Are Our Hymns Too Warlike?
Brian McLaren, the liberal “emergent” evangelical activist, reemerged last week to announce that he is re-writing the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” The hymn is too warlike, he writes, as is much of evangelical hymnody in his view. Our hymnody should be, he writes, “refocusing on the teaching of Jesus about peacemaking,” steering clear of warlike imagery. He’s wrong.
McLaren believes that hymns with war imagery can lead to hatred and violence. In “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” for instance, McLaren finds “ambiguous’ language about the “foe” against we should fight, “which could (in the minds of some) refer to our neighbors outside the church.” Well, I suppose, “in the minds of some” there might be confusion that “What a Friend We Have In Jesus” refers to Spanish soccer star Jesus Navas, but such a reading would be ignorant of both the context of the song and the context of the Scriptures. The same is true of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and other Christian hymns.
To see these hymns as encouraging violence requires a crude literalism rendered incoherent by the lyrics themselves. Christians are, the hymn reads, “marching as to war,” clearly a simile. When we sing “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” we don’t then discipline those who eat lamb chops for cannibalism.
More importantly, though, the warfare imagery is derived not from our hymnbooks but from our Bibles. I realize that some from McLaren’s theological tribe cast doubt on the authority of the Old Testament narrative, but if one starts cutting away the warfare imagery from the Bible one will end up with a tiny set of scraps. The Apostle Paul writes to the churches that the Christian life is one of spiritual warfare, requiring spiritual armor (the clear inspiration for “Onward, Christian Soldiers”). Jesus himself speaks in war language, telling us that he is binding the strong man in order to plunder his house. When Jesus reveals to John the whole sweep of cosmic history, he does so with the imagery of a dragon at war with a woman and her child (Rev. 12). To do away with spiritual warfare imagery is to do away with the Bible, with Jesus, with the gospel.
Moreover, an emphasis on spiritual warfare—whether in our preaching or in our singing or in our praying—does not make us more violent but rather makes us less violent. When we know that we are wrestling against “principalities and powers in the heavenly places,” we are able to understand that we are not therefore wrestling “against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12). When we know that those who oppose us are, as we were, “captive to the devil,” we are able to treat them with kindness and gentleness (2 Tim. 2:25-26). When we know, as Jesus did, that he is captain of fearsome angel armies, we are able to bear persecution, without striking back. And when we know that King Jesus will ultimately win the war against the devil, we are able to forgive those who persecute us, to turn our cheek when people strike us.
“Onward, Christian Soldiers” is crystal clear who the foe is to be opposed. “At the sign of triumph, Satan’s host doth flee; On then Christian soldiers, on to victory! Hell’s foundations quiver, at the shout of praise; brothers, life your voices, loud your anthems raise!” The hymn defines not only the enemy but also the means of opposing him—through praise and unity. Anyone who finds this too “warlike” will find the Bible much more so.
A perfect example of this biblical emphasis is found in one of my favorite contemporary hymns, the very “warlike” song “O Church Arise” by Keith and Kristyn Getty. “Our call to war, to love the captive soul, but to rage against the captor,” the hymn goes. “And with the sword that makes the wounded whole, we will fight with faith and valor.” That’s exactly right. We don’t follow Christ by stopping our fighting, but by fighting the right foe, the right way. We put away the sword of steel, not because we are unarmed, but because we take up the sword of the Spirit.
We become peacemakers not by avoiding warfare language but learning what kind of war God’s people fight, and that’s not with carnal weapons. If we don’t recognize the spiritual nature of the warfare around us, we will scrap and fight with those around us, just like the pagans who have no hope. We are able to be a joyful happy throng precisely because we know that we are an army—a victorious one with a triumphant King already in the heavenly places. That’s why we can love and forgive and bear persecution. That’s why we can move onward, into the future. We should sing that, and sing it loudly, like an army marching as to war.
Publication date: February 25, 2016
Originally published February 25, 2016.