While it was provocatively illustrative of the spiritual and Scriptural abuses of the Roman Catholic church, the melodious jingle attributed to indulgence hawker Johann Tetzel has found its place in church history as, perhaps, the first Reformation-era musical heresy. (Today, of course, this genre is headlined not by Dominican papists, but by the heresy-hurling likes of Hillsong and Bethel.)
“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from purgatory springs.”
The suggestion of selling salvation, even if nobly done for the deceased, infuriated Luther who was still coming to the full understanding of sola fide that would become, once the flames of reformation burned fully from his illuminated grasp of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the material cause of the Reformation.
But Tetzel’s jingle represented to the indulgence buying 16th-century commoner that salvation, that grace, from God could be bought. Salvation had a price and the Dominican Tetzel was its absolving, bartering agent, approved and sent forth under the authority of the Pope.
It’s unlikely that those 16th-century “coffers” resembled the modern Salvation Army’s iconic Christmas-time red kettles, but the association with God’s grace may be only slightly different. Though the modern day coin collectors of the Salvation Army aren’t offering indulgences to the generous donor – except perhaps in the form of the conscience-stroking “I gave” satisfaction that so many in the world, including Christians, think helps tip the “I’m a good person” scales of get-into-heaven justice with a few extra-points – the kettle may represent something many Christians will find not altogether unlike an inverse indulgence. In many cases, those bell-ringing kettle attendants, and those in hierarchical quasi-military authority over them, are working to keep their salvation.
Pause a moment and ask yourself, what is the Salvation Army? How much do you know about this organization that is almost ubiquitous during the holiday season? Are they merely a charity seeking to serve the underprivileged? Are they primarily a homeless mission for the down and out? Are they, given their military-like structure, some quasi-religious militia that focuses on alleviating human misery? Is it a simply a parachurch ministry with a unique focus on social justice issues?
Would you be surprised to know that, in fact, The Salvation Army is a church?
The Salvation Army is not only a church, it is a denomination. It has its own creed, its own faith requirements for membership and its own doctrine. The Salvation Army Handbook of Doctrine, a nearly 400 page document, elucidates the 11 core doctrines of the denomination. Originating in the mid- nineteenth century London under its founder William Booth, what became formally named the Salvation Army in 1867 began from Booth’s ordained ministry in the Wesley New Connexion Methodist holiness movement. (Yes, they are continuationists with regards to apostolic gifts.)
“The corps is the Salvation Army’s local congregation. It is a visible expression of the Church. It has its own ways of worshipping, training and serving, based on the teaching of the Bible, the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the nature of its mission.” (Handbook, pg. 247)
“The Salvation Army became a church with a mission.” (Handbook, pg 265)
“Today it would be difficult to deny that The Salvation Army is a fully authentic and adequate fellowship within the spectrum of Christian denominations.” (Handbook, pg 266)
While the eleven doctrines of the organization read with an intended Wesleyan Arminian overtone, which in itself represents a substantially flawed understanding of orthodox Biblical truth, there is much in the Army’s Handbook elucidating these doctrines that many Christians will, and ought, to find concerning.
SCRIPTURE … It’s important, But Not Alone; It’s Inspired, But Not Completely
The opening doctrine states: “We believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were given by inspiration of God; and that they constitute the Divine rule of Christian faith and practice.”
Intentionally, and noticeably, lacking a fundamental claim to the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, the Handbook still frequently points to the Bible as its source of faith and action. However, there is no sola Scriptura in salvationist lingo. The Army views three “pillars” as paramount: “the teaching of Scripture, the direct illumination of the Holy Spirit, and the consensus of the Christian community.” The obvious dangers of taking either of these extra two additions to their logical extremes may be seen throughout church history.
“Direct illumination of the Holy Spirit” has yielded the continuationist abuses strewn across the landscape of the modern church in such things as the Biblically-illicit charismatic movement and the outright heretical New Apostolic Reformation. An unbalanced emphasis on “direct illumination” has created most of the toxic teachings thrown at even non-charismatic pew sitters today, such as contemplative prayer and spiritual formation disciplines. Focusing on the mystical, experiential, spiritual desires can easily, in our fallen humanity, draw us away from the primacy of Scripture.
Take “the consensus of the Christian community” to its outplayed end and you arrive either back at a papist notion in which church tradition equals Scripture, or to a broader, more liberal and relativistic view of God’s revelation and ecclesiology (think of the current ecumenical unity movement; consensus without adherence to Scripture and sound doctrine, a la Titus 2:1, for example, yields boundless errors which breed yet more errors.) While historic orthodox Christianity has served to confirm the teachings drawn from a pre-eminent view of Scripture, for the Army “the consensus” is drawn not from the broader historic “Christian community” but from the Army’s own historic “Christian community.” The introduction of an earlier Army Handbook indicates the supremacy of Army doctrine for their organization.
This volume contains an exposition of the principal Doctrines of The Salvation Army as set forth in its Deed Poll of 1878 and confirmed in The Salvation Army Act 1980. It is for the use of all Salvationists. These Doctrines are to be taught in connection with all Salvation Army officers’ training operations, both preparatory and institutional. It is required of officers of all ranks that their teaching, in public and private, shall conform to these eleven Articles of Faith.”
Either augmentation to Scripture is inherently erroneous, spiritually dangerous, and bound to result in false teaching. Thus, by the gracious hand of God, the reformation reawakened to us a singular focus, sola Scriptura. But through the lens of Army interpretation, their less-than-sufficient view of Scripture results in practical denials of Biblical truths that Christian orthodoxy has held as authoritative, and final, for nearly two millennia.
For example, within Army theology, God is the creator, but Genesis is not an accurate, nor literal, record of that creation. The Army is willing to accept any view of Genesis, and apparently teaches none.
“Our study of Genesis 1 will point up some differences between Christians in approaches, interpretations, and conclusions. … These matters have been debated for many centuries, and still the differences persist. So we must accept as a starting premise that the issues surrounding Genesis 1 are sufficiently cloudy that no one view can be considered the Christian view.” (Emphasis original, Handbook, pg. 41)
While that might seem a gracious view, one complying fully with the spirit of post-modern tolerance prevalent in the world today, the Army intentionally does not teach what inspired Scripture clearly proclaims. While the truths of Scripture are evident within the historic, orthodox church, the Army is confused on this fundamental, foundational Biblical reality and, in so many words, they leave the matter untaught and to the preferential discretion of Army adherents who still must not exhibit their own dogmatism on the matter. “The Bible says it, that settles it” may be privately permitted in the Army, but it is to be avoided publicly when such dogmatic utterances may meet with a “consensus” that isn’t so inclined.
“Those who are comfortable with the straightforward record of Scripture as satisfying all we need to know of God’s creative work will guard against closing their minds to observable facts about creations’ history and mechanisms.” (Handbook, pg. 42)
If you flip with a Salvationist from Genesis all the way back to Revelation, you’ll find them, once again, befuddled at – and denying – the literalness of Scripture. While Genesis may imply theistic evolution to the Army, Revelation implies merely eschatological confusion with symbolism that may, or may not, be accurate.
“…this is not to assume that the symbolic pictures of the end times in the Book of Revelation and elsewhere in Scripture are to be interpreted as literal descriptions of actual events and places.” (Handbook, pg. 239)
So, for the Army, God may have given something generally inspired in Scripture – perhaps only its moral teachings, and certainly its apparent calls for social justice that drive the Army – but not something that is fully, literally inspired. The Army gives no credence to verbal plenary inspiration, an understanding that serves as the crux of Christian orthodoxy wherein inspiration is total, and total inspiration means total inerrancy.
But … The Army Isn’t Really A Church, At Least Not In An Orthodox, New Testament Sense
The Salvation Army is intentionally structured according to a quasi-militaristic ecclesiology. Its officers include a General who is its worldwide leader, Commissioners that oversee geographic territories, Colonels, Majors, Captains, and Lieutenants. Non-commissioned officers include Envoys and Sergeants; Cadets are in training for officership. Candidates are those undergoing assessment for either officership or envoyship.
Each officer in the Army – any Army affiliate may be known as a Salvationist or a “salvo” – is also an ordained minister of the denomination. Disregarding apostolic instructions in the New Testament, the Army ordains women as well as men to serve as the equivalent of “pastors” (officers) within the denomination. (A curious restriction on Army officers is that an officer may only marry another officer. For the Army, the notion of “unequally yoked” – a term used wrongly by most Christians with regards to marriage – means marrying outside the Army, even if the spouse-to-be is a professing believer. Sound cult-like to you?) Officers have received specific training to serve and lead in the army. They are trained in one of seven officer training centers located in Australia, Canada, the United States, or the United Kingdom. The structure, then, of this “church” is unlike, in both nomenclature and organization, the ecclesiology established in the New Testament.
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ ” Ephesians 4:11
While the New Testament outlines the offices and qualifications for overseers in the church (1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9), history has seen these offices organized primarily among three styles of church structure: presbyterian, episcopalian, and congregational. Though Paul frequently uses military-type language and metaphors in his writings, Protestant church history – up until the mid 1800’s with the Salvation Army – has not seen a militaristic structure of ecclesiology, nor can it be vigorously defended from Scripture. The Army’s structure is decidedly more papist in flavor than it is New Testament. Where Rome has a pope, the Army has a general.
Aside from the unscriptural ecclesiastical structure of the Army, that alone is not what eliminates it from being rightfully considered as a “church.” A quick look at a bit of Reformation history is helpful for a Biblically-informed, orthodox definition of what constitutes a church.
In 1530, Philip Melanchthon, protege of Martin Luther, drew up the Augsburg Confession. In that early Protestant confession, Article 7 states that the Church “is the congregation of the saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments are rightly administered.”
Move across the continent from Germany to England and, in 1553, the Church of England would find Thomas Cranmer producing the Forty-Two Articles, that church’s confessional guide. Cranmer would reiterate what Melanchthon had noted about the true church. “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments be duly administered.”
One further continental move of the map, this time to Geneva, finds John Calvin in his Institutes of The Christian Religion defining the church proper, sharing common ground with the two reformers Melanchthon and Cranmer. Calvin wrote, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.”
The church of the red kettle only meets – maybe – one of these two critical, orthodox thresholds for claiming the moniker of authentic, New Testament church. Why? Because the Salvation Army does not baptize and it does not administer the Lord’s Supper. (To the extent that the Army teaches Scripture, albeit from a severely diminished, insufficient perspective, the first characteristic of a true church – preaching the Word of God – may, or may not, disqualify them as well. They preach a theology with a less than fully sovereign God and a Gospel with a less than fully-atoning Christ.)
In clear disobedience to Christ’s commands to baptize (Matthew 28:19-20) and His instructions to institute the Lord’s Supper, “this do in remembrance of me” – (Luke 22:19), the Salvation Army’s less than fully inspired, selectively interpreted view of Scripture prompts them to exclude these ordinances from their midst. They provide this comment regarding these two fundamental sacraments without which there is no true church.
“Early in our history, The Salvation Army was led of God not to observe specific sacraments, that is baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, as prescribed rituals.” (Handbook, pg. 271)
So what Christ Himself dictated to be done by the church in the first century, and as clearly recorded in Scripture, the Salvation Army, “early in our history,” claims to have received a divine, and unique, exemption. Apparently by way of “direct illumination of the Holy Spirit,” God changed these requirements for the Army. In order to respond to the attacks it has taken for this marked disobedience to Scripture, the Army offers a rationalized, spiritualized response as a palliative to salve the wounds of criticism.
“We observe the sacraments, not by limiting them to two or three or seven, but by inviting Christ to suppers, love feasts, birth celebrations, parties, dedications, sick beds, weddings, anniversaries, commissioning, ordinations, retirements and other significant events and, where he is truly received, watching him give a grace beyond our understanding. We can see, smell, hear, touch, and taste it. We joyfully affirm that in our presence is the one, true, original Sacrament – Jesus Christ.” (Handbook, pg. 271)
Specifically responding in “A Statement on Baptism,” the Army Handbook clarifies their replacement of the Biblically-instructed ordinance with one of their own making. “The swearing-in of a soldier of The Salvation Army beneath the trinitarian sign of the Army’s flag acknowledges this truth,” that “truth” being the public profession of faith. A military-like ceremony, in which the adherent commits not to Scripture, but to the Army doctrines, replaces baptism.
The “swearing-in” ceremony involves a would-be soldier swearing an oath known as “The Soldier’s Covenant“, or the “Articles Of War,” in which allegiance to Army doctrine is proclaimed. The oath includes such affirmations as “I will be faithful to the purposes for which God raised up The Salvation Army,” “I will be actively involved … in giving as large a proportion of my income as possible to support … the worldwide work of the Army,” “I will be true to the principles and practices of The Salvation Army, loyal to its leaders, and I will show the spirit of salvationism whether in times of popularity or persecution,” and, the closing affirmation that I “will be a true soldier of The Salvation Army.”
In particular response to the Lord’s Supper, the Handbook states, “No particular outward observance is necessary to inward grace … Christ is the one true Sacrament, and sacramental living … is at the heart of Christian holiness and discipleship.” (Handbook pg. 300) While that certainly sounds quite spiritual and Christ-centered, it yet denies the fact that Christ Himself said, “this do in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)
A Few More Dangerous Doctrinal Distinctions of The Army
“The compassion of the Army’s social action depends upon an understanding that God is Father of all without discrimination or partiality.” (Handbook, pg. 49)
While the Army is intentionally, vociferously Arminian in soteriology – it goes to lengths at various places in the Handbook to emphasize synergistic salvation – it does not promote universalism. But the Biblically faulty quote cited above feeds the popular, though false, understanding of salvation the Army purports to promote. No where does Scripture teach that God is the “Father of all.” While Scripture clearly teaches that God is the Creator of all humankind, the Bible is plain in teaching that not all men are His children. (John 1:12-13, John 11:52; Romans 8:16, 2 Timothy 2:19, 1 John 5:19)
“Salvation requires the personal involvement of the individual in the process of repentance and faith. It involves a free and deliberate choice to re-orientate our life towards God.” (Handbook, pg. 160)
“The Salvation Army has a responsibility to model, preach and teach salvation in ways that make it credible and understandable but cannot make it happen. That is the work of the Spirit in human life, and is dependent upon the response of the individual who chooses to repent and believe.” (Handbook, pg. 160) (Emphasis added)
The Salvation Army’s Handbook features a point by point rebuttal of the five points of Calvinism, affirming its position against all but the first point, that of Total Depravity.
In responding to Unconditional Election, the Army states “election is conditional upon faith in Christ.” The issue of predestination is taught by the Army to be a “corporate rather than an individual issue,” that is, God has predestined a group of people, but not specific individuals that comprise that group. (How this works is unexplained.) “Those who choose salvation are the elect of God.”
Limited Atonement is denied in article 6 of the Army’s doctrines. “We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ has by his suffering and death made an atonement for the whole world so that whosoever will may be saved.” While this differs from the sovereignty of God evident throughout Scripture, it also directly refutes the clear teaching of Christ who made clear that before any “whosoever” actually “will,” it is God first who actually “wills.” (John 6:37, John 6:44, John 6:65)
For the Salvationist, the less than sovereign God who is unable, by the attribute of His own omnipotent will, to save apart from the sinner “dead in trespasses and sins” participating, the notion of irresistible grace is denied. “For The Salvation Army, the phrases “whosoever will may be saved’ and ‘repentance toward God, faith in our Lord Jesus Christ’ … are necessary to salvation’ (Doctrines 6 and 7), clearly indicate the importance of human decision making and agency in the process of salvation.” (Emphasis Added) (Handbook, pg. 187)
The suggestion about the red kettle serving as a sort of inverse indulgence relates directly to what the Army believes and teaches in their rebuttal to the concluding point of Calvinism. There is no perseverance. There is no “once saved, always saved.” According to Army theology, “continuance in a state of salvation depends upon continued obedient faith in Christ”. That “continued obedient faith” is played out most evidently, and is aggressively emphasized, in the social justice mission of the Army.
While saints are to persevere in the faith (Hebrews 10:23), this ability is graciously administered through the Spirit-guided gifting of faith by God, and in His own persevering faithfulness to the believer, that reality of God’s faithfulness, evident in such places in Scripture as the ordo salutis of Romans 8:28-30, is not taught within Salvationist theology. Since there is, for the Salvationist, no assurance of salvation affirmed by the faithfulness of a sovereign God, perseverance becomes a man-only endeavor. Unlike the Roman Catholic position in which faith AND works contribute to salvation, for the Salvationist, the works that don’t save initially are the works that do, in fact, save continually. According to the Army, where salvation is initially, necessarily, synergistic, the continuation of salvation is distinctly monergistic. God doesn’t keep you saved. To remain saved, one must do good works. Bell ringing alongside a red kettle, then, qualifies.
“Holiness stresses the ethical and social consequences of salvation.” (Handbook, pg. 200)
The Army’s pursuit of holiness is dangerously close to that of the prosperity gospel. “The Gospels reveal that Jesus cared about every dimension of human life and how sin has distorted it, and that his ministry demonstrated a healing response to human suffering and disease in all its forms. Again and again, the New Testament as a whole records the healing work of the Holy Spirit. … This means that there is no holiness without wholeness.” (Handbook, pg. 197)
Though the Army is linguistically cautious in the Handbook to issue a caveat that prosperity and health do not necessarily indicate holiness, nor that maladies represent sinfulness, it nevertheless says, “we claim the promise of wholeness in all of life.”
It is out of this ambition for wholeness that the works of social justice seem to be borne within the Army. “As God’s holy people we [The Army] are concerned not only about our own wholeness and health but also that of others. Thereby we who know healing for ourselves become a healing community engaged in a healing mission in anticipation of the final healing to be experienced in the New Jerusalem.” Handbook, pg. 198) “The holy life is expressed through a healing, life-giving and loving ministry.”
For the Army adherent pursuing holiness, its apprehension may be in any number of ways. Among ways which holiness may be experienced is “entire sanctification,” “full salvation,” “infilling of the Holy Spirit,” “Baptism of the Holy Spirit,” the “second blessing,” the “Blessing of a clean heart,” and, finally, by “perfect love.” Each of these experiential interpretations of holiness, explained in the Handbook (pp. 202-205), are common to the vernacular of the Army. Of note, some of them are also common to the vernacular of the known and vital error that is the modern charismatic movement.
The Army does, by the way, teach a continuationist theology, though it is careful to stress internal caution with the use of spiritual “gifts” that may be, depending on the circumstances, disruptive. After providing a list of gifts, including “preaching, teaching, and prophecy … gifts of service, healing, generosity, and hospitality …leadership … prayer, faith and speaking in tongues,” the Handbook gives a blanket statement, “ The Army recognizes all spiritual gifts.”
The Handbook states that “the Army emphasizes those gifts that encourage the clear proclamation of the gospel.” (Pg. 269) Given their theology, this begs the question, what exactly is the “salvation” that the Army teaches and the “gospel” through which it proclaims it?
As has been cited, the Gospel of the Army is the commonly heard “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” message. It offers cheap grace, a less-than-sovereign God, an elevated view of man and his “God-given free will,” and a crucified, atoning Savior whose substitutionary death, showing “God’s love towards all people,” is yet woefully insufficient to insure eternal, permanent salvation.
The Gospel touted – when it is – by Salvationists features the fundamentals of the one given in Scripture, but Army theology, so aggressively and completely Arminian, diminishes God’s influence and authority in salvation and emphasizes man’s free-will to choose and trigger God’s required, saving response. But even if one is “once saved,” the atonement of Christ and the faithfulness of God to the believer are incomplete, tenuous, and man-dependent. Salvation can be lost. Only works will insure remaining in a continued state of salvation. Salvation is imminently a man-chosen, man-maintained endeavor in which God is merely a responsive partner.
“The love of God is such that, with profound sorrow, he allows us to reject him. (Mark 10:17-27) (Handbook, pg. 132)
(It is curious they cite the story of the rich young ruler as a validating Scripture for the synergistic gospel they proclaim. It is from this narrative that Jesus is asked, “Then who can be saved?” His response, “With man it is impossible, but not with God.” The notes from the MacArthur Study Bible for Mark 10:27 – the source of Christ’s response – says, “It is impossible for anyone to be saved by his own efforts, since salvation is entirely a gracious, sovereign work of God.”)
Though it lauds itself as a church, and though it points to Scripture, the Salvation Army is not a legitimate church, as it refuses to obey clear Scriptural, Christ-given instructions to administer the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Though it defines itself with the descriptor “Salvation,” the Army teaches a theology in which Scripture is less than fully inspired, and thus less than fully sufficient, with an intentionally man-centered, synergistic gospel. God in the Army isn’t the fully sovereign God of Scripture, nor of historic Christian orthodoxy.
One curious question, though, to consider. When have you actually encountered a Gospel-proclaiming Salvationist? Do you see them handing out Gospel tracts to each coin-dropping donor to their red kettles? Do you see kettle attendants actively engaged in witnessing, even to their own flawed gospel? Has a Salvationist – who has sworn allegiance to Army doctrine which states “The Salvation Army’s responsibility to communicate the message and meaning of the atoning work of Jesus clearly and in a way that is culturally relevant” (Handbook, pg. 142) – ever knocked on your door to share their gospel?
Though their main website, SalvationArmy.org, is replete with resources regarding fund-raising, their international humanitarian programs, and features a prominent “Donate Here” banner, one thing lacking is an expected “how to be saved” button. You will find links to “Our Vision” and “Our Faith,” and even an indication of the Army’s eagerness towards ecumenism with a link to the recent “Stations of The Cross” London exhibit, but you’ll find very little of a prominent, saving, gospel message.
(The “Stations of the Cross” are, according to Catholic.org, “ a 14-step [Roman] Catholic devotion that commemorates Jesus Christ’s last day on Earth as a man. At each station, the individual recalls and meditates on a specific event from Christ’s last day. Specific prayers are recited, then the individual moves to the next station until all 14 are complete.” Though pietistic in tone, there is no such devotional observation given in Scripture, but the Army has linked arms with Rome to promote this one.)
But with regards to evangelism, the Army seems far more concerned about fund-raising than soul-saving. With some interesting comments, a thread from SermonIndex.net discusses an entry entitled “Salvation Army Soup Kitchen Says, ‘No Tracts Here”. The first commenter states, “You can’t just feed people’s bodies and not their souls.”
It is to the mammoth money-making machine that is the Salvation Army, and the social justice ambitions it pursues, that we next turn our attention in Part Two.
And poor Tetzel would today be drooling at the financial effectiveness that red-kettle inverse indulgences represent. In 16th-century bucks, it’s likely the entire continent of Europe could be bought out of purgatory with the annual haul of the Army’s revenue in America alone. Can you say “billions?”
In the likely event that you encounter a red kettle attendant this holiday season, the most helpful thing a Gospel-According-To-Scripture believer could do is not dropping coins in the coffer. It’s sharing the true Gospel, the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16), to the bell-ringing kettle attendant. It’s very likely that they’ve never heard it, because the Salvation Army certainly doesn’t proclaim it.
[Contributed by Bud Ahlheim]
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