The Sword and the Cause of Christ: Christian Jihadists?

“…the cause of Christ is never, ever advanced by the sword.”

The conviction above is expressed in the November 1, 2015 issue of the Standard Bearer, in the editorial “Learning from the Medieval Church’s History.” As I penned that, I was fully aware that many today have a different view of the relationship of the sword and the cause of Christ. At least one reader of the SB took exception to it. Mr. Archie P. Jones sent us a very cordial letter with a lengthy response to that statement. He acknowledged that it was “eight times too long for a letter” for the SB, but he expressed the hope that “it will be useful in some way.”

Let me say that I appreciate him taking the time to write a lengthy response and sending it to us. It gave opportunity to consider another point of view. It is my intent to set out some of what Mr. Jones wrote, and respond publicly. It is not my desire to answer all his arguments here, for as he noted, his writing is too long for me to cover all the aspects. I will do my best to represent his main points fairly and honestly, and then give my response, which I believe can be helpful to other readers as well.

Mr. Jones objects to the sentiment above, writing,

This is an extraordinary claim… but is neither true to the teachings of Scripture nor to the history of the advancement of the cause of Christ. [F]rom the fact that the power of the sword was often misused—wickedly misused—during the Crusades it does not follow that the power of the sword has never been used to advance the cause of Christ in history, nor that it cannot or should not be so used. This is not a defense of the Charlemagne method of evangelism—Convert or die!—but an introductory defense of the proper use of the sword, a definition of the cause of Christ, and a reminder of the biblical duty of the church.

He insists that

the cause of Christ must be defended in order for it to continue to exist. It must continue to exist in order for it to be able to be advanced, and it can be advanced (humanly speaking) by examples. This is readily discernible biblically, logically, and historically.

Mr. Jones delves into the central issue, namely, “What is the cause of Christ?” His answer:

Certainly it consists in disseminating the Good News of salvation through Christ alone—salvation by God’s grace through faith in Christ and His work on the cross. But certainly also there is more to the cause of Christ than that. Christians are supposed to take every thought captive to Christ, aren’t we? This necessarily includes every thought, word, and deed; it necessarily includes all areas of life, thought, and action; individual life and corporate life; life in church and life outside of church; life in one nation or among every other people. Unless the cause of Christ is defended in one nation or among one people it cannot spread to other nations and peoples. And the power of the sword is an essential means of defending the cause of Christ.

Let me indicate at the beginning of my answer that my conviction is unchanged. In addition, definitions are extremely important in any fruitful discussion. My definition of the cause of Christ is entirely wrapped up in the church of Jesus Christ. The cause of Jesus Christ is His work of gathering, defending, and preserving His one church from the beginning of the world to the end, out of all nations (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 54). And that church is identical to the kingdom of Christ, in my judgment. I think that Mr. Jones and I have a different view on that, and that he takes a broader view of what constitutes the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

In response to Mr. Jones, I freely acknowledge that God has used the power of the sword for the good of the church. Negatively, this has occurred in at least two ways. First, God has used the sword to chastise His church. In the old dispensation, when Israel departed from Jehovah, God used the nations around Israel to humble her by military subjection. In the new dispensation, God used conquest of nations where the church existed to cut off the church almost entirely. I think of Augustine and the Christian church in northern Africa in the fifth century, which area was overcome by Muslims shortly after Augustine died, with the result that the church was virtually wiped out in that part of the world.

Second, God also used the sword to allow His church to be left alone. When the nations go to war against each other, their attention is diverted from their desire or even efforts to eradicate the church. A clear example of this is given in David’s life recorded in I Samuel 23:26-28. Wicked King Saul was in hot pursuit of David’s band, “and David made haste to get away for fear of Saul; for Saul and his men compassed David and his men round about to take them.” Then Scripture records how God used the sword of the Philistines to deliver David from death. “But there came a messenger unto Saul, saying, Haste thee, and come; for the Philistines have invaded the land. Wherefore Saul returned from pursuing after David, and went against the Philistines.”

This has occurred countless times throughout history. In the time of the Reformation, the Emperor Charles V plotted with the pope and other Romish rulers to unite in order to take over the predominantly Protestant nations. But God prevented this from ever being decisive, either by conflict breaking out among them, or by an invasion of the Turks in the East.

Those are two negative ways that God has used the sword for His purposes.

But that is not all. God has used the sword in the positive defense of His church. Every Reformed Christian confesses that God rules sovereignly over all people, events, and the creation. He controls expanding economies, drought, wars, earthquakes, and assassinations of rulers. Everything that happens is sovereignly determined and directed by God. Nothing happens by chance, but all things serve His purposes. (Cf. the beautiful Lord’s Days 9 and 10 of the Heidelberg Catechism.) And all things that happen serve to accomplish God’s goal. Again, every Reformed Christian confesses the biblical truth that God’s principal goal is the glory of His name in and through Jesus Christ. On the one hand, God determined the development of sin, leading inevitably to the kingdom of the Antichrist, that God’s perfect justice may be revealed in the eternal condemnation of the ungodly. On the other hand, God glorifies Himself in the gathering of the church unto Himself to live in covenant fellowship with her forever. Both of these purposes culminate in the coming of Christ on the clouds of heaven to destroy the kingdom of man and to usher His church into eternal life.

Since God rules in heaven and earth so that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28), it is certain that God has used the sword of kings and princes for the good of His church. Indeed, the sword has been a tool God used to defend His church. Constantine (fourth century) decreed the official end of Roman persecution of Christians. Charlemagne’s power (and that of many other kings) checked the advance of the Turks so that the church could grow, send out missionaries, and develop doctrine.

The time of the Reformation particularly illustrates this. Prior to the Reformation, God providentially set elector Frederick III in control over the region of Germany that included Wittenberg. God also converted this ruler to the Lutheran faith and inclined him to protect Luther from the murderous power of the pope and his Roman Catholic friends in high places. In this way, Luther was spared the fate of John Hus and many other godly critics of Rome over the centuries. In addition, other rulers of predominantly Protestant states defended themselves against the attacks of the Catholic League—nations predominantly Roman Catholic. In and through these sword-bearing endeavors, God preserved the Reformation.

Take careful note. Rulers, in the providence of God, used the sword to defend their territory and their people from hostile invaders. This is one of the God-ordained purposes of government—using the sword to defend the country. However, these were not instances of the church taking up the sword. Neither were these instances where the sword advanced the cause of Christ, i.e., in the gathering, defending and preserving of God’s church. And if one notes the Heidelberg Catechism’s language “defending and preserving” and wonders whether this might refer to rulers defending and preserving by the sword, let me remind you that the Catechism explains how this is done—“by His Spirit and word.” By these spiritual instruments, Christ gathers, defends, and preserves His church.

That activity being “the cause of Christ,” it is plain to see that the church’s calling is as Jesus commanded. Before His ascension Jesus instructed His church (through the disciples):

. . . . All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen (Matt. 28:18-20).

The powerful tool for accomplishing the God-given mission of the church is the preaching of the gospel. To the world, preaching seems very weak, and thus foolish. What will preaching accomplish? The apostle Paul, the great missionary to the Gentiles, was clear and emphatic on this. In his first inspired epistle to the church in Corinth he wrote (I Cor. 1:17-24),

For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

Preaching is the God-ordained means to gather, defend, and preserve Christ’s church. So conscious of this was Paul that he went on to testify to the believers in Corinth,

And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (I Cor. 2:1-4).

And the main concern of Paul? “That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God (I Cor. 2:5). And, “That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (I Cor. 1:31).

Not the sword of Charlemagne, of Frederick III, or of any other ruler will receive the glory for gathering, defending, and preserving the church. But God alone, who destroys the wisdom of the wise, converts elect sinners, delivers them from the power of darkness, and translates them into the kingdom of His dear Son (Col. 1:13)—by His Spirit and Word.

And yet more remains to be considered. Mr. Jones insists that “Christians are supposed to take every thought captive to Christ.” That needs to be addressed. And therein lies my greatest concern. I fear that this insistence, carried to its logical end (under the title “The Sword and the Cause of Christ”), will impose on the church the calling to carry out physical warfare in the name of Christ. Hence the title. Let us be clear, Mr. Jones nowhere in his gracious letter suggests that this is our calling. Nor do I seek to impose that on him. But that is my fear.

In that connection, and in this day of increasing violence, all Christian churches need the wisdom to distinguish between self-defense under personal attack and submission in persecution. That issue will likewise be addressed in the next editorial, D.V.