The word vigilante and all forms of vigilantism carry a negative connotation. The origins of the word and its meaning were not always negative. It becomes negative depending on its intent and application in a particular circumstance.
The English word vigilante comes from a Spanish word of similar spelling. A vigilante is defined as a watchman or guard. At its root is the word vigil, which denotes being awake or observant. Our words vigilant and vigilance come from this family of words. In the expansion of the American West, vigilance committees were formed in newly established communities to offer a basic form of law and order in the absence of official authority.
In a society that has an established and functioning system of law, order, and justice, a misguided vigilante can act as a law unto themselves and a self-appointed agent of their interpretation of justice without first employing the existing systems of recourse. In that instance, a vigilante becomes a rogue element in an orderly society creating unnecessary chaos. In a society where law and order have broken down and due process has been abandoned, vigilantes who take action to ensure that societal order is restored are defined historically as heroes who were willing to risk life and limb for the good and protection of others.
When the Church is healthy and spiritually vibrant, a nit-picking theological vigilante creates unnecessary strife and division. Their presence is not welcome. If the Church has lost its way appealing to the demands of a wayward culture and fails to maintain the integrity of God’s Word, evil of every kind enters bringing with it spiritual disorder and confusion. At this point, spiritual vigilantes are needed to regain what was lost so the witness and mission of the Church can be restored. Historically, we call these vigilantes reformers.
While it may not be possible to move past the negative connotations of the word vigilante, these awakened and observant watchmen are just what we need at this moment of history in our nation and within some sections of the Church. We are in the beginning stages of a spiritual awakening and resulting reformation. We should not prematurely label anyone who takes restorative action until we understand the purpose of their mission and the reason for their actions. If not, we may find ourselves calling a God-ordained reformer a wayward vigilante and place ourselves on the wrong side of history.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Garris Elkins