Nil by force: a word on militaristic tropes in missions

By Jay Mātenga |

Nga mihi ki te hunga e whai ana i to rātou whainga… (Greetings to everyone who is pursuing their purpose),

The text for this month is Matthew 11:12 (NLT), “…from the time John the Baptist began preaching until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people are attacking it.” 

Military formation soldiers marching
Filip Andrejevic / Unsplash
In light of the context of John the baptizer’s imprisonment (and eventual martyrdom), this translation is a lot clearer than the KJV, which leaves some wiggle room to interpret that the “violent” are those working for the Kingdom: “…the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” The latter interpretation was popular in the Pentecostal circles I frequented as a young person. It was used to energize us to go out onto the streets or outdoor markets to ‘witness’. By that I mean, to sing and preach what we understood to be the “good news” (which was usually thinly veiled judgementalism). The aggressive style of evangelism in my past was brought back to me as I read my friend Harvey Kwiyami’s January Substack post. Harvey is from Malawi and resides in the UK. Until late last year he was the director of Global Connections UK (a missions association similar to Missions Interlink). Here’s some of what Harvey experienced...

At a recent mission conference in Africa, I sat through a sermon (disguised as a seminar paper) that sought to mobilise Africans to be drafted into God’s army, to join the missions force, and to let God deploy them to the trenches on the frontline where they can make a surprise attack on the enemy. The entire sermon sounded like an Army General was speaking to his cadets about an ongoing war somewhere within the 10/40 Window. When I tried to raise a concern, I was forcefully informed that “mission is warfare,” and that “as missionaries, we pull down strongholds” for God. As a matter of fact, I was rebuked for forgetting that “the kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” I was told they were planning to send a battalion of young men and women as missionaries to occupy—like an occupying force—a city near me (in the UK).

In an X (Twitter) conversation related to Harvey’s post, I commented “There is NO PLACE for aggression in missions. Period.”, knowing full well that that is not a popular opinion.

We have a motivational problem.

I think missions influencers resort to militaristic tropes because, when it comes to the sharing of our faith, whether local or cross-cultural, we have a motivational problem. To get more believers ‘committed’ to evangelism, ministry, and missions, influencers too easily twist Scripture to promote a militant activism, casting the ‘great unwashed’, ‘pagan’, or ‘heathen’ as ignorant slaves of our enemy (sin, the powers of darkness, and the Devil) needing to be rescued (by force, if necessary, e.g. the burning building analogy). Drawing on Old Testament narratives, Christians are cast as commandos who go out into enemy territory to take it for God. In today’s world, such territory are our societies otherwise dominated by secularism, communism, or a dominant religion different to ours (curiously, capitalism is rarely cast negatively—secularism is mentioned in its stead).

“But”, I hear you say, “Scripture DOES speak of spiritual slaves, sin, lostness and darkness.” Indeed, it does. Predominantly it’s with reference to what WE once were, in contrast to the light and liberty we now enjoy in Christ. It is also used of influential people who claim to be teachers but whose lifestyle of abhorrent ungodly behaviour testifies against them. There is also an occasion where it refers to Gentiles in general (Ephesians 4:17-19) but that is said more with pity than animosity. In the epistles, the behaviour and lifestyle of the unregenerate (a state of being, not a derogatory term) serves as a contrast, reminding the regenerate person/community that they need no longer feel constrained by Sin to live that way, the way of the ‘flesh’ or ‘world’.

The New Testament lists of unrighteous behaviour are not there to be weaponised.

The New Testament lists of unrighteous behaviour are not there to be weaponised. They are a warning to us—we who are empowered by the Spirit to live in righteousness, in alignment with God’s good ways, with the expectation that we will live according to God’s holy standard. The deeds common to people who will not inherit the Kingdom of Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:3-5) are listed, therefore, not to condemn unbelievers but to correct the believers.

It is not for us to preach against the sins of unbelievers, condemning their lifestyles. We are not commissioned to be judges. That is God’s prerogative alone. Their lifestyle choices cast them upon God’s merciful judgement and that is enough. Like those of us in-Christ, who have received grace to avoid such judgement, unbelievers can at any time avail themselves of redemption by pledging allegiance to Jesus, receiving the Spirit, and following Him thereafter. Our responsibility as witnesses, according to Scripture, is to live as a community of Christ followers in such a way that our Spirit-enabled mutually loving, reciprocal, perpetually reconciling, communal lifestyles present a compellingly attractive alternative to the patterns of this world. THAT demonstration of God’s power is witnessing. Not the imposition of our theological opinion upon unsuspecting passers-by.

It is entirely unacceptable for anyone to appropriate violence in the cause of co-creating New Creation.

With reference to the introductory text, it is entirely unacceptable for anyone to appropriate violence in the cause of co-creating New Creation (or ‘building the Kingdom’ if you prefer). To do so is a thoroughly colonialistic heresy. Like other fruit of anger, aggression has no place in the life of a righteous person. James notes that we, “must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives…” (James 1:19-21a). He associates anger with filth and evil. Aggression is similar. It can be a by-product of anger but also of undue stress, fear, feeling threatened, frustration, jealousy, unhealthy competitiveness, etc. None of those attributes relate to a gospel of peace, let alone a healthy community of faith. We may frequently feel them, but we no longer need to respond with aggression (or outright violence). Furthermore, in the absence of the negative stimulus, it makes no sense to artificially generate aggression in order to participate in the purposes of God, regardless of how warrior-influenced one’s culture is or used to be. Whoever Harvey’s missions motivator was, he (and it’s probably safe to assume they were male) is way out of alignment with God’s right ways.

This example of misaligned motivation is but one of a number of ways Scripture has been misused to promote missions and evangelism in the recent past. Such use is rooted in the kind of arrogant confidence that comes from an attitude of superiority, arguably a hangover from Western Christendom’s intent to colonise and civilise anyone who lived and thought differently. It is astonishing how ‘sticky’ misinterpreted missions myths and metaphors can be. For those of us trying to promote a more exegetically faithful interpretation, we can be accused of going ‘soft’ on missions and evangelism—what some might call ‘missions drift’. In response, I’d ask how an aggressive/impositional attitude to sharing the gospel is working out for us on the whole? The overall statistics reveal that it’s not so good. Every metric of the Christian faith is in decline, in the West at least, but also in established churches elsewhere. Where the local church is exploding and sustaining growth is in new expressions that read Scripture more indigenously and live out their transformed lives communally as the New Testament encourages. Their witness, often in hostile contexts, is powerfully attractive. These new expressions are predominantly from more collectivist cultures, often converting out of another majority religion.

For those of us living at the end of a civilisation, our primary investment should be to “creat(e) fertile ruins over which new worlds can emerge.

It will take some time for new missions concepts to take hold as the old models fade and new innovations start to normalise. I am talking generations not years. Thought leaders with a prophetic sense in positions of influence at this end of the previous missions era may not live to see the impact of their critique and recommendations. Nevertheless, as the young Italian philosopher, Fredrico Campagna encourages at the end of his book, Prophetic Culture: Recreation for Adolescents, for those of us living at the end of a civilisation, our primary investment should be to “creat(e) fertile ruins over which new worlds can emerge.”

Whether you are fully committed to the former ways of doing things or imagining how we can better participate in the purposes of God to co-create New Creation into the future, may we all shed aggression and make it our aim to “live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:2ff) and thereby please God as we #stayonmission.

Arohanui ki a koutou e haere ana ki te ao (love to you all as you go into the world).

Dr Jay Matenga is a Maori theologian of missions practice. He leads Missions Interlink NZ, the missionary alliance of Aotearoa New Zealand, from which he is seconded for half his time to lead the World Evangelical Alliance’s Mission Commission. Prior to his 2015 appointment with Missions Interlink, Jay served for 15 years as the Director of Pioneers and 5 years before that with WEC International, sending and caring for missionaries from New Zealand. His MA studies (All Nations Christian College) investigated relationships of power within missions structures and his doctoral research (Fuller Seminary) led to his development of an Industrial and Indigenous values spectrum as a way of understanding intercultural interactions, which can provide a pathway to maturity through transformative tensions.

The views expressed in this or any other opinion article do not necessarily reflect the views of Christian Daily International.