I wear soldier eppaulettes these days, so what I’m going to say may seem like something of an anti-officer rant. It isn’t. Incidentally, I often would say the same thing when I was an officer, so I hope that deals with the issue of ‘biased perspective.’ I’ve written at length here about the unhealthy divide between clergy/lay within The Salvation Army and the clericalisation of officership. I think it remains a big issue within The Army and the level to which it is dealt with and resolved is the extent to which The Army will release as much of its human resource as possible in a healthy way. The increase in the use of the term ‘ordination’ is increasing more and more in relation to officers. I did a bit of a litmus test between two versions of the SA Year Book. Between 2000 and 2010, the use of the word ‘ordination’ in reference to officers had gone up from about 6 uses in 2000 to nearly 70 references in 2010 (if I remember the figure correctly).
The Officer is, of course, a soldier too. She/he is in the fight too. But the officer’s role is a strategic leadership one. Its a co-ordinative role, an equipping role. The aim is to co-ordinate the Salvation War of Love. That is not a denegration of officership, it is a raising up of officership to its rightful purpose and usefulness. The fact that officers are trained to be priests/pastors/clergy is a different matter entirely.
The soldier is the front line. Even as I type that, I can hear officers getting upset. True, there are many officers who are very front line in terms of what their appointment needs. But this is often because the soldiery have been treated as ‘laity’ and not as covenanted soldiers. Not necessarily by this generation of officers who find themselves increasingly front line with few soldiers, but because in the last 40 years or so, clericalisation has come upon officership and many have embraced it. As officership has embraced clericalism, so the emphasis and potency of soldiership in the Army has declined.
As a younger man, I had a very active soldiership between the ages of 15 and 20, after which I became the then equivalent of envoy/sergeant (depending on your territory) and then an officer. I was preaching in the corps from age 16, leading, teaching, witnessing and preaching in the open air, leading Alpha courses, pioneering children’s work, as well as all the usual minsitry in a ‘regular’ corps of band, songsters, etc etc and the ministry opportunities invovled there. I also fed the homeless on the streets, sallied up and went out on purpose to engage people with the gospel….not to forget selling the War Cry!
The truth is that I had more opportunities for mission as a soldier than as an officer. Thats how it should be! At stages along the journey, you see, were officers who cheered me on and sent me out. I had access to places, people and situations they would never have access to. I had schools full of teenage peers, streets full of people I knew very well, I had a regular job which brought me into contact with many people. It was the true front line. I loved it and it made me the person I am today. I had a vigorous soldiership.
Soldiership needs to be seen for what it is, it needs to be recovered significantly. Soldiership is not membership of a corps…it is not ‘church membership’ or even Army membership. Soldiers sign a covenant, a particular rule of life. It is not synonymous to being a part of the universal body of Christ. Why? because you don’t need a piece of paper to belong to Jesus. You are automatically belong to Jesus when you confess him as Lord. No, if soldiership is our standard for membership of the church it is heresy, entirely.
Soldiership is a vocation, a calling, wherein you sign up to live in a certain way: a life of mission, holiness, sacrifice and with some distinctive ‘signs’ there too (no alcohol, smoking, drugs, sex out of marriage, porn etc etc) People get upset that there are ‘extra requirements’ to be a soldier. I can understand that if you view soldiership as membership. But thats not how it was intended to be and its not what it is on paper!
It is monastic in nature. Monastic is the best way to understand the intentions of the whole idea of soldiership. Not in the sense of hiding away in seclusion, no, we’re talking and active monasticism….like Friars, brothers (and sisters) on the road preaching the gospel and tending the poor. Soldiership is a way of life. (Incidentally, the then Commissioner Shaw Clifton, in my view, missed the point when he denied the monastic nature of soldiership. Whilst its not necessarily true to call the Army an order ecclesiastically, it is certainly the case the we have an order of covenanted soldiers and officers within the Army – in theory if not in practice!)
But it has become bland church membership. How sad, what a pale reflection of the potential of soldiership that is. When I was a recruit, my corps officer led me to have no doubt that this was a giving away of my life, it was about more than simply identifying with the Army. I hope that I’ve communicated that effectively to the soldiers that I have recruited and enrolled over the years. In our day, people are again discovering the power of covenants, rules of life, missional movements and communities…..becoming bands of missioners as opposed to church members. The Army has been out in the lead amongst the contemporary evangelical church since our conception with this one….lets not miss the boat unless this is to be yet another area where we will be robbed of our crown.
It was Dietrich Bonnhoeffer who said: “The renewal of the church will come from a new type of monasticism which only has in common with the old an uncompromising allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount. It is high time men and women banded together to do this.”
Let us, as Salvationists, catch up with our own vision which others are only aspiring to!