Is There Still a Place for “Onward, Christian Soldiers” in the Hymnal?

01/13/2018 08:32 am ET

Thirty years ago, there was a ruckus in the United Methodist Church over its hymnody. The hymnal revision committee had recommended the removal of two well-known gospel songs with militaristic overtones: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Onward, Christians Soldiers.” Because of protests, the hymns were retained, but the issue has resurfaced periodically.

The hymnal committees’ sensitivity to the lyrics of these songs is understandable. The spread of Christianity has been regrettably associated with British and American imperialism. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it was not only the cross of Christ that won the day but the capitalism of the West. Christian missionaries smuggled Western values into other cultures, sometimes unwittingly, under the guise of gospel truth.

So, for the hymnal committees of the Methodist denomination and others, the idea of singing militaristic songs in the name of the Prince of Peace was incongruous at best. At worst, it undermined biblical values and militated against (irony intended) the proper spiritual mindset of those who sang them. It conjured up images of the Crusades, and promoted an “if you can’t convert them, conquer them” mentality.

The desire to avoid songs with martial overtones is understandable, in the light of Western imperialism and our own shameful history of using empty promises and loaded guns to deprive Native Americans of their lands. If these hymns link Christians with ethnocentrism in the minds of others – or worse, in Christians’ own minds – they are doing considerable harm.

Nevertheless, I would argue that there is still a place in our hymnody for hymns and gospel songs that make use of military metaphors, like “Onward, Christian Soldiers” or “Soldiers of Christ, Arise.” The ample use of military metaphors by the inspired biblical writers supports the continued use of such language in our hymns.

Take, for example, the Apostle Paul. He repeatedly chose military metaphors to make important points regarding Christian living. He referred to his co-workers as fellow-soldiers, and in so doing evoked an image of the kind of all-for-one, one-for-all camaraderie that is characteristic on the battlefield, and ought to be in the churches.

He used military metaphors to make clear the need for Christians to be properly outfitted and supplied. He further used such images to remind Christians that they are in a battle – not to subdue members of another culture or religion, but to “vanquish evil with good.” His military metaphors point out the need for courage and endurance among Jesus-loyalists. He does not want his readers to mistake the life of faith for a walk in the park; he knows it is more like a march through a minefield.

The military metaphors in the New Testament call Christians to be alert, strong, prepared, smart, and loyal. They emphasize the need for discipline and self-restraint, virtues which have fallen out of favor in contemporary society. But it should be remembered that these military images are never used, in any context, to call Christians to perpetrate physical violence or to attempt the subjugation of people from other cultures or religions. The very idea contradicts the gospel and would have been condemned by Jesus, who told his people to be as “harmless as doves.” Obviously, military metaphors are not the only kind in the Bible.

The principal reason to continue using hymns with militaristic images and language, though, goes beyond biblical proof texts to take in the larger biblical narrative. Christians need to be reminded that they are part of something bigger, the advanced guard of a kingdom that is coming but has not yet been established. They are on duty. The Christian life is not a walk in the park with the savior but a mission for the king. It calls for alertness, determination, cooperation, endurance, and strength.

When Christians forget they are part of something bigger – a kingdom that is strongly resisted by the existing powers of the world – they begin to value comfort above usefulness and security above courage. The Christians who have made a difference in the world – who have cured diseases, cared for the poor, freed slaves, and ended wars – were not people who valued comfort above kingdom. Nor are they today.

That’s why those old hymns still have a place.

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