The Bible says to "sing unto the Lord a new song," but it's the old favorites that are giving the United Methodists fits.

Last week, the committee revising the church's hymnal tentatively agreed to drop "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" from the new hymnal because of the "unrelenting militaristic images" in the two songs.

The initial reaction has been less than favorable.

The committee has been called everything from "communist" to "stupid" by critics writing or phoning in their initial reactions to the decision, said the Rev. Carlton R. Young, hymnal editor.

And an Alabama church member wrote dismissing the entire denominational leadership as "soft-headed, functionally illiterate and liberal ignoramuses," Young said.

The hymnal committee, acting on the direction of the church's General Conference two years ago, is looking at the contents of the church's present hymn book in light of a number of criteria, including the contemporary concerns about sexism, racism and militarism.

The 25-person committee was by no means unanimous in rejecting the two hymns, which are among the most universally sung in most of Protestantism.

"Onward Christian Soldiers,

Marching as to war.

With the cross of Jesus

Going on before," goes the chorus of one of the rejected songs.

Randy Smith, a Houston layman, said he did not "read this hymn as militaristic. It's a call for church unity against whatever the foe may be."

And Bishop W.T. Handy Jr. of St. Louis agreed, saying," I don't think anyone singing this hymn would have an idea of grabbing up a gun and shooting someone, or unleashing a nuclear bomb."

But Mary Brooke Casad of Gainesville, Ga., voted with the 10 to 8 majority to delete the hymns. "I'm trying to raise my boys to be peacemakers, not soldiers, and it's not easy," she said.

"This is our opportunity to say we love Jesus Christ. He is the Prince of Peace and we are trying to follow him."

The committee's decision on the two hymns is not irrevocable. Even after the committee makes its final decisions, which is several meetings away, the church's 1988 General Conference will have the last word on what goes into the book.

The Rev. Ezra Earl Jones noted this when he argued against "Onward." "If the hymnal revision committee can be prophetic, it's on this hymn. Let's take it out and let the church wrestle with the issues the way we have," he said.

"If there is that much outcry, let the General Conference put it back in."

Young said he expected the hymnal will be a focus of interest at United Methodism's 74 regional Annual Conferences meeting this spring, as the committee's 800 grass-roots church members who are consultants conduct forums.

"Unless you test the product," said Young, "you don't know where you stand."