A recent — and unfortunate — trend in Christian culture is the growth of the “dones.” These are Christians who at one time were active in the church but, for a variety of reasons, have washed their hands of religious institutions. (See Joshua Packard, “Meet the ‘Dones’,” Christianity Today.) You may have heard them say, “I love Jesus, but hate the church,” or “Why do I need to go to church? My personal relationship with Jesus is just fine as it is.” They firmly believe that they can stand strong in their Christian faith on their own.
The apostle, Paul, however, regularly addressed his letters to communities of believers and exhorted the church to build up one another in the faith. Contrary to many popular interpretations, one of the greatest exhortations to stand strong in the faith, Eph 6:10-17, was not addressed to individual believers, but to the body of Christ as a whole. Our English translations of the text, unfortunately, do not capture the group-oriented emphasis of the passage. In Eph 6:13 Paul (or one of his disciples) gives the command to “put on the full armor of God so that you can stand your ground on the evil day….” The section continues to urge the soldier of God to put on “your” armor in various ways. But both the original Greek and the larger context of Ephesians make it clear that Paul is not focused on the individual believer, but rather the church as a whole.
First, the Greek language uses a second-person plural form that English does not have. Think of the southern “y’all” (or “all y’all”) that gets used for a group of people. In every instance in 6:10-17, Paul uses this plural form. Even when he is speaking about a body part, he is using the plural (“stand with the belt of truth around y’all’s waist” might be a better translation). He has in mind a group of people, operating as a single body, wearing this armor.
Second, elsewhere in the letter to the Ephesians where Paul describes the body, he is metaphorically referring to the church as a whole and not to individual believers (1:22-23; 2:16; 4:4, 12, 16; 5:23, 30). The one exception is 5:28, where Paul specifically refers to a husband’s physical body. Thus, in 6:10-17 when Paul is depicting armor being placed on a body, he is referring to the way the church as a whole should be clothing itself.
Despite the military imagery, this clothing promotes a quiet strength rather than raucous violence. The soldier of God wears truth, justice, peace, faith, and the assurance of salvation in order to defend, while the primary offensive weapon is the word of God. And so the warrior of God — that is, the church — must ask how effectively it wears this armor.
If the church as a whole is not working together to live out the truth of the gospel, then the warrior of God will become emaciated. This also occurs when individual believers deny the need for participating in the body of Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic book Life Together, aptly described the pitfalls of such individualistic faith: “the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”
Paul emphasizes that it is only as members of the church work together, bear with one another, and encourage one another that we are able to withstand the evil day. Yet we do not do this out of our own strength; rather, as Eph 6:10 reminds us, we are empowered through the Lord’s mighty strength. The God who was fierce enough to defeat death will use that same power to fortify the church — if only we will band together to accept it.