The Limits of Our Engagement

Second in a series. Edited for electronic publication.

Last week I spoke to you about “contending” against the principalities and powers, defined as  “the world rulers of the present darkness, the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” This morning, I want to talk about our rules of engagement, the limits under which we operate.

Ephesians 6 forces us to talk about this because it not only says that we are “contending” the powers, some of which are earthly but urges us to “put on the whole armor of God” and compares it to equipment used by Roman soldiers.

Many have regretted this martial language. For almost three centuries, Christians were ardent pacifists. For the last 1700 years, Christians have often been aggressors. The change began on October 27, 312 A.D. The night before the battle that would make Constantine undisputed Emperor of Rome. He had a dream in which he saw a cross of light in the sky and the words, “In this sign, you will conquer.” The next day Constantine ordered the shields of his soldiers marked with the “Christus Rho”—meaning “Christ the King,” and marched them into battle. Though outnumbered, his army forced the army of his archrival, Maxentius, back across the Tiber River. A hastily erected pontoon bridge collapsed, and many of the invaders were trampled to death or drowned. When Constantine, in victory, rode a white horse into Rome, he carried the head of Maxentius. In 313 A.D., Constantine granted Christianity legal status throughout the Empire. In 380 A.D. Emperor Theodosius made Christianity (specifically Nicene Christianity) the Roman Empire’s official religion.

Somewhere in this mix, Jesus of Nazareth, the Prince of Peace, displaced the old Roman deities like Zeus and Mars as Rome’s God of War. You know the rest of that story; how some Roman emperors and Roman popes took up the sword and turned it against non-Christians and Christians alike. For not only did Christian armies and inquisitors kill countless Jews and Muslims but frequently killed other Christians who resisted their authority and power.

This history of slaughter is a terrible irony. Ephesians 6 does not tell us to study war; it tells us to “be strong in the Lord and the strength of his might.” It does not ask us to take up the Gladius, a short, sharp, two-edged Roman sword, but to “put on the whole armor of God.” In making our stand against evil, our weapons are to be spiritual, not physical. They include truth, righteousness, and the gospel of peace. Our shield is faith, our helmet the sure knowledge of our salvation, and our weapon the “sword of the Spirit,” which is the Word of God.

I think it is fair to say that Ephesians 6 sees the church, the people of God, as a mighty army, but it is a “salvation army” contending against all the evil powers, visible and invisible (known and unknown) but not against flesh and blood. [See Footnote 1]

Ephesians 6 is consistent with the teaching of Jesus. In Matthew 5:44, Jesus lays down his hardest commandment he commands his disciples to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.” And in Matthew 28:19-20, the Risen Christ lays an even more forceful preemption, saying:

All authority (right and power) in heaven and on earth has been given to me, go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.

According to this Great Commission, Christians are to defeat our enemies by making them friends. As followers of Jesus, we are contending not a higher body count, or territory or plunder but for the hearts and minds of humankind. As Christians we know that we cannot win that battle by force; we must do it with kindness, love, and sacrifice.

This task is complicated at best.  It is made still more complicated because all Christians hold dual citizenship. By faith, our commonwealth is in heaven (Phil. 3:20); we are already citizens of God’s kingdom. Yet, we still live in this world as citizens of the nations.  “Every foreign country is our fatherland, and every fatherland is a foreign country.”  (Epistle to Diognetus)

Thankfully, Jesus allowed for our dual citizenship. In Matthew 22:21, in answering a question about paying taxes to the emperor, he told his disciples to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars and unto God the things that are God’s.” This saying of Jesus gives Christians the right and duty to obey the laws of our land, as much as conscience allows, to pay taxes, to serve on juries, to engage in politics, and–in the minds of non-pacifists, to go to war when our nation and its way of life are threatened, and conscience compels.  Pacisifts will still disagree–but most Christians living in democratic nations will not.

Many of you have seen the movie, “Sgt. York,” starring Gary Cooper. It is based on the true story of Alvin York, a pacifist from the hills of Tennessee who became the greatest hero of World War I. York was drafted and at first, he refused to fight. Then, as he searched his Bible for guidance, he came across Matthew 22:21. York decided he was free to go to France as an armed soldier. On October 8, 1918, he fought a heroic battle against an enemy position in the Argonne Forest. According to an article published in Time Magazine on the 100th anniversary of the battle, York single-handedly killed 25 enemy soldiers and captured 132 more. He received the Medal of Honor for his remarkable efforts. When people asked how he went from pacifist to war hero, York said that he took lives to save lives. He fought not just for his nation but for those who were in the trenches with him. So also, one may observe, in doing his part to bring the war to a rapid end, for his enemies as well.

Like Alvin York, many of our grandparents, compelled by conscience, went to war against the Kaiser, and many of our parents went to war against Hitler and Hirohito. Others felt compelled to fight in Korea or Vietnam or in Operation Desert Storm. Since Sept. 11, 2001, many of our children, and our children’s children, have been moved by a love of family, freedom, and country to join the fight against terrorism. The events of this week remind us that this fight is still very real.

Most of you have known me for a long time. You know that though I trained for war and trained others for war, I have never been to war.  However, as a pastor, I have often served those who have, especially since 9/11. I always offer three cautions to young men and women who are compelled by conscience to join the military.

  1. I tell them that the risks are real, and I remind them how Jesus said, “All who take the sword the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) Not always, perhaps, but often. As you know, we all must live through the process of dying, but the dead do not live with the consequences of their own death. Those they leave behind certainly do. Of course, death is not the only consequence of battle. I once knew a Marine who lost both legs to a landmine. It happened on his first patrol in Vietnam. When I last saw him, he had been in a wheelchair for more than forty years. He said he had been sustained by his faith in Jesus Christ. His attitude and demeanor were amazing! Variations of his story are legion. All warriors are wounded in some way and all deserve the best we can give them. Of course, not all wounded warriors are sustained by faith. Just this week, on a trip to the western part of the state, I passed the grave of a World War II fighter pilot I held services for about a decade ago. His family had faith, but he lost his own, bit by bit as members of his squadron went out on sorties, never to return. His story reminds us that war itself is a power opposed to God. It lures us in with the promise of glory, and then it grasps us, and if it does not kill us, it does us harm in many ways, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
  2. I tell them that prayer is a great two-handed engine that can move the immovable. I promise to pray for them and recruit others to do the same. I pray them God’s wisdom and protection for the duration of the battle. And I pray that, when the battle is won, they will still have room in their hearts for forgiveness and healing. My model is Abraham Lincoln. In his Second Inaugural Address, he looked ahead to the end of our most terrible war and he promised: “malice toward none and charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” His speech is the single, best piece of theology ever written in America.
  3. I tell them that when Christians are compelled to go to war or support one, we do so not because war is an extension of our Christian faith and its convictions and aspirations, but because it is an extension of our nation’s politics and its convictions and aspirations. Likewise, we do not make war against another nation because of its religion. Some extremists Muslims believe in jihad or Holy War. So do some extremists among Jews and Christians, ancient and modern. The Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, certainly did not and does not.

I would like to close this meditation with just one example.  It is lengthy, but it speaks not just to the issue of Christians and war but to the role of the powers in our lives.

Most of you know the name of Ferdinand Magellan, the 16th Century sailor who was the first man to circumnavigate the world. William Manchester once wrote that Magellan was the greatest hero of his time, not because of his physical courage, which he had in abundance, but because he stood virtually alone against the collected wisdom of his age. All others—whether sailors, priests, or royals, exercised great power, albeit in darkness, when they said, “the world is flat.” Magellan said, “The world is not flat; it is round,” and he promised to prove it by sailing west to the spice islands of the east.

Magellan sailed from Spain on September 20, 1519, in command of five ships and 240 men. For several years he sailed relentlessly to the west, overcoming wind and wave and famine and disease, He slipped by the enemies of Spain and overcame mutiny in his own ranks. Finally, after almost three years, he reached an island he thought to be one of the Spice Islands. It was not. It was Cebu, an island of the Philippines. Magellan realized this when he heard his faithful Philippine servant, Enrique, speaking freely with the island’s inhabitants. [See Footnote 2]

Now Magellan had always been a devout man. In the euphoria of his triumph, he became a religious zealot. Using Enrique as his translator, he convinced the Raja to be baptized, giving him the Christian name of Don Carlos. He also permitted the Raja to retain his harem and baptized forty of his wives and several thousand of his subjects.  Magellan’s euphoria was increased by a power of ten! Called to the hut of a dying man, Magellan drove out pagans who tended the man and then baptized him. He asked, “Do you feel better?” The man, hitherto unable to move or speak, said, “Yes.” Magellan then put the man on a healthy diet, and within a few weeks, he was up and about, fully recovered. In Magellan’s own mind, he was not only a great explorer, and a great evangelist, but also a healer and worker of miracles.

It was then that Magellan learned the Raja of a nearby island refused conversion and was a threat to Don Carlos. Magellan told Don Carlos that he would lead an invasion against this island, its raja, and his 2,000 warriors, armed primarily with sharpened bamboo spears. In his desire to work another miracle, Magellan ignored all sound military doctrine. He announced the date and time of the attack and invited Don Carolos and his warriors to watch. He refused to use his 150 battle-tested marines—an adequate force against the defenders and called for 60 volunteers, 20 from each of his remaining ships.  He got them. Unfortunately, they were mostly cooks, and cabin boys, and the like. On the day of the invasion things quickly fell apart. First, Magellan was unable to get his boats across a coral reef and the attackers had to wade ashore. Then, after firing only a single musket volley, which fell far short of the defenders, all but a double handful of volunteers fled to the relative safety of the boats. Magellan and those who remained fought on against hopeless odds. For a time, Don Carlos, expected to see Jesus Christ appear leading a legion of angels. When Jesus did not appear, Don Carlos sent a force to relieve Magellan. Unfortunately, gunners on Magellan’s ships mistook the reinforcements for a fresh wave of the enemy and decimated them with cannon fire. Ultimately, Magellan was wounded multiple times and killed. In death, his body was so thoroughly hacked to pieces that not even the promise of a handsome reward could produce it. After the battle, Don Carlos and his people rejected their new faith and renounced their conversions. Thus, it was said of Magellan, “He found the Philippines pagan, and left them pagan, and assured they would be pagan for a long time.”

On September 6, 1522, Juan Sebastian Elcano completed the circumnavigation of the globe in command of a single ship crewed by just 18 men. [See Footnote 3] In so doing, he finished what Magellan had started.  Ironically, Magellan defeated the powers of darkness and ignorance, which had insisted, “The world is flat.” but he did not live to receive the accolades he deserved because he had already died in a darkness of his own making.

Magellan was a great man and, I have no doubt, a Christian, forgiven.  However, thinking of himself more highly than he ought, he exchanged the truth about God for a lie, tried to make the Prince of Peace a God of War, and laid down his life in the service of the distorted vision of God he had created for himself. He ignored Christian rules of engagement. He fought a battle against “flesh and blood” that need never have been fought.

I will leave you with a preview of next week. Ideas, good and bad, are among the greatest of the powers. We do not use them, they use us, and then survive us, to use those that come after us.


The Pastor


  1. This is a radical departure from the way that the people of God once thought. In the Hebrew Bible, the people of God, Israel claimed the assistance of Yahweh, aka “the Lord of Hosts,” as they made war against everybody from the Egyptians that pursued them to the occupants of the Promised Land, to the Babylonians and the Romans, and lots of others besides. And when the people of Israel were not busy contending with other tribes and nations, they contended with one another. For instance, David fought Goliath, the champion of the Philistines on behalf of King Saul and the Armies of Israel, then King Saul tried his best to kill David. Some Christians believe all this battle was necessary, others do not. The gospel of Jesus certainly changed the game, from a battle against other people and nations to a battle against the invisible powers that rule them.
  2. Since Magellan had never been to the Philippines, and Enrique had come from there, Enrique was the first man to personally circumnavigate the globe. However, Magellan rightfully gets the credit for the voyage, for it was Magellan who stood against the conventional wisdom of the powers who said, “The world is flat, not round. You cannot get to the east by sailing to the west.”
  3. One additional ship bearing fifty others would eventually finish the journey, making the total number of survivors just over one-quarter of those who started.
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1 Response to The Limits of Our Engagement

  1. Patti says:

    After hearing/reading your story of Magellan, I’m reminded of another missionary to a foreign land, Jim Elliot. He was always a pacifist towards the native peoples yet he also was tragically killed by the same peoples he was witnessing to for Jesus.

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