A Violent Church

A Violent Church February 22, 2023

A Violent Church
A Violent Church / core graphic curtesy of Adobe Stock

Middle School Questions

I still have a vague memory of being at a youth group on a Wednesday night back when I was in middle school. I was in the recreation area right outside the Sanctuary just before service was supposed to start. All around me was the clutter of foosball tables, the blasting sound of early 2000s Christian music, and dozens of high pitched and crackly pre-teen voices.

Walking towards the Sanctuary was the young Youth Pastor who, if I’m honest, I really don’t remember much about. What I do remember though, is walking up to him and asking a question that I’d been wrestling with for some time. He didn’t see me coming, and since I never talked much, I think he was caught off guard when I grabbed his attention.

Two decades later, my question and his answer still linger in my memory.

“Is war a sin?”

To his credit, he stopped and thought for a moment. “Well,” he said, “God led his people to war in the Old Testament.” Then he shrugged, and that was about it.

Seriously, conversation done.

I know why I remember that moment in my life, despite walking away without an exhaustive answer to my question. It’s because surrounding that one “big” question were a series of deeper patterns that were already forming and taking root in my mind and soul.

Like many boys, violent content made up much of my life, my mental space, and even my desires. I wanted to grow up to be a soldier, I loved action movies, books with heroes that fight the bad guys, and video games that let me be the “good guy with the gun”.

Pretty typical teenage boy.

But more than twenty years later, that moment still sticks with me because “war” wasn’t the real issue. As a twelve-year-old I was contemplating the deep theological nuances of war, at least not from an academic standpoint. The topic of war is a nuanced and a heavily theological one, which really isn’t the topic of this post.

No, teenage me didn’t want theological nuance, he wanted validation.

You see, I enjoyed the violence and action that war was symbolic of. I wanted to know that the violent content, media in which there is a violent struggle between good and evil, and where the good guy beats the bad one to a pulp… I wanted to know that Jesus was okay with that.

In my heart, I knew that I wanted to be that “good guy” who violently erased the “bad guys” from the face of the earth, just like action movie heroes I looked up to.

Now, on the surface that may sound very… well… violent. And it is.

But it isn’t unique.

In fact, it’s obvious that an enjoyment of violence has saturated our culture as much (or perhaps more) than sexuality. But I’m not here to judge those outside the Church, the Lord will do that (Paul explains this in 1 Corinthians 5:12). Instead, I want to speak to those of us in the Church, because that violent pattern in the world has crept into the hearts of many of us who say we serve the Prince of Peace, and we’ve convinced ourselves Jesus is comfortable with.

As is usually the case, the very fact that pre-teen me felt the tension with Jesus meant I already knew whether or not Jesus would have grabbed his popcorn and watched those war movies alongside me.


Should Be Simple

The discussion of violence should, in many ways, be a simple one in the Church. The New Testament scriptures don’t leave a whole lot of ambiguity on the subject. Plain and simple, we believers should not be violent people.


Jesus, when faced with violence, never met it in kind. His refrain from violence and vengeance wasn’t brought on by his inability to fight back either, it was a choice. Do you remember what he told Peter after Peter had cut off the ear of the servant of the High Priest who had come to arrest Jesus? Jesus said that the Lord would put twelve legions of angels at Jesus’ disposal if he asked (Matthew 26). And since just one of these angels could kill thousands of soldiers in a night (2 Kings 19:35), could you imagine what twelve legions could do?

No, Jesus refrained from violence because he’d come to establish a New Covenant, a Covenant that was to bring hope to all the nations using tactics the world had never seen before. Instead of war and violence growing the geographical territory of the Israelites, now God would claim territory in the hearts of men and women through love and gentleness.

Convincing another believer of this should be so simple. All you need to do is look at the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Even in Jesus’ famous moment of righteous anger, when he kicked merchants out of the Temple courts, no one was recorded as dying or even being seriously injured.  No, in every way Jesus maintained a life of gentleness, not breaking the bruised reed nor snuffing out the smoldering wick, just as what was prophesied about him (Isaiah 42:4). And just in case we think that these are characteristics of Christ and not for us, let me draw you to the writings of Paul.

Writing to Timothy about the characteristics of someone aspiring to be a leader in the Church, he writes, “Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Timothy 3: 2-3, emphasis added).

Not violent, but gentle.

Writing to the church at Ephesus, Paul writes, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma,” (Ephesians 5:1-2).

Paul writes for us to imitate God, referring to Christ who died for us. Isn’t that crazy, Jesus didn’t kill for us, but died for us. That’s a distinction we should be much more cognizant of in our lives.

Many believers throughout time and even in other parts of the world today understand this as well. God has never grown his New Covenant Kingdom through violent heroes destroying bad guys, but instead through His children submitting, even submitting unto death like our Lord and Savior did for us.

And yet, despite the obviousness in New Testament Scripture for Christians to be a gentle people, who are not violent, I don’t think that’s how the world would describe us.

Not historically, for sure.

But not today, either.


A Violent “Church” Culture

For me, I grew up in a church culture that often leaned heavily into the imagery of war.

Sermons often used metaphors that went back to violent films like Braveheart or Saving Private Ryan, almost making war movies a required viewing to keep up. Christians, and especially men, were also called to think of ourselves as soldiers in the Christian fight, swinging our Sword of Truth around to destroy the works of the Enemy. Men’s studies abounded with war-like imagery and aggressive speakers who called me to “man up” and “fight” for my marriage, my family, my church, my country, etc.

And, as usual, there were verses found to justify the theme of these sermons, men’s studies, conferences, etc. Ephesians 6, which discusses the “Armor of God”, was a particularly common one and often pulled in as evidence that we’re soldiers in the fight.

And, in the context of my life and my church community, I watched this metaphor bleed over into other areas of the Christian life, well beyond the incredibly narrow context that Paul had used that imagery in. Suddenly, believers were also called to be cultural warriors, no longer just fighting against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12), but now also against the media corporations, the producers in Hollywood, the academic institutions, the opposing political party, refugees from other nations, other Global superpowers, other religions, and the list goes on.

Because, we reasoned, aren’t we God’s soldiers here on earth? Aren’t we supposed to be fighting, opposing, and winning?


The Temple of the Holy Spirit

The Bible calls us believers many things, but none of them are “soldier” or “warrior”. The Apostle Peter writes that we are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession (1 Peter 2:9). Jesus called his Disciples, and I believe by extension us, “friends” (John 15:15). And the Apostle Paul writes that our bodies are a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20).

This last one is of special importance, I believe.

You see, we are now a temple of the Holy Spirit, which is something that is uniquely Christian. Up until the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ the temple was a very physical thing. It was a building, and one that couldn’t be built (it should be noted) by David because he was a man of war (1 Chronicles 28:3).

But now Paul tells us that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Did you just skim by that? That’s too big to just skim. Just take a moment and process that your body, my body, are temples for the Holy Spirit. This is why Paul talks so much to the church at Corinth about sexual immorality, because they didn’t understand that those acts of adultery were like defiling the temple of God.

They didn’t truly understand that they now lived in a New Covenant in which God has come to dwell far closer to us than ever before. No longer is God inside the Holy of Holies in the Temple, or accessible through a Prophet, now He has come to make his home in our hearts and speak to each of us as His child.

So, how is that related to our topic today?

Because inside of the Temple, the Lord should reign supremely. What He says, goes. For those believers in Corinth, that meant that had to shift away from the cultural beliefs about sexual ethics and conform to this new sexual ethic that was entirely opposite from the Roman culture.

I think for us, that means we have to conform to an ethic around violence that is incredibly counter cultural as well. It means that some things that the world finds enjoyable, such as hyper violent movies, video games, books, music, etc., are things that should grieve us as they grieve the Spirit.

some things that the world finds enjoyable.., sare things that should grieve us as they grieve the Spirit.

In the same way that imagining sexual relations with someone other than our spouse is adultery, finding enjoyment in content that brings our imaginations into violence and murder should also be seen as defiling as well.

This is where I have needed to repent deeply. I’ve spent many years enjoying violent media that the culture doesn’t have any issues with, and so I justified it as well. I have enjoyed media that casually tosses around death and destruction and told myself it was okay because it’s fake, despite knowing I’d never use that same excuse in the area of anything that would give me lustful thoughts.

I also need to acknowledge that this violent media stunted my spiritual growth, keeping me from imitating Christ in some of the most vital ways possible, such as empathy, compassion, and love.

In a moment I’ll talk about the complexities of being in the world but not of it, of navigating a culture like ours that’s filled to the brim with violence. I’ll even discuss how our church culture has suffered because we’ve become like the world in this area.

But for now, many of us just need to process and repent, knowing we have a Father in Heaven who hears our prayers, a Savior at His right hand who has gone before us and overcome this, and the Holy Spirit inside of us urging us and helping us repent and overcome this world.


A New Covenant Culture

When we as believers adopt a war-like posture in this world, we tend to look much more like the Crusaders of a thousand years ago rather than the early Christians who spread the Gospels throughout the Middle-East and Asia Minor.

The first group wore a cross on their chest as they tore through the land fighting the “unbelievers” in order to take back territory for God. They were “God’s soldiers”, certain of God’s favor.

The second, those early believers, loved their neighbor even when their neighbor scorned, abused, and killed them. They were like their Lord, a sheep to the slaughter who did not open his mouth when scorned (Isaiah 53:7).

The Crusaders believed that the evidence of winning was external, through the world being reshaped into their perception of Christianity. In doing so, they marred the name of Christ deeply, and more than a seven hundred years later their actions are still a stumbling block to the lost coming to faith.

The early Christians in the Roman Empire never strove to “win” by the world’s standards, but strove to love. In doing so they proclaimed the name of Jesus Christ through their acts of love and through considering their neighbor greater than themselves (Philippians 2:3). And despite hundreds of years of martyrdom and persecution, the very Roman Empire that crucified Jesus would proclaim him as Lord and then the world would see a radical moral transformation in one of the most violent and merciless nations to ever rule. And the early church didn’t accomplish that amazing feat with a war-like posture, but instead with a posture of love and gentleness.

You see, the war-like posture is one that God used prior to the life of Christ. Under the Old Covenant, God used cultural practices (such as diet and circumcision) and war with Israel’s enemies as a way to carve out a place for His people on earth.

That’s no longer the covenant we live under, however.

Now, under this New Covenant, God is sending us to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all he has commanded (Matthew 28). And he doesn’t give marching orders for us to go to war. In fact, he says, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:44). This is an anti-violent sentiment, a command that, if we follow, we cannot be a war-like people with a war-like faith.

Instead, we become a Christ-like people with a Christ-like faith.

Imitating our Lord and Savior is, in many ways, our calling. When the Church does that collectively, we see genuine change in the lives of our neighbors and in the culture as a whole. And imitating Christ means that He gets to decide what we spend our time, money, and energy on.


Living This Practically

I used to always become uncomfortable with Christians who told me they didn’t watch “R” rated movies. That may sound silly, but for me it seemed like such an arbitrary line that was so limiting. I could easily rattle off a dozen “great” movies that “everyone should watch” that had that “R” rating.

Maybe you can too.

And then, over the last few years, I began to learn about and truly understand spiritual formation. Essentially, I’ve learned that I am formed spiritually by a whole host of things, not the least of which is the media I choose to consume on an ongoing basis. Like it or not (and many of us don’t like it so much we just choose not to believe it), whether or not I become more like Christ is in part contingent on what I allow to form me as a person.

And some of us, myself included, live as if 15 minutes reading the Bible in the morning is more formative than the hours each day that we spend shopping for things we don’t need, scrolling with envious eyes on other people’s social media pages, and spending another few hours in a virtual space pretending to kill people in a video game.

Only someone who is either foolish or in a serious level of denial would genuinely think that to be the case.

So, I’d like to propose a few changes that we can each make in order to better form ourselves spiritually.

1. Alongside our spouse and/or church community, draw some form of boundaries around the media we consume.

This is easiest when we choose to cut out content with ratings such as “R” or “MA”, but allow God to lead you in the nuance of this. Some “R” rated content may not form you away from Christ, while some things rated “PG-13” may deeply influence you in a negative way.

For me, I’ve removed violent-centric video games from my life. If the premise is run around with a gun and shoot things (which is most video games), I no longer play it.


2. Replace your time and money with something that positively forms you spiritually.

Some of us need to stop watching a show midseason and probably cancel a streaming service (or two). Take that free hour each day and invest it somewhere else, such as in starting a book about spiritual growth or watching a sermon series. If you have any freed-up money because of these changes, invest in someone in need. This can be a recurring gift to a non-profit or literally money you take and hand someone in need.

For me, I use my freed up time to read and write, which allows me to both grow in the Lord and to serve the Body.


3. Don’t overcomplicate it, just search your heart.

If the idea of giving up violent media makes you defensive and leads you to a place of wanting to find Biblical loopholes, just take a deep breath and choose to take a month off. If you can’t go one month without playing a violent video game or watching a violent show… well that should tell you something.

And I’m not writing from a place of judgment. My wife has been pushing me away from violent shows and games for about ten years. I made excuses for that long, and I seriously get it. But at some point, we all have to come to a place where we ask ourselves, “if I really believe Jesus is enough, then why do I need to fight for this?”

Also, until you’ve fasted from violent media for some time, don’t try to wrestle with the “deeper” theological implications around violence and war. Topics such as whether God condones war, or whether believers should own weapons to defend themselves are areas in which amazing, Jesus loving, Christians disagree with one another for good reasons. Choosing not to watch war movies that lead us to finding pleasure, interest, joy, etc. in violence isn’t the same as saying you don’t believe God allows governments to go to war. Those are different topics, and getting caught up in the latter can keep you from growing.

Which leads me to my final point.


4. Keep your eyes on Jesus, and strive to be like Him.

I firmly believe that Christians should often ask ourselves the question, “does ____ form me more or less like Jesus?” If we asked ourselves that question often, many of us would find ourselves living very different lives. We’d give more time and money, and find ourselves on social media less. We’d be far more united as a body and we’d find far fewer reasons to criticize one another.

And, perhaps, we’d stand out in the world like a house upon a hill.


As always, send this article to a friend and discuss it together, especially these last four points. If we don’t grow in community, we probably aren’t growing.



For more content like this, check out the Living Room Disciple Podcast here, or check out our website. 

About Phillip Snyder
Phillip Snyder is a home church pastor in Central Florida and a Training & Development Consultant. He is on the wonderful and (sometimes) terrifying journey of following Jesus. Through marriage and parenting, teaching and pastoring, failing and repenting. You can read more about the author here.

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