Brian McLaren, the liberal “emergent” evangelical activist, re-emerged last week to announce that he is rewriting 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.
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 (Revelation 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” (Ephesians. 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 Timothy 2:25-26).