Some readers may wonder whether the term militant is a helpful way to describe the church here on earth. When we hear that word, we might imagine violent warlords in developing countries or the brutality of some medieval crusaders. The history of “religious wars” has often been used to belittle the Christian faith. If this might be the background that a term suggests, should Christians use it to describe the church on earth?
Speaking of the church militant is fitting because it summarizes a significant theme that is woven throughout the Scriptures. The church on this side of heaven is engaged in spiritual conflict whether we like it or not. This has been our reality since the fall, when God said to Satan, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring” (Gen. 3:15). “Enmity” is a strong word. It relates to deep hostility and hatred. We are sworn enemies of sin and Satan. We do not live in a time when we can let our guard down and rest. If the church is not militant, it will be conquered.
It is when we surrender to sin that evils such as literal violence break out. God warned Cain that he should be at war with sin, and his calling was to rule over it (Gen. 4:7). Cain’s subsequent sin of murder grew out of his failure to obey God’s call to be properly militant. This failure to fight sin multiplied into a world filled with lust, violence, and vengeance before the flood (Gen. 4:24; 6:11–12). Humans were losing the battle with Satan, for he had turned them against God and against one another. God cleansed the earth with the flood as a gigantic picture of our need for deliverance in this battle.
We could work through the Old Testament and find many other examples of failures in spiritual warfare that led to hard consequences. Failure to resist temptation led to sin, which led to slavery, war, and exile. Think of the personal defeats that Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David suffered when they let their guard down or wavered. Satan won many Israelites over to idolatry, and dark times of national enslavement to empires such as Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Rome followed. Throughout Bible history, there were also victorious times of reformation. The Psalms, Proverbs, and the Prophets expose and wrestle with Satan’s tactics, giving the church the outline of a battle plan. Men such as Hezekiah, Daniel, and Nehemiah stood boldly against evil. The Old Testament, however, contains quite a few grim tales of defeat. Sometimes only a tiny remnant of the church held its ground. The Old Testament ends with a church that is enslaved, confused, and scattered. The church militant appeared to be the church conquered.
All this history was preparing the battlefield for the coming of Jesus. When ancient Jews heard the Greek name Jesus, they would think of its original Hebrew form Joshua, which means “Yahweh saves.” In the Old Testament, God called Joshua to lead the invasion of Canaan. That invasion was a unique example of a call to literal militancy. Idolatrous, decadent, and depraved nations were driven out of the promised land. Joshua provided a place of rest and righteousness for the people of God (Josh. 24:31). Joshua was the greatest of military conquerors in Bible history, but it was Jesus Christ who would become the greatest of all militants.
The life and ministry of Jesus are the ultimate example of resistance against and victory over Satan. Though Satan tempted Him in the wilderness with a series of shortcuts, Jesus chose the narrow way of suffering as the path to ultimate victory (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10). His gospel campaign took Him throughout the entire land, confronting every semblance of sin, evil, sickness, and curse. He taught righteousness and confronted false teachers. He brought the message of the law in all its power (chs. 5–7). He called for repentance and faith. His ministry of reconciliation ushered in a new era of victory for the church.