I have an entire hymnal of songs stored in my memory. Songs we never sing anymore…probably never will.
Before you get all nostalgic and wishing for the days when the songs we sing in church were good…that’s not necessarily all true. Some of those songs were, well, just not so good. Of course, some of them were magnificent.
Someone said something this week to make me think of one of the hymns that I put into the “battle-cry” category. You know the ones, the kind that say we’re soldiers and we’re going to march forth and conquer as we “shout a loud hosanna.” One thinks first of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” but there were many more.
To be sure, the battle and soldier metaphor for the Christian life comes right off the pages of Scripture. No doubt. But the surge of “battle-cry hymns” ushered out of the days of Fundamentalism–days that saw the Christian life as primarily a battle between Bible believers and Bible rejectors. I remember one hymn that had the line, “Hold the fort for I am coming, Jesus signals still, wave the answer back to heaven ‘by thy grace, we will.'” In church services we were told to wave our Bibles in the air as we sang that last line. I cringed then…and cringe now.
I know of a missions agency that worked all throughout Mexico. Good people, good work they did. The original name of the agency was “Mexican Militant Missions.” Wow. As you can imagine, they ultimately changed it. As kids in church we sang every Sunday, “I may never march in the infantry…but I’m in the Lord’s army!” Fundamentalism really ran in those days with the military and war metaphor.
While many aspects of the metaphor work–like any metaphor–it can be pressed too far.
As I thought about it, this metaphor is only used for a specific purpose. Example: 2 Tim. 2:3. Paul refers to us as soldiers of Christ to talk about how natural it is for us to suffer as soldiers, and to indicate that soldiers have clear purpose to keep them preoccupied. On a few occasions Paul refers to his fellow workers as “fellow soldiers.” The purpose there is to point out the camaraderie among believers…the “band of brothers” experience we have together in a common purpose. That’s pretty much the extent of the metaphor in the New Testament.
The more pervasive metaphor is that of Kingdom. Nearly 120 mentions in the Gospels alone. It was the very subject of Jesus’ preaching (Matt. 4:17, 5:3, etc.). In this Kingdom picture, however, we are pictured as subjects in the Kingdom…not conquerors for it. In fact, any conquering is done by the King himself. The subjects are meek. They mourn. They hunger and thirst. They are poor in spirit.
Whatever metaphor we choose to envision the Christian life, none should yield a bravado or some kind of machismo that makes us think of ourselves as spiritual Rambos. Nor should we see our work as just conquering or destroying an enemy. The military metaphor can serve a limited, focused purpose—but it can also be overused and give the wrong impression about the church, ministry, and evangelism. (Rick Joyner’s theology is so bizarre it would be hard to summarize…his book “Mobilizing the Army of God” is a good illustration of bad ways for us to talk about ourselves as the Church)
I am in one sense a soldier fighting in the battle of ideas for the cause of the Gospel. Those who serve with me are fellow soldiers. This picture for internal purposes communicates just fine. But I don’t want those outside the church to get the idea that my calling is to attack them or to just stand in opposition to them at every turn.
All metaphors fail at one point or another. I’ve heard the church called a hospital, a school, a factory, and a home. In some sense they are all true. And believers are in some sense “soldiers of the cross.”
I just wouldn’t put a tank on the logo.