From the Letter to the Ephesians:
Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. * * * As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ephesians 6:11,15 (NRSV) – June 7, 2014)
Paul’s military armaments metaphor for facing the powers of sin and death is very well known; it’s quite popular with preachers and commentators. In the sixth chapter of the letter to the church in Ephesus we find him going on and on about the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of righteousness, and the sword of the spirit. You can tell he’s really getting into this image; he’s having fun with it. My favorite bit of the whole thing is our shoes are to be “whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” (v. 15)
However, even with that, I’ve never been a big fan of the military armaments metaphor. This is especially so today as we continue to remember the horrors of World War II and the heroic actions of the D-Day liberators of Normandy, as well as witness the public (and, in my opinion, extremely silly but deeply divisive) debate about the return of Afghan War prisoner Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban captivity.
The major issue I have with the metaphor is the way it is commonly preached — from an individualist perspective. But Paul does not apply the metaphor to single persons. This is not a call to individual spiritual bravery, an exhortation to individual Christians to become “prayer warriors” (a term often used in sermons based on this passage). Paul very clearly and very pointedly (in the original Greek, anyway) uses the plural “you,” not the singular. The metaphor does not apply to individual believers; it applies to the church as a whole. This is not a description of a singular prayer warrior; it is a portrait of the community of the church, the church militant.
The individualist preaching of this passage, in addition to disregarding the plural “you,” also ignores the passage’s context. The letter to the Ephesians is a treatise on the nature of the church as community. The military armaments metaphor is simply one of several which treat the church as a corporate entity. This is the epistle in which we find three other prominent Pauline metaphors: the church as the body of Christ (1:22-23), the church as a spiritual building (2:19-21), and the church as the bride of Christ (5:25-32). Paul’s concern in the letter to the Ephesian church is the church, not the individual believer.
So all this talk of the armaments and armor of warfare is not for the singular Christian. It is for the entire community, the church envisioned as a cosmic warrior. To treat it in the usual individualistic way betrays both the text and, I believe, the service of real warriors, the soldiers who fought and sacrificed on Normandy’s beaches, in Europe’s fields, in Vietnam’s jungles, in Afghan’s rugged terrain, in Iraq’s deserts, and many, many other places. As important to our individual and corporate well-being as prayer is, it is not the same as risking life and limb in battle. Understanding this metaphor in an individualistic way draws that equation, and it’s wrong. Just wrong. Whatever a “prayer warrior” may be, he or she is not a soldier facing the grim reality of death, his or her own or that of the opposing soldier he or she may encounter.
And that’s the issue with many (if not all) metaphors. They can be misapplied and extended too far; to use another, a metaphor misused often falls off a cliff into an abyss of confusion and misunderstanding, betraying the very purpose of a metaphor which is to clarify and enlighten. In the individual understanding of Paul’s military armaments metaphor, his colorful and imaginative language is misapplied and taken to places Paul never intended. Let’s walk it back from that precipice.
Which brings me back to the shoes — “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” (v. 15) I have a suggestion. Let the church put on scholarship and education for its shoes! More than Sunday School for children is an imperative for the church. We need real, in-depth, wide-spread, formal training in understanding the Scriptures, the theology, and the traditions of the church for all Christians. These will help our people avoid the peril of misused and overextended metaphors, strengthen church members reasoned faith, and make the church “ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.