I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away!—I beg of you that when I am present I may not have to show boldness with such confidence as I count on showing against some who suspect us of walking according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete (2 Corinthians 10:1-5).
This passage is frequently cited by Christians to support the doctrine and practice of apologetics. That is why I have chosen it. It openly states that Christians are engaged in spiritual warfare—though not “according to the flesh”, “using mere human weapons” (AB). Rather, looking at the Greek, the weapons of our campaign are powerfully able through God to destroy not physical fortresses, but rather to tear down the high walls of human reasoning and speculation which people raise in their minds against the knowledge of God.
This is an encouraging passage. It speaks strongly of the intellectual superiority of the Christian worldview. However, although it is commonly used as a prooftext for the power and method of Christian apologetics, when we read it in its larger context it is difficult not to notice that it is actually directed inward, toward the church; rather than outward, toward unbelievers. Paul is not speaking about evangelism here, but rather is issuing a warning to those in the Corinthian church who believe he is “walking in the flesh”. He begs them not to give him cause to use these spiritual weapons against them because of their disobedience. His concern is to ensure that every wrong opinion and every bad argument which is raised against his preaching is refuted, so that believers in the church may have their minds increasingly conformed to “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16), and increasingly obedient to his gospel. This is of much importance to him in all the churches. He encourages the faithful Philippians to be of “one mind, striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Phil 1:27; cf 2:5); he directs the Romans to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2); and he instructs the Ephesians “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:23-24).
Therefore, 2 Corinthians 10:5 is specifically a passage which supports polemics as a part of church discipline. It does not speak directly to the topic of apologetics. However, what is polemics if not the practice of apologetics directed toward other believers? If the weapons of our warfare are able to tear down intellectual strongholds within the church, taking every thought captive to obey Christ, then how much more will they be capable of powerfully refuting unbelieving worldviews, which do not even have the benefit of claiming Scripture in their support. It is clear that our spiritual weapons are equally effective against all kinds of unbelief; wherever it may appear. The purpose of wielding them is ultimately to ensure that every thought is taken captive to obey Christ—which in turn is the basis for punishing disobedience. But obedience to Christ is not something required only of Christians, but of all people. It is the imperative fiat on which the gospel of grace which we preach is based: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). It is the absolute moral duty of all people everywhere to submit to the gospel, which, “through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith” (Rom 16:26). Therefore, the spiritual weapons which we wield are fitted not only for correction and sanctification within the church, but for the evangelism and conversion of the lost.
What precisely is the nature of these weapons, however? It is clear from the passage that they are not physical, but spiritual or intellectual; and that they have the power of God. But Paul does not explicitly describe them. He seems to be referring to his own preaching, and possibly to his letters. Since he was plainly aware that his words carried the weight of God’s own revelation (cf Gal 1:12), this is consistent with the metaphor he uses in Ephesians 6:10-20. That passage therefore casts a great deal of light on this one, since he evidently has the same idea in mind, but approaches it from the more holistic perspective of sanctification; thus treating it more fully, and providing some useful context for his briefer comment in 2 Corinthians. For, as he says in Ephesians, not only do we not “wrestle against flesh and blood”, but our battle is “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). With this in view, we can understand the spiritual landscape on which the warfare mentioned in 2 Corinthians 10 takes place. It is not merely Christians correcting other Christians, or Christians refuting non-Christians—rather, there is an entire army supporting our human opponents: an army of angels, led by Satan, who is the ruler of this world from the supernatural realm.
Understanding this, it is clear why we require truth, righteousness, the gospel, faith, and salvation for our armor: none of these rely on our own strength or abilities, which are insignificant compared to those of Satan. They are given to us by God, for the very purpose of standing against the rulers of the current spiritual darkness in the world. Similarly, for the purpose of defeating these forces, we have been given the word of God as our sword. Undoubtedly, it is to this weapon which Paul refers in 2 Corinthians 10:5: to the Bible, and to its preaching, and to every argument made from it. The word of God is not merely our sword, but “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17), to be taken up “in all circumstances” (v 16). It is not Christians who have divine power to destroy strongholds—it is the weapon we employ. It is the word of God, and the Spirit of God, which are able to demolish arguments and every pretension which sets itself up against the knowledge of God (NIV), regardless in whom they are found. It is God who has the power to defeat the spiritual forces who wage their campaigns in support of these arguments and pretensions; and it is God who has the power to convert souls.
As Christians, we are in a unique and privileged position. In ourselves, we are powerless to change people’s hearts, or to reveal the truth of God to them. We cannot argue from our own reason, or our own experience, because these are as impotent and worthless as the unbeliever’s. Only the reason of God, and the experience of God, are effectual to powerfully convert the darkened minds of sinners. Yet we have been given these as divine weapons to use—we have the ability, and the authority, and the duty (Matt 28:19) to use them to defeat spiritual darkness, and to bring spiritual light. By faith, we are so united to Christ that we are entrusted with powerful weapons to fight for him. But let us also be cautious, for wielding powerful weapons entails not merely privilege, but responsibility. We must have discernment, fortitude, and confidence in them, if we are to use them correctly. But above all, we must be wielding them rightly—not by our own power, but in the power of God, through study, meditation, and prayer. Warfare easily brings out pride, cruelty, anger, arrogance, and a desire for power and glory. Yet we are not warriors of the world, and these things will bring judgment upon us. If we are to be proud, we must boast in the Lord; yet toward man we must be humble (Ps 34:2). If we are to be cruel, it must be in oppressing Satan through the preaching of the gospel; out of compassion for the lost. If we are to be angry, it must be because the holiness of God is impugned and despised; though we forebear any offense against ourselves. If we seem arrogant, it is because we know and boldly proclaim the truth without regard for the preference of man; since we submit to God instead. And if we desire power and glory, we are not to crave it for ourselves; but to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen (Jude 1:25).