or though we live in the world, we do not wage
war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5).*
We might divide this passage into three parts: 1. the weapons; 2. the target; and 3. the outcome.
1. The Weapons
The nations of antiquity (whether Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Mongols, Greeks, or whatever) had one major craving in common: a thirst for conquest and power. Each took a map of the world they knew, decided which areas they wanted to crush, then dispatched their armies to do the job. Alexander the Great, from whose (former) territory Paul was writing the book of 2 Corinthians, had extended his empire from the Adriatic Sea all the way to the Indus River—a huge chunk of real estate, indeed.
But as Paul wrote, it was the Romans who were in charge. Roman influence and power covered the entire region, extending by force the mandates of the Caesars. As he journeyed from Ephesus to Macedonia, from where he’d write the words that concern us here, Paul would have passed multiple outposts of heavily armed Roman soldiers, providing a sharp contrast between the strategy of worldly conquest and the message of the cross. Thus the choice of words at the beginning of our passage: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.”
Across the centuries, the Christian church has faced the temptation to deemphasize (if not abandon) this spiritual, nonviolent strategy in favor of worldly methodologies and approaches. The classic example of this came in the Middle Ages, when tens of thousands of European Christians took up arms, and in four separate missions went out to the Holy Land shedding blood in Jesus’ name. The Crusades stand out as one of the darkest developments in the history of Christianity.
But the New Testament is all about nonviolence when it comes to the message and mission of the gospel. “Put that sword back,” Jesus said to Peter during a tense confrontation in the Garden of Gethsemane the night of His arrest (Matt. 26:52, paraphrase). And standing before Pilate the next day, He said: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight
to prevent my arrest” (John 18:36).
So if “the sword” is not our weapon, what is it?
Paul does not define the weapons in the passage before us. But after encountering “beasts” at Ephesus (1 Cor. 15:32), he listed at least two of the armaments we need to face the deadly contingent from the underworld: “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,” and prayer (Eph. 6:17, 18).
Corinth was a sophisticated, immoral city—Paris, New York, and Bangkok rolled into one. And Paul’s remarks were directed to believers fresh from that heady, urbane milieu, facing the temptation to employ worldly methods and approaches to advance the gospel.
A similar temptation faces us today. A while back, I came across a magazine article about the influence games played out in Washington, D.C., perhaps the most power-driven capital in the world. Influence games surrounding food, of all things. “In the nation’s capital,” it said, “power-seekers follow the powerful, especially when it comes to dining”—to places such as the Occidental Grill, the Bombay Club, the Oval Room, West 24, the Caucus Room, and Jeffrey’s at the Watergate. At Jeffrey’s, it said, “the martini glass could double as an umbrella,” the wine goblet could “serve equally well as a decanter,” and the whiskey tumbler, “poured tall, feels like a barrel in the hand.” “Patrons sit back, relax, scanning the crowd [and] wondering whom they will see and by whom they will be seen.”
“Lobbyists, White House aides, lawmakers, Cabinet functionaries, news reporters,” the bigwigs and top dogs of the nation and of the world—they all head to such places, “each relying on the power breakfast, [the power] lunch, [the power] dinner to get their jobs done” (Barry Lynn, “Following the Leader,” American Way, June 1, 2001, pp. 62-69).
That’s how the world wields power. That’s how the world understands power. That’s how the game is played by the movers and shakers of the planet. But Paul says: “Though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.” We cannot ape the methods of the world and expect lasting results for the kingdom of God. Our chief “weapons” must be the Word of God and prayer.
2. The Target
We do not wage war as the world does because our target is different. Adventists, of all Christians, understand that we’re in the midst of a vicious, titanic struggle—“not against flesh and blood,” but against what Paul describes as “the powers of this dark world” and “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). And these “spiritual forces,” as real as you and I, have their hands in all the big crises we face today—be they intellectual, social, moral, or spiritual.
Identifying the targets against which the Christian weapon is directed, Paul refers to “arguments” and “pretensions”: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5).
The word translated “arguments” is logismos in the Greek and refers to “reasoning,” “reflection,” “thought,” “calculation” (in the sense of “calculating”). In the present context, Paul uses this word in the negative to signify ancient sophistries parading as truth but calculated to blind us to the reality of God and His claims upon our lives. “Pretension” (from the Greek word hupsoma—normally referring to “height” or “exaltation”) refers in the present context to human pride, to empty human pomposity that sets itself up against the sacred, to human insolence that shakes its fist in the face of God.
For Paul these “arguments” and “pretensions” stand in opposition to the “knowledge of God.” They’re not only anti-God, they’re also, in a sense, rivals of God, exalting themselves against the knowledge of God. The enemy’s strategy is to gum up the work of the gospel with all kinds of contrarian theories, concepts, philosophies, and ideologies, so as to eclipse from the human mind and consciousness the knowledge of the true God who created the cosmos and who upholds it every hour.
In this respect one may think of the challenge posed by false science. Every Adventist Christian who enters a science classroom in a secular educational institution today—and in some cases, even our own—faces this challenge. There’s no one so intolerant as a narrow-minded liberal professor determined to foist upon their students the philosophy of a mechanistic universe devoid of God. The Christian weapons are directed against such targets.
3. The Outcome
Commenting on the final outcome of this titanic struggle, Paul says: “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (verse 5).
At an international conference on preaching in Cambridge, England, in April 2007, I heard world-famous New Testament scholar N. T. Wright make the point that Paul’s use of pagan poets in his address on Mars Hill (Acts 17) illustrated an attempt to take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ. Today we should be doing the same in every field of endeavor—in religion, in the arts, in literature, in science, in industry and commerce. Christians are God’s (not so secret) agents in the world, seeking to infiltrate every field of human endeavor, with the objective of pressing every idea and thought into the service of Christ.
There’s also a personal (if you like, a subjective) dimension to this process—in other words, a dimension that happens inside us. We must internally “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” That’s huge! Have you ever tried marshaling your thoughts to bring them under control? Do you sometimes find that the more you try not to think about some things, the more you think about them—as if the very mind you’re trying to control is controlling you?
The apostle is talking here about the highest level of Christian maturity. It’s a tall order. And one asks oneself: Who is able to accomplish this, confronted as we are with every kind of distraction and enticement literally everywhere we turn today? Who can keep their thoughts secure and inviolate?
But I keep remembering Jesus’ response when in the face of a difficult observation on His part, His disciples asked Him: “Who then can be saved?” (Matt. 19:25). His response: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). It’s in God’s strength and His alone that we’re able to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
So as I meditate on that last clause in the light of God’s power, I see in my mind’s eye the picture of all kinds of aberrant thoughts marching in procession behind Christ the Conqueror, as prisoners of war: prideful thoughts; discouraging thoughts; immoral thoughts; lustful thoughts; thoughts of superiority over others; thoughts of inferiority to others; thoughts of secret, personal vices; thoughts of rebellion and insubordination. I see all these thoughts that molest and defeat us marching with their tails between their legs behind our cosmic Liberator, subdued and defeated by His awesome power.
We may not be there yet. But if we never think it, we’ll never yearn for it. And if we never yearn for it, we’ll never plead for it. And if we never plead for it, we’ll never experience it.
We have a big task ahead of us. But it’s a spiritual mission requiring divinely sanctioned “weapons.” Empowered by a force beyond ourselves, we may move out into a fractured, broken world with the healing power of the gospel—taking every thought, external and internal, captive to the obedience of Jesus Christ, our matchless Lord.
*Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references are from the New International Version.
Roy Adams is an associate editor of Adventist Review in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.