Christians not only encounter spiritual warfare overseas, but also in daily Christian life and ministry. Towers editor Andrew J.W. Smith talked with William F. Cook, professor of New Testament interpretation, about warfare in the Bible, how to teach kids about it, and how congregational singing is a “blow against hell itself.” Cook is co-author of the forthcoming book, Spiritual Warfare in the Storyline of Scripture.
AJWS: How should Christians think about spiritual warfare in the Christian life?
WC: First, there’s a maximalist and a minimalist understanding of spiritual warfare. The maximalist understanding sees demons under every rock and behind every tree and attributes every sickness and every sin to demonic activity. That’s the extreme charismatic approach. Most evangelicals, however, probably affirm the minimalist approach — acknowledging the reality of cosmic warfare, spiritual warfare, angels, demons, and Satan, but not allowing it to affect anything about the way we evaluate life. It doesn’t affect how we pray, nor how we evaluate circumstances and situations.
From beginning to end — beginning with Genesis and ending in Revelation — the Bible is about a cosmic conflict. But while the maximalist position overemphasizes the role of cosmic conflict in the life and day-to-day activity of the church, the traditional evangelical minimizes it. In Ephesians 6, which is probably the most important passage in the New Testament on spiritual warfare, the reader should come away with the determined conclusion there’s a battle going on, and that battle primarily takes place in the moral life of believers. While Satan is involved in the hearts and lives of unbelievers, a significant part of his strategy is to depreciate the glory of God in the life of Christians, to stop them from growing spiritually, and to minimize their effectiveness as gospel witnesses.
Both in training ministers and in the discipleship of regular church people, we need to do a better job of teaching them how to wear the gospel armor — the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, and prayer, which is essential.
AJWS: Western Christians often hear stories about incredible things happening overseas, but don’t typically experience “demonic activity.” Are we witnessing spiritual warfare and just not aware of it, or does spiritual warfare take different forms for us in the West?
WC: We do see in third-world countries, and in other parts of the world, spiritual warfare in a more visible manner, where people are much more open to spiritual realities. Most of us raised in the West are naturalists.
We’ve been raised in a system of scientific approach to life: If you can’t see it, taste it, and test it it doesn’t exist. So naturalism, I think, hinders us, and it also aids demonic activity because I don’t think it’s any less real. It’s just under the cover of darkness in a way that’s less evident in third world countries that are more animistic. They’re more open to the reality of demons. They see demonic manifestations on a regular basis in many places. They’re much more involved in witchcraft, the occult, astrology. And we reject those things.
So Satan would rather work under the cover of darkness, and he does an effective job by just leading most of the western hemisphere not to believe in the realities of spiritual warfare. I think that what’s happening is that Satan is just as active, but in a less visible way. And while I don’t hold to territorial spirits in the traditional way that Peter Wagner teaches it, I do believe that there is significant demonic activity in our culture. I think you see it in the movie industry. I think you see it in our entertainment. So he’s working behind the scenes, in an invisible way, but every bit as real because there is a world every bit as real as the physical world.
AJWS: There’s a strange passage in 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul is talking about women wearing head coverings “on account of the angels.” How can we observe supernatural realities present in the life of the local church?
WC: I think in the local church, particularly in 1 Corinthians 11 in that unusual passage about women’s head coverings and angels observing our worship, I think when you look at the implications, our worship is viewed in some way by angels and demons. I think genuine, authentic worship is a means of spiritual warfare. I don’t want to overemphasize this verse in Nehemiah, but “Put on the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.” I think that when we sing, we are actually engaging in a form of spiritual warfare. I often will tell my congregation in my opening comments before pastoral prayer, “We’re getting ready to confront the enemy. We want to sing loud and bold and courageously about what we believe about Jesus and how we feel toward Jesus. In doing that we’re striking a blow against hell itself as we affirm the reality of the one true and living God.”
We can either give too much attention or too little attention to it, and we also have to keep in mind that when the early church gathered they didn’t give a lot of attention to the reality of angels and demons. Acts is where I often turn to to see how the early church worked out the teaching of Jesus. They saw Jesus minister, they heard Jesus teaching, particularly the Apostles. So how did it work its way out in Jerusalem and in Antioch? You don’t see them giving a lot of attention to those kinds of things in worship.
I think that we need to pray that Satan be kept at bay during the preaching. You see, for example, at the upper room during the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Judas was in that upper room and Satan was in that upper room. When Jesus dipped the morsel and gave it to Judas, Satan entered into Judas. Satan can be present in the most holy of places, or more likely his demons, but in that particular instance Satan himself. In the most holy of settings, he can be present.
So we need to be cognizant, particularly as ministerial staff, that we’re going into a battle, we’re going into a war. Our members are not going to recognize what’s going on. Satan will be trying to distract them, divert them in a variety of ways. We need to make sure we’ve prayed for our congregation and prayed that the Word and the Spirit would manifest the power of Christ in the life of his people.
AS: What about teaching children and high schoolers about these truths? How do you teach kids about spiritual warfare in a sensitive, faithful, but not creepy or Halloween-glorifying manner?
WC: Whether you’re teaching junior highers or adults, when you come across something in the text, you have to explain it in a way they can understand. As shepherds and ministers of the gospel, we ignore the topic to our own demise. The key to explaining it well is to simply follow what the text says. If we spend too much time on it we’re out of balance with where Scripture inserts it in key passages and places. If we skip by it all the time, we’re subverting it on the other side. So I think it’s best to allow preaching through the Bible expositionally: when it comes up, just spend considerable time on it, then you let it go as long as the Bible lets it go.