A man in my hometown recently filed a lawsuit against the instructor of his sword-fighting class because, while demonstrating a particular move, the instructor accidentally stabbed him in the eye. When I read that story in the news, my first thought was, Oh, man, that would preach.
Regardless of whatever safety precautions that instructor normally has in place, clearly in that particular moment he was a little too casual about how he handled that sword. And even though he obviously did not intend harm, he caused harm nonetheless.
That story is a microcosm of what happens in some Christian circles when people use the Bible or biblical principles to wage a cultural war against those they perceive to be evil or sinful or just plain wrong. Not only does this inhibit our attempts at evangelism, but even within church communities, believers often cause collateral damage when we try to use the Bible to win arguments.
I think this approach stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of Scripture, particularly Ephesians 6. If you grew up evangelical like me, you might’ve received teaching on the armor of God, the metaphor that Paul used in his letter to the church in Ephesus. And if, like me, you grew up on a steady diet of action movies, then the mental image you get for “put on the full armor” might be an armed vigilante gearing up for battle.
The armor of God isn’t for us to wage war against each other but to help us to preserve peace, unity, and maturity.
But Scripture is meant to be read in context. You can’t fully understand Ephesians 6:10-20 without first reading and taking in the other five chapters of Paul’s letter. It’s one letter. (The same thing is true of Galatians 5 and the fruit of the Spirit, but that’s a topic for another time.)
So, let me break down what happens prior to this section on the armor of God.
In Ephesians 1, Paul tells the Ephesians what an incredible, mysterious blessing of inheritance they have in Christ. In chapter 2, he talks about how they were dead but became alive again, and because of this new life, the old ethnic categories that used to divide them would do so no longer.
In Ephesians 3, Paul explains that the mysteries of God that had previously been revealed to Jews like himself were now available to everyone. He goes on to urge them in chapter 4—in light of the great opportunity for unity that the gospel affords—to live with unified maturity, following up in Ephesians 5 with the reminder to reject any improprieties (sexual or otherwise) that could undermine that unity or maturity. And for the rest of that chapter and into the chapter 6, Paul begins to break down how that unified maturity applies to various relationships—between spouses, from children to parents, even from masters to slaves (which in current vernacular is more like boss to servant).
Only after all of that, does he then say these iconic words: “Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (vv. 10-11, NIV).
The armor of God isn’t for us to wage war against each other but to help us to preserve the peace, unity, and maturity that God makes available to us as believers. This is why Paul tells the Ephesians that their true enemies are not flesh-and-blood people, because he knows that the existing cultural and relational differences among them might make it difficult to get along with each other.
And when in verse 17 Paul refers to Scripture, he refers to it not just as “God’s sword” but specifically as “the sword of the Spirit.” Paul is working under the assumption that the Ephesians, if they are living as mature, unified people, are committed to walking with a cultivated sense of direction and discernment from the Holy Spirit. The implication is that no one is fully able to take up the sword without the Spirit.
So let that sink in the next time you’re in a heated discussion and are tempted to bring out some Scripture to justify your point. Is that really what the Spirit wants? Don’t let your good motivations devolve into an accidental sword in the eye.