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Jan31TueShould The Salvation Army be considered a Protestant order? January 31, 2012 by Rob Perry
In God's economy, vows have always been critical. As far back as ancient Israel, God used vow-driven individuals and communities to accomplish his purposes. When women or men wanted to make vows to him, he seemed delighted to oblige them. God consistently culled out from the ranks of his people a few who would stick out, act out and speak out. God gave opportunity for those outside of the priesthood to set themselves apart for acts of devotions and service to him—a kind of voluntarily
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- Opinion & Critical Thought
ostracism. —The New Friars by Scott A. Bessenecker
Is The Salvation Army a Christian denomination? A charity? A social justice movement? The answer to each of these questions is most certainly, “Yes!” However, these answers also lead to more questions about our identity as we continue to explore who we are and how we can best serve God in the world.
As I begin this series examining The Salvation Army's Soldier's Covenant—in particular the “I will” statements it contains—I want to first examine our fundamental understanding of what The Salvation Army actually is. This is no small question, and has for decades been an issue of great debate within Salvation Army circles. I have found the following framework helpful in providing a perspective from which to examine the promises made by those who decide to join The Salvation Army as soldiers.
Throughout history, new life and light have been breathed into the Church (particularly the Roman Catholic expression) through the birth and creation of monastic orders, such as the Franciscans, the Jesuits and the Benedictines.
An order is, by definition, a society of monks, priests, nuns, etc., living according to certain religious and social regulations and discipline, with at least some of these members taking solemn vows.
If we replace monks, priests and nuns with soldiers, adherents and officers, this sounds like an accurate definition for The Salvation Army. After all, The Salvation Army is not just another church. In fact, in my grandmother's time, to call the Army a church was looked down upon. We weren't a church, we were a Movement, an Army, a new thing God was doing in the world. We embraced the mission of spreading the good news of Jesus around the world. We committed ourselves to new expressions of worship and evangelism, and we even donned our own unique garb.
Orders were most often founded by a particular individual who felt God's stirring to deeper commitment and sacrifice than the Church already provided, as well as a desire to prophetically call the Church back to holiness and the poor. In this light, perhaps William and Catherine Booth were Victorian England's St. Francis of Assissi, calling the Church, through their new Protestant order, back to holiness and mission.
There is a great deal of discussion in Salvation Army circles these days about membership. How can full membership (i.e. soldiership) have more requirements and expectations than the Bible itself lays out for Christian disciples? How can someone who wants to join the Christian Church be required to fulfil promises that Jesus himself did not require? The obvious example is the promise not to drink alcohol. However, when we look at the vow not to drink as an extra-biblical vow taken on by a particular, radical branch of the Church as an example of sacrifice and commitment, this promise resembles the vows of charity and chastity that Franciscans made beginning in the 13th century. Taking it back even further, one could equate The Salvation Army's Soldier's Covenant to the Nazarite vow, laid out in the Bible most famously by Samson whose parents vowed that he would not touch anything dead, drink alcohol or cut his hair. These were extra vows and promises representing extra commitment made by people who were called to a deeper and more sacrificial obedience to their Lord.
By viewing the Army's identity through this framework, we can soberly examine the Soldier's Covenant and seek to understand the depth and breadth of the vows Salvation Army soldiers make. We, the committed few, in dedication to God and the world, go where others won't, help those whom others ignore and sacrifice more than others will. We make these solemn promises to God and join him in his mission to redeem the world.
Rob Perry is the ministry co-ordinator at Toronto's Corps 614.