A question that’s been on my mind lately has been this; "What is a Salvation Army Officer?” More specifically, what makes a Salvation Army Officer different from anyone else? Indeed, are they different at all (apart from the obvious red epaulettes)? I've observed an emphasis upon the "call to Officership”, accompanied by an attempt to understand the place of ordination within our movement. All of this has led to, I would suggest, an ever increasing divide between Officers and Soldiers.
The problem here has been identified and analysed masterfully by Major Dr Harold Hill in his book Leadership in the Salvation Army: a Case study in Clericalisation. The problem is whether Officership is seen as a function within our movement or does “Ordination” and “Commissioning” somehow place Officers into a different "class" or even "caste". Historically and theologically we would align ourselves with the first option but more and more, at least in practice I suggest, we have begun to act like the second.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the way we speak of the "call to Officership". The “call” is treated with deep reverence within The Salvation Army. Indeed the Officer’s Covenant, which all Officers must sign, starts with the words (in capital letters, no less) "CALLED BY GOD". Those who wish to apply for officership need to demonstrate throughout the application process that they have indeed been called and that this calling is evident in their lives. Cadets are also expected that their calling would be affirmed and confirmed throughout their training.
The problem, as I observe it, is that this calling is frequently viewed as an "add on" to Soldiership. In this way Officers become those people who have received “something extra” from God that others have not (in this case a “calling”). An extreme interpretation of this may even suggest that it is a subtle form of Gnosticism.
Some of the symptoms of this problem include the expectation that it is the Officers who are called to be Evangelists, Preachers, Pastors, Administrators, Leaders, Prophets, Worship Leaders and a myriad of other functions since they are the ones that have been "Called by God ". It is entirely unsustainable for them personally or for us as a movement to rely on one small percentage of our movement. As a result of this we have ended up with under-active Soldiers and over-active Officers.
So what's a possible solution?
A colleague of mine, Major Dr Dean Smith, preached recently on the topic "How do I know God's will for my life?” During what was an outstanding sermon he provided what I think is a different way to conceive of the relationship between Soldiership and Officership. He suggested this;
"We should assume that all Soldiers should be Officers unless they are called to something else."
In this way the calling to officership is viewed as a function of Soldiership not as something added on top of it. Officership, in this understanding of it, is not a status acquired over and above Soldiership, but a specialised form of Soldiership. The “call to Officership” is not an "add-on" for some Christians but a function of the one calling that all Christians share in. This is the calling of Isaiah 43:1 "I have called you by name; you are mine." The calling of some Christians will express itself functionally through Soldiership within The Salvation Army. The calling of some of these Soldiers will also express itself functionally through Officership within The Salvation Army. Indeed some Officers will later function in other specialised ways; teachers, drug and alcohol specialists, business administrators, divisional and territorial leaders. Of course, that does not mean that those who are not Officers are not called at all. Rather, the complete opposite is true. We must assume that all Christians are called but that the calling will functions within different, but no less important, frameworks; be that as school teachers, bakers or candlestick makers... or, indeed, Officers within The Salvation Army.
So, again, we return to the original question "What Is a Salvation Army Officer?" I've come to the conclusion that any answer to this question must be expressed in terms that intrinsically link it to Soldiership. Personally, I'm drawn to the phrase "Strategic Soldiership" for this purpose. This, for me, inseparably links Officership to Soldiership. Officers are, first and foremost, Christians, secondly Soldiers, and thirdly Officers.
If we relate this further to the mission of The Salvation Army we have to be honest and admit that entering into Officership actually requires a candidate to take a step backwards from the mission front. This is not to say that Officers are not involved in the mission, but rather that they have taken on a new strategic role. Importantly, they remain Soldiers themselves but take on the responsibility of leading other Soldiers in the mission. The reality is, though, that Officers are not primarily on the "front line"... Soldiers are.
This strategic role is very important. This is a very necessary task. We need people to be Officers within The Salvation Army. What we don't need, however, are Officers who “think of themselves more highly than they ought” (Romans 12:3). Officers must not see themselves as somehow better, or more important than Soldiers because they are called and Soldiers are not. Soldiers are at the front line of Salvation Army mission. Officers are called to “Strategic Soldiership”, which necessarily remains one step back from that front line. The front line of Salvation Army mission will take place where soldiers engage in vocations in the world; as butchers, writers, child-care workers, doctors, businesspeople, cleaners, and a hundred other possibilities. This calling is, though, the same calling that all Christians share, including the calling that Officers have received. The calling is to God's mission field - for everyone; Officers, Soldiers, Adherents, and all Christians alike. Officers have a strategic role to play in encouraging, supporting and equipping Soldiers to carry out the mission of The Salvation Army wherever they are.