A while back I came across a rather disturbing article about a new movement in Charismatic Christian circles called Joel's Army - basically a growing movement of young people " with a divine mandate to physically impose Christian "dominion" on non-believers" under the charismatic leadership of guys like Todd Bentley. According to the website for his ministry school in British Columbia, Canada:
"An end-time army has one common purpose -- to aggressively take ground for the kingdom of God under the authority of Jesus Christ, the Dread Champion," "The trumpet is sounding, calling on-fire, revolutionary believers to enlist in Joel's Army. ... Many are now ready to be mobilized to establish and advance God's kingdom on earth."
Now normally I would pay guys like these little (if any) notice. The crackpots have always been among us after all. However this is bigger than just a few crazies dreaming about the coming apocalypse. This isn't really isolated in just one area either, since the media started poking into the background of Sarah Palin and her church ties, the The Christian Dominionism movement - in a nutshell, the idea that Christians ought to be in charge of the secular world - now receives more widespread attention. Now personally I still feel that a lot of the articles and media attention this gets is a little alarmist. The Dominionist message has been preached and promoted for almost a hundred years now and to date it hasn't really managed to stir up much besides feelings. I don't think we are in any danger of the Crusades being relaunched any time soon and I don't think America is about to be turned in to a military theocracy any time soon either. However this movement and its growing popularity should still give Christians pause since it represent a extremist form of a bad idea that is found all over the Christian church in general - the idea of the Church as an army.
Now the Bible gives many pictures of the church - that of a family, a building, a bride or a body for instance but more and more Christians prefer to think of the church as an army instead. But is this a Biblical model? Does God want His church to be an army? Well, the idea is certainly not that new. It certainly featured big in the Middle Ages and of course the Crusades. Young and old may remember songs like “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “God’s got an Army”. This model had a big boost through the works of people like Rick Joyner and a handful of others who use vivid battle images in their books on Christianity. I have to admit that the Army model sure is a romantic one and it stirs the blood like few others. But that doesn't make it a good model for the church by a long shot.
Firstly it is very important to note that the Bible never uses this as a model of the church. When the Word refers to the army of God it always refers to His angels, not His church. On a few (three if you want to nitpick) occasions the Word refers to the individual Christian as a soldier (Phil 2:25; 2 Tim 2:3; Philemon 1:2), but never to the church as an army. (The Bible refers as many times to Christians as athletes, why does no one ever refer to the church as a sports team?) Even though the army model has its merits it is still a deeply flawed model. Better ones are already given to us and they fit the role and function of the church a whole lot better.
The problem is that there are some aspects of an army that makes it completely unsuitable as a church model. An army destroys those who oppose them. As the church we are however instructed to win over those who oppose us by doing good, loving our enemies and not repaying evil with evil, not seek their annihilation. The church should seek the salvation of its enemies, not their destruction. Sadly, with the romanticism of the army way of thinking gaining ground the fundamental Christian ideal of turning the other cheek and seeking the blessing of those who curse you is being driven further and further into the background. There is a growing "us against them" mindset in the church with the "them" being everyone from Muslims to gays to liberals and the gist of the message is not reaching them so much as defeating them.
Now right about here, many supporters of the Army model would stop me and point out that according to the Bible the true enemy is Satan and his minions (Eph 6:12), but here again the army model proves dangerous, for it encourages tons of spiritual warfare. This is a big problem with the Army model - armies focus on battle. Similarly, once a church starts thinking of themselves as an army, it becomes all about fighting. I can't help but feel that most of the church are far more focused on the devil and evil spirits and spiritual warfare than they are on God. Now I don't want to digress into a discussion on "spiritual warfare" but I will say this - how much of it is drawn from the Bible? All these "prayer walks", deliverance ministries and endless lore on different spirits - from names to functions and even locations - where does it come from? How much of it is actually drawn from Scripture? If we needed such extensive knowledge of exorcism, deliverance, Jezebel spirits etc, why is there so little of it written in the Bible? While there is a time and place for this, I believe the focus of a Christian should be God and not the devil. One should never be tempted to forget that the Biblical order is firstly submission to God and secondly to resist the devil (Jam 4:7). When speaking of the armour of the believer the instruction is that we should use it to “stand our ground” - sounds like these things are more about "self defence" than attacking the devil day in and day out. Just a thought.
OK, back to the problems with running a church like an army. In an army the generals take no risks. Instead they send their troops to take the risks while they take the glory. Come to think of it that does sound a little bit like some of the congregations I have been part of and really, it sucked! In an army, the troops have little significance. Just watch the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan or read about life in the trenches of World War One. In an army a life is a statistic – the objective is more important. In the church everyone is significant. At least they are supposed to be. The people are as important as the objective because in a very real way people are the objective. In the church it is of no use to reach some arbitrary goal if most of the people are lost along the way.
I could list many reasons why I find the army church model to be fatally flawed. I did not go to the army myself (I missed forced conscription by about a year) but I did grow up in a very militarized society and school system and the one thing I remember hating most about it was the forced uniformity. Where as thinking about the church as a body makes it OK to be different and unique even, in an army everyone has to look the same and most importantly think the same. Sadly, this is another bad idea the church has grabbed hold of. This is a case where the favoured model actually clashes with the Biblical one! Paul teaches that we are all like different parts of a body - completely different yet all important and all part of something bigger than ourselves. He tells us to embrace the fact that we are different and to let others be different from us. The army idea of assimilation utterly goes against this. Other reasons include that in an army the obedience is based on fear and duty not love and respect. Also in the church we are to serve one another, not control one another (Mat 20:25-27). Armies also leave no place for dissent, you either agree or you are in trouble. Being right or wrong has no bearing here. Is that really how a church should be run?
Now I grew up in various churches with the dominionist bend and I get the allure. I can certainly see why the army model would seem so attractive. It represents power after all and power is always attractive. But the problem is that on the whole, Christians are spectacularly bad with power. They may have only the best intentions, but we all know what they say about good intentions. I think Christians should think long and hard about this image they have of themselves as God's mighty army. We need to look past the romance and see the dangers and the many pitfalls. Groups like Joel's Army should serve as a wake-up call regarding the path we are headed down and it is not a good one. Sure, very few groups take it as far as the extremists do but why choose an inherently un-biblical model with so many negatives in the first place?
I said at the beginning of this article that I don't think there is any reason to be alarmist about these groups but I am starting to wonder if that's true. After all you don't need large numbers to do large amounts of damage, small dedicated groups can cause immense harm (if terrorism taught us nothing else its this...) It takes only a few individuals to break down in moments what generations have painstakingly built. Years of good can be undone in moments. Sure, most Christians - even those in utterly dominionist charismatic churches - would never actually go beyond talking but they are not the danger. Its the handful of overzealous people out of the masses who decide to "help God out" that pose the danger. That is why the church at large needs to think long and hard about what message it is sending. Preach on what monsters abortion doctors are and sooner or later at least one guy will get it into his head to shoot one. Spend enough time building fear about how the Muslims are going to kill us all and eventually someone is going to harm Muslim children.
Again, I'm not saying this is going to lead to a bloodbath or anything truly tragic, but it still sounds like a recipe for a disaster waiting to happen. See these groups are militant, elitist and and worst of all anti-intellectual. While there is a lot of anti-science sentiment among many Christians today already but among some of these groups take it much further than that by embracing teachings like that of William Branham. In a nutshell these state that the "fruit" Eve ate was sexual congress with the serpent and that Cain was the son of the Serpent. Therefore there are literally sons of God and sons of the Devil on earth. It takes it even further, the "sons of God" are good simple folk while the "sons of the serpent" are the scientists and intellectuals and even the theologians (the complete sermon on "The Serpent's Seed" can be found here). So then, you have a group of zealous, passionate young people, you teach them that all who differ from them are not only wrong, they are evil (and therefore you shouldn't listen to a word they have to say). You then teach them that they are special and meant to be running everything, that they should be in charge of the world. You hammer home the idea that the world is coming to an end and they have a vital role to play in the victory of good over the forces of evil (which happen to be everywhere and controlling everything from governments to schools to the media). You tell them that they are not only right, they are absolutely right for God Himself is on their side and He supports and endorses their cause completely. How is this not a terrible idea?
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