What are strongholds?

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(This post is part of a series. For an introduction to the topic read, “How ought we read the Bible?” To see all posts in this topic, go to “Does the Bible really say that?”)  

There is a popular understanding that the word "stronghold" refers to entrenched supernatural forces, and that we need to engage in spiritual warfare to combat this foe. Let's look at the scriptures in question and see what they say.

The passage this understanding comes from is 2 Corinthians 10. Let's look at the verse in question and see what Paul was telling the church in Corinth.

"The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds." - 2 Corinthians 10:4

Here's how the thinking goes:

  • Paul said, "Our weapons are not of this world"
  • "Weapons not of this world" refers to supernatural weapons.
  • If the weapons are supernatural, the strongholds must be spiritual.
  • Therefore, Paul is instructing us to use spiritual warfare to battle against demonic forces.

But is this what Paul had in mind? I think that the only way to take this understanding is to read verse 4 in isolation, and with a lot of presuppositions. In this case, reading the entire passage will answer the question. And let's be sure to let the passage speak for itself without making any assumptions or importing any concepts foreign to the text.

We can determine the context by reading just one verse before and after the verse in question.

 

Verse 3:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.

"We live in the world." Simple enough.

"We do not not wage war as the world does." If we don't wage ware as the world does, what does that mean? Does that automatically refer to the supernatural? What we know so far is that we don't do battle like the world. Let's read on.

 

Verse 4:

The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.

"The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world." Ok, what does that mean? What are the weapons of this world (specifically in Paul's time)? There are lots of possibilities: Fists. Knives. Spears. You get the idea. So if we don't wage war the way the world does and we don't use those sorts of weapons, what is he talking about?

" they have divine power to demolish strongholds." Ok, this gives us a little more information, but not enough to come to a sure conclusion. We need more information. What is the nature of these strongholds? Back to the text.

 

Verse 5:

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

"We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God." Well, this helps. Strongholds are "arguments and pretensions that set themselves up against the knowledge of God". That certainly qualifies as something we could not war against with the weapons of this world. Knives don't work against bad logic and empty philosophy. For these we need something else.

"We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." Paul is saying that you need to pick the right tool for the job. In a war between nations, you pick weapons that will give you the ability to overcome an invading army. In a war of ideas, you also must pick your weapons appropriately. Not only that, but we need to engage the enemy in the proper arena. In the battle over ideas, the arena is the mind. In this war 'not of the world', we take every thought captive. That means we don't let every new idea run unhindered through our mind. We stop it, examine it, ponder it, measure it against the truth of scripture, inspect it like the Bereans (Acts 17:11) did, and see if it holds up. If it does, we let it pass. But if not, we reject it. That is making it obedient to Christ.

 

So here is the question: which assessment of battling strongholds best fits the context? I think the one just presented is preferable.

 

For additional confirmation, let's look at Paul's other writings. This sounds like something very important to Paul. I would think he would refer to it elsewhere. Does he? If we think Paul is referring to a spiritual battle against demonic strongholds, the answer is no. Paul never mentions strongholds again. In fact, no New Testament author does. This is the only occurrence of the word in the New Testament. How about the reading outlined above? Does this line up with Paul? Absolutely. Paul dedicated his life to debate, argumentation, and contending for the faith. This reading is entirely consistent with Paul's life and his instructions to fellow believers.