As a brand-new soldier in The Salvation Army, I am grateful for the theological preparation that was required before joining. I studied The Salvation Army Handbook of Doctrine carefully. Coming from a Methodist church, I found deep resonance in my heart and mind with every single doctrine. The simple profoundness of the 11 doctrines which form the construct of our beliefs was like a shaft of cement confirming my decision to join this marvelous group of saints. I was intrigued, however, that the only question asked by my colleagues who learned of my wife and me joining the Army, and the continued query which has surprised me since our enrollment is, “What do you do with the sacraments?”
I must confess, there are more important theological questions, but this seems to be one that many are focused upon. It is a very interesting day to be a Salvationist. I am excited about the discussions that are going on, and I hope that you will be a part of this theological discourse, too. My study continues to challenge old patterns. I am sure of one thing from my background—no one ever intimated that the sacraments of baptism or communion were essential to salvation. They were only an invitation to participate in the joyful mystery of the love of the Triune God.
BRIDGING THE PHYSICAL & SPIRITUAL
Huge sections of the Bible refer to God-given symbols. From sacrifices, covenants, real estate, and buildings, to human beings themselves, it is clear that God uses created things to evidence His gracious presence (Psalm 19, Romans 1-2). Over and over again, the Lord makes it clear that none of these symbols have worth in themselves. David affirms what many others believed, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it… My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart You, God, will not despise” (Psalm 51:16-17, NIV). You can also find examples of this theme in Micah 6:6-8, Psalm 40:6-8, Mark 7:1-23, Hebrews 10:1-19, and many other places in the Bible. The physical and the spiritual are to be brought together in the worship of our Creator and Redeemer, under the leading of the Holy Spirit. To separate them is a denial of God’s ultimate purposes. Notice that David does not stop with his internal spiritual relationship alone. Two verses later he speaks of a restored relationship with God, “then you will delight in righteous sacrifices” (Psalm 52:18). Salvation results in purified worship actions.
Jesus began His ministry being baptized by John. During supper the night He was betrayed, He took the forms of a Jewish Passover and showed that the bread and the wine are His self-sacrificing love. John adds another picture of that love when Jesus takes a basin and towel and shows the servant heart of the Triune God and washes the feet of His disciples (John 13). What a beautiful assortment of signs of grace. It is as if Jesus looks at the world as full of signs of His love and grace. He takes water and turns it to wine (John 2). He takes water and bread and makes them point to God as living water and true sustenance (John 4:10, 6:32). The issue we must deal with is whether Jesus meant for us to make His actions and words that final evening as a form of worship in ritual form. One thing is for sure: The Army will always strive to obey Jesus. His every word, His every command, is precious to us.
HIS BODY & BLOOD
Worship services of the early Church from the first century on saw the actions of Jesus during the Last Supper as indicators of a special, on-going means of gratitude. Some signs are clearly emphasized by Jesus for particular reasons. Overall, the Church has understood Jesus’ teaching in the upper room to be pointers to both His person and His work on the cross. There was never to be an idolization of the elements, only using them as symbols of a deeper reality. The only source of salvation is through His body and blood received by anyone who believes that His sacrifice was sufficient to redeem all from sin. Lovingly, He left His people ways to remember the facts upon which our life in Him is grounded. The Army’s position has been that we remember Him always, in every moment hallowed by His presence.
THE ARMY VS. RITUALISM
Early in the Army’s history, the Booths moved away from the traditional expression of the sacraments for many understandable reasons. They lived in a context where receiving the ritual of the Lord’s Supper had become a way to underscore a wrong view of salvation. It was a quick-fix theology. Some people thought, “If I sin on a Saturday night, I can just go to communion and God ‘has’ to forgive me if I go through the motions.” The Army would have nothing to do with that sacrilege. The Booths desired to point people to Jesus alone. They saw how confusing the ritualism that pervaded the church was. Also, when their ministry began to incorporate the restoration of alcoholics, it was a constant battle to clarify the true meaning of wine. In a difficult decision, William Booth decided that the Army would not allow any symbol to cloud the reality of the actual, on-going presence of Jesus. Our theology has been ever since, Jesus plus nothing. Every element of works-based righteousness had to be confronted and removed.
That strong commitment was confirmed by the vibrant “Blood and Fire” Salvationism that ensued in a reviving, culture-transforming power. The beautiful, clarion call to live a sacramental life rather than to over-rely upon any physical sacrament marked the Army’s prophetic stance. It was a decision based upon a loving, pastoral concern for the lost and for true discipleship. It was an undeterred challenge to believers to be broken and poured out for the world. This meant that the tradition of the Lord’s Supper was to be replaced by entirely sanctified Christians whose daily lives revealed the presence of Jesus. The Holy Spirit could transform our hearts and lives into living sacraments. The best way to “remember” Jesus (Luke 22:19) would be to look like Him in daily life.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of discussion about the place of the sacraments within the worship of the Army. It has been a loving and vibrant debate! Well-meaning leaders and thinkers in the Army continue to debate the biblical, theological, historical, and experiential role of sacraments. It would seem to me that the discussion should continue. Though not easy, it will be fruitful. Jesus does not want us to be confused. He will lead us if we truly look to the Holy Spirit, who speaks primarily through His inerrant Word, and secondarily but inseparably, through the witness of His Church.
We must rise to the challenge in every generation to be self-critical in a good way. No theology is ever completely done. There is always room for clarification of doctrines, even for constructive change. One side of the argument for reinstating the Lord’s Supper emphasizes the need for being one with the Church at large, since virtually all other Christian denominations use this sacrament in their worship. The other side rightly cites the danger sacramental communities face when they lose focus on their faith due to over emphasis on process. Humans tend to gravitate to material supports for their religiosity, leaving behind the reality of a personal relationship with Christ in ever-deepening fullness. Each side must remain humble, teachable, and correctable.
As I think about you as a reader of this remarkable magazine, I find myself deeply encouraged. You love Jesus and are radically committed to following Him with all of your heart. You are willing to live under the full authority of the Word interpreted by the Holy Spirit. I know of no other generation more committed to the reality of true discipleship, no matter what the cost. I find people within the age-range of YS to be bold in renouncing false idols, rejecting meaningless trappings, desiring deep historical roots for faith, and willing to dive into the glory of the mystery of God in Christ.
My prayer is that we will become clearer on the meaning of full salvation. That Jesus came to deliver us from sin so that the Holy Spirit could come in sanctifying power to free every heart from crippling self-curvature. That the sacramental Savior could find in each of us a responding heart of broken and poured out love for others. That we would move beyond individual experience, and formed by a vibrant worshipping church, go into a broken world with the marks of Jesus emblazoned upon our hearts and lives.
When I consider the Army’s stance on the Lord’s Supper, I have to confess I am not living where I should. I do not make every meal a reminder of His presence. I find myself liking the rituals and externals of the Army too much, missing the internal reality to which they all point. I do not live as broken bread and poured out wine every hour of every day. I think we need to re-visit this issue for years to come.
In the meantime, I suggest that we recommit ourselves to allowing the Holy Spirit to bring the physical and the spiritual together in our hearts, in our corps, and in our ministries. We must show the world the reality of true redemption, of perfect love manifested. For whatever we take into our bodies is of no consequence if what comes out of our hearts and from our hands is not the life of Jesus. Communion, which literally means “with-oneness,” is to be a constant, real intimacy with the One who offers His body and His blood to all without reserve.
The Salvationist and the Sacraments
In the last chapter of his book, The Salvationist and the Sacraments (1965), William Metcalf summarizes The Salvation Army’s position toward baptism and holy communion in these eight statements:
- The sacraments have been a true means of grace for thousands of Christians.
- Ceremony and sign have a place in worship. Most people need them.
- The New Testament shows that the Early Church practiced some kind of adult baptism and breaking of bread.
- God is equally pleased to meet people outside the sacraments or any other ceremony.
- The sincere person who does not use these two ceremonies is as much a part of the true Church as the sincere person who does.
- The New Testament does not teach that only those who are baptized with water and take the bread and wine can be true members of Christ’s body.
- The New Testament rather teaches that God’s offer of new life to people does not depend on any ceremony or sign.
- The Salvation Army, with other of God’s people, is a witness to these truths.
Dr. Bill Ury, National Ambassador of Holiness