I don’t think it’s particularly helpful, or even useful (however that’s defined) to attack a work of any kind on account of its age or the culture it which it grew up. It fails to answer the question of if it’s truthful, which is really the only question worth answering. It is not at all useful to say that a practice or book or hymn was right “back then” and not right now. The Pythagorean Theorem doesn’t change from age to age no more than the morality of slavery or gender equality or whatever other stance that we know now to be one way which was once thought of as another way. Of course in the future our descendants may judge or realize that we were wrong about certain things, but the important fact will really be that we were wrong and they have now discovered they are right; not that we were right and they were also right even though we believe opposite things. Such a preface is necessary when it comes to evaluating popular old hymns. Otherwise the conversation quickly becomes a quest to decide what people thought and believed in the hymns conception- and not on the really important question of if we as a church should still sing a hymn (however popular it might be).
But that raises a further consideration. What criteria are we to evaluate a hymn on? I am sure there is a book somewhere that I am too lazy to look up. However, I am familiar enough with the Psalms to know that they are at its core a book of songs. The Psalms are the gold standard to which all other hymns are to be judged. This is why I don’t lose sleep when people tell me popular Christian songs invoke too much emotion and not enough theology. This is also why I have no issue with repetitive hymns or hymns that critics call “shallow”. The 136th Psalm would like to have a word with those people. The primary purpose of the Psalms is in my view to put people’s spirit in the sight of God. Worship connects with people on a different level than doctrine or even bible study. If a hymn can be dissected and seem to imply that God is separate from Jesus, or perhaps the hymn places undue emphasis on freedom then I am inclined to the view that our hymns do not have to pass such a high bar. Nobody wants to sing Romans 3. This is not to say hymns are immune to scrutiny though. I do believe there is a line that can be crossed. A heretical hymn is no hymn at all. More often when a hymn goes wrong it is because the hymn substitutes a narrow cultural value in place of Christ, such that the worship is not directed to God but to the pathos of the culture.
This line is certainly overstepped by Onward Christian Soldiers. I had the distinct pleasure of hearing this hymn at the Samuel Lee Memorial Service last year. I was taken aback at how it felt like shards of glass to my soul. Beyond the obvious theological issues that might be raised by lines like this:
“Like a mighty army Moves the Church of God; Brothers, we are treading Where the Saints have trod.”
The whole message of the hymn seems to equate the gospel as a war. I am completely aware that the impetus of this hymn is from 2 Timothy 2:3. But in that verse that point is that we should persevere like a soldier, and that we should go farther to preserver. It cannot be plainer:
Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus… Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this… Therefore I endure everything.
I encourage everyone to read 2 Timothy 2 to be sure that what I am saying is sound. For emphasis I have left out what was said in between, which is always the most dangerous game. This hymn was composed in an era where imperialism was a cultural ethic. The author was obviously singling out a verse from the bible, and then composed around it a hymn that has all the right words with all the wrong message. I have heard many say that this hymn is bad because it is too militaristic and even too masculine. I have also heard the claim that liberal theology wants to apply “political correctness” to antique hymns. But all those attacks and counter attacks miss the real point, which is that our hymns speak to our soul and speaking a message that God wants us to wage war is not the message of Jesus Christ- whose message is the only one we should be proclaiming in a hymn.