While many believers think of the occult or moral evils when they think of spiritual warfare, Satan's schemes often are focused on misleading God's people through trusted spiritual leaders, said Bruce Stokes, dean of California Baptist University's school of behavioral sciences, in a gathering at CrossPoinTempe Church in Tempe, Ariz.
The Messianic fellowship was one of several groups meeting prior to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, June 14-15 in Phoenix.
Stokes, drawing from Referring to Ephesians 6:10-17 and 2 Corinthians 2:11, noted that spiritual warfare is about "standing firm" and "resisting the devil's schemes" but lamented that many believers today don't understand how the devil works.
"In our Darwinian world, predators go after the weak, and we're told to beware of wolves in sheep's clothing. The false teacher will go after the weak sheep," Stokes said. "But Satan's going to go after the leadership, because if he can tweak the leadership, he takes the whole parade in that direction."
The devil's two primary schemes -- and the field of battle in spiritual warfare -- are deception and sowing discord among the brethren, Stokes said.
"2 Corinthians 11:13 says Satan disguises himself as an angel of light and his servants disguise themselves as servants of righteousness," Stokes said.
In Middle Eastern culture -- unlike Western culture -- the serpent that deceived Eve in the Garden of Eden was seen as a symbol of wisdom, not evil. In Western culture, the deceiver would have been an owl, Stokes said.
Satan's disguise "is going to give the appearance of wisdom," Stokes explained. "This is Satan walking into the garden in doctoral robes, with a Bible in his hand. ... That's Satan's primary thing. He deceives by trying to look like the truth. He doesn't deceive by being obvious deception."
Like the devil deceived Eve by twisting what God had said, Satan deceives spiritual leaders by getting them to add their interpretation to what the Bible actually says, Stokes said.
"We are being deceived because we are not paying attention to the biblical text, and because we're regurgitating rumors that get pulled into this pastor's life and into this guy's book, and then we read that and we restate it...," Stokes said.
A ship's course only needs to be off a little to entirely miss its destination, Stokes noted.
"Satan's approach is to just twist the text slightly in a direction that makes sense and then we're off to the races -- and the races lead to sin and chaos. That's all he's got to do, change the trajectory just a little, make it look like you're serving God when you're not," Stokes said. "Most heresies are simply a true doctrine just slightly tweaked or over-exaggerated and we end up deceived."
Another factor in spiritual warfare is that Satan builds on deception by setting followers of Jesus at odds with each other over the differences in their understandings of Scripture, Stokes said.
"How do I dwell in unity when many of you are wrong about things?" Stokes asked. "How do you dwell with me when I'm wrong about things?"
The problem, Stokes said, is that people look for unity in doctrinal uniformity. While it is possible to stray too far on some points of doctrine -- doctrine does matter, he said -- unity in the body of Christ comes when believers connect with others who have a heart for God and struggle to obey God.
"I don't look at denominations to see what they are doing wrong. Obviously, they are doing things wrong," Stokes said. "I look at denominations to see what they are doing right, and when you are doing right, I will walk with you.
Ephesians 4:3 is clear that "it's the unity of the Spirit -- not the doctrine -- in the bond of peace," Stokes said.
The primary strategy in spiritual warfare -- to stand firm and resist the devil -- is to let the text speak for itself and not layer it over with one's own interpretations and explanations, Stokes said.
"I want to warn you about the danger of two things: What I call Rorschach theology -- you know the ink blot test? -- where you project into the text what you want it to say," Stokes said. "The other is pulling verses out of context," sometimes with an attitude, "I got a verse. I see your verse and raise you two … to prove what we already believe and … prove the other guys are wrong.
"The Bible was not given to us for that purpose. It was given to us to study and it was given to us to do," Stokes added. "And you have to learn it and do it in context so the experience that comes out of it is an experience in truth. Most of us are too lazy to do that."
Modern commentaries, like Judaism's rabbinic traditions, separate people from the Scripture itself and focus their attention on men's interpretations rather than God's Word, Stokes said.
"Stay close to the text. When Jesus was tempted by Satan, He stayed close to the text," Stokes said. "Satan plays with the text, so if you don't know your text, he's playing with you."
Holding aloft a copy of the Scripture, Stokes concluded: "If we are serious about spiritual warfare ... this is a light to my path. I walk in it. 'Because I know your word,' the psalmist says, 'I am wiser than all of the teachers.' This is the Word of God."
Mark Kelly is senior writer and assistant editor for Baptist Press. For information about the Southern Baptist Messianic Fellowship, visit www.sbmessianic.net.
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