Jennifer, a 22 year-old university graduate has been calling The Salvation Army her church home for 3 years. She grew up in a Christian home, but only in this time has she been "serious" about her faith. She's part of a small group and sings in the worship team. Jenny is also on the roster to teach Sunday School. Jenny decides it's time to consider her commitment to the church and so approaches the Corps Officer about being baptised. When she asks her about it she is informed that the Army doesn't baptise people. Intrigued by this she asks why and is informed that there are a number of factors contributing to this, but by and large the Army professes the sacramentality of all of life. Grace is not limited to two or seven ceremonies but rather is received when we approach God in faith. The Officer even quotes the Handbook of Doctrine (pg 271) and Called to be God's People (pg 109) which affirm the Army's position that "no particular outward observance is necessary to inward grace" and that "God's grace is freely and readily accessible at all times and in all places."
"Oh" replies Jenny. "So how do I affirm my place in The Salvation Army?"
"Well, I would encourage you to consider Soldiership."
"Is that just wearing uniform?"
"No, it's much more than that. We believe that a soldier is a person who has "professed salvation through faith in Christ", "studied the doctrines, principles and evangelistic witness of the Army", have been accepted for soldiership by the local leaders of this Corps, and they've signed the Articles of War, known as "A Soldier's Covenant" (see Called to be God's People, pg 44.) Here's a copy of the Articles of War for you to consider. Once you've attended some classes, have applied and been accepted for Soldiership, you would then go through a ceremony known as "Swearing-In" or "Enrolment" by which you would become a soldier."
Jenny takes the Soldier's Covenant away and considers it.
It's a made up story, but I'm sure it's not very far from reality on many occasions. The Army's position regarding the sacrament of baptism has been affirmed, and soldiership has been promoted by the Corps Officer, as they are expected to do so. So what's the problem?
The problem is that the Officer has actually (mostlikely unknowingly) contradicted herself.
What do I mean by that?
Well soldiership itself is a grace-based covenantal relationship with God himself. I know that we want to suggest that the Swearing-In of a soldier 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 some other Christians" (Called to be God's People, pg 127). In suggesting that, we are placing the reception of grace firmly in the past. That is, here we suggest that the Swearing-In ceremony is in fact a testimony to a past event. In doing so, we're applying a Zwinglian sacramental theology upon our Swearing-In ceremony. There is a significant memorial element here, but it is so much more than this. Here is the wording of the Soldier's Covenant which is critical here.
Having accepted Jesus Christ as my Saviour and Lord, and desiring to fulfil my membership of His Church on earth as a soldier of The Salvation Army, I now by God's grace enter into a sacred covenant.Something is happening now. Grace is being communicated between God and the new soldier now. The first part of this paragraph is memorial; remembering and testifying to the past event of conversion. That much is true. But here and now as the person stands before congregation, having been catechised (trained in the faith), accepted by the local elders (Pastoral Care Council or the old Census Board), in the presence of fellow believers and other soldiers, this person is entering into a sacred covenant with God. Again, it's a grace-based covenantal relationship. So, where's the contradiction I referred to earlier?
It's here... Is the grace required for soldiership "freely and readily accessible at all times and in all places." No, it's not. Certainly the grace required for conversion is freely available, but no one can just say by faith alone "I'm a soldier of The Salvation Army", begin wearing uniform and be affirmed as such officially. Soldiers must sign the Soldier's Covenant. They must be affirmed by the Pastoral Care Council, they must go through the ceremony and whilst there is no official requirement for this, more often than not it is an officer who performs the Swearing-In ceremony (which says something about our interpretation of the "priesthood of all believers"... another day).
Let's be frank here. This ceremony is a sacrament. Historically it's a new kind of sacrament, but a sacrament no less. This is where I've applied the term "neo-sacramental". Furthermore, a Zwinglian sacramental theology is insufficient to describe how this is a sacrament, because it's more than a memorial event. A much more realist interpretation of the relationship between "grace" and "sign" is required. In fact, at this point we're much closer to Wesley than we would think.
We're not non-sacramental, we're certainly not anti-sacramental, we're neo-sacramental. It's not that we don't practice the sacraments, it's just that we've discarded what was used before (Eucharist and Baptism) in place of new ceremonies and rituals of our own. Henry Gariepy has stated this very clearly in his last publication Christianity in Action (pg 72).
In reality, The Salvation Army substituted its own rituals. Infants were no longer baptised; they were dedicated, with parents vowing to raise them according to Christian practice. The public enrollment of senior soldiers (lay members) and the signing of the "Articles of War" became a ritual within the Army. In the end, the Army came to lean upon its own external symbols and rituals, including its uniform, flag, songbook, and mode of worship. These were looked upon as aids, not to be espoused as a medium or requisite of salvation, or of the spiritual life.Whether we like it or not, this is the position we're in, and it is a contradiction. The reasons we put forward against two ceremonies (Eucharist and Baptism) contradict the very practices that we continue to use and affirm.
So what's a possible way ahead? Well, that's the topic of the next post.
Continue to the next post here.