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Onward Christian...Soldiers?

There was a time when Christians used militaristic language without shame. In fact, only one or two generations ago, Christians often spoke of being part of an army fighting against the forces of darkness. Hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers” were sung often and were sung proudly. But in recent years, this type of language has fallen out of favor in the church. Many feel that this language serves to deter the unchurched from responding to the gospel. They are, it seems, not willing to allow themselves to be conquered by an army.

Brian McLaren discusses this metaphor in A Generous Orthodoxy: “The human race has been conquered by an alien power or powers (Sin, the Devil, and Death are the most common antagonists, although Paul’s more ambiguous ‘principalities and powers’ could also be included). Jesus goes to battle with the alien power(s), and appears to be defeated in death, but his death turns out to be the undoing of the antagonist. In this metaphor, military terms such as battle, defeat, and conquering are predominant.” McLaren advocates rejecting this type of language and replacing it with something more appropriate for our culture. This language, he would argue, is contextual and Christians are under no obligation to describe Christianity with such terms.

But some Christians feel we need to rediscover this military language. Stanley Gale, author of Warfare Witness: Contending with Spiritual Opposition in Everyday Evangelism, is one of these. Warfare Witness is a book dealing with spiritual warfare, a topic that has received surprisingly little attention in Reformed circles. There is a great deal of material available within mainstream evangelicalism that proposes any number of misguided strategies for dealing with spiritual opposition. While there has clearly been a lot of interest in this topic in recent years, Reformed Christians have no doubt been guilty of not paying sufficient attention to it. Gale seeks to remedy this, and does so in a book that is endorsed by Philip Ryken, T.M. Moore and Sinclair Ferguson.

Gale believes that it is beneficial for Christians to have a militaristic understanding of the spiritual battle that rages around us, for this is the language God chose to use. He writes, “Some might not feel comfortable with the military concept and terminology. Yet…this is exactly the way our King and Commander would have us understand the nature of evangelism and approach to the work of witness…All of us enfolded into the king of God, as children of God and heirs of life, are servants of the Most High and soldiers of the cross.”

Gale begins with the Christian’s commission which is, of course, the Great Commission. After His glorious resurrection, and before He left this earth, Jesus gave His people their marching orders in the familiar words of Matthew 28:18-20. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” The church is now given the responsibility of “making disciples of all nations.” And the Scripture presents this commission and its fulfillment in decidedly militaristic terminology. Scripture presents the work of redemption in militaristic terms, “in the work of Christ to bring it about, of the church to carry it out, and of individual Christians to live it out.” We see this under three headings: Christ’s Mission, the Church’s Mission and the Christian’s Identity.

Christ’s Mission - From its earliest mention, Christ’s mission was portrayed in terms of combat. In Genesis 3:15 God promises a Savior: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” We see a promise of two combatants with a battle raging between them. The culmination of Christ’s work, portrayed in Revelation, is filled with military language, leading us to see that “our salvation is the result of military intervention by our Lord” in which He performs a mission of mercy, grace and love.

The Church’s Mission - The church’s mission is also described in militaristic terms. We lay siege to the gates of hell. Jesus builds His church against a backdrop of spiritual opposition that seeks to overcome her. “The church operates in enemy territory and contends with enemy opposition.” The church, then, is a body, an army, marching out to war. We are army that fights in victory, not for victory, for the victory has already been won by Christ. We have to be both an invading army and an inviting army, both inviting people to join us and marching out to recruit them. We are to go! “The ‘go’ of our Lord’s Great Commission is the go of invasion. It is not the ‘go’ of a casual stroll or pointless wandering, but the go of military mission.” And when we go, we baptize, recruiting people into active service for the King.

The Christian’s Identity - Every local church represents an outpost of God’s army. Paul refers to those in other churches as “fellow soldiers” and urges Timothy to be a “good soldier of Christ Jesus.” Gale points out that when we were recruited into God’s army, we were given a rather strange set of clothing, not a camouflage uniform, but the brilliant white robe of Christ’s righteousness. We are not to be an army who hides or blends in, but an army that stands out. And our work as Christians is to wage war. “We are outfitted with weapons suitable for the nature of the combat we are called to undertake. Our tactics reflect military strategy, conducted in the wisdom of God. We stand on the truth against the assault of error. We pray against the opposition we face in mission.”

Gale believes that an understanding of this military model provides many benefits. First, it reminds us who we are. We have been rescued and are now called to join the cause of liberation from the devil’s tyranny. Second, it reminds us of our task. To follow Christ means that we are to do what He says and to fight for His cause. Third, it speaks to motivation. We obey the Lord because we love Him, are indebted to Him, and owe our lives and liberty to Him. Because Christ’s motivation to save us was love, we must have the same motivation as we seek out the lost. Fourth, this model reminds us why we fight and exhorts us to fight with God’s weapons in God’s ways. Fifth, it reminds us that we have a mandate and one from which we are often distracted by Satan. We are to stay true to our mission and to realize that we are not at peace but are at war.

“In Christ’s kingdom there can be no conscientious objectors. In Christ’s church, there is no inactive duty. To be a disciple is to be a solider of the cross…The term of enlistment is a lifetime, beginning with conversion, ending with the discharge papers or transfer to the church triumphant in heavenly rest, where we are eager to hear the words, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”

I feel that Gale does quite a good job of defending his position that the military mandate is inexorably connected with the Scripture’s portrayal of Christ’s redemption, the church’s mission and the identity of the believer. But let me ask you: do you feel that this is a necessary metaphor, a helpful metaphor, or merely a contextual metaphor and one that should likely be abandoned, at least during our time and in our culture?