For walking in the flesh, we do not engage in conflict according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare and not of the flesh but are potent to God for the destruction of strongholds, demolishing arguments and every lofty thing raised against the knowledge of God, and taking captive every mind for obedience to Christ, and having in readiness to punish every disobedience, whenever your obedience should be fulfilled.
This is one of the passages often cited in support of a theology of “spiritual warfare”—an activity popularly understood as one in which Christians engage in combat with satan and his cohorts through prayer, exorcism, and aggressive proclamation of the Word of God. It is not my intention here to deny the reality of spiritual evil or that there is a dimension of spiritual warfare, in some form or other, to the Christian life. But the way in which the New Testament is used to account for the theology and praxis of spiritual warfare is problematic at a number of points.
I have long argued that Matthew 16:17-18 cannot be read as an exhortation to launch attacks on “hell” as satan’s stronghold or the hideout of demons, and I am delighted to see that even Kevin DeYoung, whom I would have expected to take a different line on a “hell” issue, agrees with me: “The promise in Matthew 16 is not about venturing out on some Dungeons and Dragons spiritual crusade but about Christ’s guarantee that the church will not be vanquished by death.” Exactly.
Perhaps the most important things to note about Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 10:3-6 is that this is a battle over the loyalty of the church in Corinth. His authority and legitimacy as an apostle have been challenged by certain “superapostles” (2 Cor. 11:5), who have persuaded many in the church that Paul is too weak, unimposing and inarticulate to be respected as an apostle of Christ (eg. 11:10). Paul’s counter-argument, developed throughout the Letter, is that it is precisely in his weakness that he is most evidently a servant of Christ. Christ was “crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God” (13:4).
This is the conflict that Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 10:1-6. He is writing to a church that has lost confidence in him—not least because Paul has come to exemplify an apostleship of Christlike suffering (cf. 4:7-12; 11:23-29). He warns that when he is present, he will confront “some who suspect us of walking according to then flesh”. He insists that the weapons which the apostles use in this fight with the superapostles are not “of the flesh” but have “divine power to destroy strongholds”. Perhaps Paul is thinking of Proverbs 21:22: “A wise person attacked strong cities and demolished the strongholds in which the impious trusted.” They demolish the arguments of the superapostles and take captive “every mind for obedience to Christ”, being prepared to punish disobedience if necessary.
There is certainly a “spiritual” aspect to this fight: Paul sees Satan at work behind these “false apostles, deceitful workmen”, who may deceive the believers in Corinth in the same way that the serpent deceived Eve (11:3, 13-14). But the point is repeatedly made that the “divine power” that the apostles have at their disposal is grounded in their willingness to emulate Christ in his “meekness and gentleness”, his weakness, and his suffering. There is no other Jesus than the one who suffered, was killed and was raised from the dead (cf. 11:4); and there is no alternative apostleship to the apostleship of Christlike humiliation and suffering.
As Paul had argued in a previous Letter to the church in Corinth, only communities built upon the foundation of Christ would survive the coming day of persecution; and only apostles who constructed such churches, from non-flammable materials, would gain a reward (1 Cor. 3:10-15). No doubt in his mind these superapostles would be lucky to escape with their lives.
So we should be careful how we extrapolate from this passage. The issue here is how the apostles secure the loyalty of the church to the true Jesus when under attack from false apostles who argue against the legitimacy of Paul’s apostleship. It does not provide us with a simple model for doing spiritual warfare, whether defensively or militantly. It does, however, clearly constitute a powerful argument for safeguarding the Christlike integrity of Christian ministry in the face of pressures to proclaim another Jesus, a different spirit, or a different gospel (11:4).