Since my series on “Was Jesus a Pacifist?” completed, I have seen several sorts of replies and posts related to the subject indirectly. I would like to take time to reply to an aspect of the larger question that some of the latter category raised, but which I skipped over, due to the focus of my series. That is, there is one text in Paul in particular that some pacifists sometimes appeal to justify a kind of ceremonial-law pacifism, i.e., a pacifism which says state violence is permitted but not for Christians.
That text is Paul’s discussion of spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6:10-12:
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.
Paul writes that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood.” Does this text entail Christians should not engage in violence on behalf of the state? For several reasons, the answer is no.
Returning to my discussion of background context, interpreters must keep in mind that, once again, Paul is speaking to people who are entirely, or in the vast majority, not magistrates. These individuals have no public authority, no civic right to exercise violence. Thus, in general, they have no calling to administer state punishments to individuals. This alone would provide the explanation for Paul’s negative statement.
The other side of the same point appears when we consider who the “we” is in Paul’s sentence. I think the most likely candidate is what later tradition would call the corpus christianorum, meaning all believers. This body, however, does not intrinsically have any civic authority; that can happen in some situations, where a particular society gains a preponderance of Christians, and becomes a Christian state or at least permits Christians to perform state duties, but this is not something that necessarily exists in history. Thus, if Paul were wanting to give instructions that would apply perpetually to all members of the corpus christianorum, he would have to provide a generalized instruction that did not assume Christians had any civic power. Rather, he would have to focus on what all members of that body have by virtue of their membership. And this is where the theme of spiritual warfare fits: by virtue of regeneration and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, all members of the corpus christianorum are drafted into God’s spiritual army to combat spiritual, fallen-angelic, enemies with spiritual weapons.
We can go still further in our argument. Consider firstly, what exactly is the nature of this conflict Paul writes about? When in the verses that follow the apostle describes the armor and weapons of God, he speaks of moral virtues and pious practices. That is, behaving rightly, praying, and proclaiming God’s truth. Correlatively, then, the spiritual conflict must be one in which human beings are being pulled in two directions: towards vice, idolatry, and lying, and towards the practices that Paul suggests. The element of prayer indicates that the conflict may span further than the moral behavior of people, insofar as the recipient of prayer, God, has power to change things beyond moral practices, as does Satan, who comes to “kill, steal, and destroy.” But the point remains that in this conflict as Paul describes it, effective change over those broader circumstances is done through prayer.
Recognizing the nature of this wrestling match (for that is the denotation of the word Paul uses), we can ask: is Paul intending here to draw a distinction between the nature of the Old and New Testaments? The answer must be no. Firstly, Israel had the calling to be righteous and holy, to pray and proclaim God’s word. Secondly, there are countless examples in the OT of people praying to God with efficacious results. Thirdly, there are even some where the efficacious results include defeat of false “gods” in dramatic ways. The clearest example would be the Exodus narrative. There, God responds to the cries of his oppressed people with 10 dramatic plagues, which many commentators have noted are directed in various ways at the realms of nature the Egyptian gods claimed to have power over. In other words, in the 10 plagues, God goes to war against the Egyptian gods, ultimately in response to the prayers of his people. Fourthly, various prayers in the OT function in a way that coincides with Paul’s description of spiritual warfare. For example, when the OT saints would pray something like Psalm 72:1-11 (a Messianic Psalm which prays for God’s king, and therefore God, to receive total global submission) or Psalm 82:1-8 (which calls for God to judge the “gods”, i.e., rulers, of the nations, along with all the nations, for their injustice), their prayers, if granted, would entail the defeat of all evil spiritual powers. To pray, in either Testament, for God’s kingdom and judgment to come over all the earth is by necessity to pray for the total completion of God’s purposes, which includes the defeat of God’s supernatural enemies.
So there does not appear to be anything in Paul’s statement which would imply any kind of shift from the calling of the Old Testament saints, and so no reason in this text to posit a discontinuity between Old and New Testaments on the issue of literal state violence.
Within the New Testament, even specifically Pauline context, we gain further reason to understand Paul’s statement in a qualified way. That is, in the course of the book of Acts, Christians do in fact have struggles along the lines noted above, with evil individuals, sometimes struggles of a supernatural or spiritual nature. For example Acts 13:4-12, a story that ends on a Constantinian note:
So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.
What episodes like this entail is that Christians certainly can have “spiritual struggles” with other human beings. Paul therefore is not contradicting this point when he writes in Ephesians 6.
All that remains, then, is to answer the more positive question: what does Paul mean in Ephesians? The answer is that he’s communicating to the Ephesians the true enormity of their enemy, that is, who they are ultimately struggling against. In other words, Paul’s statement that Christians do not struggle against blood and flesh is a comparative statement. His more precise point is that Christians do not engage in spiritual wrestling with mere blood and flesh, but that whether or not there are human opponents present in any particular conflict, the ultimate foes of the corpus christianorum are the higher supernatural forces behind those opponents.
There is little support in this text, then, for pacifism.