The Greatest Enemy of the Church

These are times that try men’s souls, but who is the enemy — the greatest enemy — of God’s people?

Perhaps it’s liberal Supreme Court judges and the sexual ethics of secular society. Or maybe it’s ISIS and the looming threat of radical Islam. Perhaps it’s the rapid increase of those that identify religiously as “none.” Or maybe it’s Planned Parenthood and others who advocate for an adult’s right to comfort over a child’s right to life and barbarically snuff out life in the very womb that is for its protection and growth.

As I look, from my limited vantage, around our world today, I don’t know the answer to this question — at least, I don’t know the answer exhaustively. But I do know the answer that the book of Judges gives, which is the same answer the whole Bible gives. According to Judges, if the people of God want to know who their greatest potential enemy is, they need only do one simple thing: Look in the mirror.

The Real Enemy in Judges

In the time of the judges, there were some scary-strong enemies. They oppressed, they pillaged, they raped as they saw fit in their own eyes. And I’m sure if you did some man-on-the-street interviews, you would have heard all sorts of external reasons for their problems. “They have chariots and we don’t,” one Israelite might have said. “They are better fighters on the plains than we are,” says another. Or, “They have better generals, better kings; that’s why we’re not inheriting the land.”

Perhaps the Jerusalem Post of the day even ran headlines telling this tale of woe. But if they did, it would have been superficial reporting. These were not the deepest issues. The greatest enemies were not external, but internal. And the book of Judges both shouts and whispers this indictment.

Consider the last sentence in the book. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25; see also Judges 17:6). This statement is the ancient equivalent of bold, italics, underline, and all caps — an example of the book shouting that the greatest enemy is internal.

Another place is Judges 2:10, which is a key verse in the book. Here the blame is laid on the fact that “there arose another generation . . . who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel.” Again, the foe is internal, not external.

But the book also whispers this message. For example, consider the judge Tola (Judges 10:1–2). He, like another named Shamgar, was a deliverer only mentioned in a verse or two (Judges 3:31). But unlike Shamgar, who delivers from an external enemy (the Philistines), no enemy is listed that Tola fought. When Tola comes to save, he saves Israel from Israel.

And that is why the book, as a whole, concludes with an appendix of sordid stories likely from an earlier time in the book, stories of a greedy priest, a Levite who dismembered his concubine, and a civil war that nearly annihilated one of the tribes. Internal enemies, not external.

The Real Enemy in the Bible

But it’s not only Judges that makes this point, is it? Across covenants and authors — from Abraham, to David, to exile, to the church, to the second coming — the greatest issue is the purity and fidelity of our faith.

Peter speaks of Satan as our “enemy” and a “roaring lion” (1 Peter 5:8), and Paul writes of our battle against “spiritual forces” (Ephesians 6:12), but when Adam led us all into rebellion against God, his excuse that “the devil made me do it” didn’t fly. Adam and Eve stopped delighting in God. Sure, there was an external enemy, but it was their faith, their inner life, that mattered most and led to their fall.

Consider when the twelve spies did their recon in Numbers 13–14. They felt like grasshoppers facing giants, but the issue was never their relative size, but rather, Would Israel trust the God of the grasshoppers?

And what about the end of Romans 1? After a notorious list of sins, the veritable punch in the gut is to the religious types, that is, those who should know better but apparently don’t (Romans 1:32).

And consider the letters to the churches in Revelation. The issue was not merely that someone, somewhere in the world was teaching something wrong, say, the “teaching of Balaam” or the “Nicolaitans.” Rather, the issue was that some in the church “held” to this teaching (Revelation 2:14–15). And sure, in Thyatira “that woman Jezebel” was doing her thing, but God was on it (“I gave her time to repent . . . I will throw her onto a sickbed . . . I will strike her down,” Revelation 2:20–24). The greatest threat to the church is whether they will “hold” to Jezebel’s teaching or remain faithful to God’s.

We could go on, but the point is clear: Not only Judges, but the whole of Scripture, teaches that the greatest enemy to God’s people is internal.

Will We Acknowledge This Enemy?

And yet we deeply resist this teaching. Don’t believe me? Does your church have a list of prayer requests? How many are related to spiritual apathy, fear of the Lord, love for the lost, divisions among brothers and sisters, and our subtle syncretism? How many prayer requests do we make to find our greatest joy in our Father’s delight over us on account of the gospel? Not enough.

Friends, the greatest threat to the church is not ISIS or Planned Parenthood. It’s not Hollywood. It’s not atheist professors who ruin the faith of our sweet, Christian college freshmen (who must not have been truly Christian in the first place if they fell away so quickly). And the greatest enemies are not secular politicians and Supreme Court judges, or greedy corporations who hurt the poor and destroy the environment.

These challenges are real. The reality of babies killed, chopped, and sold as scrap metal is evil. And the Canaanite general Sisera, who “oppress[ed] the people of Israel cruelly” and raped captured women, was evil too (Judges 4:3; 5:28–30). However, it was when the people of God “abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth” (Judges 2:13), when their faith lost its purity and fidelity, and when internal (not external) idolatry became pandemic that the cookie crumbled.

If we want to know the worst enemy — the one that, apart from the sustaining grace of God, could eternally destroy us — then we must look in the mirror. Doing so won’t be easy; it will be uncomfortable. But a long look into our own souls and indwelling sin might catch our melanoma while it’s early. And if it does, praise God we have the gospel for our healing.