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Those Military Metaphors


It’s a cheap way to grab the attention, stir the heart, “rally the troops.” Begin by addressing them as “troops” or an army, describe the battle in lurid and urgent terms, then call them to march and fight, live and die in the cause or name of Jesus. It even has some biblical foundation—although probably not as much as we assume—but it is wrong.

It is wrong when it over-emphasises a lesser metaphor of what the church should be, turning it into something that does not bring out the best in us and is likely to cause uneasiness or outright fear in those coming across such rhetoric outside the church. It is also something we have largely borrowed from other religious cultures: “the military metaphor is popular. There is something about the psyche of some American evangelicals that makes them almost giddy about the military motif. . . . [But] in our current culture-war climate the militaristic metaphor may not be the best choice. . . . It’s too easy for the metaphor to be misunderstood (both by those inside and those outside the church)” (Brain Zahnd, Beauty Will Save the World).

Of course, Jesus is our ultimate example and the only description of Him as a warrior is right at end of the story and only after the completion of the work of judgment (see Revelation 19:11). Even amid the ongoing great controversy, the one making war is the dragon and he is primarily resisted and defeated in non-militaristic ways—by the blood of the Lamb, by their testimony, by enduring, by standing firm (see Revelation 12–14).

While on earth, Jesus reminded us that it is the peacemakers who are blessed (see Matthew 5:9), as well as they who patiently endure suffering and persecution (verses 10–12). Among his most remarkable acts of healing was that of the high priest’s servant’s ear after it had been cut off by the over-aggressive but well-intentioned disciple at the time of Jesus’ arrest (see Luke 22:49–51). Perhaps, if we only looked behind us in our occasional rampages of evangelistic zeal, we might see Jesus following behind, healing the injuries and damage our militaristic exuberance has inflicted.

Paul knew what it was to take such exuberance on the road. He was on just such a mission, when Jesus pulled him up, blinded him and showed him “him how much he must suffer for me” (Acts 9:16*). We need to read the surprisingly rare military metaphors Paul uses in his later writing in this context. Paul’s soldier references are always about enduring suffering and standing firm, except perhaps for his description of using “God’s mighty weapons, not mere worldly weapons, to . . . break down every proud argument that keeps people from knowing God” (2 Corinthians 10:4, 5, consider also 1 Timothy 6:12). In this case, his “weapons” are the truth of the gospel, presented clearly and carefully.

In Paul’s letters, he occasionally describes colleagues as “fellow soldiers” (see, for example, Philippians 2:25, Philemon 1:2) but mostly to describe those who have “endured suffering along with me” (2 Timothy 2:3, also Philippians 1:30). Little wonder the best-known military metaphor in the New Testament is that of the armour of God, described in Ephesians 6:10–18, but also referenced in Romans 13:12 and 1 Thessalonians 5:8. This is about keeping safe amid the assaults of the devil and his agents, and is described in only defensive terms: “Use every piece of God’s armour to resist the enemy in the time of evil, so that after the battle you will still be standing firm” (Ephesians 6:13, emphasis added).

Given the common use of military metaphors in some ministries and by some preachers, it is surprising how uncommon such metaphors are across the sweep of the New Testament—having mentioned almost all of them above. It is as surprising and disappointing that many of the enthusiastic applications of these metaphors actually undermine the “gospel of peace” (see Ephesians 6:15, also Romans 10:15) we are called to share—and live.

The New Testament offers us many other alternative metaphors for what it means to be church and live faithfully—a body, a family, a bride, a tree, a vine, a city, a light, an athlete, a servant or slave—but sadly these don’t seem to catch our collective imagination as much as playing armies. This doesn’t reflect well on us. It shows how influenced we are by the violent cultures around us—even when aspiring to the heights of faithfulness—and it doesn’t bring out our best, encouraging different forms of attack on others and entrenching an us-against-them mentality in relation to our communities and the wider world.

It’s something we need to consider when next we plan an evangelistic “crusade” or “campaign,” promote a Bible “boot camp,” suggest we stand and sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “I’m in the Lord’s Army,” or choose how we promote and present particularly some of our youth and men’s ministries. For our own good and for the good of those around us, we need less “marching as to war,” not more—as some voices would urge us to.

In talking about the trials, persecutions and “battles” they would face, Jesus taught His disciples to “be as wary as snakes and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Too often, Christians have been as heedless and insensitive as pigeons squabbling over crumbs and as dangerous as cornered snakes, fighting and wounding for the rightness and goodness of our cause—or just because we are afraid of so many things different from ourselves.

Biblically, the military metaphors have their place—standing firm, suffering together, resisting the attacks of evil. That is one way to talk about being “wary,” as Jesus taught it. But we need greater encouragement toward what it means to be as “harmless” as Jesus taught—in the best sense of the word. And some of the Bible’s non-military metaphors will be more helpful in this faithful, Jesus-inspired, Jesus-modelled quest.

*All Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation.

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