Doctrine in The Salvation Army Tradition

From 2007 to 2010, the Commission on Faith and Witness (Canadian Council of Churches) engaged its members in a dialogue regarding the role of doctrine in the life of the church.   The fruits of this dialogue are reported in the current issue of Ecumenism, published by the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism in Montreal.  Each commission member was asked to articulate their tradition’s answer to the following questions:

  1. What is dogma or doctrine in your tradition?
  2. What are considered to be doctrinal statements?
  3. Who can make doctrinal statements?
  4. What is the relation between doctrine and revelation?
  5. How does your tradition view the first seven ecumenical councils?
  6. How does your tradition understand the reliability of Scripture?
  7. What are those shared convictions without which the Church’s mission would be seriously impaired, or even become.

While ecumenical dialogues often aim at producing some sort of consensus statement, members reported that during this particular dialogue, it became clear at the outset that no consensus would be achieved.  The membership of the commission is very broad, including Catholics, Orthodox, historic Protestants, radical reformation, and evangelical traditions.  Some of these traditions are committed to holding fast to formal statements of  belief (creeds and confessions), while others have historically been opposed to creeds of any kind.

In an introductory article, Gilles Mongeau, Paul Ladouceur, and Arnold Neufeldt-Fast note the general commonalities that they identified in the process:

Every member Church holds to the necessity of some doctrine, explicit or implicit, as a reference point.   In all cases, one or more documents exist which lay out this doctrine, though the authority and form of these documents varies greatly. In all cases, Scripture, tradition, reason, and religious experience interact in some way in the emergence of doctrine.  Similarly, the role of some form of reception by the community of the faithful is a strong component of all of the traditions represented.  Finally, the presenters of the papers agree that the fullness of truth resides in God alone, and that the truth of doctrines is eschatological, that is, oriented to a future complete fulfillment or plenitude.
“Introduction to the Working Papers on Doctrine,” Ecumenism 179-180 (Fall/Winter 2010): 5-6.

While I wasn’t part of the actual discussion, I was able to participate by revising and expanding the Salvation Army contribution to this publication, originally written by Kester Trim, and entitled “Doctrine in the Salvation Army Tradition.”   It is interesting to consider doctrine in the SA’s life via a comparison with the role it plays in the life of other traditions.   Some of our observations that are relevant to the above:

The Salvation Army is not known for placing a particular emphasis on doctrine.  This is not because doctrine is unimportant for Salvationists, but because The Salvation Army has customarily emphasized evangelism and service, rather than theological scholarship.  Nevertheless, The Salvation Army’s official doctrines are viewed as essential to its corporate life and witness.
“Doctrine in the Salvation Army Tradition,” Ecumenism 179-180 (Fall/Winter 2010): 36.

The Army is an interesting ecumenical partner in this dialogue, as it is on many issues, because it treats doctrine as essential, but tries to avoid doctrinal controversy.  It wants its doctrine to be clear, but Salvationists haven’t wanted to spend much time developing their doctrinal tradition.  It envisioned its brief 11 articles as a minimalist list of essentials, which would allow the SA to be “an evangelisitic force free from the entanglements of doctrinal controversy” (Ibid., 37).

Of course, it is not easy to remain aloof from doctrinal controversy!  First of all, the Army’s doctrines are clearly Wesleyan, and therefore anti-Calvinist:

In these brief 11 articles of faith, one can see the seminal Wesleyan themes of total depravity (Article 5), universal atonement (Article 6), justification by faith (Article 8), assurance through the witness of the Spirit (Article 8), and a strong emphasis on sanctification (Articles 9 and 10) (Ibid., 37).

Secondly, from the perspective of “implicit doctrine,” the obvious point of controversy would be the sacraments.  Even here, a large part of Booth’s motivation was to avoid controversy.

The Army’s non-observant stance on the sacraments had its historical precedent in the tradition of the Society of Friends, but was also justified in part by the above-mentioned desire to avoid theological controversy (since the sacraments have often been a matter of theological dispute in Christian history).  It was not Booth’s intent to disrespect the practice of other traditions, nor to make it a matter of dispute. Moreover, Salvationists have never been prohibited from from partaking of the Lord’s Supper in other traditions where they are welcome, and are free to be baptized if they feel it to be of importance (Ibid., 37-38).

Avoiding controversy is a noble aim, but very difficult to achieve in practice.  I would suggest that recent sacramental statements of the Army have lost this early irenic tone and approach, and have become much more controversial than Booth would have liked.  Also, I think one needs to be careful that a desire to be non-controversial does not become a justification for avoiding deep theological discussion, and meaningful engagement with ecumenical partners.

15 thoughts on “Doctrine in The Salvation Army Tradition

  1. I find it somewhat amusing (and moreoften a little concerning) that we seem to wear our history of less “emphasis upon Christian doctrine” as a badge of honour. Is that really a good thing? I would argue that this attitude is what has lead to the our actual inability to “avoid controversy”. Because we’re not prepared to spend the time and energy required to theologise comprehensively we’re not accustomed to the unresolved tensions that come up when we do. As a result we end up with controversies over things like our stance on the sacraments, and ordination, and so on.

    If we were willing to take a little more time on these issues, corporately, I think these controversies would become a lot less heated than what they are at the moment.


  2. Very true, Adam. It is naive to think that one can avoid doctrinal controversy, and not doing the work of theological reflection is a sure way to ensure that controversies will arise! I think this becomes particularly true as people become more aware of the ecumenical landscape, with more and more people moving from denomination to denomination throughout their lives. People who’ve never left the Army or haven’t had much interaction with other Christians probably aren’t too worked up about the Army’s doctrinal positions. But when you do start to enter into discussions with other Christians, it can be disconcerting if you find that you haven’t really thought through your own positions in any depth! There is a lot of work to be done…

  3. A theology prof in bible college wanted us to develop our own theology. I was agitated and fought it all the way. Yet, it was a part of my class and so I sought to prove him wrong about this freedom. Instead what I discovered was that in wrestling through different kinds of belief brought me full cirlce to what I origianlly believed, I just understood it better.

    The bible college was the Salvation Army College for Officer Training. Now I am preparing the final sermon on the series of our doctrines begun three months ago. I have wrestled these doctrines into the ground and still came out stronger for it.

    After much prayer, study and discussion I have come to the same conclusion as Booth I suppose. Building the kingdom of God is not likely to happen in any great srides if I spend my time arguing doctrine and sacramental positions. For those who feel compelled to do so, go right ahead. I doubt very much that it will make you a better Christian though.

    Someone once said that organized religion was on the brink of extinction in western civilization. I hope so – the ‘organized’ and the ‘religion’ part of it anyway. Both are the subject of far too much controversy and far too little significance.

  4. Thanks for your comment, @shar.

    I’m not sure I like the idea of “developing your own theology” either. That sounds pretty individualistic to me. I’m not interested in “my own theology,” but rather to think faithfully with and within the church. That means thinking from within one’s own denominational tradition, of course, but also locating that tradition in the context of the church as a whole.

    Working through differences of doctrine is not for everyone, though I think some knowledge of the differences would be helpful for most people. I think some people are called and equipped to specialize in thinking these things through.

    But the point is not to spend our time arguing about doctrine. You’re right – that in itself isn’t going to get us anywhere! But the issues at play in these controversies are usually more than academic disputes – they touch on key areas in the gospel itself. For example, the difference between Calvinists and Wesleyans on predestination has some significant implications for how we preach the gospel. So in that sense, we can’t avoid these discussions.

    But we are right to keep the focus on the “main thing”, which is the gospel, and not the arguments that we have with one another! There’s always a danger of putting the cart before the horse!

  5. I was asked to join the salvation army church, but first wanted to know just what this was all about. Their literature said I had to sign a covenant agreeing with the scriptures, and also at the same time make a covenant with the salvation army. They have different levels of membership, the lowest being something called “adherents” and the highest being different ranks the highest being general. They call all members “salvationists”. They do a lot of good, no doubt, and many of their members individually serve Jesus, out of love for Him, and all men.
    Now the big problem today and always is that when tradition, church rules and regulations, personal, organizational, or institutional beliefs and preferences are attached to the Gospel, they soon war against the truth of the scriptures.
    Surely, all Christians are equal, although all Christians, do not have equal responsibility in the body of Christ. Pastors are to serve as brother/servants, not lords. Their is absolutely no biblical basis for such a hierarchy as seen in the salvation army. As other denominations, they call themselves ” salvationists”, as the baptists, lutherans etc. call themselves after their denominations. I use no other name(s) for myself but what is found in the Bible. All of these denominations falter on scripture, and shall stand before God for it.
    The real “cure”, and the only one in my estimation is to set up every place we can, biblical study, and worship groups, not to obtain a degree, get a job, but to correctly understand and live the scriptures in everyday life. This will go a long way to dry up sources of oersons available to deception of any kind.

  6. In addition, after a closer look at the s.a. It is most definitely a cult of a bait and switch nature. They hide behind the Bible, but in reality their dedication is to the army. Their “holy” book is the handbook of s.a. doctrine, not the Bible.. God is not dependent on the s.a or any other organization to do good. They have brainwashed some members inducted into the s.a. as children, through their s.a. parents.

    They do not say so publicly, but they see themselves as the only true church, and do not allow marriage between s.a members and non-members. If a married s.a is divorced, he or she cannot remain an s.a, and loses their rank, and are now referred to as “Mr.” or “miss”. They can no longer be referred to by rank.
    The true issue here is not a new one, either we serve God according to the scriptures, correctly or we do not. It is unquestionably clear that the s.a is a heretical shameless cult, dangerously damaging to the work of Christ. Their false doctrine must be exposed for what it is heresy. The most damnable heresy of all is that to join one must covenant to follow Jesus And the s.a, thus making the s.a covenant equal with the blood covenant of Jesus Christ.

    • No one in the Salvation Army claims it is the one true church. Members (soldiers) are allowed to marry whomever they like. Officers (pastors) are only allowed marry other officers or someone that will become an officer. This is because they are transferred as a team to a new church every 2-5 years

    • serola –

      Sorry you’ve had such a bad experience with the SA. But I think you are mistaken about some of their policies. They definitely do not say they are the only true church, though I will admit sometime people in the Army give off an air of “superiority.” However, they recognize Christians wherever they are found and work with them on many different levels. The rules about divorce and ordination have changed recently, and I know of some SA officers who were divorced and remained in the SA.

      Most of all, it is definitely off base to call The Salvation Army heretics, and to say they are part of a cult. Salvation Army doctrine is completely orthodox, and Salvation Army covenants are not viewed as equal to the blood of Christ. They are more like a “rule of life” to which people voluntarily submit if they want to be full members.

      Again, I’m sorry to hear that you’ve obviously had some bad encounters with Salvationists, but I hope you won’t judge the SA on the whole because of that.


  7. Are we not called to the love the Lord our God with our MIND, too? It seems to me that unless we wrestle with the Scriptures as to what we believe, and do not take the time to fully understand God as He has revealed Himself in the Bible, that we cannot claim to love Him with our mind. In effect, we fall for every false wind of doctrine, being tossed to fro like the waves in the sea. We cannot discern the true from the false. Because we do not understand Scripture, we concoct a God based on our imaginings and wishing, not the God who has revealed Himself in Scriptue. This in itself is act of idolatry, pure and simple. We have in fact, then because of the false God that we have imagined in the place if the true, have in effect invented a Gospel that CANNOT save. We have, in effect, a foundation of sand, and not of the True Rock, Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
    I started out my Christian walk in a seeker-sensitive charismatic church which did not put a great importance on doctrine, so anything went. Years later (after leaving that church and that movement completely) I realized that most of the things I was taught and practiced were COMPLETELY heretical. I didn’t know this at the time, because I was never taught doctrine. When you don’t teach orthodox doctrine, then EVERY false teacher can creep into the the church and be accepted, because no one in the church knows the Word of God, which keeps us in the truth. There is nothing admirable about trying to avoid controversy by not taking a stand for truth. You have then, in effect, welcomed in all manner of false teaching because you did not equip your flock to be able to discern between truth and error.

  8. The salvation army has teachings that should keep away anyone who is in Christ.
    Have you ever looked up there Covenant to be a salvation army soldier?
    It includes this
    “I will uphold Christian integrity in every area of my life, allowing nothing in thought, word or deed that is unworthy, unclean, untrue, profane, dishonest or immoral.”
    ” I now call upon all present to witness that I enter into this covenant and sign these articles of war of my own free will, convinced that the love of Christ, who died and now lives to save me, requires from me this devotion of my life to His service for the salvation of the whole world; and therefore do here declare my full determination, by God’s help, to be a true soldier of The Salvation Army.”
    The captain at the church I am helping out at has admitted that the contract is basically a covenant to not sin again, and I have emailed to him why he would promise to God to do something he knows is impossible.

    The above mentioned also seems to indicate that works and actions are required for salvation; look at that last part of the contract where it says there devotion to be sin free and do righteous works is required for the salvation of the world….
    “requires from me this devotion of my life to His service for the salvation of the whole world”

    • Hi Nic,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Yes I’m aware of the covenant, as I was enrolled as a soldier when I was sixteen (though I am now a member of the Free Methodist Church). I can understand why the covenant might make you uncomfortable, though I don’t read it the way you do. I don’t think it is a covenant not to sin again, but rather it is a covenant that spells out the intentions of the member to live a life of obedience and integrity in every area of their life. It’s not understood by Salvationists that if they sin they have made their covenant null and void.

      I also think your last point is a misunderstanding – it’s not saying that “my devotion” is required in order to make the salvation of the world possible, but rather that, as a Christian, my complete devotion to God is required for his service – and that the service I am providing is for the salvation of the world.

      Also, Salvation Army members don’t believe that you have to make this covenant in order to be saved. It is a covenant for membership in the SA, and they would acknowledge that it has requirements that are not necessary for salvation. But they are believed to be important for membership in this specific movement.

      Now, some people would object to the making of any such covenant on principle, so maybe you are one of those people. As I said I can understand why you wouldn’t like the covenant, and I think probably there are lots of Christians who wouldn’t want to go for it. But I still think you’ve misread it.

  9. This great evangelistic movement, patterned after a military organization, has done great charitable work and won many converts. Early Salvationists did practice the ordinances of water baptism and communion but because they were accused of becoming another denomination and also because they reacted to the extreme denominational divisions of the nineteenth century, General William Booth decided in 1882 that the practice of the ordinances should be discontinued.2 Doubtless many Salvationists were and are already baptized, or get baptized elsewhere. It is hard for people not to feel that omitting Christ’s “standing orders” to baptize in water is an act of insubordination to the Commander-in-Chief.God didn’t give us a message we can adapt, modify, change or add to! it is not our purpose to take the Bible and tamper with it, deny parts of it, or handle it to suit our tastes or the demands of popular culture.Revelation 22:18-19
    For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:

    And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.
    That’s what Willian Booth did,He has taken away from the word of God,and you people who support this,is just as guilty as Booth.A STATEMENT ON BAPTISM
    After full and careful consideration of The Salvation Army’s understanding of, and approach to, the sacrament of water baptism, the International Spiritual Life Commission sets out the following points regarding the relationship between our soldier enrolment and water baptism.
    It is a public response and witness to a life-changing encounter with Christ which has already taken place, as is the water baptism practised by some other Christians.
    Solder enrolment ,is the same as water baptism,that my friend is changing the word of God into a lie.My Bible do not say,Soldier enrolment is the same as water baptism.Water baptism was given in the great commission,the great commission says nothing about soldier enrolment.Thank-you.

  10. I read with great interest a lot about SA beliefs .
    All I can say is because you do not emphasize doctrines (Teachings )how will you ever know GOD intimately and fervently and know what the BIBEL really teaches and what the LORD wants us to know and SHARE and more even it seems to me: how will you detect errors ? How will you find out who the antichrist is?Are you really in line what the Reformers believed, and died for ?I could never be a member of church who is not clear in every respect on ” what sayest the LORD “!
    However you still are my friends!Although I am totally against uniting with other churches if the unity is not based on the Bibel but only for unity’s sake.Sadly that seems to be the drift!

    • Therein lies the problem. Ignoring Paul’s instructions to Timothy to “Be DILIGENT in these matters;… watch your life and doctrine CLOSELY…(1Timothy 4:15a,16b, emphasis mine)”, they have only VAGUE ideas what the doctrines actually mean, and then they begin to rely on whatever explanation Mr. Booth, or whoever, decides to attach to those vital teachings. And I must ask, if they so easily choose to ignore our Savior’s instructions to eat the Lord’s supper (1Corinthians 11:24), how can they, in good conscience, then claim to be following Him? If you pick and choose the things about the “god” you’re going to follow, you’re following a god of your own creation.

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