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Worship worries

by Pastor Mark Braaten  (Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, Tyler, Texas)

October 26, 2008

Does your congregation enjoy singing “Onward Christian Soldiers”? Or perhaps “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus”? These are two rousing and favorite hymns, particularly loved by many of our older members. But singing them has become more difficult, especially if you are using the new Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal.

Something interesting has happened to the hymns in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal. That is, much of the language of armies and soldiers and military has been removed. It is as if military language and images are no longer appropriate for worship. Let me share the examples that I’m aware of:

“Onward Christian Soldiers” was dropped.

“Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” was dropped.

“The Son of God Goes Forth to War” was dropped.

“Lift High the Cross,” verse 3, was changed from “All newborn soldiers of the crucified” in the Lutheran Book of Worship to now read “All newborn servants of the crucified.”

“For All the Saints” lost a stanza, the stanza that reads, “Oh, may your soldiers, faithful, true and bold, Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, and win with them the victor’s crown of gold. Alleluia! Alleluia!”

“Earth and All Stars” was rewritten so that the phrase “Loud Shouting Army!” in verse 1 was omitted.

I doubt that all of this is happenstance. There seems to be a concerted effort to remove military language from the hymns we use in worship. I wasn’t aware that this was even being considered as the hymnal was being developed. But friends keep showing me where hymns have been deleted or changed to remove the military language. And I don’t know why this is being done.

This removal of military imagery concerns me, and does so for two reasons. The first is that military imagery and language are strongly rooted in the Bible. The Biblical writers use rich, picturesque and powerful language about the people of God being involved in warfare with the evil that is both around us and within us. Here are some Bible passages that come to mind:

“Fight the good fight” – 1 Timothy 1:18

“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” – Ephesians 6:12

“Abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul” – 1 Peter 2:11

“Fellow soldier” – Philippians 2:25

“A good soldier of Christ Jesus” – 2 Timothy 2:3

Christians being an “army” – Revelation 19:19

And Paul, in a passage near and dear to Lutherans writes, “I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:23)

The Biblical writers make powerful and beautiful use of military language and images. It seems to me that images that are appropriate for Scripture are also helpful for us in worship.

I have a second reason for being concerned about this decision to remove military images and language from our hymns. That is that many of our fellow members in the body of Christ have served or do serve in the military. Not only do they serve, but they see that service as part of living out their Christian vocation. To now say that military language is inappropriate for worship seems to me to dishonor those who have served in this way.

There is a strange move going on here in our worship language. I don’t know why this move is being taken. I’d like to know the reasons for it. I suspect that even knowing the reasons, I still wouldn’t agree with it. But I will say, I think this Sunday we are going to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” The congregation will enjoy it, and I pray that the church always moves onward in the battle to live faithfully for Jesus.