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Salvation Is Shared: A Communal War Cry

Image of a church, knight, coat of arms, and God

If memory serves, when various youth Bible study groups I attended arrived at Ephesians 6, we all perked up. Suddenly plastic armor and, most importantly, weapons appeared. Like the Adult Bible Study Guide this week, the mature ones focused on theological and philosophical concepts like righteousness and truth, but it was clear by the sudden engagement of the Earliteen Sabbath school class that most kids only heard “gird your loins” and “breastplate.” Exacerbating this sudden attention to Ephesians, a member of the group often stood in front of us and donned the divine armor. Illustrating this biblical mandate with the story of Martin Luther, the quarterly calls us to stand as well. However, as this commentary will show, context matters. 

Ephesians’ verses build toward action. After reading through the girding and the shoeing came the closest I’ve been to the excitement of a medieval knighting. A lucky youth would grasp the shield in their non-dominant hand. Then, an adult would authoritatively place the helmet to almost complete the outfit. Finally, the strong hand reaches out, palm open, and closes around the sword. The most dedicated pacifist cannot fight the urge to swing it. 

And that’s the rhetorical point. After five chapters, Ephesians emerges from the household codes and calls attention to a bigger problem in the larger world: the fight against the powers that be. The author “describes ‘our struggle’ (Eph. 6:12, NRSV), using a Greek word for the competition between wrestlers (palé),” as Thursday’s lesson states. “Since wrestling was regarded as excellent preparation for battle, this is an appropriate description of the weapon-against-weapon and hand-to-hand combat that takes place when armies clash.” This shows “the reality of believers’ close struggle against the evil powers.” Activism is essential to Christian witness. The Jesus movement acts, just like the title of the post-Gospels book about the apostles.

Sunday’s lesson calls this rhetoric “battle speech.” The language of Ephesians 6 builds like a war cry or a coach rallying the team for competition. Sentences drum up a rousing blend of rhetoric and inclusive language that creates a sense of shared cause. When we all put the armor (jersey) of Christ on, the fight becomes our fight. This also shows the role of righteousness and salvation. Salvation is not an end in itself, but existential equipment—a tool—to join the greater cause. Beliefs equip the individual for a larger social fight against structures of evil. Or, as Ephesians has been calling it: demonic rulers and authorities with cosmic-like power.

It reminds me of Henry V’s “St. Crispin's Day speech” in act 4, scene 3 of Shakespeare’s eponymous play. Delivered by the English king to his vastly outnumbered troops, he preaches a message of egalitarianism. Dedication to a shared struggle levels the players, not the playing field. 

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition

Kinship in the shared struggle. Is this not the cause of Christ? 

After this helpful orientation to the common good, the lesson’s Teacher Comments seem drawn in a different direction. The lesson rewrites the oft-told tale of Martin Luther before the Diet of Worms in 1521 answering for his criticism of contemporary institutional Christianity. It’s a dramatic historical moment and provides another example of how the rhetoric of Ephesians 6 inspires conscious-driven commitment to a cause. Interestingly, the lesson alludes to a historical problem—one that beclouds Adventism as well. “Historians have noted that the words ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise’ are not present in the official written records of the Diet.” The Adult Bible Study Guides then counters by citing the author of the Here I Stand (1950) Luther biography as well as stating that Ellen G. White describes Luther as having pronounced these words on page 160 of The Great Controversy.  The lesson goes on to state the phrase was “included in the earliest printed version of the speech.” 

On the other hand, this 2022 article, “How Luther Became the Mythical ‘Here I Stand’ Hero,” in The Lutheran Quarterly surveys that textual record and offers some analysis of how later political and religious concerns created the rhetorical moment. “The rise of the ‘here I stand’ translation in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century English-language biographies of Luther corresponded with an emphasis on the Diet of Worms speech as the iconic moment in the Reformer's life,” writes Samuel L. Young, assistant professor of history at Indiana Wesleyan University. Young, who earned his PhD in history from Baylor University, adds, “earlier English biographies of the Reformer had often elided or neglected his speech at Worms, centering on other moments of Luther's life as the most pivotal for the early Reformation. As translations of hier stehe Ich became standardized, the event came to the fore as the most significant turning point in Luther's life.” Despite the appeal of the rugged individual standing alone, we can’t do it on our own. No one ever has. 

What are we fighting? The demonic, many Christians might answer. Reading this morning on social media, I saw a pastor suggest that if we saw demons more often, we might pray more. However, all too often, like the language of Luther, mythology clouds meaning. “We might think of ‘demons’ as the actual spirituality of systems and structures that have betrayed their divine vocations,” writes Walter Wink in his book The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galilee Doubleday: Random House Inc., 1998). On pages 27-28, he continues, 

When an entire network of Powers becomes integrated around idolatrous values, we get what can be called the Domination System. Do these entities possess actual metaphysical being, or are they the “corporate personality” or ethos of an institution or epoch, having no independent existence apart from their incarnation in a system? My main objection to personalizing demons is that by doing so, we give them a “body” or form separate from the physical and historical institutions through which we experience them. I prefer, therefore, to regard them as the impersonal spiritual realities at the center of intuitional life.

This is a battle of all, for all. It is demonic that all good things on earth have flaws. To exist is to participate in institutions with a dark side. Being honest about that fact allows us to suit up in shared faith. Swinging the lightsabers of the Jesus movement, reform is a battle we can fight—and win—together. 


Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum

Title Image: Hans Talhoffer, Fencing Book (Fechtbuch), 16th century copy of a mid-15th century manuscript, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Miss Marguerite Keasbey.

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