Is the Salvation Army a Church?
The Salvation Army originally denied that it was a church (“we are not professing to be a church” – Catherine Booth, War Cry, 2 January 1883). It came in for criticism because for a long time it did not enter into the debates between Christian denominations concerning the “Sacraments” (In inverted commas because even the applicability and definition of the term itself is debated among Christian denominations). Their approach was taken, essentially, because the Salvos were too busy restoring alcoholics, nursing wounded soldiers, ministering to the poor, and generally saving lives, to want to bother entering into the intellectual furore surrounding such topics.
While the majority of Christians find value in the ritual celebrations of baptism and communion, Salvationists have not done so – as a part of corporate Salvationist worship – since 1883. – Salvo’s Website
And that’s pretty cool
Frankly, I’ve always been very fond of this anti-establishment stance, which seems to me to be a nose-thumbing at the robed, pomped, well fed intelligentsia of the theological elite. It always appealed to me as something to which I could picture Jesus giving the nod.
“we are not professing to be a church, not aiming at being one, but simply a force for aggressive salvation purposes” – Catherine Booth, War Cry, 2 January 1883.
It interested me to find out today that the Salvos have actually published a stance on the questions of the two rites most commonly considered “Sacraments”, in the Christian tradition: Baptism and Eucharist (the bread and wine). This happened in the late 1990’s.
I confess to being vaguely disappointed that
the brief 120-year period of recalcitrance
appears to have drawn to a close.
This was the conclusion they came to:
After full and careful consideration of The Salvation Army’s understanding of, and approach to, the sacrament of water baptism, the International Spiritual Life Commission sets out the following regarding the relationship between our soldier enrolment and water baptism.
1. Only those who confess Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord may be considered for soldiership in The Salvation Army.
2. Such a confession is confirmed by the gracious presence of God the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer and includes the call to discipleship.
3. In accepting the call to discipleship Salvationists promise to continue to be responsive to the Holy Spirit and to seek to grow in grace.
4. They also express publicly their desire to fulfil membership of Christ’s Church on earth as soldiers of The Salvation Army.
5. The Salvation Army rejoices in the truth that all who are in Christ are baptised into the one body by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13).
6. It believes , in accordance with scripture, that “there is one body and one Spirit… one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all in all” (Ephesians 4:5-6).
7. The swearing-in of a soldier of The Salvation Army beneath the trinitarian sign of the Army’s flag acknowledges this truth.
8. It is a public response and witness to a life-changing encounter with Christ which has already taken place, as is the water baptism practised by other Christians.
9. The Salvation Army acknowledges that there are many worthy ways of publicly witnessing to having been baptised into Christ’s body by the Holy Spirit and expressing a desire to be His disciple.
10. The swearing-in of a soldier should be followed by a lifetime of obedient faith in Christ.
After full and careful consideration of The Salvation Army’s understanding of, and approach to, the sacrament of Holy Communion*, the International Spiritual Life Commission sets out the following points:
1. God’s grace is freely and readily accessible to all people at all times and in all places.
2. No particular outward observance is necessary to inward grace.
3. The Salvation Army believes that unity of the Spirit exists within diversity and rejoices in the freedom of the Spirit in expressions of worship.
4. When Salvationists attend other Christian gatherings in which a form of Holy Communion is included, they may partake if they choose to do so and if the host Church allows.
5. Christ is the one true Sacrament, and sacramental living – Christ living in us and through us – is at the heart of Christian holiness and discipleship.
6. Throughout its history The Salvation Army has kept Christ’s atoning sacrifice at the centre of its corporate worship.
7. The Salvation Army rejoices in its freedom to celebrate Christ’s real presence at all meals and in all meetings, and in its opportunity to explore in life together the significance of the simple meals shared by Jesus and by the first Christians.
8. Salvationists are encouraged to use the love feast [fellowship meal] and develop creative means of hallowing meals in home and corps with remembrances of the Lord’s sacrificial love.
9. The Salvation Army encourages the development of resources for fellowship meals, which will vary according to culture, without ritualising particular words or actions.
10. In accordance with normal Salvation Army practice, such remembrances and celebrations, where observed, will not become established rituals, nor will frequency be prescribed.
By doing this, the Salvo’s are hoping to clarify the matter, and I suppose they have, but by doing so they have lost part of their rebel-with-a-cause appeal, in my view.
Far from avoiding the adoption of a theological position, I’m afraid that this makes a very bold declaration indeed. For example,they equate the swearing-in of an officer with Baptism, negating the requirement for a water Baptism on the grounds that the Baptism by the Holy Spirit occurs at the confession of faith (Baptism 5-9). The way in which they are quoting 1 Corinthians 12:13 and Ephesians 4:5-6 is, I’m afraid, quite unsatisfactory. It was scarcely the intent of the Apostle to suggest that water Baptism was replaced. This is a most unfortunate hermeneutic.
Reflections on Baptism
While it is true that there are many “baptisms” mentioned in the New Testament, including Jesus referring to his own martyrdom as a ‘baptism” (Luke 12:50), water Baptism is unquestionably the one Jesus intended when he commissioned the church to “go … baptise” in Matt 28:19. Indeed, at Pentecost the crowd were exhorted to “be baptised” as part of the requirement to “receive … [the] Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38), showing that the two are not replacements of one another, and that both are anticipated. Elsewhere (eg. Acts 10:44-48), we see people showing outward signs of a ‘baptism’ in the Spirit, which prompts the apostle immediately to subject them to water Baptism, according to a set formula. Indeed, people who were baptised into “repentance” instead of into “the Lord Jesus” had to be water Baptised again, in Acts 19:1-6.
On the up-side,
at least this statement on Baptism
doesn’t actually say anything about water Baptism.
That is, it refers to the “relationship between our soldier enrolment and water baptism”, concluding that there isn’t one. This means that a soldier can be water Baptised, but is not required to be… which was the case before they made this “clarifying” statement.
Regarding the Eucharist (“Holy Communion”), numbers 1 and 2 are a direct reference to Roman Catholic and other explicitly sacramental points of view, such as:
Against all innovators the Council of Trent declared: “If anyone say that the sacraments of the New Law do not contain the grace which they signify, or that they do not confer grace on those who place no obstacle to the same, let him be anathema” (Sess. viii, can.vi). – Catholic Encyclopedia
The Romans say that people who hold the Salvo’s point of view should be ex-communicated (see anathema), so it’s reasonable to simply refute that. Fair enough.
The effect of 7 and 8, however, is to demystify the Eucharist’s significance somewhat beyond that of the Church’s historical tradition. There is good evidence that, right from the earliest church, the “love feast” was critically important, sombre, probably gave rise to the earliest creeds, and generally was revered above all other aspects of church life. Fortunately, before history is completely rewritten, by 9 and 10 the statement is essentially saying that individual Salvo gatherings can decide for themselves… which also was the case before they made this “clarifying” statement.
Moreover we do not prohibit our own people… from taking the sacraments. We say, ‘If this is a matter of your conscience, by all means break bread.’ – Catherine Booth, War Cry, 2 January 1883.
So while I retain a phenomenal respect for the Salvation Army, not only in what they do but for the spirit in which they do it, I am disappointed to see that they have placed themselves as merely one more church group among many by making this (in my view unnecessary), statement on their doctrines. Their pragmatic and reasonable stance of not presiding over the Sacraments has not changed, but now it is being justified with some unsettling theology.
Farewell to 120 years of successfully answering critics with:
“we are asked by the churches, what should be our attitude to you? We answer, ‘What is your attitude towards the Fire Brigade? Or… towards the lifeboat crew?'” – Catherine Booth, War Cry, 2 January 1883.
They used to be “a force”, but now they’re “a church”. *shrug*