The “Christian Soldier” and “Humble Servant” Models: A Paradox for Pastors?

Robert B. Needham

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 4, no. 3 (July 1995)

I. Introduction

Probably almost none of us Americans—even we who have been blessed with God’s gracious salvation and sanctification in Jesus Christ—have fully realized the profound effect Greek philosophical thought has had on western society. One of the most pervasive—and problematic—Greek thought patterns is the antithetical concept of “either-or.” In many ways we have an instinctive inclination to frame complex issues with an “either-or” format even when it is not legitimate.

For example, we tend to assume that all professing Christians are either Calvinists or Arminians, when, in fact, many hold to an amalgam of notions taken from both doctrinal systems. The fact that such eclectic thinking is neither logically or theologically consistent is beside the point. When have Americans, in significant numbers—except in the earlier times, when influenced by Puritan thought—concerned themselves with drawing consistent conclusions from sound and consistent presuppositions anyway?

Thus we tend to think that parents either should (always) spank their children, or never spank their children; that pastors should be either strong aggressive leaders or humble servants of their sessions; either that God is absolutely sovereign, or that man is wholly responsible; either that wives should submit without exception to their husbands or that spouses should have unqualified “equality”; either that parents should not interfere with their teenagers’ freedom of expression at all or that they should exercise complete control over their teens’ activities, and so on.

I hope these few illustrations serve to make the point that many important issues of life have more than one facet, and that either oversimplified position (the left ditch or the right ditch exclusively) does injustice to many complex issues, and that a godly “mean” must include elements from both perspectives.

Thus, parents who employ a laissez faire attitude toward their children’s “social” activities are as cruel to their children as those parents who smother their offspring with micro-managing every detail of their lives. What is needed, instead, is a godly balance, grounded in a humble dependence on God’s word blessed by the sanctifying grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. This alone will provide that wise and knowledgeable parental oversight of maturing children, combined with individually tailored liberties based on each child’s demonstrated maturity and capacity for consistently responsible behavior.

However, such wise nurture takes much discipline, prayer, humility and persistent effort. Thus Scripture sometimes calls us to the “both-and” perspective rather than an exclusive “either-or” approach—especially in matters of life and Christian maturity.

For the record, there are, of course, many clear “either-or” issues in Scripture. We are either adopted sons and daughters of the living God, or sons of the devil. Either we are saved or lost. We are either elect or reprobate. We exercise either repentance unto life and saving faith in Jesus Christ as He is revealed in Scripture, or we don’t. In matters of theology—such as the truth of God’s redemption—the “either-or” dichotomy is almost always clear cut. But in matters of sanctification it is often the case that what, at first sight, seem to be irreconcilable opposites are, in fact, equally important aspects of the truth.

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset [us], and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of [our] faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).

II. The Soldier-Servant “Paradox”

The apparent paradox of the Christian soldier in God’s armor, and the humble bondslave of Jesus Christ selflessly following the Savior’s suffering servant model—unless dealt with according to applicable biblical constraints—will tend to produce believers who follow either the aggressive and, for some, even pushy Christian warrior model or the humble (doormat?) Christian servant model. Both the servant and the soldier models are commanded in Scripture (e.g. Ephesians 6:10-20; Matthew 20:25-28; 23:11). But can they both be followed? Is it actually possible to “live” both models? The answer is “Yes!” However, we must add one strong qualification, namely that a God-honoring integration and application of both models is impossible if we look at one, or both, through secular or cultural “filters.” In our culture there is hardly any understanding of the biblical concept either of theocentric, God-defined soldiering, or theocentric, God-defined “servanting.” Having enjoyed the (sometimes spiritually painful) privilege of serving twenty-one years on active duty with the United States Navy, I am prepared to attest in any public forum, that a grasp of biblical soldiering or biblical servanthood is rare, even among professing believers who are members of the uniformed services.

One terrible example of this theological deficiency is the matter of “pride.” Since I am the most familiar with the Navy and Marine Corps, I will confine my illustration primarily to these two services, although the problem exists just as severely in the Army, Air Force, and Coast Guard.

Scripture warns us, in the most unambiguous terms, that God hates pride in every form and expression.


Christ reinforced this luminous teaching of the Old Testament on three different occasions when He declared that “He who exalts himself will be abased, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 13:12; Luke 14:11, 18:14). The Holy Spirit inspired other New Testament authors as well to warn God’s people of this deadly and seductive sin. James 4:6: “...Therefore it says, ‘God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’”

While on active duty, on literally hundreds of occasions when hearing an unsolicited declaration of pride expressed about someone or some thing, I would admonish professing Christians, as well as obvious or covert reprobates and nominal practitioners of generic churchianity, to guard their hearts against the sin of pride. With few exceptions those I confronted would take great umbrage that I would dare to criticize “pride.” I admit that pride is now uncritically embraced as the cardinal virtue in America, whereas our ancestors rightly recognized it as the root sin from which all others spring! In sum, Christians, for the most part, showed little or no greater discernment on this matter than pagans! On many occasion, when proposing that the official mottoes of the Navy and Marine Corps (“Pride and Professionalism” and “The Few, the Proud” respectively) were problematic at best, and corrosive at worst, my remarks again and again were met with anger, defensiveness, bafflement, hurt and almost invariably the plaintive question, “Aren’t there any good kinds of pride?” And generally their dismay would increase when I answered, “No.” Sadly, one of the most tragic ironies of this “perceptual schizophrenia” was the fact that the Navy’s official motto (“Pride and Professionalism”) was invented by a staff officer working in the Pentagon Navy Public Affairs Office, a professing Christian who expressed to me genuine amazement to the point of being dumbfounded at the thought that “his” motto, embraced so enthusiastically by the Navy, was actually unbiblical. He later agreed that for years he had habituated this dichotomy in his own thinking—on Saturday afternoons and Sundays thinking like a Christian, and then, from Monday morning to Saturday afternoon, thinking “like a Naval Officer.”

With this example of endemic confusion about the sin of pride laid out, let us return to the matter of integrating the soldier-servant concepts in Scripture.

There are so many significant military references in both the Old Testament and New Testament, that dealing with them all would be impossible in a paper of this size, so some choices are necessary. In my opinion, the place to begin is with Christ’s encounter with the centurion, as recorded in Matthew 8:5-13. What ought to rivet our attention is the fact that Christ, who corrected and admonished many, and did not commend many, acknowledged with some level of real astonishment the expressed faith of a master sergeant in the Roman army as greater than any He had found amongst the Jews.

While it is noteworthy that Jesus never exhorted the centurion to leave the army (even to this very day one of the cruelest military organizations ever known to man), He clearly approved of the theological and epistemological foundation of that soldier’s stunning level of vibrant faith. That concept was (and is) the principle of the usually necessary and refreshing austerity of the military authority system, as functionally expressed in the hierarchy of authoritative ranks. Quite simply, the centurion (unlike most Jews—and, we might add, most Americans who bow before the altar of individualism and independence) understood that he gave orders to those subordinate to him, and obeyed the orders of those ranking superiors in his chain of command.

In all the years I spent with the Navy and Marine corps, I never saw an exception to this fact, namely, that the first reason, above all others—for which American servicemen got into trouble with their command—was their reluctance or outright unwillingness to obey orders. Very few personal or family crises I dealt with did not have at their core failure to obey legitimate orders from duly authorized superiors. In the Chaplain Corps I saw more young chaplains ruin their careers for that reason than all other causes combined. Remember that “chaplains” are simply ordained ministers, rabbis or priests with military commissions.

Sadly, I believe that in our Reformed churches we see the same problem: young ministers who will not submit, graciously, to their Session’s oversight; elders and deacons who do not submit to their Session, and members who will not submit to, or even resent the authority and oversight of, the elders. It is easy to forget that the test of true submission is a demonstrated willingness to obey an order or requirement that we don’t personally like. (Please don’t confuse this with the one proper exception to God’s requirement for obedience, namely, when we are told to obey a commandment that is clearly unbiblical and sinful.) Obeying a commandment with which we agree is proper, and in a real sense, commendable, but it does not prove submission.

Other soldiering principles in Scripture are central in secular military service as well as in the army of Jesus Christ, such as the sacrificial self-denial necessary to accomplish basic training, as well as the obvious loss of certain civilian freedoms and privileges. The necessity of proper defensive and offensive equipment is absolutely essential for the successful prosecution of warfare (Ephesians 6:10-17), as is proper strategic and tactical planning prior a decision to avoid or to undertake a campaign (Luke 14:31-32, Proverbs 20:18). Adequate, intense and realistic advanced training is a known necessity if military personnel are not to be demoralized. It also provides them with capable, morally sound and selfless commanders who will lead them well under fire. David’s refusal to drink the water brought to him by two of his soldiers is an example of an effective commander’s proper regard for his troops. A sad insight into our present military unpreparedness is the loss of that once normative standard for any U.S. military commander, namely that one always sees that the troops are properly fed, sheltered, and—where appropriate—paid before taking care of his own personal needs. When I was commissioned in 1968, that was still admired and practiced. When I retired from the Navy in January, 1992 it was, in my considered opinion, rare. Elitist arrogance and even abuse of some of the privileges of rank had become common—as had the growing contempt expressed by enlisted personnel towards their officers.

In the church of Jesus Christ, at the end of the 20th century, we have seen many heartbreaking examples of the sheep being misled and exploited by false shepherds who treat them more as servants to be exploited, rather than co-laborers to be cared for, nourished, taught and, yes, trained.

Now let us move over to the servant model. This is a nonnegotiable requirement for those who would “serve” Jesus Christ. Let us note that the verb “to serve” and the noun “servant” come from the same Latin root word “servus”—a slave or serf. We cannot too often remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, “But the greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:4) and “you know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).

If you are following the Scriptural line of thought on biblical servanthood—faithfulness to the master (the one in authority over the servant) becomes the cornerstone of God-approved service. The gospel of Luke is especially rich in servant concepts. “That servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But the one who did not know it, and committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more” (Luke 12:47-48). This, let us not forget, is part of Christ’s application insights at the conclusion of His parable dealing with the differences between faithful and unfaithful servants.

As part of His exegetical treatment of the (for some) puzzling parable of the unrighteous steward (Luke 16:1-8), Christ reiterated a theme which occurred again and again in His teachings—namely, the permanent importance of obedient, submissive, faithful service. “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much” (Luke 16:10).

Now let us return to the military model. The truly effective military leader is not one who postures, struts, and abuses his authority, but one who humbly serves both his superiors in the chain of command (obeying with wisdom and alacrity) and his subordinates (by caring for them so they can fight effectively in the time of battle). When the final jury on military history reports in, it may well turn out that Joshua was the greatest military leader of all time. Not only did he lead an effective campaign, but he was noted for his personal righteousness. Unlike David, he was not self-corrupted in later life. But most important of all, Joshua knew how to submit to his commander-in-chief. The extremely brief but profound military-spiritual encounter between Joshua and the pre-incarnate Christ luminously underlines Joshua’s leadership suitability and competence. He understood that unqualified submission to the Captain of the Lord’s Hosts (the permanent, greatest, and most significant military title in all time and eternity) is expressed by immediate obedience to his command. The command to worship took precedence over all other strategic, tactical, and logistical concerns. In my experience, most military men in the United States Armed Forces have forgotten that these great organizations are historically and legally referred to as the Military services. The military servant forces, if you will!

Here, then is the glorious principle which totally eliminates the apparent contradiction between the requirements of a militant Christianity and Christian service. Both realms of service to the King are to be grounded in a disciplined, conscious submission to the Master/Commander under whose perfect authority we serve. The same leadership qualities which make great military officers are those which make extremely effective overseers or stewards of the master’s servants.

When we must face an enemy of the gospel, whether individual or collective, we are to put on the armor of Christ, and “fight” according to our Commander’s (Christ’s) standing orders. When we deal with Christ’s sheep, we are to shepherd them humbly, gently and without abusing the collective authority given to the elders.

It is no accident that military leaders who arrogantly abuse their authority and abuse their troops, are as despised (and sometimes even hated) as are ministers and elders who arrogantly disregard Christ’s commandments to oversee His flock in humility and submission to His commandments.

To further dissipate the artificial, secular and wrong “either-or” wall between the Christian soldier and the Christian servant, let us remember that as spiritual soldiers, we are ever to “fight” the enemies of the gospel with the same disciplined humility and submission to the lordship of Christ required in our treatment of believers.

There is so much more to consider, but let us close with this thought. A right understanding of our God-ordained place in the authoritative structure of the Church is indispensable to effective and blessed service to the saints as a right understanding of our place in the military chain of command is absolutely indispensable to effective military service and leadership.

In light of these principles, Christ’s comments about obedience, take on a deeper significance, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:10). Love for Jesus Christ—effectively expressed and lived—can never occur outside the disciplined and willing acceptance of our place in God’s authority structures, of which Christ is the absolute head (Matthew 28:18).

And this love applies not only in terms of personal obedience, but obedience in the context of collective service to the saints, and properly militant evangelism that is bold, because it is righteous, and is righteous because it is, by God’s grace, in submission to His will in all these matters.

Robert Bennett Needham was ordained to the gospel ministry by the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod and has served for more than twenty years as a chaplain with the U.S. Navy. He joined the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1987 and is now pastor of the New Hope OPC in Hanford, California.