Tuesday, June 26, 2007

dear matt

As a member of the Salvation Army who grew up in another denomination and has quite a few ties in other denominations, I get asked a lot about the Salvation Army’s stance on the sacraments. We don’t practice them. Officially the Army doesn’t have a stance on the sacraments, but unofficially many take a very strict and hard to understand stance against them.

I understand their excuse. The Salvation Army did not start as a church. We were a missionary movement reaching out to the neglected and unwanted and our hope, after reaching them, was to plant them in other local churches. As the question of sacraments came up, debates began to take place over how we would practice them. Would we baptize infants, for instance, and would we fully submerse adults or simply sprinkle? Would we, like the Catholics, teach that the wine (or grape juice if you’re a Baptist) and bread actually became the body of Christ, or like Protestants, would we teach that it was merely a representation. It, apparently, was a pretty big debate and the founder of the Army, William Booth, felt like it was distracting people from the mission. So, in his infinite wisdom, Booth decided to table the discussion and revisit it at a later time. For now their mission was to send people to other churches anyway, so maybe it was a question that we would never have to get around to answering.

Problem is, a hundred and odd some years later, and we clearly are a church. In fact, about twenty years ago we officially declared that fact and so, for many people within the Salvation Army, it is quite clearly time to revisit that topic.

A lot has been said, even in the comment sections of this blog, about the Army not having a problem with the sacraments, but many of us know otherwise. I hesitate to share the experiences of others (Officers) who have been disciplined by the Army for sharing in communion, or for asking for permission to baptize somebody in their Corps who have asked to take part in the experience, so I’ll share my own much less extreme example.

When I first began working with the Army, I was still very much identified as a Baptist. I held both a license and ordination certificate through the Baptist church and had spent nine years serving as a minister in Baptist churches across the state of Oklahoma. My first experience working with the Army was through one of their summer camps. After getting to know some of the staff at that camp, a young Christian from New Zealand who was not a Salvationist (member of the Salvation Army) found out that I was ordained and asked me if I could baptize him in the creek that ran through our camp ground. Though he had been a Christian for a few years, he had never actually experienced the act of baptism. I told him that I didn’t have any problem with it, but just wanted to run it by the camp director (who was a Salvation Army officer that held a divisional role) to make sure that I was not stepping on his toes. Upon sharing the news with the camp director, however, I was asked to please do it off of camp grounds.

It’s hard to know exactly how to respond to that. I can remember reaching a point where I wanted to preach on evangelism but wasn’t sure about using Matthew 28:19 because in it Jesus commands us to baptize people. I eventually went to my divisional commander about it who encouraged me that we couldn’t leave out verses of the Bible.

I think, in the end, I do understand our excuse for not participating in the sacraments. But I can’t understand our justification for it. And so I send the question out to you all. Our excuse is wrapped up in our history. The history that I’ve already shared above. But does anybody know or understand our justification for it? Our justification would have to be wrapped up in our theology and I just don’t see it there anywhere.

Are we being disobedient by not practicing the sacraments and are we, further more, being bullies by punishing those who do?

Comments on "dear matt"


Blogger Bill said ... (6:21 PM) : 

I see the issue with the treatment of officers. The issue of sacraments is a discussion that needs to be had but I am not convinced it is the most important we have our own, just go to any commissioning event and the brass and songsters are there. Out in USA west there seems to be more of an independant spirit. We have enjoyed Love Feasts and encouraged those in our program to get baptized if they feel lead. I guess being on skid row I see the Army very differently. We should not act like a church. I think if we can break that paradigm we will be better off.

Anyway, my stance is that one should try to live as God calls one to live.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (6:21 PM) : 

Dear TIm,

Nice to have you back!!



Blogger Stephen said ... (4:20 PM) : 

I happened upon your blog and this subject on the sacraments. I commented on a blog on this subject matter. I know it is a sensitive matter especially with the General's open letter in the Officer. Until I came to my current appointment, it has never been an issue for me - but I arrived in a setting where the "Feast of Remembrance" is an occassional part of the worship experience. As a matter of fact, it is not uncommon for SA churches in the Canadian west observe the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.

I have edited my blog response to preserve the privacy of those involved:

"You mentioned in your response to (name of the person) comments about Salvation Army positions that are not "formal doctrine". When you said that, of course one thinks of the non-observance of the sacraments such as the Lord's Supper (communion)and baptism and current General's public statements on this. Not only has a very human based organization, yes, led by many "Spirit filled men and women" create with good reason during a period of religious legalism and rigidity, a structure around a position that is not formal doctrine, but in reality, can be strongly argued, is also outside of scripture. Yes, we have devised scriptural arguments to support positions that are not doctrinal, I mean, I grew up thinking it was a sin to take part in the Lord's Supper! To this day, I have sat with officers and soldiers who will not participate in joining other Christians in this act of worship and sign of the unity we have in Christ. Some even leave the service.

The first doctrine of the Salvation Army says, "We believe that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were given by the inspiration of God, and that they only constitute the Divine rule of Christian faith and practice."

When I think of the "Lord's Supper", my mind turns to this doctrine which clearly declares our foundational belief in the supreme authority of scripture. I think about how Jesus broke bread saying how this act symbolizes his body and the wine shared from his cup is the new covenant which is poured out for you. The Salvation Army's first doctrine clearly states we believe that Jesus did this. But not only did Jesus do this act, he also commanded his disciples to do this as an act of remembrance when they gather together. We are talking about an act of worship. The second half of the first doctrine says that scripture is the authoritative and final word by which we are to live our lives.

We (the Army) cannot be afraid to embrace the place of authority of scripture when it comes to the position of "non-sacramentalism" that has never been declared as doctrine. Recently in my Territory, a cabinet member sent out a panicked e-mail concerning communion cups that accidentally slipped into a Supplies and Purchasing advert. He said that it goes against our doctrine to practice communion. How did we ever get to the point that a cabinet member would even declare that as doctrine? All I could do is laugh. My conscience says, "who do I obey? God's Word" or do I "uphold a position, no matter how well meaning, that is not found in scripture but in human made orthodoxy?"

The Sal. Army is a very sacramental organization. I love the use of the mercy seat, the holiness table, the Army flag and the uniform. To utilize the Lord's Supper as an act of worship soaked in the teaching of holiness is very powerful. I have witnessed this personally since moving here to my current appointment.

It concerns me when the leader of the world wide SA would speak of these beautiful sacramental acts of worship and witness as a threat to the unity of the Army directly comparing it to the issue that is threatening to split apart the Anglican communion (gay ordination and gay marriage)! It's a shocking comparison!

Do I obey God? Or man? There is absolutely no discussion on this matter!"


Blogger Tim said ... (4:48 PM) : 

Thank you Stephen. I had not read that article and am now also very shocked and concerned about his response. Actually, I shouldn't say "shocked". Apparently the General has demoted more than one Officer for practicing the sacraments. Still, to see it for myself and, as you said, to see him compare the sacraments to homosexuality is just…well…hard to fathom.


Blogger Stephen said ... (1:12 AM) : 

I do need to clarify that the General did not write a letter, it was a copy of an address he gave at a conference in South Africa.


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