting on the armour? For what reason should we “wear” it?
The answer is really quite obvious since Paul tells us in 6:10-13:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.
So the purpose of the armour is allow us to stand firm in our struggle (“wrestle”) with the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers and the spiritual forces of evil. This is a wide ranging group of opponents, but what is crucial to note is that they are not flesh and blood enemies.
That we do not struggle against flesh and blood is an important point, and it would appear that the Ephesians thought that their struggle was against flesh and blood – if it were obvious that is was not Paul would not need to say anything about it.
I would suggest that the powers that Paul is talking about are not human (flesh and blood), though they express themselves through humans and human systems and so they seem to be human, hence the confusion. This makes sense when you consider that the letter to the Ephesians deals with problems that the recipients face in the day-to-day struggles of life in their society and culture; it would not make sense for Paul to suddenly shift to talk about spiritual warfare that has nothing to do with these problems.
In short, Paul is talking about forces that look human but are in fact more than that. The “spiritual forces of evil” are not disembodied spirits going around haunting or possessing people, they are forces of evil that embody themselves in human activities.
For every human system there is a spirituality at its core that we cannot separate from it. Paul is saying that we cannot change these human systems – social, cultural, political, economic, personal – without dealing with such hidden spirituality. This spirituality, this inner spirit, is the real opponent, not the humans involved.
What Paul then does is genius – he subverts the very symbols of human violence. He describes armour and a sword as used by Roman soldiers. These are the regular tools used to deal with enemies in the Roman world, and still today. Paul uses these as illustrations for a completely subversive way of dealing with enemies – rather than putting on armour and using violence we are to embody the virtues of faith in Christ.
Indeed the only “armour” we should wear are truth, righteousness, peace, faith(fulness), salvation and the word of God*!
In the struggle against oppressive human systems that have at their core spiritual evil, Paul calls Christians not to use violence but instead to embody the way of Christ. This is the only thing that will bring genuine transformation to such systems and the people within them.
Indeed, the only “weapon” that Paul lists is a sword. For the Christian the use of the sword is to be rejected in favour of wielding the word of God. That is to say the way of transforming corrupt systems is to speak truth that unmasks the powers, identifies their evil, demythologises their credibility and offers a liberating alternative for both victim and perpetrator.
This continues to be the call for us today as we seek to follow Paul’s teaching. We must embody a subversive love that has the ability to transform all evil powers. This is always a risk – putting on defensive armour and taking up a sword does not guarantee that one will survive the battle, why should it be any different when we walk in the nonviolent way of Christ.
I encourage you to continue putting on the armour of God. This means embodying the values of the kingdom of God over-against all other powers. If physically “putting on the armour” as a symbol helps you, then great.
In saying this I would suggest that to pretend to put on armour could actually miss the subversive point that Paul is trying to make – we are not putting on armour at all, in fact we are rejecting such tools of violence! Instead we are putting on the values of the kingdom, a far more dangerous garment.