Do Christians need to “take every thought captive”?

While visiting a Christian counseling ministry last month, I skimmed through one of their booklets.  The author mentioned his thought life, and the way he reacts when he catches himself thinking pessimistically.  He urged his reader to do likewise.  “We must take every thought captive and make them obedient to Christ,” he commanded, “or else we will be guilty of having a weak mind.”

He went on to discuss the various verses in the Bible that urge us to think about things that are true and praiseworthy – excellent advice to be sure – but, it was that phrase, “take every thought captive,” that remained in my mind for days to come.

Take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ? Really?  Because in reality, it would be maddening to pause and pay attention to every single one of the thoughts that race through your brain.  I do not think that a Christian should or even possibly could accomplish such a feat.

Those who disagree with me will say, “but this verse is in the Bible!”  . . . Okay.  But where, and in what context?

The verse is found in 2 Corinthians 10 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.”

Does this section in Corinthians have anything to do with a person’s thought life?  No.  Paul is describing the spiritual warfare he is involved in, and how he is working to “capture” every false teaching and “make it obedient to Christ.”  In case it has been a while since you have read that section, here it is:

By the humility and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you—I, Paul, who am “timid” when face to face with you, but “bold” toward you when away! I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be toward some people who think that we live by the standards of this world. For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 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. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete.

You are judging by appearances. If anyone is confident that they belong to Christ, they should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as they do. So even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than tearing you down, I will not be ashamed of it. I do not want to seem to be trying to frighten you with my letters. For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” Such people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.  (2 Corinthians 10:1-11)

Christian leaders pull the phrase “take every thought captive” completely out of context and they turn it into a command.  That command becomes a law, and law leads to sin. Since this ‘law’ is impossible to obey, the Christian has now become a law-breaker, a sinner, and is left feeling even more miserable than before.

“…the power of sin is the law.”  1 Cor 15:56

And law-breakers feel ashamed, so now the person trying to obey this principle has been driven away from what they really need to help them overcome sin – they have been driven away from the love and acceptance of their God.  Right?  ‘Cause they assume God is ashamed of them!  Not only is that NOT true, it is the exact thing that Paul was fighting against.  (I’ll expand on that in Part 2 of this message which I’ll post in a week or two.)

Going back to 2 Corinthians, Paul uses the phrase “taking every thought captive” to talk about the battles he fights in this spiritual war.  Like any war, there are captives, or prisoners of war.  The captives that Paul and Timothy take are thoughts, arguments or false assumptions that set themselves up against the truth found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul says that he takes these false ideas captive so that he can lock them up as prisoners, so that they can’t escape.

Paul is discussing this topic in 2 Corinthians 10 because the people in Corinth had been judging him, and saying that he is timid in person, but bold in his letters.  Paul argues that, first of all, what he is in his letters is the same as what he is in person, in his actions.  And second of all, the judgments that people are making against him are not important because his real work is in a war (that cannot be seen).

He tells the Christians from Corinth that it doesn’t matter whether they think he is bold or timid.  What really matters is that he is fighting to proclaim the gospel.  He is tearing down strongholds of lies and falsehoods, and making them obedient to Christ, to the truth.  He is working alongside the Lord Jesus and using the power of the gospel to capture false ideas —  false ‘thoughts’ that are disobedient to Christ — and through his teaching ministry he is making these erroneous thoughts and ideas obedient to Christ, who is the truth.

Paul says that his weapons have divine power, because the gospel that he preaches is the power of God.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. (Romans 1:16)

The power of the gospel is found in the fact that Jesus Christ took away the law.  He accomplished the Law for us, so that we may rest in Him.  We are obedient to Him if we are resting in the finished work of Jesus Christ.  There is no work for us to do; we do not have to take every thought captive, and we do not have to do anything else to make ourselves complete.  All He asks of us is that we believe Him (trust Him, rely on Him, depend on Him).  That is the only work that He requires.

The only work left to do, is to fully believe in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

“Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”  Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.””  John 6:28-27

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