Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. —Ephesians 6:11–12
In these verses, we read about mystical and earthly powers, spiritual clashes in earthly and heavenly places, and arming ourselves so that we can withstand the forces of evil in high places. Jesus encountered these very same forces. Right after his baptism he is tempted by the “evil one” and then later crucified by the religious and political powers-that-be. Our lives and the lives of our ancestors are full of similar stories of the forces of wicked rulers, powers and principalities.
Richard Rohr notes that in Ephesians when Paul talks about the “devil,” he uses words like “powers,” “principalities,” and “thrones.” Rohr believes that these are almost certainly Paul’s pre-modern words for what we now call corporations, institutions, organizations, governments, nations and states that demand our full allegiance and thus become, in some ways, idolatrous—too big to fail, too big to be criticized and too big to be held accountable. Read in this context, the mystical idea of the devil becomes a very present and concrete reality.
When these systems and powers of the world are allowed to operate as “rulers of darkness and wickedness in high places,” when they are too valued to be critiqued, too influential to be held accountable, and celebrated as necessities they inevitably do immense harm to individuals and cultures.
Theologian Walter Wink (1935–2012) says this about what Paul was referencing:“If we want to take the notion of angels, demons, and the principalities and powers seriously, we will have to go back to the biblical understanding of spirits in all its profundity and apply it freshly to our situation today. First, we need to reinterpret the “principalities and powers,” not as disembodied spirits inhabiting the air, but as institutions, structures, and systems. But the Powers are not just physical. The Bible insists that they are more than that (Ephesians 3:10; 6:12); this “more” holds the clue to their profundity. In the biblical view the Powers are at one and the same time visible and invisible, earthly, and heavenly, spiritual, and institutional (Colossians 1:15–20). Powers such as a lumberyard or a city government possess an outer, physical manifestation (buildings, personnel, trucks, fax machines) and an inner spirituality, corporate culture, or collective personality. Perhaps we are not accustomed to thinking of the Pentagon, or the Chrysler Corporation as having a spirituality, but they do. The New Testament uses the language of power to refer at one point to the outer aspect, at another to the inner aspect, and yet again to both together. What people in the world of the Bible experienced as and called “principalities and powers” was in fact the actual spirituality at the center of the political, economic, and cultural institutions of their day. Institutions are at once good and evil, though to varying degrees, and they are capable of improvement. They are good by virtue of their creation to serve the purposes of God. They are all fallen, without exception, because they put their own interests above the interests of the whole. And they can be redeemed, because what fell in time can be redeemed in time.”
Viewing the modern church outwardly as an institution and inwardly as a principality and power, Paul’s language hits uncomfortably close to home. Paul’s observation should serve as a caution each time we hear of a church’s leadership that refuses critique, a denominational board that denies accountability, or a glorified pastor who demands allegiance, demonizes any opposition and uses Holy Scripture as a weapon.
In my experience the organizational church is on whole quite good and even holy but can at times be bad as well. And most see the church and its adherents as God’s Plan A for fulfilling the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. But when we idolize the church as an institution, view its mission, vision and agenda as infallible and refuse to hold its leaders fully accountable, they inevitably become unholy in some form. Regretfully, history demonstrates that we typically don’t see this until it is too late. I fear that history is repeating itself today.
Posted on July 4, 2023