It is the last day of class today for my M/W course on Pauline Epistles II (covering only Galatians-Colossians and Philemon). I’ve structured the class to end with Ephesians (since it is probably the latest of these epistles), so today we’ve covering Eph 6:10-24. To get a handle of the passage I’ve been reading through Tim Gombis’ The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God (InterVarsity, 2010)–also because my students have a book review of it due today–and I was struck by Gombis’ insightful comments on how believers are to participate in divine/spiritual warfare. I’ve always been puzzled about how to apply Paul’s instructions about the “armor of God” in Eph 6:10-18 in the resistance of cosmic spiritual powers. Gombis’ take on the entire subject is illuminating.

First, Gombis suggests that while these powers are real and not to be demythologized, it is important that we focus not on their identities, but on their effects, i.e., “social practices, systems of injustice and oppression and relational dynamics that allow for exploitation and prevent human flourishing” (p. 50). (This looks similar to the approach of Robert Ewuisie Moses in his recent Practices of Power: Revisiting the Principalities and Powers in the Pauline Letters [Fortress, 2014], though I have not yet read it). As we strap on the armor of God, therefore, we are not to engage these spiritual beings head on in any way, if for no other reason than because they have already been defeated by Christ himself (Eph 1:20-23; Col 3:15). Instead, the church’s engagement of the powers involves redeeming and transforming their social and structural effects.

[T]he church wages its warfare in a subversive manner–it is not at all what we might expect. If Paul’s rhetorical summary appears in Ephesians 6:10-18, then his instructions for performing divine warfare are contained in the ethical section of the letter, Ephesians 4:17-6:9. Here, we will see that the church engages in warfare against the powers in ways that defy and overturn our expectations. Our warfare involves resisting the corrupting influences of the powers. The same pressures that produce practices of exploitation, injustice and oppression in the world are at work on church communities. The church’s warfare involves resisting such influences, transforming corrupted practices and replacing them with life-giving patterns of conduct that draw on and radiate the resurrection power of God. Our warfare, then, involves purposefully growing into communities that become more faithful corporate performances of Jesus on earth. Far from being a frightening prospect, this is good news for the world. (pp. 159-60)

I find Gombis’ understanding quite sensible. For one, it helpfully connects Ephesians 6 to the previous two chapters of the letter in a way that I had not previously considered; thus, rhetorically, the end of the letter hangs together quite naturally. Secondly, this reading makes sense of Paul’s largely virtue-driven system of spiritual defense: by embodying “truth,” “righteousness,” “peace,” and “faith,” believers will be transformed and thereby resist evil powers as well as influence their communities. Now, “the gospel,” “salvation,” “the word of God,” and “prayer” are not virtues to be embodied in the same way as those just mentioned, but one can easily see how these can also function as means of individual and community transformation, both inside and outside the church.

Gombis’ book is a good read. I’m looking forward to hearing how my students respond to it!