As soldiers we cut a pretty big covenant (read it here). Covenant is becoming pretty big these days in the wider church…there are neo-monastic missional orders springing up all over the place. For example, the Order of the Mustard Seed originally began by the great Moravian prayer warrior, Count Zinzendorff and more recently revived through the 24/7 prayer movement, of which The Salvation Army has been a big part. This is all great stuff…its a great emphasis on the fact that God calls us to sign up to live our lives missionally where God has placed us.
The difference between the Army and both the ancient and the new monastic orders, I guess, is that we go on to provide a place that people can continue call their spiritual home when they’ve got saved through the mission we carry out. In that sense, we become the place where people live out their Christian lives as part of the body, or where they journey with us to explore Christian life and faith. Thats fine.
The Articles of War are a rule of life, a covenant. This is not the document we say that one must be able to sign in order to become a Christian. The path for that is simple repentance and faith in Jesus…no document necessary! This is a document that all who sense the call to live as covenanted soldiers of The Salvation Army sign. Clear distinction.
As a Salvation Army in the UK, we’ve largely lost sense of the radical call of soldiership because we’ve confused it with being a part of the body of Christ. In trying to be inclusive, we’ve concluded that the standards of soldiership must be lowered, and thus we have a soldiers covenant which can mean everything and nothing at the same time.
When my son was too young to become a junior soldier, he asked me “well what can I be now, dad?” My reply was, “son, you can become a Christian, a follower of Jesus.” Friends, this is the place we begin, its where we always belong, we are always followers of Jesus. And hey, you can be a great follower of Jesus without being a soldier. Yes, its true. In many ways, we are doing our job when people come into the Kingdom and become followers of Jesus. Let me clarify, this is the priority.
However, we also want to call people to soldiership. Why? because at the core of our movement should be this covenanted, missional, out-reaching, extravagangly loving, sacrificial, and disciplined people who have heard the call of God to ‘sign up’ to the covenant we make and keep with God. Its a path of obedience, of duty, obedience, simplicity, and sacrifice. If every soldier lived out the covenants they sign, the world truly would be a different place…it really would.
Soldiership is a set of vows we take, like the monastic friar, brother or sister wherein we chose to live the radical expression of Jesus-following I mention above. Not everyone will be called to take these, but its a fairly good thing to suppose that it may just be that those God choses to win through us would be the ones he might call to become soldiers and become part of the covenanted community.
But hey, if they don’t, they already belong amongst us a) because they’re saved already or b)becuase they are journeying with us as they explore faith. I’d argue, on those grounds that Adherency is yet another red herring on the landscape of The Salvation Army. Its a form of membership that we don’t really need. Why? because we should be the kind of community where you belong anyway. Where your turning up instantly makes you ‘one of us.’ This is radical hospitality. From that position of belonging, you may hear the call to soldiership, to take on the covenant. Church membership is a legacy of Christendom which has increasing irrelvance. What is relevant, is maintaining the covenant community at the heart and mission of The Salvation Army in the form of its soldiers. Covenant is the glue of The Salvation Army as it gives us our common purpose.
I’m not naive. I know that many of our corps are far away from this model. I know that in many places, soldiership has been so operated that it has presented itself as an insiders club. Believe me, I’m as much apposed to this idea as I could possibly be.
How do we deal with this? We simply must find ways of encouraging each other and keeping each other accountable to living out our covenant individually and as a covenanted community. We need to cultivate a culture where people are open to being asked ‘in what ways have you fleshed out your covenant today?’ The easiest place we can do that is in the recruits class, but more than that, it needs to be build on trust with existing soldiers.
I really believe that grasping the distinct nature of our covenant will be the glue that will keep the Army from further fragmentation. Not because that by doing it we’ll ‘keep the numbers up’ or ‘halt the numbers decline’ but because we’ll solidify the Army at its heart…either that, or we become Samson without his hair…we will lose our inner strength and it will all come tumbling round about us!