A major key to victory in spiritual warfare is church unity. Read in Ephesians 6 about the importance of this dynamic.
The following is adapted from The Revolutionary Disciple by Jim Putman and Chad Harrington.
In AD 53, the infamous seven sons of Sceva made a name for themselves performing extraordinary acts in the city of Ephesus. Their father was a Jewish priest, and these brothers were casting out demons.
But one day, they were totally unprepared for the results of a certain exorcism. This story took place during Paul’s third missionary journey while he lived in Ephesus. Paul was preaching and healing in the name of Jesus, and these seven brothers thought they could exorcize a demon with Jesus’ powerful name. But they didn’t know Jesus the way Paul knew Jesus.
They wanted to use the power of Jesus without knowing the person of Jesus.
They got a rude awakening when they tried to insert Jesus’ name into their formula: “In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out” (Acts 19:13). The evil spirit inside the demonized person called their bluff and said, “Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” (v. 15).
Then the man literally jumped on all seven sons and physically beat them. Luke tells us the seven brothers ran naked out of the house down the street, bleeding as they fled. These men had walked into a spiritually charged situation full of pride and walked away humiliated—from head to toe!
It’s sort of funny to us today, but we’re sure they didn’t laugh about it.
Plus, the spiritual realm is serious business. They learned that Jesus is clearly not a name you can just use for personal gain. That didn’t work for them, and it doesn’t work for us today.
The lesson? We must live with proper and orderly submission to the power of Jesus in the spiritual realm.
Read The Revolutionary Disciple to learn about how to show humility in the five spheres of discipleship.
Just as in ancient Ephesus, people today also try to use the name of Jesus without a relationship with Jesus—also a result of pride. If we try to raise our family, be a good person at work, and do all these good things “in the name of Jesus” without a relationship of humility with Jesus, Satan will own us.
The seven sons of Sceva tried to do a good thing—cast out a demon—but they did it without a relationship with Jesus. Instead, they operated in pride, and as a result, got the snot knocked out of them.
Spiritual Warfare in Ephesians 6
Now it’s a good thing we’re on Jesus’ side because we’re all living through a fierce battle in the spiritual realm. We’re fighting rulers and forces we cannot physically see. But they’re real.
We can’t just waltz into spiritual battle, trusting in our own strength, and think, “We’ve got this!”
Our strength is in the Lord, who calls us to right relationship with Jesus and with those in our local church body.
As such, we need a working knowledge of how to fight the Evil One and his demons—together. If we don’t, we can wind up flat on our faces like the Sceva brothers.
That’s why Paul calls us to:
Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:10–12)
It’s not just in extreme circumstances we need humility in spiritual warfare, though, it’s all the time. As we’ll see, this realm is not a separate, far-off place. It’s all around us every day.
Spiritual Forces in the Spiritual Realm
Paul describes our enemies as “spiritual forces,” but he’s not talking about some sort of cosmic energy like “the Force” from Star Wars.
We’re fighting actual forces that exist as spiritual personalities. We fight these forces in the “heavenly realms,” as Paul calls it throughout Ephesians, and what we’re calling the spiritual realm.
We don’t talk much like this today, so the terminology can be difficult to understand. Perhaps the simplest way to think of the spiritual realm is like this: it’s not a place far off in the sky, but the sphere in which we live every day.
So the spiritual realm, surprisingly enough, is the everyday realm around us we cannot see. We call this a “realm” because it’s more like a dimension in our reality than a place in the clouds.
“Heavenly realms” in Ephesians is clearly not referring to heaven, as in the place we go when we die, because Paul’s using it to describe the battle we fight here on earth—in the invisible dimension of spiritual realities (Ephesians 6:10–18).
Just because we can’t see spiritual warfare doesn’t mean it’s not practical or even tangible! If we live without the spiritual realm in mind, then we do not live in light of reality.
Many Christians struggle to live in the reality of spiritual authority.
Does fighting spiritual powers in this realm sound terrifying? We don’t have to be afraid! Paul reminds us that the resurrected Christ is seated in the heavenly realms at God’s “right hand … far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:20–21).
In Christ, we have access to his power to fight against the devil’s schemes because God has “seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6). Jesus lived humbly and died humbly.
Now look at where he is—in the highest place of authority in the universe. Talk about a revolutionary way of life!
Just like with Jesus, our exaltation takes place only after our humiliation. Now that we’ve laid the groundwork, let’s look at Paul’s vision for how this plays out in terms of beauty and strength.
The Bride and the Warrior
I (Chad) was amazed to discover how Paul’s vision for the body of Christ emerges when we look at Ephesians 4–6 as a whole.
Paul shows how the people of God can move from infancy to infantry.
We start as infants in the faith, “tossed back and forth by the waves” (Ephesians 4:14). As we grow, we start looking more like full-grown spiritual parents, more like Jesus—the head of the church—“the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Ephesians 1:23).
At the climax, the body is built up “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children” (Ephesians 4:13–14, ESV).
Notice the progression from infant to adult. The end result of the process is “fullness,” also known as maturity.
As individuals we become more mature, but the church as a whole becomes more mature too. To use a sports analogy, the church grows as a team during a season. Good coaches take time to train a mature team.
This means we not only grow taller or get older individually—spiritually speaking—but the church also becomes more formed, trained, and mature.
The vision Paul casts in Ephesians 4 is realized in Ephesians 5: a beautiful bride and a strong warrior.
Paul describes the church as a “radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27). She’s the bride of Christ.
Paul’s imagery connects with people on different levels. Those who want to look radiant connect with the image of the bride whom Christ makes holy and pure, and those who want to fight connect with the image of a warrior.
But both work toward the same goal and the common vision of a strong, radiant, and unified church. As we become mature, we become both beautiful and strong.
Recognizing Authority in Spiritual Warfare
The final image in Ephesians is a warrior ready for battle.
Paul builds to the end of his letter to the Ephesians, where we see the cosmic battle between the fully armored body of Christ and Satan himself.
Take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:11–12)
Now the church faces the enemy head-on through spiritual warfare. The image here is not of many warriors fighting together but all of us fighting together as one.
It’s called the body of Christ, and Christ himself is our head, our leader, and our authority. Because Christ is the head of the church, we must submit to his authority in spiritual warfare.
That’s how we win, as Scripture tells the rest of the story. In the end, the revolutionary disciple is not just Jesus or us as individuals but all of us together.
The revolutionary disciple is the mature body with Christ as our leader.
We submit to Christ by fighting as one for what God wants. For us to take our stand and succeed in spiritual battle, we must first remember our identity.
But we must also recognize that we have an enemy who seeks to destroy us: Satan and his minions.
As a result, we are shrewd and humble in our walk with Christ. We’re not just fighting sin; we’re fighting a real enemy. Success in spiritual warfare, then, requires us to come humbly under Christ’s authority—together as one.
The rest of Paul’s language captures the full impact of his battle imagery, which should encourage us to live faithfully today.
Engaging in Spiritual Warfare as One
During the time Paul wrote Ephesians, ancient Roman warriors were known for their tight battle-line formations. They had a chain of command to obey, and they fought as a group.
They moved in battle as what’s called a testudo (also known as a “tortoise formation”). This was a group of warriors who functioned as a single unit using their large rectangular shields to protect themselves as they walked together.
Their formation helped them withstand the flaming arrows of their enemies. In this sense, they functioned as a single unit.
Their strategy required them to submit to one another and to their commander, which required each soldier to be humble. No one could break the pattern without jeopardizing the whole unit.
Once they encountered the enemy, they shifted together from a defensive formation to full-on attack mode, where they sometimes fought in hand-to-hand combat.
We see these elements at play in Ephesians 6, where Paul employs this Roman army imagery to describe spiritual warfare for disciples of Christ. Paul describes our fight primarily in terms of hand-to-hand combat. We wrestle with spiritual forces in this realm.
The Meaning of “Wrestle” in Ephesians 6:12
In fact, “wrestle” most accurately translates to the Greek word pale, which emphasizes the personal aspect of spiritual battle. Paul writes, “Our struggle (pale) is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).
Our battle as disciples is up close and personal. In Greek literature, pale described the most personal type of warfare at that time.
A soldier’s sword only helped him so far. Then he would have to fight his enemy face-to-face, wrestling them on the ground at times. Paul uses this term for on-the-ground wrestling to describe the battle we fight in the spiritual realm.
If we don’t recognize spiritual authorities and humbly abide by the rules of the engagement, we’re bound to lose spiritual battles. We have to fight these forces together, not on our own.
What does fighting this battle look like in our lives? Let’s get real and bring this discussion down to earth.
How Pride Makes Us Fall in Spiritual Battle
I (Jim) share the whole story in the Introduction of The Revolutionary Disciple, about how I almost left Real Life Ministries (the church where I pastor today). You can instantly read that chapter here.
I want you to see the spiritual battle at play in that scenario. In hindsight, I see how Satan worked to get me to leave the church. But I knew God wanted me to stay.
I didn’t feel peace about leaving, the Scriptures I was reading convicted me, and most of all, godly people around me challenged me with kindness and truth about what was really going on in my heart.
The body of Christ stepped up to fight for me—and with me.
On all fronts, though, I was cornered. Satan had distanced me from Christ to the point I didn’t want to pray or read the Word.
I was angry that God had let this happen when I was not focused on abiding in Christ (Sphere 1), to use the language of the five spheres.
The enemy tried to divide our church leadership team (Sphere 2) and leveraged the existing challenges I had on the home front to attack me and my family.
My son had been dealing with a drug addiction prior to that time, which put an unbelievable—almost unbearable—strain on my marriage and home life (Sphere 3). Then I was tempted to leave my job in an ungodly way (Sphere 4).
Do you see how Satan works all the angles in the spiritual realm to destroy us? He triggers our pride in various ways, which leads to isolation. Make no mistake:
Isolation is the breeding ground for spiritual defeat.
When we give in to pride, Satan gets a foothold and deftly moves into every area of life.
How Our Enemy Wages War
It can start with a conflict, as in my story. Then, instead of working toward unity, we hide our anger and let Satan drive a wedge.
First, the enemy starts to stifle our relationship with Christ. We begin seeing things from our fleshly perspective or from the world’s ungodly point of view.
Then we start building our lives on the sand instead of on the rock of Christ’s Word. We think, “I’m my own authority. I don’t need to rely on Christ for anything.”
Yet Paul says, “We are all members of one body. ‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:25–27). So we must fight pride by staying grounded with Christ.
When the battle goes south, Satan gains ground. If we don’t think we need Christ to fight our battles, then we surely don’t need the church. We start to think, “I’m fine on my own. I can’t trust people anyway.”
So we don’t participate in church or in our discipleship group as often. Then Satan tries to take down our family by going after our marriage. At work, we’re lured into developing ungodly habits. Before we know it, the devil has taken ground in every sphere.
Satan always tries to get us to believe that we can keep our lives compartmentalized.
In the process, we believe the lie that we can allow him into just one sphere without it affecting the others. He’ll settle for a small closet in one of the rooms in our spiritual house—a small, insignificant space.
But he uses any space we give him to launch a full-scale attack on the whole house. He is a liar and never intended to remain in small spaces. Suddenly, we are lame ducks in his hand.
He leverages our pride to destroy God’s work in us. He’s so predictable too: as soon as he lures us away from the pack, he devours us—his plan the whole time. And after he gets one of us, he tries to work through the whole group.
Our pride plays into Satan’s agenda “to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). He knows that if he goes for the root—our personal relationship with Christ—then he can sever us from our life source, Jesus, who came that we “may have life, and have it to the full” (v. 10).
How do we resist the devil and experience life? By submitting humbly to Jesus in every area of our lives—together as one.
Victory in Spiritual Warfare
So after I finally submitted to the authority of the elders and we were a unified group—all submitting ultimately to the authority of Christ—a major change of heart happened. Our team responded with overwhelming agreement to these outside suggestions.
Taking new ground as “one man” ended up being easy, just like the image of Roman soldiers walking side by side in Ephesians 6. By God’s grace and power, we won the battle. And to think we almost missed it.
Our church ended up doing far more than what I had originally planned. In fact, this experience stretched me because it was so much more than I had imagined. We experienced the unexpected blessings of humility.
Blessings Poured Out
As a church, we ended up doing something none of us had previously discussed. Instead of building a bigger church building (my original desire), we ended up building a massive sports complex the whole community and surrounding region could use.
Although I’m a big sports guy, I hadn’t thought about this extreme way our church could contribute to the community. But once it was on the table, I knew it was a great idea.
Today, we now have two artificial turf fields outside the sports complex that allow us to host soccer, football, and other sporting events. They’re lighted fields, which is a big deal in North Idaho, so our church can provide a year-round outside sports field for the community.
Additionally, we have a large steel structure with three full-sized gyms inside it on our property, and we make it available for leagues and school districts throughout the area. We also added to our church building an all-new children’s wing with an indoor play area that draws young, unconnected families to our church.
In the first year alone after these expansions, we started thirty relational discipleship groups just to handle all the young families whom we reached through the sports program. Additionally, that first year we offered volleyball courts, wrestling mats, and a place to play for the sixty-eight kids who tried out for secular school teams in our area but didn’t make the team.
These kids now had something to do after school, and they were in a church-run facility with Christian leaders in place.
They were able to see sports through God’s eyes.
These teams not only help us reach those outside the walls of the church but they also give disciples with a passion for sports an opportunity to use their gifts in a Christ-centered environment.
The roster of every league is currently filled to capacity. What’s happening now and how God poured out his blessings on us is simply phenomenal. It’s great we have so many people coming right now, no doubt, but for our team, we’re experiencing something more important: church unity.
Once the pandemic hit, churches across the country and around the world became divided. Leaders were divided, church members left, and some churches even shut down completely.
But because we had worked through building trust at a deeper level prior to that time, God enabled us to lead with great strength and unity during the pandemic. Because of the hard work wrought through reconciliation, we had become a unified team.
So God actually grew our church during that time. We had such an influx of new people that we had to start around a hundred new discipleship groups of various kinds and add staff members just to keep up.
In fact, we ran out of space for our children in our new children’s wing. Finally, we broke ground on a new campus not far from our main campus and are starting another one soon.
So many decisions, connections, and impact!
These are all great, but those on our leadership team know the greatest victory was the heart-level victory of our team’s unity.
That’s really what led to this great expansion of our church. We weren’t following our own plans but submitting, as best we could, to Jesus’ headship over our church.
The Importance of Unity for Victory
What had gotten in my way before the blessings? I had operated in pride and not in Christlike humility.
Once God helped me humble myself, he exalted himself in our team, the church. All of this occurred in the various spheres of discipleship, but ultimately the enemy had worked on me in the abiding sphere to destroy me in the spiritual realm.
But I believe with all my heart that God spoke through the plurality of elders in the situation to save me and our church from ruin.
The hard part is submitting to others when we also have some degree of authority. We’ve heard many leaders say, “People should be under authority,” but they exclude themselves from that and live like it’s just “me and Jesus.”
But the Bible prescribes a plurality of elders because we all need their accountability and authority in our lives.
Replacing Our Pride With Humility
It’s why we’re called to submit to God and to his delegated authorities wherever they are because God is in control and God fights our battles. We simply need to align ourselves with him and come under his mighty power, no matter what earthly positions we might hold.
I know myself well enough to say that while the battle for humility was won in this case, I struggle with my pride every day and often lose. I am so thankful for the constant and continual grace of God during that time and now.
God gives me grace through my wife, my family, and my church—people who act as guardrails for me to tell me the truth when I have forgotten it. They remind me to choose to go lower.
Here’s what I believe the Lord taught me through this: “Jim, if you move forward with broken relationships, it’s going to fall apart from the inside out. Get the relationships right, humble yourself before me, and then we’ll figure out the rest.”
Through this, I learned in a fresh way a lesson I had even taught others many times:
It’s not just about the task, it’s also about the relationship.
While I couldn’t see the coming blessings at the time, I wouldn’t have done it any other way now. I stayed at Real Life and fought together with my team simply because that’s what walking together with Jesus in the spiritual realm requires. Our decision—the elders’ and mine—to work it out thwarted the devil’s schemes to divide our church.
We never graduate past humble submission to God’s delegated authorities. Trust is the internal posture that results in this kind of submission. God uses our submission to create church unity, which God then uses to win battles, transform us, and transform those around us.
Learn more about how be victorious in other aspects of spiritual warfare by reading The Revolutionary Disciple: Walking Humbly with Jesus in Every Area of Life.