It’s such a religious word! Covenant. Not likely to be dropped into a conversation over coffee or in a social media post. And yet, we instinctively know it has heft, something deep and unshakeable, and we’re mysteriously drawn to that.
General John Gowans seems to hit the nail on the head when he writes: “In a world of shifting values, there are standards that remain.”
We might cynically say that we live in a day when social contracts are not honored. People break doctor’s appointments and employers plan their businesses around a schedule that expects people not to show up.
A covenant is decidedly not a contract. Covenant is so much more substantive. Unlike a doctor’s appointment, a covenant is more like the ties of a parent to a child. That’s a huge difference.
Eugene Peterson uses the image of being “lashed to the mast” to describe covenant—the picture in Greek mythology of sailors strapping themselves to their ship to counter the tempting siren voices that lead to treacherous rocks. Dramatic stuff.
So, how does all this apply to The Salvation Army’s Soldier’s Covenant that you may have signed, or the blank one in your hand ready for signature?
COVENANT = INITIATED BY GOD
A couple of things. First, the initiative for covenant always comes from God. He is a covenant-keeping God. And we’re glad for that; He’s not up and down, hot and cold, off and on. He is reliable and trustworthy. We like that in a friend. In our best selves, we also want to be like that.
So, Salvation Army soldiers often talk about being “called by God.” Many are surprised. It wasn’t their idea. It’s often rewarding and challenging, all at the same time.
COVENANT = HARD-CORE
Secondly, soldiership is not a membership. Nor is it a contract where you can join for a while and leave when you get bored, or when it’s become rather inconvenient. This is the glory and the guts of covenant—it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a reminder we are in an army, not just a congregation. It’s not for everyone—but, when God hollers out that calling, unmistakably so, then nothing else quite substitutes. It’s hard-core.
COVENANT = FREEDOM
One final insight—covenant is definitely not intended to be a burdensome thing. There’s a paradox to the Kingdom of God that when we die to self, we find life. When we humble ourselves, we are exalted. When we lose our life for the Gospel, we actually find it.
We might say in lashing ourselves to covenant we are set free. It’s sweet, glorious, intoxicating freedom. Covenanted people may be the freest people on the earth.
Tony Campolo says that youth was “made for heroism.” Candidly, how many ice cream socials and pizza parties can we have? On its best days, the Army calls covenanted soldiers upward and onward to a great cause.
So, heroic young Salvationist, hear the loud call of the Mighty to save. Show up, step up, sign up.
THE ARTICLES OF WAR
“The Articles of War [later known as the Soldier’s Covenant] is an historic document, and has a significant place in The Salvation Army as the statement of the faith and practice of all soldiers.
The Articles of War was written and brought into use some time between 1878 and 1882 and therefore dates from the very beginnings of The Salvation Army as such. The wording of the earliest version did not contain any reference to doctrine, but a selective summary of the Army’s doctrines was added soon afterwards. In the 1950s the full 11 articles of faith were added, and in the 1970s the ban on smoking. Apart from these changes only small verbal adjustments had been made over the years and the Articles of War remained substantially as when first written.
The Articles of War was meant to be, and remains, a working document, a practical tool for the corps officer in the preparation of and swearing-in of new soldiers. As well as being a statement of personal commitment, it is a summary of what it means to be a soldier of The Salvation Army, and in that sense constitutes the syllabus for recruits’ classes.” –The Officer, June 1989
Though the term “Soldier’s Covenant” was included in revisions of the Articles of War in 1988, several Salvation Army publications still used the term “Articles of War” throughout the 1990s, with a final reference in 2008. The term Soldier’s Covenant appeared exclusively beginning in 2010.
Colonel Richard Munn, Territorial Secretary for Theology & Christian Ethics, Eastern Territory