In Ephesians 6 we have Paul’s famous, extended “armor of God” imagery. Where does this battle language come from? Approximately 14 years prior, Paul had used similar language in his first letter to the Thessalonians. He also appears to have drawn on other texts—specifically, Isaiah 59 and Wisdom 5:17-20. These armor texts might at first seem about the same, yet it soon strikes the reader that there are similarities but no quotations per se.
I don’t think the point in Ephesians 6 is to relate each piece of armor strictly to a particular aspect of Christian life. It’s not, for example, that Paul is saying the helmet protects the salvation thoughts in our brains so we can avoid the loss of salvation. Paul’s purpose in using this extended metaphor seems somewhat more general. The battle imagery has found continued life in many Christian songs through the ages—some good ones and some not so good. “Soldiers of Christ, Arise” (1742), for instance, contains quite a few expressions derived directly from Ephesians 6:
- “Strong in the strength which God supplies and in His mighty pow’r” (6:10)
- “Stand entire at last” (6:13)
- “Take, to arm you for the fight the panoply of God” (6:11, with “panoply” being a transliteration of a Greek word)
- Still let your feet be shod, ready His will to do (6:15)
The full poem (found here) does descend into militaristic machismo a time or two. Here’s an example:
Brandish in faith till then the Spirit’s two-edged sword,
Hew all the snares of fiends and men in pieces with the Word
I doubt that stanza has ever shown up in a widely published hymnal (!), but the song’s references and analogies are communicative overall.
“Lord, Speak To Me” (1872) similarly echoes the Ephesians emphasis on being filled with God’s power, especially in the later stanzas:
- “O strengthen me, that while I stand firm on the rock, and strong in Thee” (6:10, 11)
- “O fill me with Thy fullness, Lord” (1:10; 4:13)
Never a favorite of mine but widely sung for more than a century, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” (1858) has some negative expressions, such as “charge for the God of battles, and put the foe to rout” and “each soldier to his post; close up the broken column, and shout through all the host.” To my ear, those phrases are gratuitous appeals to those experienced in the military forces and are not very communicative of spiritual realities or imperatives. Yet a phrase such as “put on the Gospel armor; each piece put on with prayer” does highlight not only the armor angle in Ephesians 6 but also the letter’s strong emphasis on prayer. On the whole, it is easy to see why this song has been published in more than a thousand hymnals.
The children’s song “I’m in the Lord’s Army” includes these words:
I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery.
I may never zoom o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s Army! (Yes, sir!)
As the reader might remember, body motions suggestive of physical battle accompany that song. And why shouldn’t there be (from a keep-the-children-active perspective)? The actions are fun. Yet weaning children on that kind of thing probably gets them thinking more about U.S.A. military service than about spiritual armor and battle. Recently, I unexpectedly acquired a castoff record of George Beverly Shea (singer for Billy Graham crusades) and found myself unwittingly listening to a song called “The Army of the Lord.” This song is a hokey exhortation to march for the Lord, laced with Christianese, and set to music that unites Leroy Anderson with a sort of Sousa-like polka. At least it didn’t become blatantly militaristic. At this point, I start to wonder whether it’s been military personnel who write such things, as opposed to theologians or biblical exegetes. Leaving those ill-advised examples now, let me comment more thoroughly on the implications of two songs I would call ambiguous or perhaps questionable.
In the church of my youth, we sang “Faith is the Victory” (Encamped Along the Hills of Light) (late 1800s) quite a bit, but I don’t think I’d sing it today without prefatory explanation for the sake of the contemporary mind. For instance, what do the expressions “press the battle” or “let all our strength be hurled” mean to us nowadays? Yes, in one sense, “faith is the victory that overcomes,” but if we appeal to those “saints above” who “with shouts of triumph trod” and “swept on o’er ev’ry field,” we might start to envision a physical battle, largely unaware of the unseen realm that is under consideration in Ephesians 6. Put differently: if we have human war mechanisms at the forefront, trying to apply their strategy and protective gear to the (spiritual) cause of Christ, we’ll stumble. On the contrary, Paul had the cause of Christ in mind first, applying various metaphors and analogies in order to explicate Christian living, here focusing on the unseen.
The song has “we’ll vanquish all the hosts of night in Jesus’ conqu’ring name,” and that sounds like a mass military offensive, whereas Paul’s idea of “living as children of light” (Eph 5:8) is not aggressive at all. His advice to put on the armor so that you can stand against the schemes of the devil (6:12) is singular/individual, so it’s a leap to conclude that this is directly about any kind of “army of the Lord” or the actions of any faith community group.
Curiously, the music for the once-popular “Onward, Christian Soldiers” (1864) was written by Sir Arthur Sullivan¹ of British operetta fame. Sabine Baring-Gould’s lyrical exhortation to be a soldier for the Lord is biblical, yet what is communicated now (or in the 1860s, for that matter) to an American by the term “soldier” may not be what was originally intended by the poet, an Englishman, in words written very hastily for a children’s procession.² The first stanza (“marching as to war … with the cross of Jesus going on before”) seems the most problematic, possibly conjuring up Grant or Sherman for a Union loyalist, or Constantine and Theodosius for those with a broader view. The song has been removed from some hymnals, but it might still be used judiciously, if one is aware of possible communication gaps.
Further on the differentiation of corporate military actions from the individual spiritual battle, we might note at this point that Paul chose a word for “struggle” (6:11) that had been used in secular literature for a wrestling match. The word describes not a company-front marching offensive but an individual, up-close-and-personal conflict with the devil.³ Christian solidarity is no bad thing, but the notion of a Christian flag carried at the front of a marching military regiment communicates more to those versed in military history or experienced in the ways of war than to those who wish to understand the Christian life and mission on an individual scale.
Neither “Faith is the Victory” nor “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is a bad song if one interprets appropriately, but as the decades pass, and as we have in the collective consciousness not only the Civil War but the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein, ISIS, and more, the picture becomes obscured with different types of clouds. The so-called Cold War and justifiable indignation over various outbreaks of tyranny, genocide, or human enslavement have led to increasing, many-faceted polarization. Anti-war politicists are more in the mainstream, if not more rabid; and it seems increasingly likely that rightist “Christians” would indiscriminately mix human/geopolitical militarism with Pauline imagery, forgetting that killing people is foreign to Christ and His ways. Apparently with notions of “manifest destiny” at heart, none other than the late Prime Minister of Great Britain said this, for example:
We sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers” indeed, and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we were serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals … it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation. W. Churchill, 1941)
It makes great sense for Mr. Churchill, as the Prime Minister, to have delivered that stirring-if-over-confident “kill the Nazis” rhetoric at that point in history, but his comments became presumptuous at the point at which he appealed to “on high.” It was ignorant and arrogant for him to have mashed together (a) those who were killing the enemies with (b) those who spoke English, all under the aegis of “Christianity.” Yes, presumptuous: the very suggestion that God would help the English-speakers rid the world of that particular horror passes lightly over the prospects of death and hell in a way that Paul would abhor, suggests that Churchill and Truman had taken a prophetic mantle, and ignores that God had not always led His Old-Covenant people to physical victory. So why would God assure Great Britain and the U.S.A. a victory from on high?
In the event that I would be judged too serious and “too heaven-minded to be of any earthly good” at this point, let me share this fine parody on “Onward, Christian Soldiers”:
Like a mighty tortoise,
Moves the Church of God;
Brothers, we are treading
Where we’ve always trod.
(Ian Bradley, The Book of Hymns, New York: Testament Books, 1989, p. 333)
Perhaps church music in our era is no more nuanced or developed in the few instances in which it uses military imagery. In my estimation, “The Battle Belongs to the Lord” (1984), full of musical strength, has some ironically weak lines. It is not a great song, but it does greatly point to the great Lord. Surely it is good to remind ourselves often that we have a greater One to serve. In considering this notion, we might recall Paul in 2Tim 2: the soldier’s aim is to please his “commanding officer.” And of course, the Lord’s power and strength are themes in Ephesians (e.g., 1:19ff; 3:16,20; 6:10).
The hymn-style “Fight the Good Fight” (1853) was once among my top 50, but I doubt it rises to that level for many. My conception of it was shallow, and its words do not even speak much of battle or armor, but I mention it here mostly to call attention to its title. “Fight the Good Fight” would not be sung much these days because concepts fighting and battles are different now, geopolitically speaking. I do love expressions such as “Christ is thy path, and Christ thy right,” “lay hold on life, and it shall be thy joy and crown eternally” and “upon thy Guide lean.”
Perhaps it is largely a result of my non-violence bias that I find so much of the military imagery in songs to zoom over the area of Paul’s real concern. The singer may mentally don his fatigues and load his guns, having been raised in post-World War America, before he ever stops to ponder what Paul was really writing about. As we ponder what “spiritual warfare” in the unseen realm means to individual Christians and to our churches, I think there are multiple good reasons to emphasize the shield of faith(fulness)—both in the Ephesians literary context and in the real-life context of Christian existence. In the next post, I will deal more briefly with an interpretation of this central piece of the “armor.”
B. Casey, 10/24/18 – 11/4/18
¹ Operetta, a subgenre touched off by Jacques Offenbach and the Gilbert & Sullivan combo, is light, humorous opera. Sullivan wrote comparatively few “serious” works. It would come as no surprise that no deep or stately connection to Christian theology arose when Baring-Gould’s words were set to his music. Aside: Sullivan wrote “religious music” while being known to have adulterous affairs, indulge heavily in gambling, and participate in Freemasonry. See this Wikipedia link for more information.
² Baring-Gould apparently had second thoughts about some of the words and revised some later. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onward,_Christian_Soldiers.
³ According to Benjamin Merkle, the word πάλη | palē “was most widely used for the sport of wrestling.” Merkle continues, “. . . Paul is envisioning a fierce battle and not merely an athletic competition. Nevertheless, the term may have been used to intensify the closeness of the battle. The struggle is not fought by proxy or at a distance but involves close-quarter, hand-to-hand combat.” Benjamin L. Merkle, Ephesians, ed. Köstenberger and Yarbrough, B&H Publishing Group, 2016.