In Christian circles, we often refer to the Church as an army. We sing Onward Christian Soldiers, God’s Got an Army, and the children’s song, I’m in the Lord’s Army! Unquestionably, warfare is a major theme throughout the Bible. The physical warfare so prevalent in the Old Testament becomes the spiritual warfare of the New.
Surprisingly though, while the Old Testament frequently refers to the armies of Israel, the New Testament only uses the word “army” or “armies” for the Church once, in Revelation 19:14: “And the armies which were in heaven followed Him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean.” The context is Jesus’ return to earth to rule and reign. He is accompanied by the already raptured and glorified Church. We know this is the Church because of the emphasis upon their apparel, which is “white and clean.”
We do have a number of verses which speak of Christians as soldiers engaged in combat:
Ephesians 6:11-18 — the familiar passage about putting on the whole armor of God
Romans 13:12 — “… Let us put on the armor of light.”
2 Timothy 2:3, 4 — “Therefore, endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man going to war entangles himself with the affairs of this life, so that he may please him who has chosen him to be a soldier.”
2 Corinthians 10:3-5 — “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh: (for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds), casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.”
We also have several verses on overcoming and triumphing in the context of spiritual warfare.
One of the clearest implications of the Church being an army is given by Jesus, in Matthew 16:18. Peter has just professed His belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (v. 16). Jesus then comments, “Upon this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” That sounds like the Church will be engaging together in warfare — assaulting the gates of the enemy and winning the battle.
So, that’s what we’ve got in the Bible — Israel fighting together as an army for the sake of their family inheritance, several references to the Church engaging in spiritual warfare individually and together as a group, and finally, the Church appearing as the armies in heaven who follow Jesus back to earth. Yet, in some Christian circles, the Church is referred to as an army incessantly, while Church as family is rarely spoken of. That’s where we run into problems, with the extreme emphasis of the one over the other.
We hear much talk among Charismatics in particular about leaders being “generals,” and various levels of leaders having “rank” above others in the Body of Christ. I think we should be very careful to avoid that language and the attitude behind it. While God has put in place an orderly hierarchy for church leadership, using terms such as bishops and elders, He calls them shepherds of the flock, not military officers. Indeed, Jesus warned his disciples against lording it over others:
But Jesus called them to him, and said to them, “You know that those who are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever wants to be great among you shall be your servant, and whoever of you desires to be chief, shall be servant of all.” — Mark 10:42-44
In Matthew 23:10, 11, He also said, “Neither be called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.”
Peter encouraged church leaders to be shepherds: “The elders which are among you I exhort, who also am an elder, … feed the flock of God which is among you … not as lords over God’s heritage, but as examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, you will receive a crown of glory that does not fade away” (1 Peter 5:1-4).
The functions of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher were not ever meant by the Lord to be positions used to levy power over others. They are gifts to the Church to help train us for ministry and to build up the Body of Christ. Ephesians 4:8-13 explains this, with verse 8 saying Jesus ascended and “gave gifts to men,” and verse 11 saying “He gave some to be apostles and some to be prophets….”
When church leaders view themselves as army officers instead of fellow brothers and sisters in God’s family, they can easily become heavy-handed. Abuse takes place, and people get hurt. When kingdom purposes become more important than valuing the people who make up the kingdom, we’ve lost the vision God intended. God does not see the individuals in His army as expendable cannon fodder, and we shouldn’t see anyone that way either.
How can we change these attitudes, when they are so prevalent? Being aware of the truth is a big step, so that we no longer buy into man-made misconceptions. And, if we have the opportunity to lead others in any way, we don’t have to make the same mistakes which have been made before. We can bring change through how we treat others. It all comes back to the core description we started with: The Church is the expression of Jesus Christ upon the earth.
I know some of you have been deeply hurt by leaders who were not gentle, who used, rather than cherished, the church flock. I do not write this to stir up bitterness, but in hopes of bringing some truth to bear so that adjustments can be made, even if it is only in the thinking of a few. May God give those of you who have been hurt grace to forgive, to receive healing, and to be instruments of change for the better in the Lord’s hands.
Ultimately, when we think of the Church as an army, if we keep it in the perspective of the Church being first and foremost God’s family, we’ll be all right. We will carry out our warrior calling in the way God intended, without harming our fellow soldiers in the process.
Growing in the Prophetic,
Audio teaching by Lee Ann Rubsam
Before Whom We Stand, by Lee Ann Rubsam