I’m trying to be more charitable than critical, but I’m struggling with American evangelicalism’s penchant for military metaphors. Even as a child, I never liked singing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” for example — the image of serving Jesus by “marching as to war” just didn’t feel right.
Other images went over my head — I didn’t know anything about the horrible atrocities of the medieval “Crusades” to recapture the Holy Land from “the infidel,” so I watched Billy Graham’s evangelistic “crusades” without a second thought. Likewise, missionary terminology like “winning the lost” seemed rather innocuous, since the focus seemed to be on rescuing people from sin rather than conquering their culture. In a world marked by religiously motivated wars, such language seems less innocent now.
The most extreme example of “jihad for Jesus” that I’ve run across lately was a chapel service at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary earlier this month, when seminary president Paige Patterson announced a new campaign to evangelize everyone within a mile of the school’s location on “Seminary Hill.”
Introduced, no doubt, by dramatic lighting and music, Patterson “stormed onto the chapel stage,” according to Baptist Press, driving a militarized dune buggy dubbed a “Fast Attack Vehicle.” Patterson, clad in a camouflage shirt, fired off a burst of blanks from a .50 caliber machine gun before emerging to announce a seminary-sponsored 50-day door-to-door evangelistic campaign called “Taking the Hill.” A promotional video on Southwestern’s website is filled with images of war and a description of “our assignment” and “our target.”
To his credit, Patterson acknowledged the need for something beyond military might. Pointing to his vehicle’s mounted guns, he said “That weaponry brings sorrow and heartache. We need weaponry that brings joy and happiness. This weaponry has the prospect of bringing things to an end. We need weaponry that opens eternity.”
I appreciate his expressed concern. Even so, the whole idea of using “weaponry” in evangelistic engagement is troubling. It’s precisely the sort of talk, I fear, that helps to fuel the sermons of extremists in the Muslim world who see little difference between Christian evangelism and American Imperialism.
I don’t doubt that Patterson and others who see confrontational evangelism as the heart of the gospel imperative have a real passion about it: belief in a hard doctrine of an eternal burning hell for non-Christians can be quite motivational for both the witness and his or her “target” audience.
I don’t see that as the main concern of Jesus, however. The strategy behind a militaristic approach to evangelism is bound to result in added strife, not the peaceable kingdom to which Christ calls us. Those who follow Jesus should be good stewards of all that we have, including our vocabulary and the way we portray ourselves to the world.
It’s compassion that our global neighbors need, not conquest.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.