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Spiritual Warfare

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In a note sent out to subscribers I said that we do not experience spiritual warfare (as defined by charismatics), though scripture speaks of a warfare. In this paper I will briefly look at what scripture teaches and at what charismatics often mean by it. Sadly, as with so many other ‘beliefs’ Christians can rely on hearsay and on erroneous teachings.

We can now show what God says (from the KJAV, of course). Scripture only refers to ‘warfare’ five times, but implies, or speaks of, a spiritual war in many other verses (which use the same Greek words). Even so, my concern here is simply to show you what scripture says about the term ‘warfare’, and what it means.

Old Testament Testimony

There are two Old Testament references and three New Testament.

“And it came to pass in those days, that the Philistines gathered their armies together for warfare, to fight with Israel. And Achish said unto David, Know thou assuredly, that thou shalt go out with me to battle, thou and thy men.” (1 Samuel 28:1)

You may remember that this was after David and his men became uneasy allies of Achish, king of Gath. In this text the ‘warfare’ speaks of actual, literal warfare against Saul and his army. The Philistine armies (mustered by all the kings in Philistine) gathered for “warfare”, tsaba’. This masculine noun speaks of going forth, especially as an army; to go out to war.

The same word can be used of an army/host of angels; it can also refer to the heavenly bodies – sun, moon, stars; or of the whole of creation. It also carries the idea of “the appointed time”. The accompanying verb, with the same spelling, adds ‘to serve at a sacred tent’. There are other meanings that do not apply here. In this verse, the meaning is, plainly, to go to physical war.

“Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD'S hand double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:2)

This verse precedes the famous prophecy about John the Baptist. The same word is used for “warfare” in 1 Samuel. In this text Isaiah is warning the king that the nation would be taken into captivity in Babylon (39:5-8). God then instructed Isaiah to give some comfort to the king and the nation. So, what is this ‘warfare’ in the text? It refers to the nation reaching its appointed time to enter into captivity. That is, to substitute wording: “her appointed time is accomplished”.

Then, we come to the New Testament testimony.

New Testament Testimony

In the New Testament two different words are used for ‘warfare’.

“Who goeth a warfare any time at his own charges? who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof? or who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of the milk of the flock?”

(1 Corinthians 9:7)

In this text “warfare” is the verb strateuō. It carries the meaning of actual warfare – a military expedition, to lead soldiers into battle, to be a soldier, to fight. It is the middle voice of the feminine noun, stratia, which includes the same meanings, but adds ‘hosts/troops of heaven/angels’.

However, Paul does not use the word in its metaphorical or spiritual sense here. He uses it merely as an example of what people do – they do not go to war of their “own charges”... they do not pay their own way, but take the pay of their master or general. Thus, the term is not particularly referring to actual war, but to the principle that one is hired by a master; that when we work for the Lord He leads and supports us.

The verse above, then, has nothing to do with the usual form of spiritual ‘warfare’ spoken of by Christians. The next two texts speak of this spiritual challenge in our lives:

“(For the weapons of our warfare [are] not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;)”

(2 Corinthians 10:4)

Paul explains that we “do not war against the flesh” but we fight spiritually. He found it necessary to say this, because he had to be “bold against some, who think of us as if we walked according to the flesh”. This is a strange observation we can make today, when Christians fight evils as if they were earthly, tangible enemies. Charismatics do this in many ways (see later section) to their detriment and folly.

Our weapons are not carnal, but spiritual. And even when we use these spiritual weapons they are not effective because we wield them, but because God subdues the enemy - even their strongholds - through His own power; our wielding of weapons is done out of obedience. The victory is His, not ours. In these two verses, Paul uses the feminine noun, strateia. Though used to describe the exploits of a physical army, he uses it in its metaphorical sense – the struggles of his spiritual life against spiritual enemies. In some sense it can, at times, be a mighty battle, hence the root is the same as the word used in the first text above, the verb, strateuō. In many ways modern Christians romanticise this ‘warfare’, and see themselves in shining armour, beating the foe simply by being stoical! This is not how Paul sees it, and is not the sense in which he uses it.

You will note that his battle is only effective when God fights it. And, as Christ has already won the battle against Satan, we can say that the fight is already won, though we must still enter into the fray. Thus, we are fighting alongside the Lord, Whose victory is assured, even though we can sometimes slip up and make mistakes. We are assured of this victory in the end, if we are obedient and faithful... and so the warfare is easier, because of Who leads us and Who wins the battle.

By His victory we can bring down strongholds – that is, the worst excesses of our enemy, by hitting at the very core of his strength; this victory is also over our own psychological ills, and sins. ALL of this is ONLY in the power of God, not in our own power.

“This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare;” (1 Timothy 1:18)

Because Paul used ‘warfare’ as he did, we can expect a similar treatment in this Timothy text. Paul reminds his “son” to fight a good war on the basis of prophecy. Thus, a “good warfare” (same word as in 1 Corinthians) is grounded on holding to his faith and having a good conscience. If he was not grounded like this he would suffer the fate of others, whose faith was made “shipwreck”. “War” is the verb, strateuō, while “warfare” is the feminine noun, strateia.

In each New Testament example, it is God Who provides the victory, not the person. But, the person must adhere to true faith and conscience before God gives him or her the victory. The victory is not automatic, but is dependent on holiness and righteousness. And, as Christ has already won the victory, our own warfare is a sign of our faithfulness (or not). If we are faithful, then we share the victory THROUGH GOD. Many, however, believe they may have victory in their own strength, and so the battle is personalised and dependent on their own perceived strength.

Charismatic View of ‘Warfare’ not Scriptural

“Charismatics have been accused of a dualistic approach to spiritual warfare, giving too high a status to Satan and developing a demon-consciousness‘. In the 1970s and 80s, a number of books and ministries developed demonologies that gave a detailed hierarchical description of the demonic world, and suggested that such demonic infestations were behind a range of sicknesses and sinful habits. In reaction to this, even some commentators sympathetic to charismatics have written critiques of such approaches to evil and spiritual warfare; for example Andrew Walker, concerned as to the fear that such approaches can engender, coined the term ‘paranoid universe‘ for this worldview. Frank Peretti‘s works of popular Christian fiction were said to have reinforced the distortions of such a paranoid worldview.” (Robert A Guelich, ―Spiritual Warfare: Jesus, Paul and Peretti,‖ The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 2, no. 1 (1991), Andrew Walker, ―The Devil You Think You Know: Demonology and the Charismatic Movement,‖ in Charismatic Renewal: The Search for a Theology, ed. T Smail, A Walker, and N Wright (London: SPCK, 1995).

When the charismatic movement came into being I definitely sensed the charismatic idea that there were “demons under the bed”... demons were allegedly seen everywhere, so casting out of demons was (and still is) a favourite pastime! How Satan must have laughed at this paranoid existence, for it strengthened his own power-base and led charismatics into a devout heresy – the idea of warfare when there was none.

It was mainly an invention, an adrenalin-venture in which they play-acted the great knight on his steed, battling against a dragon (which was only in the mind). Worse, many charismatics went out (and still do) to deliberately engage in supposed battle with demons, not stopping to remember that demons are greater than they are when they do not act righteously and purely! (Of course, Christians can enter the opposite error, of not recognising the demonic even when it is plain to see).

This idea of warfare, though alien to true ‘warfare’ in scripture, has been featured in many churches from the beginning. Today, the concept of ‘territorial spirits’ is much practiced among charismatics, whose strange involvement borders on the stupid and dangerous. C Peter Wagner exemplifies this heretical approach. Whereas Paul speaks of problems in his life that are muddied by Satan, modern charismatics have turned this into a full-out, full-time war, deliberately chosen as a sign of their utter power over Satan (which they do not have in reality). Not even an archangel dares to fight Satan frontally! (Jude 1:9).

In this way, charismatics ‘sense’ demons in a person’s life and ‘pray them out’ even when such demons are not there. They are only there because the charismatics think they are there. Yes, demons are everywhere, but a genuine believer must just rebuke them and send them away... not antagonise them with their own supposed power! You do not boast of your invincibility by pointing a knife at a fully-armoured foe holding a machine gun! The charismatic who does this is a fool, not a saint! Our only defence is Christ, not our own well-intentioned but stupid claim to have power.

The charismatic toolbox also includes ‘spiritual mapping’, which supposedly leads a charismatic to ‘identify’ witches, or those affected by witches, or possessed by demons. Once located, the charismatic then engages in a vivid ‘warfare’ against the alleged foe. Note how this has nothing at all to do with Paul’s description of ‘warfare’? When subjects/objects are identified as needing warfare, they are prayed over intensely or burned with fire (if objects and not persons). You will note that none of this follows the simple definition in scripture!

“There are several levels of “spiritual warfare,” according to charismatic and Pentecostal leaders: ground level, which is casting demons out of people; occult level, which includes witches, satanic priests and other demonic leaders; and finally, strategic level where territorial spirits are encountered.”

(Commentary by Dr J Sullivan, Florida Baptist Convention)

Charismatics claim that certain demons take control over whole cities and areas, and so deliberately goad them to remove themselves. This distorts what is truly happening in our lives and gives people a strange feeling of having power over demons and even Satan, a kind of westernised voodoo! (Satan wants power over people, not things or territories).

“Nothing in the Bible teaches that we are to break strongholds over cities. Geography is not the main concern of demons. They want souls! They are after body count. They are slave traders. Demons are looking for people to enslave, not territories.


Preoccupation with demonic activity can take away responsibility for one’s personal behavior and sin. We have three enemies, not one—the devil, the world and the flesh, according to Ephesians 2:1-3. Much of our culture today seems to be reverting to pagan thinking. In this atmosphere, demonic influence becomes even more prominent in the culture’s thinking.” (ibid)


The charismatic idea of ‘spiritual warfare’ is very different from that found in scripture. Charismatics think they have personal power and authority to actually go and seek-out demons to cast out! They see demons under every bed, and are in grave danger of being possessed themselves (because, if they are true charismatics, they are unsaved). They ‘take a stand’ against demons when there is no actual authority to do so, and, often, no actual demons to stand against. In reality we should oppose demons only when they come against us and are recognised to be evil spirits.

It has been found that charismatics tend to have a ‘dualist cosmology’ (re Paul Hierbert), which is based on Greco-Roman mystery religions and the myths of Zoroastrian religion. To my mind many who see many spirits under the bed tend to be over-excitable about it, believing every claim to see or have demons. In this way folklore becomes ‘real’. But, what can we expect if unsaved people pretend to be Christians?

We must get back to the simple and easy to understand teaching by Paul, who used the term ‘warfare’ figuratively to describe the daily confrontation we have with our own minds and hearts, when we allow sin to arise, displacing our aim to be holy and true; it can also apply to facing demons – but in the strength and Name of Jesus. If we follow the charismatic version, we end up in extreme danger and deceive ourselves. If we follow the biblical model, then we understand that Jesus has already conquered sin and death. Therefore, our own fight against evil, and even with demons, is simple – live righteously and call upon Jesus’ name to banish any actual demons. This is very different from the tasteless, neurotic, and unbiblical/pagan stance taken by charismatics.

In 2 Corinthians 10:3 we see that we “do not war (strateuō) after the flesh”. This repeats the texts we read earlier. In 1 Timothy 1:18, we must fight the good fight, by being clean, pure and holy... not by going out and mocking Satan and pretending we can handle him personally. Revelation 13:4 makes the futility of this very plain: “Who is able to make war with him?” (This speaks of a ferocious enemy – so if we cannot handle him, how can we possibly handle Satan?). When we ignore this need for holiness we invite a war against our own souls (1 Peter 2:11). Our own lusts give the enemy an advantage.

But, live righteously and follow the Lord, and we will know victory (over sin and Satan). This is because “death is swallowed up in victory”. That is, it is nikos – vanquished, by Christ. Death and Satan cannot have any victory over believers (1 Corinthians 15:55).

The victory over Satan, then, is not by our own efforts, but through the Lord Jesus Christ. It is He Who gained the victory, not us (1 Corinthians 15:57). It is our faith (a gift of God) and our salvation (another gift of God) that reflects the victory (1 John 5:4 and Revelation 15:2).

Do not be naïve and think that we are in constant, mortal combat with the devil! He has no power over those who are saved by the Saviour! Unless, that is, we hand it to him by living sinfully. So, the ‘warfare’ we conduct is already victorious. Jesus fought the battle and won. When Jesus has His foot on the neck of Satan, we do not need to go up to Satan and shake our fists at him – he can still lash out at those who are audacious and stupid! Our part in the warfare is simply to live righteously, having trust in the Lord. The rest is taken care of.

© February 2013

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Bible Theology Ministries - PO Box 415, Swansea, SA5 8YH
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