Rise Up

Whenever our congregation ordains new officers (i.e. elders and deacons), I love to sing the hymn, “Rise up, O Men of God“…well, except for the words. It’s a high energy hymn and one with a stirring tune (we sing it to Festal Song), but if you really study the words and where they place emphasis? Read the words of this classic hymn, and see if you can detect my concern:

Rise up, O Church of God!
Have done with lesser things;
Give heart and mind and soul and strength
To serve the King of kings.

Rise up, O Church of God!
His kingdom tarries long;
Bring in the day of brotherhood
And end the night of wrong.

Rise up, O sons of God!
The Church for you doth wait,
Her strength unequal to her task,
Rise up, and make her great!

Lift high the cross of Christ!
Tread where His feet have trod;
As foll’wers of the Son of Man,
Rise up, O Church of God!

Who in this hymn is said to be doing the work of redemption in the world? Who is making the church great? Where is Christ’s divinity and sovereignty shown forth? Think, when we sing this at an officer ordination, what are we asking of our ordinands? Would you want this burden placed upon your shoulders?

The problem is that this hymn, penned by a Presbyterian minister named William Merrill in 1911, captures only one side of Christian leadership. It rightly emphasizes the good that God can do through us. But if you consider the historical context, you’d have to conclude that it is entirely too optimistic about human ability and the Church’s ability to bring peace and order to this world. In a few short years, an assassin’s bullet in Serbia would unleash a deadly cycle of events that would unravel the dreams of this very man-centered Gospel. And yet, this is the way many in our day still treat Christian leadership: rise up, o men of God, and make the Church great; end this night of wrong.

We are not to have that sort of self-confidence and self-dependence. We preach Christ and not ourselves. God’s power is perfected in weakness. When we are weak is when we are strong. So I bring this hymn up as a practical way we can let humility inform the way conduct business in the church, that we not just go with the flow and mindlessly conform to church tradition when it has been influenced by a worldly pride, even in small, subtle ways, such as singing a hymn like this.

Pay attention to the words you use and the songs you sing, and when legally feasible, change them as needed. In this particular case, since “Rise Up, O Men of God,” is in the public domain, I suggest we change the words to reflect a more accurate, Biblical humility. I suggest we take its thoughts captive for Christ – a Christ crucified. Here is what I suggest we sing instead:

Rise up, O men of God
Have done with lesser things;
Give heart and soul and mind and strength,
To serve the King of kings.

 Rise up, O men of God!
His kingdom tarries long;
But soon shall Christ bring in the Day,
And end this night of wrong

Rise up, O men of God
The church for you doth wait,
Your strength unequal to the task;
But Christ in you is great!

Lift high the cross of Christ!
Tread where his feet hath trod;
As servants of the King of kings,
Rise up, O men of God!

So here we sing boldly of what we can do, but in a way that reflects the humility that the Gospel brings. We place the emphasis where it belongs – Christ’s work through us. Yes, we are here to bless the world, and yes, God uses us mightily, more than we often know, I think. But it is God’s work within us. We have this great power in jars of clay, to show that it is from God, and not from us. And so as we sing this, we are still calling one another to rise up and serve Christ and His Church. But rather than emphasizing our strength and our duty, we sing of Christ’s power and His sovereignty. We are but stewards, graced to participate in the great victory Jesus has already won. That is true Christian leadership, humbled by grace, but then empowered to boldly serve that cause of grace for the sake of others. May all who lead, lead only in this way, for the cause and sake of Christ.

Chris Hutchinson is Senior Pastor of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Blacksburg, VA. This article is adapted with permission from his forthcoming book, “Mere Humility: rediscovering the heart of the Gospel” (New Growth Press, 2018).

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