> Biblical Reference > Historical Precedents > Quotations & Writings > Commentary
> Home > Current Trends > Government > Peace & War > "Onward, Christian Soldiers"
> Category

Onward, Christian Soldiers

It is said that one who cannot appreciate his earthly father has difficulty appreciating a heavenly Father. By that same token, one who does not appreciate earthly soldiers has trouble appreciating his own role as a spiritual soldier, for the Bible employs martial language to describe the Christian’s task.

Through the centuries, some have tried to draw a firm line between the warrior God of the Old Testament and the nurturing, redemptive God of the New Testament. The former took Jericho; the latter went meekly to the cross. The former obliterated Sodom; the latter turned the other cheek and disarmed Peter in Gethsemane. They reason that those who are wholesomely intoxicated with Jesus’ Kingdom ethic will have no patience with talk of war.

The New Testament, however, is bound to disappoint the pacifist, for it returns repeatedly to the soldier as a paradigm of Christian discipleship. It even calls the Bible a sword. And it is not surprising that the churches which devalue military service are inclined to stagnate or slide off in the wrong direction.

Some view the Church as a spa, a place to pamper, beautify, and rejuvenate themselves. They hope to emerge warm, tingly, and serene from the ministrations of the staff. When they turn to ethical issues, they show an inordinate love of consultations, consciousness raising, and sensitivity sessions. They exhibit virtually infinite confidence in the “peace process.” And when their pews are empty, their mission force shrunk, and their orthodoxy evaporated, they continue to drift in the placid assurance that the faith is essentially a matter of being nice.

Then there is the Church as restaurant, surveying the market and seeking niches, intent on gratifying customers to the exclusion of offense. Yes, like the military, they are mission oriented, but no one is much alarmed except the church down the block, the one whose menu is less appetizing.

Some speak of the feminization of the Church. On this model, pastors spend their time warming the formula, straightening caps, making sure the mittens are clipped to the sleeves, and saying what brave boys their people are when they don’t cry on their first trip to the barber shop.

Of course, the New Testament speaks of Jesus as shepherd and physician. Of course, there is much room and call for nurture. But the church embarrassed by the New Testament’s martial language misses a strong corrective to its natural tendency to be all things to all people, to seek the world’s approval, to major on comfort zones, and to ignore internal discipline.

Disdain for military imagery is finding its way into hymnbook publishing. The 1966 Methodist hymnal1 included “Fight the Good Fight” and “March On, O Soul, with Strength,” but these did not appear in the 1989 edition.2 Similarly, the Episcopalians found no room for Isaac Watts’ “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” in their 1982 hymnal,3 though they published it in their 1940 edition.4 As for the Presbyterians, their 1955 hymnal5 featured “Onward Christian Soldiers;” their 1990 edition6 by design did not.

Can “A Mighty Fortress,” the anthem of the Reformation, long endure if pacifist images are the editorial standard? No wonder the gates of hell are prevailing quite nicely against some who water down these hymnals.

The New Testament’s military language instructs and reminds the believer that spiritual warfare is real, that there is a hateful and destructive enemy, that hardiness and sacrifice are the order of the day, and that unit cohesion, skill with weaponry, and challenging objectives are Church norms.

Pastors do well to honor the profession of arms, to employ military metaphors and illustrations in their sermons, and to preach without irony or apology the passages employing a military perspective. Their congregations might come to understand that Church is not simply an entertainment and that there are battles, beyond the ones for self-esteem, to be fought.


The Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The Methodist Publishing House, 1966).


The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989).


The Hymnal, according to the use of the Episcopal Church (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1983).


The Hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1940).


The Hymnbook (New York: Presbyterian Church (US), United Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church of America, 1955).


The Presbyterian Hymnal, PC(USA) (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990).