Making Enemies

One of the problems that we face in our world is that we are too apathetic to make the enemies that we need to make. Whilst we hear a lot about the need to be peacemakers in the Church today, I don’t think that we hear enough about the need to be those who have and even make enemies. All too often the peace that we enjoy is a peace that is enjoyed at the expense of the truth. We are offended at such things as the crusades, not so much out of a strong conviction of their inconsistency with the Christian faith, but out of a general feeling that private religious beliefs are not worthy of the ultimate commitment that we associate with warfare. The great virtues of our day—tolerance and inoffensiveness—are incompatible with our commission to bear witness to the truth. They demand the muzzling of the Gospel.

The Scriptures will not make sense to us if we do not think of ourselves as a people at war. All of the Scriptures are written out of a profound sense of being in the middle of a battle. Many of the psalms call for God’s judgment upon enemies and rejoice at God’s military deliverance. As Stanley Hauerwas observes, ‘Christianity is unintelligible without enemies.’

The message that most churches preach is far too innocuous to have the sort of polarizing effect that our message ought to be having. The powers are quite happy to carve out space for a Christian ‘reservation’ in its secular realm. As long as the Church is singing sappy ‘I love you Jesus’ choruses and preaching gooey sermons of reconstituted pop psychology to spineless congregations the world will feel gloriously unthreatened by our presence. The world loves to see a feminized pulpit and an emasculated hymnal.

This is one of the reasons why the Church needs strong men in its pulpits. Whilst not a primary argument against women preachers, I believe that, whatever people may say, the virtues that ought to characterize good preaching are primarily masculine in character. The good preacher should be someone who leads from the front, someone who establishes and guards important boundaries, someone who encourages congregations to think antithetically and to be willing and ready to engage in combat when the situation calls, even when the combat might be avoided by silence. Christian preaching should elicit courage and unswerving loyalty, calling us to be people of conscience, conviction and honour. The sort of preaching that elicits such a response is far more ‘masculine’ than the preaching that is found in most of our churches.

In the OT the Levites were chosen to be the crack troops of God’s holy army. They were the ones who were to guard the most holy places. One of the virtues that particularly set them apart for their role of special priests was their willingness to draw the most painful of lines—lines drawn in the blood of their relatives. The Levites were blessed for being prepared to defend the covenant at the cost of the lives of their brothers (Exodus 32:25-29). We see something similar in the case of Phineas in Numbers 25. Phineas was zealous for God and was willing to thrust a javelin through a man and a woman for God’s sake. It is after this action that Phineas is set apart for ‘an everlasting priesthood’.

We should expect nothing less of our priests. The office of priest in the holy war is a military one, just as the role of the soldier in a just war is a priestly one. Both persons are called to guard and enforce boundaries and have eyes that do not spare. The reasons for the traditional opposition to setting women apart as combatants are analogous to reasons why we ought to oppose the setting apart of women as priests. Both roles run counter to the primarily nurturing role that women have been given and prize qualities that are chiefly masculine. If we set apart women for the priesthood we will either emasculate the priesthood or defeminize our women.

Our preaching, praying and worship really ought to terrify the world. We ought to celebrate the Eucharist and really have the sense of having a table prepared in the midst of our enemies. Our Lord instituted the Eucharist on the night on which He was betrayed, when all the powers of evil were mobilizing to destroy Him; it is only as we experience something analogous to this that we will truly enter into the significance of the rite. As Hauerwas argues, our preaching should locate our enemy, give us a sense of the stakes, the long-term strategy and prepare us for engagement. After the mustering of the Church on the Lord’s Day we should see our sending out as bringing the battle to the enemy. In our prayers we should be prepared to call for God’s judgment upon our enemies. Our psalms and hymns should instil courage, determination and steadfast loyalty in our hearts. Of course, these things are noticeably absent in many contemporary churches.

So much contemporary Christianity is drawn in on itself. If you truly want to know your own heart, you will know it as you engage in warfare, rather than as you engage in spiritual navel-gazing. It is only as we engage in warfare that we come to realize how easily our own hearts will betray us.

It is so easy to lose the ability to think antithetically in our postmodern age. The lines in so many of our battles have been smudged. We have begun to debate things that ought never to be debated. This is largely a result of the weakening of the Church’s priesthood. We no longer have people who are prepared to establish and guard the boundaries. We no longer see ourselves as engaged in warfare to preserve these boundaries.

Fundamentalism is one of the few areas of the Church where antithetical thinking is really preserved and a sense of Christian warfare has not been lost. Unfortunately, fundamentalism tends to pick the wrong fights and think in terms of some very helpful antitheses. It divides things that belong together. It brings war to churches where peace should exist. Drawing the right lines is not easy, but drawing lines is a task with which the Church has been entrusted.

Christ, our High Priest, lest we forget, did not come to earth to bring peace, but a sword. He came to divide families and set relatives at war with each other. It is our duty to ensure that this war continues until its successful conclusion.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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18 Responses to Making Enemies

  1. Al says:

    Wow! This is bizarre. I have just read a post on a discussion list that I am on (posted yesterday) that makes much the same point as regards the Church’s being at war providing an argument against women priesthood. Before making the above post I had not read the argument elsewhere (to the best of my knowledge). Never trust the feeling of originality.

  2. Daniel Nairn says:

    40 Bicycles was the first blog that I ever found interesting enough to continue reading – a couple of years ago now – and I’m glad to see the provocative posts still pouring out.

    I think M. Lloyd Jones said something like, “if you’re not offending anyone, you’re not preaching the gospel,” and that has stuck with me. The warfare analogy that you bring up is an important one, but I do think many people, at least here in the States, easily confuse our calls for spiritual warfare with actual warfare (namely Iraq). I can’t even recall how many quotes I’ve seen in the mainstream media of well-known Christian figures taken out of context, leading people to assume that Christians believe that America is on a war to conquer the world.

    I suppose being mis-quoted is part of what it means to have enemies … but I also think it’s very important to speak clearly so that the offense is placed appropriately – that Jesus is Lord, and Caeser (or anyone else) is not.

    Thanks for the good reading

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  4. Chris Jones says:

    I’m not sure I see your whole argument here. I agree that openness to the world’s agenda is inconsistent with the gospel — that lines need to be drawn somewhere; but why does that lead us to the belief that what we need is strong (male) preachers to draw those lines for us.

    Could I not as easily say that what is needed is the family to stand up for its values, or young people to take up a skepticism toward postmodernism, or perhaps a renewed commitment to Reformed theology? That is nonsense, but your argument has no force or clear direction.

    To the contrary, I believe instead that the clergy system, in its modern form, actually undermines lay participation in the church, and as such, their alliegence to the gospel — to God’s agenda — leaving them, in turn, open to the agenda of others.

    Does that make sense?

    By the way, I am a faithful reader(though a first time commenter). Keep up the good work.

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  6. Al says:


    Thank you for your comments. A few comments in response.

    I do not believe that strong male preachers are a sufficient answer to the Church’s present crisis. Any sufficient response would have to have many different aspects to it.

    Furthermore, what I am arguing for is the need for a strong masculine priesthood, which is not quite the same thing as strong male preachers. Preaching is merely one of the tasks performed by a priesthood.

    I agree with you that lay participation is threatened by many modern clergy systems. However, I fail to see that these problems are inherent in a high view of the role of the Christian priesthood. In fact I believe that a strong priesthood can serve to empower the laity for full participation.

    The problem of a marginalized laity is no less pronounced in many churches that downplay the role of the clergy; in many evangelical churches the preacher eclipses all others. One of the advantages of talking about priests, instead of preachers, is that the role of priest presupposes the existence of community in a way that the role of preacher does not. There are many churches with no real community, where people are simply gathered around one man’s preaching ministry. Priesthood occurs within and for the sake of community.

    Priests exercise an authority that belongs to the community for the sake of the community. They do not have an autonomous authority. As Hauerwas puts it, priests are ‘spiritual masters who can help the whole Church stand under the authority of God’s Word’.

    The Church’s priesthood represent the Head of the Church to the body. The Church’s priesthood has come under sustained attack over the years precisely because it challenges the authority of competing secular priesthoods, which wish to impose their ideals upon the laity.

    I am strongly anti-egalitarian. I believe that, if we want to see the world changed, we will have to see it changed from the top-down (see my posts here, here and here for an explanation of what I mean by this). If we want to see our society changed we will have to have a strong priesthood to challenge the priesthoods of the world. The priesthoods of the world are not really threatened by a laity without a strong priesthood.

    I believe that a strong masculine priesthood is of particular importance for this reason. By establishing and guarding important boundaries, they protect the people of God from being captured by secular priesthoods. The world loves a Church where everyone is free to make up his own mind. This is why the establishment of a strong priesthood is of primary importance. Once the head is set straight, the body will begin to follow.

    Whilst I have strong objections to Roman Catholicism, I must admit that the world is challenged by its alternative priesthood. A Roman Catholic can oppose abortion and say that the Church teaches that it is wrong and not merely appeal to his own private reading of Scripture. That carries an awful lot more weight than mere private judgment. Having a priesthood to uphold such boundaries is a means of preserving the authority of the Church as a whole; the clergy preserve an authority that they share in common with the laity in such a manner.

  7. Chris Jones says:

    I wonder if we are not speaking from the a great disparity of experience — a literal ocean, in our case — because I could not disagree more strongly.

    In 1co. Paul mentions a gathering of believers wherein every believer participates and exercizes h/er gift(s). More often, however, what I see is a handful of ministers exercizing their gifts amidst 500 onlookers. For me, placing even greater emphasis on the responsibility of the clergy reenforces my sense that there are emphatically two types of Christians. Those that speak and those that listen; Those that tithe and those the make decisions; &c…

    While I am emphatically not proposing an egalitarian community (in the sense that there is no leadership), my experience tells me that the wider the clefts between clergy and laity are cut — including proliferation of class-language itself — the more we (Americans, at least) are willing to let others do our thinking for us and practice our Christianity for us.

  8. Al says:


    I really don’t think that our disagreement is that great. I too see a Pauline emphasis upon a gathering of believers in which every believer exercises their particular gifts. I also am appalled by the way in which such a model seems to be so far removed from the reality of church life for so many.

    The area in which I disagree with you is in seeing a strong emphasis on the responsibility of the clergy as serving to marginalize the laity.

    I believe that this will only be a problem when our thinking just isn’t Pauline enough. According to the Pauline model we have a body with many members, each of which has a particular role to play. The model that many operate with in the Church today is quite different. According to their model the Church is more like a business, run by the clergy for the benefit of the laity — the consumers. The clergy do all of the work so that the laity won’t have to. According to this model, the Church has been given an amount of work that is then apportioned out to various people within it, the clergy usually taking the lion’s share. Sadly people do not merely think in terms of such a model, they organize their church life in terms of such models.

    I am arguing that, rather than merely suggesting that we need to give more of the work to the laity, we need to entirely deconstruct this way of thinking. Redistributing power will solve nothing. The problem is the very idea of a competition for power between clergy and laity such that a more powerful laity entails a weaker clergy and vice versa. The Church is a body. Each member of the body has a particular role that only it can play. Roles are not interchangeable as the common model might suggest. The heart cannot perform the task committed to the lungs. An emphasis on the importance of a strong heart is in no way a denial of the need for good set of lungs.

    When you talk in terms of a ‘cleft’ between clergy and laity you suggest the very model that I am trying to reject. It suggests one party imposing power from without upon another party. This is far removed from the complementarity and mutual dependency that I believe should exist between clergy and laity.

    In performing our various roles we are not competing to perform as much of a particular task as possible. Certainly not! Our various roles are mutually empowering. By functioning as a strong heart, the heart enables the lungs to function well and vice versa. If we manage to retool our imaginations to work in terms of a Pauline model we will begin to see how a strong clergy can empower an effective laity and vice versa. When the clergy establish and guard the boundaries well, lay people are freed to devote their attention to their various ministries, in a manner that is impossible in a Church where no one is guarding the boundaries.

    Of course, the heart should not try to do the work of the lungs as well, or the whole body will suffer. In arguing for a strong clergy I am well aware that the clergy cannot perform the task of the Church single-handedly. The clergy must be strong in performing the particular task that it has been entrusted with, a task that serves to facilitate others in the fulfilment of their respective tasks.

    Unfortunately, our society has sold us the idea that true freedom and power is found in autonomy and control over others. Lay people believe that they will be freed and empowered as they dispense with the authority of the clergy and the clergy believe that they will be empowered as they lord it over the laity, set themselves up as possessing an autonomous authority and arrogate as many of the privileges and rights that belong to the Church to themselves. I am proposing that we start to think in terms of a model in which we are mutually empowering as we perform our various tasks and we all liberate each other to fulfil our own particular roles within the common task as we faithful perform our own peculiar duties.

    If we begin to think and work in terms of such a model I believe that the problems that you raise will dissolve.

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  10. Chris Jones says:

    Thanks for your reply; that’s a lot to think about.

    To be honest, I am having a hard time envisioning what your model would look like — you know, in reality. My whole thing is that if the pastorate gave up this idea that true ministry is done by a professional class of Christians, then it would become impractical for the laity to think of church as something that they sit in on once a week. Until our liturgy is no longer organized around the celebrity of one man and his sermon, what chance has the church to become a participatory organization? And so ultimately I fail to see how my thinking primarily in terms of power struggles really misses the mark. Perhaps it is because my perspective is, as you say, steeped in Western liberalism that I cannot think of power in any other way. I don’t know.

  11. Bill Gnade says:

    Al, let me commend you. As a first time visitor to your blog (via Milton Stanley’s recommendation), I cannot restrain myself: you have written (and ably defended) a very compelling essay. You are a great writer, a shrewd thinker, and, above all, gentle and kind in your manner (without compromising either your convictions or reason).

    It is amusing to me that you should mention the RC Church because, as I was reading you, you sure sounded like a good Catholic apologist. I am––for all practical purposes––an Evangelical turned disillusioned Episcopalian who stands on the threshold of the Catholic Church. In short, I am confused.

    But I do agree with you here. I, however, might go one step further: The priesthood of which you speak, at least as it is presented more completely in the RC Church, is not just a role. It is not even a calling or a gift. It is a sacrament. And it is a sacrament reserved for men: it gives men the sacramental opportunity to be what ADAM was not: an attentive husband, an attentive gardener. Eve, as a good Catholic knows, is given her own chance to redeem herself from her role in the Fall: child-bearing. In Catholic theology, Mary is the Second Eve; Jesus is the Second Adam. Hence, childbearing is also a sacrament––for women (what greater thing is there than to create new humans?). Men, by definition, are excluded from the most important moment of the heilsgeschichte, the salvation history, of the Church: they are not involved in the Virgin Birth at all. But Jesus is the archetype for men: He is the first priest of the new covenant. As such, the priesthood is handed to men as sacrament: It is given in part to men to redeem creation in a way that Adam failed to do.

    OK. That is, in a hasty sense, the RC picture of priesthood. It does not exclude women anymore than childbearing excludes men: it is what it is, and both are gifts.

    The RC Church, with its model of a strong priesthood, is not without its problems. In fact, many have noted that the RC Church has a wildly ignorant and weak laity. This, in part, is due to the strength of the priesthood: The laity doesn’t need to know such-and-such as long as the priest knows it. A Catholic might be asked, “What is the answer to X?” only to shrug his shoulders, saying, “I don’t know, but I am sure Father James can answer that.”

    I know there are people afraid of a male priesthood because they believe it leads to the denigration of women or that it gives no “female” imagery to Christian faith. But the RC response is that the Church is female: She is the Bride, and Christ is the Groom. Surely someone must represent the Groom in corporate worship: surely someone must represent the male Head in an all-female model which is the Church.

    There is much more to say on this. And I am sorry to place an RC garnish alongside your wonderful entree. You have raised important and legitimate points. I am merely a visitor, and, as I said, I am confused. But you should be glad to know that my confusion has nothing to do with you.

    May the peace of Christ be always with you,


    PS. To all of your commenters: You are truly a bright and thoughtful bunch. Seriously. Keep on thinking, keep on shining.

  12. Chris Jones says:

    I should clarify that I’m beginning to see that my problem lies, not with the clergy as such, but with the liturgical and even architectual structures within the church. However, I do believe strongly in the priesthood of all believers not merely as a theological point but as a controlling metaphor for the church and her ecclesiology.

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  14. Al says:


    Thanks again for your comments.

    I agree with you that it is hard to understand how all of this is to work out in practice, largely because the dominating model pervades just about every area of our thinking and practice.

    To break out of this way of thinking is, first and foremost, a matter of the imagination. This is where understanding the Church as a body is so important. Such an image sows a seed in the imagination, giving us a new way to think about power. It may take some time for such seeds to germinate and then mature into new forms of practice. However, I am confident that the ground is ready and the season is right for sowing such seeds.

    Let me make a few gestures to areas where reforms could take place.

    First, the whole professionalism associated with the pastorate needs to be attacked. Professionalism tends to divorce the pastor from the community and set up the clergy as a separate class, who possess an authority that they exercise over lower classes of Christians (as opposed to ministering an authority that has been given to the Church as a body). Pastoral training should take place far more within the context of the local church.

    Changes will include the sets of skills to be taught to pastors and the manner in which they are taught. The whole concept of ‘call’ needs to be thought through. We should also see pastoral work as something that people mature into; you can’t just go off to Bible school or seminary and be equipped to be a pastor. You need to learn through long term service in various positions within the Church. I don’t believe that people should become pastors until they are in their forties, at the very earliest. If these suggestions were taken on board, I believe that the professionalism of the pastorate would begin to end. The professional model would find it hard to accommodate people who are unwilling to become pastors until they are in their forties.

    Second, we need to have a strong appreciation of and deep rooting in a broad Christian tradition. The personality cults that develop in many evangelical churches are largely a result of a shallow ecclesiology. The history of evangelical churches tends to be a history of personalities, most particularly of great preachers. In a church that uses historic liturgies and recites ancient creeds, such personality cults are powerfully relativized. A robust historical liturgy can prevent a charismatic personality from imposing his own character onto the worship of the church to the degree that takes place in many evangelical churches.

    Third, we need to attack the idea that the sermon is the primary element of the worship service. It is not. The sermon should merely be one part of a rich and manifold liturgical celebration. As James Jordan has observed, when you emphasize the primacy of the Word and identify the Word with preaching, you will end up with the primacy of the preacher. Preaching has taken on ‘dimensions foreign to the Bible’. Jordan writes: ‘The preacher not only does the only really important thing in the service (preach), he also composes (if he even does that) the prayers that are prayed, and he prays them by himself. It boils down very often to worship by proxy, exactly what the Reformation fought against.’

    One of the great things about strongly liturgical churches is that most of the words of the service are not those of the preacher. They are either Scripture readings or traditional liturgical formulae. Attending a liturgical church with a bad preacher is far, far better than attending a regular evangelical church with a bad preacher. In a church with a rich liturgy one will always be fed by the Word in the liturgy, whatever the preacher does. The same is not the case in a non-liturgical church. Evangelicalism’s distaste for rich liturgy has led to the leadership of the church taking on a higher profile than they do in other traditions.

    Fourth, we need to restore weekly corporate celebration of the Eucharist as an essential part of the covenant renewal service. Within Protestantism the church has tended to become reduced to people gathered around a particular set of ideas, rather than an incarnated community. Weekly corporate celebration of the Eucharist deconstructs this way of thinking. We are one body, not merely people who share certain beliefs. For the local church to function as one body, drawing together people from all backgrounds (Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, rich and poor, etc., etc.) is essential to what ‘salvation’ means in the scriptures. Proper celebration of the Eucharist (as a shared meal) concretizes what Paul is talking about when he speaks of the Church as a ‘body’ (1 Corinthians 10:17). For much evangelicalism it remains a rather abstract metaphor.

    Roman Catholic practice has often tended to lose sight of the Eucharist as a shared and corporate celebration, with practices of private masses and a narrow focus on the elements, to the obscuring of the fact that the elements are part of a multi-faceted rite, performed by the body of Christ. Once the focus on the elements and the individual recipient has been overcome in Protestantism and Catholicism, I believe that we are in a far better position to move on. Eastern Orthodox writers like Alexander Schmemann and John Zizioulas have a lot to teach us in these areas.

    I could say an awful lot more, but I will leave it there. Just one final note in response to your comment about the priesthood of all believers: I have articulated my position on that subject at greater length here.

  15. Al says:


    Thank you for your observations.

    Whilst I would generally avoid speaking of priesthood as a ‘sacrament’ as it invites confusion in a more Protestant tradition, I certainly would want to see it as ‘sacramental’ in some sense. The priest is the symbol of Christ in some sense and, as such, is one of the ways in which Christ makes Himself present to His people.

    I agree with you that the Scriptures do not marginalize the place of women. Whilst feminists may speak of the ‘Christ symbol’ as one that excludes women, it seems clear to me that the ‘Christ symbol’ that we find in the gospels and epistles is the totus Christus — Christ, Head and body — and is consequently a symbol that is inclusive of women. Women find a ‘horizon’ for their subjectivity in the Church as the Bride of Christ. Significantly, in the ‘Christ symbol’ so understood, we have neither an androgynous ideal, nor a valuation of male and female in abstraction from one another, but an ideal of assymetric mutuality — a relational ideal.

    As regards a strong priesthood leading to an ignorant laity, I can certainly see the problem that you refer to. However, I do not believe that it is a result of a strong priesthood, so much as a priesthood that has misapprehended its task. The priesthood is not supposed to do the thinking and worship for the congregation. Rather, the priesthood is to empower the laity to fulfil its task.

    Jesus’ authority and teaching was one that empowered people to break out of old ways of thinking and see the world more clearly and think more profoundly than they had ever been able to do before. This should provide a model for the Christian priest or pastor.

    Mark Searle, a Roman Catholic liturgical scholar, put this well when he argued that priests need to become ‘facilitators of critical theory and critical praxis in the Christian community’ rather than ‘plyers of ideologies and capitalists of grace’. I believe that a strong priesthood that performs its role well will be profoundly empowering for the laity.

    BTW, you speak of Mary as the New Eve; you might find this article on Joseph’s role as a New Adam and faithful ‘priest’ interesting (scroll most of the way down the page).

  16. Bill Gnade says:

    Your reply is beautifully crafted, thoughtful, and on the mark. Thank you for what you have done here.



  17. Bill Gnade says:


    I missed your incredible reply to Chris. There is much to say, but it would all be merely a long list of agreements.

    You know, I was, for four years, the sexton (janitor) at a church. I still feel that working as a church sexton should be part of all seminary degree (for the pastorate) programs. It would go a long way to purging the “professionalization” of ministry to which you refer of all its trappings.

    You are right about the liturgical center of worship: The sermon is not necessarily the most important thing one does (or one receives). Truly liturgical churches see the sermon/homily as just one more part of a much larger and more wonderful whole. In the Episcopal Church, for instance, the altar is central (whereon is both the body of Christ and the written Word of God, and the Gospels). As you know, the gospels are read, not from the lectern or pulpit, but in the very center of the church, in the heart of the people. This is not merely symbolic but obedient to Paul’s exhortation to Timothy: Do not neglect the public reading of Scripture. Moreover, the pulpit is OFF-center, as is the lectern: they are not the centerpieces of Christian worship: the sermon is not to be confused with the central Word of God. Plus, the pulpit is never used for announcements; in many churches the lectern is not either. Announcements, and all things tangential to worship, are offered from the floor (to protect us all from thinking that such things are “coming from God”).

    I have written a series on the NEED for more and not less formality in worship. It made some rather small rounds with people, most notably a church website that is in the Church(es) of Christ tradition. I drafted it in response to a Wall Street Journal column that discussed a trend in the American church to deformalize worship in order to make it more relevant, engaging, and accessible. My take is that the American church should completely go in the opposite direction.

    If you are interested, it is called “The Emerging Informality: Christianity’s Dire Need.” It begins here.



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