“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against rulers, authority, world leaders of darkness itself, and against [those with] a spirituality of wickedness among the heavenly places.” – Ephesians 6:12
If you’re like me, you might have grown up being told that Ephesians 6:12 is telling us that our struggle, or wrestling, in this world is against Satan and spiritual evil. In fact, you might have also been told that addressing systemic oppression is against the Bible because it focuses on ingrained evil instead of individual evil from spiritual forces. However, this verse actually has nothing to do with spiritual forces, but worldly evil that holds power around us (i.e. systemic evil).
So let’s break this down!
- “Flesh and blood” – this is actually “blood and bodies,” but that doesn’t translate as well into English. The point is that the struggle is not a physical/violent struggle. This could mean a spiritual struggle, but could also mean a political or social/cultural struggle.
- “Rulers” – ἀρχή – this literally means that which is first or the beginning. In the context of power, it is a person that is the leader or one in charge over something or a group of people.
- “Authority” – ἐξουσία – often used for Jesus as one who speaks with authority or used for people who have authority over others.
- “World leaders of this darkness” – κοσμοκράτορας τοῦ σκότους τούτου
- “World leaders” – Κοσμοκράτωρ – compound word of κόσμος (world) and κρατέω (that which holds). Literally, one who has a hold on the world. κόσμος (pronounced cosmos) is not a spiritual force as the spiritual realm is not seen as part of our “cosmos.” More accurately in English “cosmos” is Greek is better understood as land and ground more than the planet or universe. In the context, it most likely means a person with power over the land or regions (like Caesar and other political figures).
- “Of this darkness” – τοῦ σκότους τούτου – When there is a definite article on a noun (τοῦ σκότους [the darkness]) and then a demonstrative pronoun (τούτου) it is rendered “darkness itself.”
- “Spirituality of wickedness in the heavenly places” – πνευματικὰ τῆς πονηρίας ἐν τοῖς ἐπουρανίοις – On the surface, this is the phrase that most looks like it is referring to spiritual forces. However, this is not the first time the author uses this type of phrasing. In Ephesians 1:3, there is almost the exact same language used for those who have been blessed in Christ (“who blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ”). Thus, the author is making a direct contrast between those who have been blessed by Christ in spiritual things and those who have a spirituality of wickedness, neither of which are meant to indicate anything other than humans. (This is the reason I added “those with” as a clarification since it is an intentional contrast between the two types of people mentioned in 1:3 and 6:12.)
With all of that in mind, it seems that the author had a lot more focus on the people who held power in the world around them. There is not a single object in the verse that requires an understanding that the author is referring to demonic forces in the world that we are called to oppose. Every single one is a human force with power to create evil and oppression.
This is why spirituality should not lead us to a life of passiveness, hoping that things will be made right when demonic forces are ultimately defeated at the end of time (like many of us have been taught). Spirituality should lead us to recognize the evil in the world that is being upheld by human powers and stand against them. The Spirit calls us to subvert all forms of evil that exist in the world, including systemic and governmental evil.