Onward Christian Soldiers?

Remember the guy tweeting about Afghan and the Taliban the other day? Well, here’s another tweet from him.

I’ve a little more sympathy with him here.  Songs that talk in terms of spiritual warfare have been already been significantly culled from our musical repertoire.  In fact, I suspect that he is highly unlikely to find himself in a church singing “Onward Christian soldiers” today. There’s a reason for that. Given the history of the crusades and given the recent association of the West and it’s incursions into the middle East with “Christendom.” We are conscious of the unhelpful connotations of such songs in the ears of many overhearers, especially from a Muslim background.

However, it is worth a little look at what those hymns and songs were talking about. Here for example is the second verse of Onward Christian soldiers: 

2 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, lift your voices,
loud your anthems raise! 

You will see immediately that the author didn’t have physical conflict against human  enemies in mind but rather to encourage Christians in singing praise with a sense of the spiritual battle to resit the devil’s temptation clearly in focus.

Or, here’s some words from Stand up, stand up for Jesus.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus,
Stand in his strength alone;
The arm of flesh will fail you,
Ye dare not trust your own.
Put on the gospel armour,

Each piece put on with prayer;
Where duty calls or danger,
Be never wanting there.

Spot here that human conflict (the arm of flesh) is seen negatively and so the hymn writer exhorts trust in the Gospel and prayerfulness. The hymnwriters have spiritual warfare in mind.  Indeed, arguably, we have lost much with the recusing of these hymns in terms of one aspect of the Christian life, the importance of seeing that there is a spiritual battle going on. The hymn writers encouraged us to engage with Paul’s teaching in Romans 8 to put to death sinful desires and in Ephesians 6 to engage prayerfully in spiritual warfare.

So, whether we think it’s better not to sing those songs in order to avoid causing unnecessary offence and stumbling, we do need to think about how best we re-capture (there’s some war imagery again) the truths they contain. Furthermore, we need to be clear that there is a huge difference between singing hymns that use the imagery of warfare to encourage us to prayer, love, resistance against evil and Gospel proclamation against poems and prayers that clearly incite hatred and violence.

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