Christians and Friendly Fire

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I hope by the time you are reading these words that I have had opportunity to take my boys to visit ‘The Wall That Heals.’ If you are unaware, this is a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. The Wall holds the names of the more than 58,000 Americans who lost their lives in the Vietnam conflict.  I have not had the opportunity to visit the actual memorial in Washington D.C., but I anticipate the prospect to pay my respects and inform my boys more about this time in our history when the replica wall arrives in our area. My father served in the Army before combat operations began in Vietnam and many other family members have served and some continue to serve in the military and at least one perished during combat. I have a strong appreciation and respect for our men and women in uniform and I am trying to instill this same sense of honor into the minds of my boys.

In my hometown, our public library and a bridge on a major highway bear the name of two who gave the ultimate sacrifice in the Vietnam conflict. In the congregation I previously served, a memorial marker sits below a flag pole honoring a Christian brother who gave the last full measure of devotion during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Romans 13:7 commands God’s people to render “honor to whom honor is owed.” I frequently participate in doing this as I coordinate military honors for veterans at the funeral home or gravesite.

Recently, I was reading about the tragedy of “friendly fire.” According to the Webster online dictionary friendly fire is “the firing of weapons from one’s own forces or those of an ally especially when resulting in the accidental death or injury of one’s own personnel.” This is different than fratricide which is defined by the same site as: “one that murders or kills his or her own brother or sister or an individual (such as a countryman or fellow soldier) having a relationship like that of a brother or sister.”

Jon Krakauer reported in his work Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman: 21 percent of the casualties in World War II were attributable to friendly fire, 39 percent of the casualties in Vietnam, and 52 percent of the casualties in the first Gulf War. Any death, whether by enemy hostility, accidental (aircraft failure, other unintended mishaps, etc.), or friendly fire is lamentable. However, when death comes from the actions of those fighting under the same flag there seems to be an increased sorrow that results.

To be sure all friendly fire incidents are unintentional and come because of the “fog of war”, which is simply the confusion and stress that is inherent in warfare. Only those who have served in such crucibles know what this experience entails and I will not presume to suggest I have any understanding of such ordeals. While many reasons can be cited for the reason such incidents occur including poor planning, incompetent command, and incorrect intelligence; there are two headings under which most occurrences fall: errors of position and errors of identification.

By this point you are probably asking yourself why I am writing about matters, while important, are not related to Christianity? I believe “friendly fire” is a problem for the people of God and unfortunately many have fallen on the battlefield of life because of the injuries they sustained from those who claim to fight on the same side. Consider briefly the two reasons cited above for friendly fire.

Errors of position lead to friendly fire when troops are in the wrong place at the wrong time or when fire is directed in the heat of battle to a wrong location. Spiritually, it occurs when one Christian attacks another over a position they believe them to erroneously hold or teach. Frequently, it involves one Christian slandering another over just a snippet or scant report from someone who heard someone else say that a brother of sister said this or that. Not trying to elicit sympathy, but I was  attacked by this type of friendly fire. An Elder I served under asked out of the blue: “Why are you teaching that women can serve as preachers?” I was waiting for him to laugh and indicate it was asked in jest, but he did not. He had heard a report that I was guilty of preaching this false position, but I assured him I had never and would never advocate something clearly at odds with plain Bible teaching. Eventually, I was able to determine that an answer I gave to a question was the source of the friendly fire. When asked if a 9-year-old boy who obeys the Gospel should be required to leave a Bible class taught by a Christian sister, I said no and explained that he was not yet a man and she was not in violation of 1 Timothy 2:11-12. One who heard me give this answer then insinuated that I held the position that women could be preachers, and they proceeded to spread this deduction to others, but I never and will never espouse this erroneous position.

Errors of identification lead to friendly fire when a troop fires mistakenly on one he believes is an enemy. In modern warfare where the conflict is mobile and multiple nations are involved it is easy to see how this might happen on land, sea, or sky. Regrettably, it occurs often in the spiritual realm when Christians forget who the true enemy is. I am not suggesting we adopt an “ecumenical unity in diversity go along to get along” mindset where we join forces with any who claim to give some measure of devotion to Jesus Christ. To the contrary, the exclusive claim of our Savior in John 14:6 must be proclaimed and adhered to by all who wish to come to the Heavenly Father. Instead, I am encouraging us to refuse attacking others because of a certain identification. Progressive/liberal, right/left, conservative/traditionalist, and other such labels are not found in the New Testament. Saints, brethren, faithful in Christ, and similar terms are used to describe Christians in Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, and Philippi. Did these congregations have unanimity in all opinions? It is highly unlikely. Were there some preferences that some had in one place that were different from those in another place? Of course!

Today, friendly fire is directed from one Christian (or congregation) at another Christian (or congregation) because they employ a different worship order, have a certain Bible translation in the pew, or several other matters over which God allows us to exercise liberty. Certain concepts, like how the Holy Spirit indwells Christians, are also subject to differing understandings and should not become the catalyst for friendly fire.

I am aware of what Paul taught concerning how a Christian should deal with the optional matter of food offered to idols and not become a stumbling block to other brethren. His warning is sobering and we must not destroy one “for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:15, 1 Corinthians 8:11). However, these verses are not justification for those who wish to get their way in everything and attempt to inflict friendly fire on their fellow Christians when they fail to cower to their whims.

I wonder how many names could be written on a wall of Christians who fell victim to friendly fire? I am not excusing those who because of unfair treatment, unjust judgment, and discouragement at the hands of other Christians become unfaithful to the Lord. We cannot allow anyone to dissuade us from serving Him who is always faithful to us. I hope this article helps us all to consider our interactions with one another and be careful not to inflict friendly fire on our brethren.