On Misplaced Militance


When the biblical fundamentalist movement was in its heyday, evangelicals often complained that the movement was afflicted with a misplaced militance. It seemed to be at war with fellow believers. Today, some of the same evangelicals are caught up in a misplaced militance of their own.

They’re constantly emphasizing battle against American culture and government.

It’s not entirely an emphasis problem, but mostly. Much of what’s trending in our culture is a continued departure from our Christianity-influenced roots. Riding that wave, some of what’s trending in government is also increasingly hostile toward a traditional, Christian way of life—as well as hostile toward certain freedoms.

If your focus is narrow, the situation looks worse than it really is. But let’s stipulate that some bad things are happening in society and government, and we should try to slow or reverse these problems—in ways that don’t undermine the rule of law or work against our higher priorities as Christians.

And that’s the problem. Overemphasizing a lower priority always sucks time, energy, and passion from higher priorities.

Against this emphasis problem, let’s consider a simple question:

When we look at “militant” language in the New Testament, what do we see identified as the target(s) of our struggle?

To hear some talk, you would think “the world” would be in the spiritual crosshairs everywhere in the NT. But that’s not what we find.

We’re told that “the world” hates us (John 15:18-19) and that we should not be conformed to the world (Rom 12:2). We’re told that we cannot have “friendship” with the world (James 4:4). We learn that the world is full of lust and pride and is passing away (1 John 2:16-17).

War metaphors are rarely connected to the idea of “the world.”

But the New Testament does use the language of spiritual battle. These passages reveal where our love of a good fight should be focused—what sort of militance we should emphasize in our teaching, and preaching … and “declarations” and such.

Fight the good fight

Twice, the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy about fighting the “good fight.” In 1 Timothy 6:12, Paul directly instructs young Timothy to continually engage in this kalon agona—good struggle or battle. 2 Timothy 4:7, he looks back on his life and claims to have fought that good fight himself.

So what made that fight good? The context of both passages helps answer that question.

In the first passage, Paul says it’s the good fight of “the faith.” Then he reminds Timothy that he as been called to, and publicly committed to, a special kind of life—“eternal life.” In 6:13, the apostle charges Timothy to “keep [tereo] the commandment unstained and free from reproach” until Christ returns.

The 2 Timothy passage has similar references in the context: finishing the course and keeping [tereo] the faith, and “that day” (2 Tim 4:8) and “his appearing.”

So what are we at war against, when we’re fighting the kalon agona, the good fight?

In both passages, this is a personal struggle against whatever would lead to failure. Specifically, it’s failure to maintain a strong connection (“take hold…keep”) to the truth and life we possess and live it faithfully to the end.

In the sense that the kosmos is full of temptations (Matt 18:7), it is war against “the world.” But the Spirit moved the apostle to use different language so we wouldn’t miss the point. The kalon agona isn’t a fight against “them.” It’s a struggle with my own weaknesses and drives and the conditions that give those flaws opportunities to defeat me. (See James 1:14, 2 Pet 1:4).

1 Corinthians 9:25-27 uses different but overlapping language—with an even stronger emphasis on the personal war against our own wayward tendencies.

Contend for the faith

Jude, probably one of Jesus’ brothers, emphasizes the urgency and importance of his call to spiritual warfare. In Jude 3, he piles up intensifiers. “I was very eager…. I found it necessaryappealing to you.”

The general topic is “our common salvation,” and the militance takes the form of an appeal (parakaleo) to “contend.” Jude’s word (epagonizomai) is an intensified variant of the term used by Paul when he told Timothy to fight (agonizomai) the good fight.

The resemblance between agonizomai, epagonizomai and our word “agonize” is not coincidental. Jude says the fight is “for the faith”—specifically, what was “once for all delivered.”

We don’t need to be told that this isn’t “truth, justice, and the American way.”

Well, maybe we do.

Jude is talking about the gospel, the good news that Jesus Christ died for sinners and rose again. In the context, this gospel focus becomes even more clear.

For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 4)

The threat was inside (“crept in”) the community of believers, and it was “grace” that these enemies tried to “pervert.”

The warning is in the Bible because grace is always under attack, just as our faithfulness to our calling is always under attack. So Paul says fight to stay personally faithful. Jude says fight to keep the truth of the gospel of grace clear—don’t let it get twisted.

Pull down strongholds

Writing to the Corinthians, the apostle uses language we really need to ponder in our times. From 2 Corinthians 10:4—

For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power

There’s a clear and direct contrast here between the weapons that are fleshly and the power that is divine. For the fight we’re in, we really only have one of those two things. If we seem to have effective weapons “of the flesh,” we’re probably in the wrong fight.

There’s an old saying about bringing a knife (or maybe a sword) to a gun fight. A similar analogy is bringing a baseball bat to a football game. You might accomplish something with that bat, but whatever you accomplish won’t be football.

Paul says our weapons are not sarkikos. The word can mean fleshly in the sense of weak and sinful, but can also mean simply material (e.g. Rom 15:7 “material blessings;” 1 Cor 9:11 “material things”).

So, using non-material weapons that are divinely powerful, we’re to “destroy strongholds.” It seems from 10:5, that these are “arguments and every lofty opinion” that threatens our freedoms and exceeds the limits of proper sphere sovereignty.

…Just seeing if you’re paying attention.

No, these are “lofty opinions” (upsoma, high things; Louw-Nida says “conceit, pride, arrogance”) that are “against the knowledge of God.”

In the larger context, Paul is refuting criticism that he was weak (2 Cor10:1-3). His defense is that though what he does might look weak, it’s actually powerful. He’s not in the kind of fight that looks mighty. Or, as he put it in 10:3,

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh.

But what about …

There is one passage that comes close to saying we’re at war with big corporations, big culture, and big government—but only if you don’t look too close. Paul says we “wrestle” against rulers and authorities.

But these aren’t exactly governors, congressman, presidents, and CEOs…

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. (Eph 6:12)

Every bit of the “armor” in 6:13-17 emphasizes personal qualities or personal relationship to God’s qualities, culminating in prayer (6:18) and proclaiming the gospel (6:20).

Sure, we can fight bad policy, bad cultural trends, and bad leaders and at the same time fight to remain personally faithful, fight against distortions of the gospel, and fight against “spiritual forces of evil.”

But only one sort of war is emphasized over and over and over in the Bible. It’s one that’s easy to get distracted from and forget about because it’s not the loud one in the news feeds, on Fox, CNN, YouTube, or Twitter.

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash.


I always enjoy Aaron’s sound, Biblical thinking. Well said. It is tempting to replace good battles with the most important battles.

"The Midrash Detective"

Thanks, Ed

I’m interested in the “new kind of fundamentalism” angle. Am I the only one who thinks that some of the rhetoric coming out of the anti-gov anti-culture anti-science folks sounds a lot like the formation of new distinctives for a movement? What I haven’t noticed much of so far is the “we alone are the real Christians” piece, but it might already be there also. As soon as that is added to the others, don’t you pretty much have a new fundamentalism?

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.