Salvation Army Sacramental Theology - Part 5

This post follows on from Part One, Two, Three, and Four in a series on The Salvation Army's position regarding the sacraments. This will be the final post in this series.

I start with a few cautions for us to consider.
  1. The "Prophetic" calling of The Salvation Army - Of late there has been a particular emphasis on our "Testimonial" role on the possibility of a Christian life lived "without sacramental ritual". The big questions for any prophet are (a) are you really saying what God wants you to say, and is that supported by Scripture, and (b) what evidence do you have to support such claims. In response to (a) there is probably more support for an observant position than a non-observant one, and for (b) there have not been any other denominations adopt a stance. Sure, they respect us and admire us, but no one's joining us. Our prophetic role is either ineffectual, or needs closer scrutiny.
  2. Who's decision was this? James Pedlar has closely compared Salvation Story (1998) with the latest Handbook of Doctrine through a couple of posts, including a very interesting table. All of these can be accessed through his blog here. One significant shift has been the change in language at one particular point. In Salvation Story it reads: “Early in our history, The Salvation Army chose not to observe specific sacraments as prescribed rituals.” In the Handbook of Doctrine it reads: "Early in our history, The Salvation Army was led of God not to observe specific sacraments, that is baptism and the Lord's Supper, or Holy Communion, as prescribed rituals." Again, is there support in Scripture for this claim? I join with James on this particular point and suggest that a little more reticence should be displayed here before jumping to such a conclusion.
  3. Let's be careful about our "sacramental songs" - Whenever this topic comes up in Salvation Army circles inevitably someone says "My life must be Christ's broken bread, my love his outpoured wine." I'm actually a little sick of it. For two reasons; (a) it normally stops the conversation and so stops people from actually "thinking" about what they're saying and (b) what have we done with Christ's words here? He was the one who said "this is my body" and we go and say "actually 'No' Lord, my life is your broken bread, thank you very much." Is there not just a tinge bit of arrogance in those words? I certainly respect General Albert Osborne and his genuine attempt to encourage Salvationists to live a life that demonstrates Christ's love for others, but when we use these lyrics as the crux of our sacramental theology, we have a significant exegetical problem. The astute might notice that I said "songs", too. I always wonder why "O Boundless Salvation" doesn't get more mileage when we discuss this? "My sins they are many, the stains are so deep... Thy waters can cleanse me, come roll over me." Sounds a little like baptism to me.

To conclude this series I would like to propose an alternative policy for The Salvation Army. I want to suggest that the intention behind the original decision was indeed the Gospel. This was William Booth's talent; the ability to focus all of his attention on the Gospel and getting it through to the people who needed it the most in whatever way that worked. He was a pragmatist, not a theologian. If it worked, he adopted it. But if it didn't he also was quite prepared to drop it. It concerns me that our present position seems more concerned with maintaining the position itself, rather than getting the gospel to those who need it the most by whatever means necessary.

The positive aspect of The Salvation Army's current position is it's emphasis upon the potentiality of every moment in life being sacramental. This we refer to as the "immediacy of grace" and was particularly well captured in Salvation Story appendix nine. The negative aspect is that our position now explicitly states that every moment in life can be sacramental, except for those two ceremonies. They are banned in Salvation Army worship. The problem is (and this is the "contradiction" highlighted in Post Four) is that most Salvationists read their Scriptures (Luke 22 and 1 Cor 11 in particular) and see Christ's words of institution - "Do this", but then are told by The Salvation Army, in no uncertain terms, "Actually, don't do this." This, I would argue, is a cause for significant angst in many quarters, and requires either editorial exegesis, or at the very least some exegetical gymnastics  something we do almost nowhere else in the Scriptures.
My suggested policy is taken from Commissioner Phil Needham's Community in Mission (pg 8)

What the immediacy of grace does imply is that no ritual can be seen as somehow necessary in order for someone to receive grace and that any ritual which faithfully conveys the gospel and adequately allows for response is appropriate.
This, I suggest, keeps the Gospel as our focal point, not the preservation of a position that was adopted for the purpose of the Gospel. In practical terms this means that if, for example, it serves our Gospel purposes to hand out bread and grape juice for someone to understand that God loves them, Christ died and rose again for them, and they can have life in his name, then we do it. Alternatively, if it's not going to work because that would communicate something completely different, then so be it - try something that works. The priority, though, is the Gospel.

Wouldn't it be better if, rather than worrying, for example, whether I have water too close to a dedication (which is explicitly stated in the dedication ceremony by the way) and refocussed our attention back onto the Gospel? What would that mean in countries that are crying out for the reintroduction of the sacraments for the sake of the Gospel? Would it mean more people actually hearing the gospel message? I think it would. Conversely, what would that mean in countries that are saying "please don't" reintroduce them? I think it would similarly mean that more people would actual hear the gospel, because those people know that our policy is "do whatever is necessary for the gospel to be received by those who need it the most." They would be given permission to do whatever it takes for the sake of the Gospel.

Isn't that what we're about?

Isn't that the core of The Salvation Army's mission? The Gospel of Jesus Christ for the whosever, in whatever means necessary?

I conclude with a length quote. It is my genuine hope that this series has been beneficial in at least generating discussion. I would certainly welcome feedback of all kinds. I don't profess to be the expert in these matters, but just hope that I may shed a little of that light that William Booth spoke of when he made his decision.

Where the life of the Church is exhausted in self-serving, it smacks of death; the decisive thing has been forgotten, that this whole life is lived only in the exercise of what we called the Church's service as ambassador, proclamation, kerygma. A Church that recognises its commission will neither desire nor be able to petrify in any of its functions, to be the Church for its own sake. There is the 'Christ-believing group'; but this group is sent out: 'Go and preach the Gospel!' It does not say, 'Go and celebrate services!' 'Go and edify yourselves with the sermon!' 'Go and celebrate the Sacraments!' 'Go and present yourselves in a liturgy, which perhaps repeats the heavenly liturgy!' 'Go and devise a theology which may gloriously unfold like the Summa of St Thomas!' Of course, there is nothing to forbid all this; there may exist very good cause to do it all; but nothing, nothing at all for its own sake! In it all the one thing must prevail: 'Proclaim the Gospel to every creature!' The Church runs like a herald to deliver the message. It is not a snail that carries its little house on its back and is so well off in it, that only now and then it sticks out its feelers, and then thinks that the 'claim of publicity' has been satisfied. No, the Church lives by its commission as herald; it is la compagnie de Dieu (the company of God). Where the Church is living, it must ask itself whether it is serving this commission or whether it is a purpose in itself? If the second is the case, then as a rule it begins to smack of the 'sacred', to affect piety, to play the priest and to mumble. Anyone with a keen nose will smell it and find it dreadful! Christianity is not 'sacred'; rather there breathes in it the fresh air of the Spirit. Otherwise it is not Christianity. For it is an out-an-out 'wordly' thing open to all humanity: 'Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.' (Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, trans. G.T. Thomson, (London: SCM Press, 1958), 146-147).


  1. This has been a great series, Adam. I particularly like how you brought out the contradiction in part four. While others have made a similar point, I don't think I've heard it made with this much clarity.

    I also agree with you that the "banning" of anything that looks like the two traditional sacraments is inconsistent. If all of life is potentially sacramental, why not the specific symbols used in scripture and by almost all Christians? It's just bizarre when you think about it. And removing the "taboo" on baptism and Lord's Supper could easily be done without backtracking on the "not necessary to salvation" aspect of the Army's position.

    This all seems quite reasonable and gospel-focused to me! I truly hope this kind of thinking will prevail over time.


  2. Thanks James. Thanks also for your comparitive work. Saved me a heap of time and was very revealing (and prompted a lot of my thinking)

    Only time will tell on what will happen in the future. The reality is in many denominations they are non-observant in practice, or very close to it. Only observing four times a year, say. I think we could quite easily move to a similar scenario, regain a gospel focus, and move ahead.

    We'll see.

    God bless

  3. Thanks Adam for the series.
    I'm with James in appreciating your identification of the contradiction in our position. Highlighting that we hold that the two 'sacraments' ceremonies are the only place that God's grace doesn't flow was a good mirror to our position.

    One concern I have with the discussion for the observance of baptism and communion in the Army is that I mostly hear it from either 'converts' from other denominations or Salvationists who wish the Army to become more like a specific other church (usually a pentecostal one). It tends to be an as uncritical argument as those advocating for the maintenance of our current position.

    I think your reflection has opened up the depth of reflection and discussion that is needed.

  4. Hi Liam...
    Thanks for reading these and also for taking the time to respond. I appreciate it.
    God bless

  5. Hi, Thanks for your interesting articles, I hesitate to offer my theological two cents worth, but here we go.

    This is an appropriate discussion to be held as the founder left us this as a question to ponder. The Founder said "I should like to emphasize the fact that this with us is not a settled question. We never disclaim against the Sacraments; we never even state our own position. We are anxious not to destroy the confidence of Christian people in institutions which are helpful to them" (Roger Green, The Life and Ministry of William Booth (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005 p.148).

    I am want to consider that there may have been political overtones that have not been mentioned in part three - I am thinking of the timing and the discussions of becoming part of the Church of England around the founding of the Army and the delay in commencement of the Anglican Church Army in 1882 supports this idea.

    I have no issue with a Salvationist participating in table worship, but I don't think it necessary, simply because of Luke 23:43, a plain reading tells me that the thief, who has undergone no ceremony nor ritual will be with Jesus that day in Paradise.

    I rejoice and am enamoured at the beauty of the Eucharist held by many denominations and have no problem with any service that is a commemoration of the grace of God- freely available to all as every meeting should be.

    None-the-less, I think a particular ceremony opens up an unnecessary can of worms, do we need to baptised to accept Table Fellowship, consubstantiation or transubstantiation etc.

    In my belief Mt. 26:26-28 is a metaphor, when Jesus said take my blood and my body, he was alive, therefore suggesting that every meal should be eaten in thanks, I think there is real danger in creating a false division between the secular and the sacred.

    I would tread lightly a common ground approach, bring back the love feast - it will fulfil the corporate aspects of worship sought by many and be sympathetic to a gospel based approach (eg Acts) and provide a connect between the sacred and secular.

  6. Adam, I like what you stated when you wrote, “...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.”
    I still reflect on the profound spiritual reality that was celebrated when I became a senior soldier, as do I contemplate the equally profound experience of celebrating communion in a church that has existed for over a millennium. Each of these experiences has significant meaning in my faith journey and in no way are they confused with the conditions of salvation.
    I consider the decision of William Booth (The Salvation Army), at the end of the 19th century, to be motivated by maintaining unity within the ranks. I am sure Booth and the senior women and men around him, new only too well what discord could mean for a movement that was in full flight. The Salvation Army did not need to lose its focus on the priority of soul-saving. A theological debate is not the luxury of The Salvation Army in the middle of spiritual warfare; rather it is the luxury of peacetime activity.
    I believe the Salvation Army is a sacramental movement. We do not practice the Eucharist and Baptism because our founders believed that at that time their introduction could damage unity within a movement that was in the business of saving souls with the gospel of Jesus Christ. More recently General Shaw Clifton (whilst Chairperson of the Spiritual Life Commission) said that “we should guard against novelty...and recognise the cry for sacramental ritual for what it really is – a quest for a substitute, an expedient ‘to cover up the ghastly facts of spiritual loss, disease and death’”(p101).
    I re-read the Spiritual Life Commission’s summary on the sacraments and their conclusion, “that it is not thought necessary or appropriate to re-introduce the practice of sacramental observances at this time. However, as the Founder’s statement was provisional, we believe that this provisonality should remain in place”.
    I am comfortable with the Salvation Army’s position, however if the Army was to change and allow for the occasional practice of the Eucharist then I would look forward to the day when I can share the experience I have had in other churches with my brothers and sisters in Christ. Not for one second do I think that this sacrament is going to bring people into the Salvation Army or solve the problems that we face. What I believe is that it will allow Salvationists to experience God’s grace in a different way than we are used to.

  7. This was an interesting series. As a person who grew up in the Salvation Army, then moved through different denominations but have now returned to The Salvos, the thing I miss the most, is corporate communion. I knew some things about why TSA didn't take communion, although I thought it was mainly due to the alcohol issue. I don't completely understand all that you've said, but appreciate the effort you've put into this. Thank you Christine

  8. Good intention but growing fundamentalism in the Army will make even discussion impossible if a few well known names get their way. Strange how it took 1870 plus years for Booth to to discover what the Bible really meant!
    This (keep) doing ... is quite clear. As is this is my body ... blood - not represents, is a symbol of. After a life time as a Salvation Army officer I now am baptised and attend eucharist regularly, and will not respond to threats to have my quarters taken from me. Dont know what URL is!!!

  9. Hey, some good points have been mentioned. I'd like to push back on your comment on the solider covenant being a sacrament and grace based, I'd say it is grace based because all of life is graced based we live in the grace of God. whether we do communion or not baptise or not become a solider or not we are still under the grace of God. it's only by grace that we can follow those promises in the soldier's covenant. To say that The Salvation Army is contradicting itself may be misguided. I'd like to suggest that regardless if we do communion or baptise or become a soldier it's actually between that person and God, I don't think it was ever the intention to take the light off Jesus and shine it on these earthly things, Jesus is the way the truth and the light, he is the only way to the Father. I think we need to focus more on him and his love and mercy poured out on the cross instead of getting caught up in earthly practises. I'd like to finish and say you do have a great argument, I'd just like to say nothing can replace or substitute the work of the Cross and it's a personal decision between person and God with how they would Worship him.


  10. I am a Salvationist of many years' standing, but I recently felt the NEED to be baptised. Everywhere I read in the Bible it was there - baptism. It spoke to me like nothing ever has over many years. I will say that there was no organisational support from this - I heard nothing from DHQ - not even an acknowledgement that I was focusing on my faith and wanting to be obedient to God. I was very disappointed at this, because although the Salvation Army doesn't forbid its members taking part in the sacraments, it was as if I was crossing a forbidden line. My corps comrades were fantastic and supported me all the way - most of them came to my baptismal service, as did my Officer. I felt a little uncomfortable for asking a local baptist minister to baptise me - I thought my Officer should have done it - having known me and discussed the issue with me at length.
    I really don't understand this blind loyalty to the Movement and not to spiritual things. I feel more complete in my Christian service since my baptism, even though it is just an outward symbol, although I haven't yet had the same calling to 'adopt' communion. In that respect I feel grateful every day for all the blessings that God gives me, and I thank Him every day. But if, in the future, I feel compelled to take communion, I have a stark choice to make - that of leaving the Army, which I don't want to do.

  11. I’ve had the privilege of ministering both as an Elder in the Church of the Nazarene and as a Salvation Army Officer. I am comfortable with both positions and while I’ve served communion and baptized many, I’ve also assured believers who had not participated in the sacraments that their faith in Jesus Christ alone was sufficient. I’ve also made it a point to let the one being baptized know that it was their faith in Jesus that alone saved them, even as their baptism was a witness to the world of their separation from the world and an empowering act of a life risen with Christ.

    The first generations of believers didn’t have all the accoutrements and ceremonies we have today, but they did nevertheless have controversies (1 Cor. 1:10-17; 11:17-32). My own belief is that our dilemma with the sacraments is due to the fact that our selfish nature keeps getting in the way: it wants to get into heaven. It can’t of course, but that doesn’t keep it from trying to insert itself into the issue. Whenever I am drawn into a discussion of the sacraments, I try to keep it centered on the One to whom the sacraments point. It comforts me that both Salvationist and Nazarene friends often feel the same way.

  12. Thought provoking. So a couple of thoughts:
    1. I thought you skimmed rather lightly over the protest aspect of our position. I learned at my Daddy's knee that a major reason we refrain is because of an almost magical, superstitious misuse of the sacraments. This was confirmed in my own experience when I, as a young officer, regularly did pub booming (wasn't THAT long ago, '70s, '80s and early '90s). I would often come into conversation with someone who admitted his actions were sinful, but my concerns were misplaced because he a) was baptized and thus assured of his place in heaven, and b) in any case would have all his sins removed tomorrow at church when he took communion, regardless of what he was doing tonight.
    2. Maybe a better term than "neo-sacramental" would be "pan-sacramental." If our original issue was an aversion to limiting the means of grace to a couple of ceremonies because of our understanding of Entire Sanctification, maybe we should concentrate on broadening our understanding of the sacramental. The Eastern Orthodox don't count sacraments; rather anything in and of the Church is sacramental. Maybe we should affirm anything in and of a life with Jesus to be sacramental. (Interesting that the Orthodox understanding of theosis finds its closest parallel in the doctrine of Entire Sanctification!)
    Although I fully affirm the protest aspect of our position, I was saddened by the comments of those drawn to the sacraments and made to feel estranged, guilty, wrong, whatever. I have, even as an officer, in certain contexts found it reasonable to serve communion and even baptize people. Yes, I might have gotten my hand slapped, but, to use your terminology, it seemed in the best interest of the Gospel to do so. I don't begrudge anyone a sacrament-related blessing.
    Reintroducing the sacraments (although I find the term misleading and full of baggage; ordinance is not much better since I don't see biblically that these practices were "ordained" by Jesus either) would not necessarily be a bad thing. But we would have to develop an appropriate theology to go along with them so as not to fall into the same issues we were trying to avoid in 1883.


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