by Richard Beaton
The author considers the use of metaphors in the New Testament to address the character and tone of the language used to motivate people to mission and then briefly reflects upon the appropriateness of warfare imagery as it has been employed in recent times.
I will consider the use of metaphors in the New Testament to address the character and tone of the language used to motivate people to mission and then briefly reflect upon the appropriateness of warfare imagery as it has been employed in recent times.
There are obstacles to the wholesale appropriation of New Testament metaphors for our times. First, one must address the question of meaning. Second is the degree to which the New Testament employs metaphors to motivate the early church in service. For all its problems, lethargy was not a particular issue. Acts and the Epistles depict a movement that was profoundly outward in focus and that viewed evangelism as central to its identity while it continued to struggle with internal issues. Third, problems quickly arise when metaphors are misappropriated. When a metaphor is extended beyond what appears to be its original contextual boundaries, it becomes distorted and may lead to some unfortunate conclusions. A fourth difficulty, or perhaps more of a caution, concerns the issue of coherence. Do the primary metaphors that are often propagated today as defining or describing the activities of the people of God cohere with Scripture’s explicit ethical and character admonitions? For example, does the use of warfare imagery and the sometimes resultant “take no prisoner mentality” cohere with the frequent admonitions to gentleness, kindness, compassion, and love?
We must begin with a reasonable definition of metaphor. In Metaphor and Religious Language, Janet Soskice suggests that we ought to distinguish between metaphor as a figure of speech and the mental event, the engagement that transforms the individual. If biblical metaphors are to become part of our language, contribute to the manner in which we interpret our world, and even engage and transform us, they in part derive meaning from the world in which we live. When we inquire concerning New Testament metaphors, we must also consider how the metaphors were employed within the first century and how such imagery would, or should, be understood today.
Imagery motivating God’s people into action. The New Testament is filled with imagery and metaphors.
2 Corinthians has been described as Paul’s most personal and intimate letter. Paul proffers the following comment in 5:14-15: “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” This statement illustrates the basis for Christian existence, namely, the grace and love of God (the indicative), which in turn provide the source and power for the imperative, the “so then live….” Whether the challenge is to behave as the people of God, to love one another, or to be the light of the world, the assumption is always that the indicative is the prime motivation.
Likewise, 1 Peter 2:9-12 offers a similar portrayal from another segment of the early Christian movement. 1 Peter 2:9 reads, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” In this passage, the motivation to proclamation derives from Christians’ core identity. Although he does so indirectly, the author underscores the indicative by reaffirming the church’s identity as God’s own. They are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” What surprises is that this is followed by a purpose clause. The second part of verse 9 asserts that the reason for existence is to offer this praise and proclamation. Proclamation flows out of experience and identity as God’s people. Both these texts affirm that true motivation finds its source in the grace and goodness of God, who has redeemed and created a people for himself.
Matthew 5:13-16 presents the reader with three well-known corporate images that capture the identity and mission of the people of God. The first, “you are the salt of the earth,” is the most difficult to grasp. The second, “you are the light of the world,” and third, “a city set on a hill,” are less so. In my opinion, these remain some of the most powerful and evocative images of the church and its mission. When read in light of the second and third metaphors, the widely disputed image of salt probably ought to be understood to refer to the role of salt in the sealing of covenants. It marked the permanence of the agreement. Thus, metaphorically, the church continues God’s covenant witness in the world in the place of Israel.
The second metaphor is a prominent one from the Old Testament. It occurs, for example, in Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6, passages that were understood in some strands of Judaism to refer to a messianic figure who would bring light to the darkness and freedom to those in sin (Cf. also Matt. 4:16-17 [Isa. 8:22-9:1] and Luke 2:32). Jesus draws on this imagery and declares that his people are this light; they are a beacon to those who sit in darkness. Paul employs similar language in Philippians 2:15 when he says that members of the church in Philippi “shine like stars in the world” (cf. 1 Thess. 5:5; Eph. 5:8; John 12:36; Luke 16:8). To be a light to the world implies a willingness to be in the darkness, to live in the world. Building upon this series of ideas, the final metaphor of a city set on a hill must surely refer to Jerusalem and Zion. The church is the covenant community, the new eschatological people of God. Each of these three metaphors captures a distinct element of the church’s identity, behavior, and role in the world.
Another series of metaphors is also worth consideration. The call of the disciples to be “fishers of people” in Mark and Matthew (Mark 1:17; Matt. 4:19) is one. Similarly, the Jesus saying encouraging prayer to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest (Matt. 9:37-38) continues to have great impact. Each of these texts contains within it the basic assumption that the people of God are evangelistic, which further buttresses Jesus’ explicit command in Matthew 28:16-20. This attitude is found also in the expansion of the mission beyond the Jewish people to the Gentiles. The pattern of Jesus’ life and ministry, and the commands of Jesus to carry the gospel to the nations, had a profound impact on the early church, perhaps more so than today. Reaching those in darkness beyond the margins of society, or “those far off,” was part of the Christian life and one of the great assumptions of the early Christian movement. The lack of explicit references to the task can only be accounted for by the apparent implicit fervor we find writ large in the various New Testament documents and recorded in the writings of secular and Jewish historians.
Further, there is a series of metaphors related to the posture of believers with respect to their Christian life and ministry. Although not directly related to motivation for missions, it is, however, significant. I wonder how closely one may distinguish between a motivation for missions and the pursuit of the Christian life. The series includes ambassadorial, athletic, agricultural, soldiering, and other such imagery.
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul describes himself as an ambassador of Christ. A second usage occurs in Ephesians 6:20, this time as an oxymoron, “an ambassador in chains.” As in contemporary times, in the ancient world the legate or ambassador was the official representative of the king or ruler. 2 Corinthians is provocative because it offers a glimpse into Paul’s message and attitude. From Paul’s perspective, he is acting as a representative of God to the Gentiles. He asserts that God has in fact “entrusted the message of reconciliation to us” and “makes his appeal through us.” Thus, the church bears a profound responsibility to communicate this message of reconciliation. Ambassadorial language continues to compel for several reasons. First, unlike an antagonistic mentality that treats the world and other religions with hostility, this metaphor maintains the dignity of those to whom the ambassadors are sent. Second, it coheres with the presentation of Jesus’ relationship to the world in the gospel accounts. Third, there is coherence between the message and attitude of the messenger.
The athletic imagery may also have possibilities for us. Certainly one could argue that many athletes today enjoy the visibility that the soldier would have had in ancient society. Athletic imagery occurs in Acts and the Pauline correspondence. In each case, however, the attention is to discipline and training, and to the endurance necessary to finish well (1 Tim. 4:7-8). The classic text is 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, in which Paul draws upon the Isthmian games, second in size and significance only to the Olympic games, which were regularly held in Corinth. In 9:24, the emphasis rests upon running in such a manner as to win the prize. A favorite metaphor of Paul’s, running, is used with reference to living the Christian life. 1 Corinthians 9:25 says that athletes exercise a high degree of self-control to win a wreath that is perishable. In contrast, believers run, or ought to, to attain a wreath that is imperishable. Finally, as in a race or boxing match, the athlete is not directionless. All these elements point to the necessity of self-discipline, the goal of training, the event, and the prize. This parallels the self-disciplined life of a soldier, who endures hardship and battles for his commander-in-chief. In 2 Timothy 2:1-7, military, athletic, and farming imagery are lined up to illustrate devotion to service and the expectation of reward. The point of these images is to remain dedicated to service and not look back to one’s prior existence.
Behind each image we have examined is the “literal language” of the identity and devotion of the people of God to the purposes of God in the world. But each image also moves the audience beyond literal speech and engages them in a profound way with the potential to shape them. The images referenced above offer a positive challenge to live an intentional Christian life for the glory of God.
Images deemed counterproductive in view of hostile contexts of mission. The New Testament contains several texts that argue in favor of maintaining good relations with those in authority (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17). Amid persecution, the early church is admonished to continue to do good for humanity. One thing is clear: Hostility toward the world was not deemed an appropriate response to persecution. As much as I can appreciate the value of imagery associated with the Roman soldier and militaristic campaigns and the degree to which this imagery is advantageous for issues of personal discipline, acknowledgement of authority, and personal sacrifice, several factors argue against its effectiveness as a metaphor for Christian activity.
First, there is no evidence in the New Testament that believers are at war with either their culture or other people. Certainly the gospel will subvert culture, but this is not war. Second, the metaphor of soldier or “fellow-soldier” seems to be limited to the areas listed above. Third, as sociologists have noted, warfare includes the concern for boundary maintenance, much as we find in the early Jewish text 1 Maccabees. Thus, war is not simply directed outward; its mentality can also have devastating effects within a movement itself. Finally, when one combines the harsh realities and the brutality evidenced in much of the world today and the continued reaction to colonialism and the Crusades, it would seem that such imagery ought to be carefully employed, if at all.
Using metaphors about the Christian identity or mission is a valuable means of communication. However, metaphors ought to cohere with the basic essence of historic Christianity. Appropriating New Testament metaphors to validate current conceptions, whether warfare or some other notion, can be valuable but is not without difficulties. The most dangerous is to read into the metaphor an idea that is foreign to the gospel. Does the intended message cohere with the New Testament? The quest for coherence on the level of proclamation and praxis will safeguard the identity and mission of the church.
Richard Beaton is professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, Calif.). He originally presented these remarks at the Consultation on Mission Language and Metaphors, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, Calif., June 1-3, 2000.
Muslims and Military Metaphors
One of the aspiring elders of the church in a North African country, a Muslim background believer, was surfing the Internet. He found a Christian Web site that spoke about the great things that God was doing in his country. This ministry boasted of establishing “beachheads” and believed the gospel would go forth with power. Soon the country would be conquered for Christ. The team leader of our work talked about the site with this aspiring elder, a university graduate, who understood it in literal military terms. From his perspective, this group was planning a military invasion of his country, a literal Christian jihad (holy war). If a mature Muslim background believer perceives these military metaphors as literal truths, how much more the average Muslim?1
The message Muslims receive. Frontiers’ first Web site came across as too militant. Because we used standard evangelical military jargon and metaphor, we were accused of negative attitudes toward Muslims. Critics rightly realized that Muslims would be reading our site and encouraged us to tone it down. Our language had to change.
Our present site now has an article entitled, “Ten Reasons Why We Love Muslims” splashed across it.2 We realize that our site is not just for mobilization, but also for evangelization. What was once the exclusive domain of Christian audiences is now public domain. Literature and media once used primarily to mobilize Christian audiences for missions are now read on a global scale by Muslims. Globalization, especially through the Internet, impacts communication, either negatively or positively, depending on how it is used. Muslims believe in the devil and evil spirits, so they have some understanding of spiritual warfare. But their dominant paradigm about warfare is literal. The Islamic concept of jihad means that (most) Muslims think much like the saints in the Old Testament. They are on a crusade for Allah. He is on their side. Taking the land (i.e., world conquest) is their goal. The church’s dark history with Muslims further strengthens a military perspective. When Muslims hear military metaphors used by evan-gelicals, they can’t help but think of the Crusades. They do not know that this military show of force against Muslims was unbiblical and un-Christlike. Further, from their perspective, “Christians” were killing the “Muslims” in Kosovo and in Bosnia. Muslims see this and think, “The Crusades continue! They were not just historical anomalies.”
Culture and background. Military language has a subtle but powerful hold on evangelicals, especially missionaries. Our strategies and literature are sprinkled with it. In 1998, the International Council of Frontiers was framing an important letter to the rest of our movement. The reader of the letter repeatedly said, “Muslims whom we target,” when in fact the wording was, “Muslims whom we love.” This brother, one of the most pastoral leaders in Frontiers, had to be corrected twice for this misreading. I too must confess my proclivity for using military metaphors. According to the Myers-Briggs personality test, I am a “Field-Marshall.” Thus, I am drawn toward passages that describe the Christian life in terms of warfare. An editor had to expunge a few military terms in my book Muslims, Magic and the Kingdom of God (Pasadena: William Carey, 2000) even though I tried hard to write without using them.
My wife Fran likes to give a quiz to our missionary candidates to break down their stereotypes and clarify their thinking. One of these questions: “In church planting it’s important that we target receptive Muslims. True or false?” Everyone answers that question with a resounding “True!” She corrects them by saying, “False! We don’t target Muslims. Targets are to shoot at. Muslims are to love.”
Military metaphors are misunderstood by Muslims and overused by evangelicals. Furthermore, like any metaphor, military language can distort reality. Such metaphors subtly shape how we view the people to whom we are sent. Are they really “targets”? Does our warfare imagery subconsciously lead us to perceive Muslims as the “enemy”? At the very least, it seems to depersonalize our mission.
The Bible and military language. Any student of the Bible knows that military language and metaphor pervade Scripture. This is incontrovertible. What is significant, however, is how and why the Bible uses military imagery.
In the Old Testament, holy war is a common theme. God endorses conquest and empowers his people to defeat pagan armies (cf. Deut. 9:3-6; Joshua). There is little actual military metaphor in the Old Testament, mostly literal language, describing actual military exploits. The saints and soldiers of the Old Testament have much in common with Muslim jihad.
But this changes in the New Testament. Physical opposition to God’s enemies gives way to moral persuasion, illustrated most vividly in the life of Jesus. Whereas Muhammad rode into Mecca on a stallion, sword in hand, Jesus saddled up a donkey to ride into Jerusalem, to humbly suffer and die for the sins of the world. This theme dominates New Testament teaching. Instead of engaging in literal holy war, we are commanded to “love our enemies,” “pray for those who mistreat us,” “bless those who persecute us,” and “overcome evil with good.” (Matt 5:44; Luke 6:28; Rom. 12:14, 21).
The contrast between the Old Testament view of warfare with the New Testament view is ably summarized by Jack B. Scott: From the point of view of the believer in the OT, the enmity [between God’s people and unbelievers] is expressed in terms of physical opposition to the enemies of God and the church but with promises of a different way of handling the enemy in the future. In the NT era of the church, the enemy is to be loved. Opposition to the enemy is not now in terms of physical opposition but rather opposition by the preaching of the Gospel in love (Scott 1974:139).
While the New Testament does not mention literal holy war, it freely engages in metaphors that describe a spiritual war against spiritual enemies, primarily the world, the flesh, and the devil. The Bible calls us to battle against worldly perspectives hostile toward God (James 4:4; 1 John 2:15-16; Rom. 12:2), crucify the flesh which wages war against our souls (1 Pet. 2:11; Gal. 5:24; Rom. 6:11-19), and resist our enemy, the devil (James 4:7; 1 Pet. 5:8-10; Eph. 6:11-13).
This describes how military language is used. But why are these metaphors used? Vital parallels can be drawn between literal and spiritual warfare, of course. However, as G.B. Caird notes, “When two things are compared, they are not to be considered like in all respects. There is an intended point of comparison on which we are being asked to concentrate to the exclusion of all irrelevant fact” (1997:145).
I see at least two major reasons for military metaphors in the New Testament. The first is for the sake of comparison. There are significant parallels between the Christian life and the life of a soldier. Just as a soldier must be disciplined, must suffer, and must display singleness of purpose, so too must the Christian (2 Tim. 2:3-4). The second is for the sake of contrast. These metaphors are used primarily to contrast Christians’ spiritual warfare with literal warfare. Our real enemy is the devil.
As Paul says, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers . . . . “ (Eph. 6:12). “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh” (2 Cor. 10:3). It is noteworthy, however, that these metaphors do not seem to have been used among peoples who believed in and engaged in holy war. Biblical authors carefully contextualized their language.
Moreover, in contrast to modern missions literature and strategy, the New Testament does not use military metaphors to describe the task of evangelism. Missions in the New Testament is not portrayed in military terms. Paul does not put on “crusades,” “mobilize,” “establish beachheads,” or “target” a people. In other words, evangelicals have “extended” the meaning of military metaphors beyond the intent of New Testament authors. This does not mean that using military metaphors to describe missions is necessarily antibib-lical. It does mean, however, that this is not explicitly affirmed in Scripture. Therefore, we may or may not use these metaphors, depending upon their relevance to our context.
Contextualizing in the third millennium. Gareth Morgan has a good word for us: Metaphors create insight. But they also distort. They have strengths. But they also have limitations. In creating ways of seeing they tend to create ways of not seeing. Hence, there can be no single theory or metaphor that gives an all-purpose point of view. There can be no “correct theory” for structuring everything we do.
The challenge facing modern managers (mission executives and missionaries) is to become accomplished in the art of using metaphor: to find appropriate ways of seeing, understanding, and shaping the situations with which they have to deal (Morgan 1997:348).
Expanding globalization and increased pluralism force us to consider more appropriate metaphors for ministry in the third millennium. Like biblical authors, we must contextualize our metaphors for maximum impact with minimum distortion.
Biblical authors use a plethora of metaphors to describe all aspects of truth.4 Therefore, it would be prudent and contextually sensitive to find and use more nonmilitary metaphors in our missions literature. As John Gilchrist argues, our approach to Muslims should reflect charity, not militancy (Gilchrist 1990). Or maybe the provocative title of Christine Mallouhi’s latest book says it even better: Waging Peace on Islam!
We should rather emphasize metaphors like “blessing” (Gen. 12:1-3; Gal. 3:8), “peacemaking” (Matt. 5:9; Eph. 2:11-17; Rom. 14:19), “farming,” e.g., sowing and reaping (Matt. 13; 1 Cor. 3:5-8; Gal. 6:8-9), or relational images like “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18-19).
Rather than stressing triumphalistic motivations like “taking the land” or “conquering these people for Christ,” we should focus more on God’s glory or God’s compassion as a motivation for our ministry. This is biblical, understandable, and seems more relevant to our context.
But if we do use military metaphor (and I still think we should), let’s emphasize the same things that New Testament authors emphasized: Let’s call our workers to act like literal soldiers in terms of discipline, sacrifice, and singleness of purpose. Let’s equip our missionaries to fight against the spiritual forces of darkness and not against people. And let’s be careful that our strategies don’t depersonalize the ministry of reconciliation, so that we can honestly say with Paul, “the love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14).
1. Since this incident, I have filed away one of my favorite mobilization sermons: “Take a Vote or Take the Land? (Joshua, Caleb and the Ten Spies).” While I use this story as illustrative material, my focus has been on seeking other metaphors and motivations for ministry to Muslims.
2. We have sought a relational metaphor rather than a military metaphor for two reasons. (1) Muslims will read this, and we want to do everything we can (without compromising) to sow positive gospel seed. (2) Our primary focus in recruiting is Gen X, postmodern thinkers who see the world very differently than most Baby Boomers.
3. The late Dean Ireland, professor of exegesis of Holy Scripture at Oxford University, England.
4. For three excellent books on the subject, see The Pattern of New Testament Truth by George Ladd (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology by Vern Poythress (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), and The Language and Imagery of the Bible by G. B. Caird (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997).
Caird, G.B. 1997. The Language and Imagery of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Gilchrist, John. 1990. Our Approach to Islam: Charity or Militancy? Jesus to the Muslims, Republic of South Africa.
Morgan, Gareth. 1997. Images of Organization. Sage Publications. Thousand Oaks: California.
Osborne, Grant R. 1991. The Hermeneutical Spiral. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press
Scott, Jack B. 1974. “The Place of Enmity in Scriptural Teaching” in The Law and the Prophets, ed. John H. Skilton. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Nutley: New Jersey.
Rick Love is international director of Frontiers in England. He originally presented these remarks at the Consultation on Mission Language and Metaphors, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, Calif., June 1-3, 2000.
EMQ, Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 60-68. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.