When did The Salvation Army become “a church”?

Of course, the question of when The Salvation Army became a church is a loaded question.  First of all, there are many who would debate whether or not The Salvation Army ever became a church.  Is today’s Salvation Army a church?  The key sticking point is, of course, the sacraments, and whether or not they are key “marks” of the church.  That requires a separate post, I think, and I’ll attempt that in the next couple weeks.

To put my own view in a nutshell, however, I would say that The Salvation Army is a peculiar hybrid of church and specialized movement. This will be part of the argument I put forward in my thesis.  On the one hand, it has always acted like a church in terms of the functions it performs for its members.  It is the spiritual home for Salvationists, the place where they are converted, the place where they are nurtured, where they fellowship and serve, mark significant moments in their life, and raise their children.  On the other hand, it has often maintained that it has a special vocation, to be something more than, or other than “a church.”  And for a long time, Salvationist leaders explicitly and publicly insisted that The Salvation Army was “not a church.”

William Booth insisted that their original design was not to set up another church or denomination, but to evangelize people, and then send them to established churches.   In an oft-quoted passage, he explains why this didn’t happen:

My first idea was simply to get the people saved, and then send them to the churches.  This proved at the outset impracticable.
1st. They would not go when sent. 
2nd. They were not wanted. 
And 3rd. We wanted some of them at least, ourselves to help us in the business of saving others.
We were thus  driven to providing for the converts ourselves (“How We Began,” in Boundless Salvation: The Shorter Writings of William Booth, 39)

So, from an early date, even before it was known as “The Salvation Army,” Booth’s movement was functioning as a “spiritual home” for its converts and workers.   This is what I mean when I saw the Army “acted like” a church from the early days.  It was functioning as a church.

How early did this start to happen?   Harold Hill, in his fascinating book Leadership in the Salvation Army: A Case Study in Clericalisation, suggests that 1867 was a “turning point” for the young movement, when it became established as a “distinct body.”   Drawing on Sandall’s official account, Hill notes a number of important things that happened in 1867, including the formal naming of the movement as the East London Christian Mission, the acquisition of headquarters, the hiring of workers, and the establishment of a system of processing converts.

But if 1867 was a turning point, Hill goes on to argue, it was the beginning of a decade-long transition towards something very much like a “denomination.”  1878, the year when Booth assumed full, autocratic control of the movement, and the year when its name was changed to “The Salvation Army”  marked the end of this transition.

Between 1868 and 1878, then, the process took place whereby an independent mission staffed by volunteers from a variety of church backgrounds evolved into a highly centralised, sect-like organisation, a people with a distinct and common identity, and its own full-time, employed leaders, analogous to clergy (Hill, Leadership in the Salvation Army, 49).

With a distinct identity as a Christian body, members who were not part of other churches, and a clergy-like leadership structure, the newly-named Salvation Army was certainly acting like a church, and therefore from the perspective of “function,” was a church (leaving aside those difficult theological questions which I’ll take up another day).

Yet, in the first Orders and Regulations, issued in the same year of 1878, William Booth wrote: “We are not and will not be made a Church.  There are plenty for anyone who wishes to join them, to vote and rest.”  Subsequent Salvation Army Generals continued to maintain this view through the mid-20th century.  It wasn’t until the 1970s that Clarence Wiseman publicly affirmed his conviction that the Salvation Army was “a church” while still affirming that it was “a permanent mission to the unconverted” and that it shared some features of a religious order.

So, while acknowledging that the question of when The Salvation Army became “a church” is a very complicated one, I would argue that, functionally speaking, it began to act like a church from as early as 1867, even if it refused to self-identify as a church.  Whether or not we should say that the early Salvation Army was a church from a normative, theological sense, will depend upon how we define “a church,” and specifically, whether we believe the observance of sacraments is essential to ecclesiality.

Typology of Views on Charismatic Movements: Conclusion

To recap, I’ve been presenting a series of posts on charismatic movements, outlining a typology of views, as follows:

  • Charismatic more fundamental than institutional (Leonardo Boff).

While this survey shows that there is a significant body of literature on the theology of charisms and charismatic movements (and a wide divergence of viewpoints), I would argue that numerous questions remain which need to be addressed.

Significantly, for the most part, the literature on charisms has not been significantly incorporated into discussions of unity and diversity.   Of course, Cullman’s argument attempts to do this, but I would argue that he has disassociated the biblical idea of charisms from its original vocational context and applied it too liberally to all confessions, thereby inappropriately justifying continued separation across the board.  Also, it is apparent throughout his argument that his major concerns are with the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and magisterial protestant traditions, but he offers no criteria by which we should distinguish these separations as “legitimate” as compared with more recent protestant schisms.  Would he support, for example, the continual splintering of pentecostal and independent charismatic churches on the grounds of protecting their particular charism?

Further, his model suggests that there is a charismatic gift at the root of all church divisions.  While I believe there are many confessions or denominations in the Church today that began with such a misapprehension of charisms, this is certainly not the case in every situation.  It seems nonsensical to speak of the English reformation, for example, being rooted an unrecognized charism.  We might speak of Anglican charisms that developed in the subsequent history of Anglicanism, but if the separation of the Church of England from Rome was not rooted in a charism, we must question the validity of using such post-division gifts as a reason for continued structural separation.

Other uses of the idea of “gifts” as a way of discussing diversity in ecumenical documents have not delved into the biblical theology of charisms, nor asked questions about the appropriateness of applying the term to traditions / denominations / confessions.  Though the idea of “complementary gifts” has been a helpful way to build ecumenical bridges, it should not be used to construct a positive vision for ecclesial unity which justifies continued “separation.”

Where the idea of charisms has been incorporated in a more sustained way into a vision of the unity of the Church is in Catholic literature on the religious life, but little work has been done in attempting to apply the insights of this perspective to protestant reform movements. The comparison has sometimes been made, but not explored in much theological depth (See, for example, Outler’s remarks on Methodism as an “order,” in That the World may Believe, 54).

The weakness of some Catholic approaches, especially those which stress the complementarity of charism and institution, is that they are not helpful in interpreting the divisive history of renewal and reform movements in the life of the Church.  The question is of paramount importance, particularly for the many evangelical protestant denominations which began as reform, renewal, or missionary movements, with no intention of starting new “churches.”  In evangelical circles, partly because of the prevalence of free church ecclesiology, the tendency has been to emphasize the significance of the movements and downplay the importance of historical continuity.

All this is to say that I think significant work needs to be done on the topic of  “group” charisms, and how this concept  fits into the larger discussion about the limits of legitimate diversity in the Church.

Typology of Views of Charismatic Movements, part 6: Institutional over Charismatic

As I said in my introduction to this series, it is hard to find anyone today who actually tries to make a theological argument for the priority of the institutional over the charismatic in the Church.

Historically, the obvious example of prioritizing the institutional over the chairsmatic is modern Catholicism, before Vatican II.   The Roman Catholic Church was conceived as a perfect society, meaning that the Church was a complete social system, and its various elements were instituted by God, so that it would lack nothing in its historical existence until the return of Christ.  The priesthood, all the sacraments, the hierarchy, even monasticism and the religious life, were said to be derived directly from Jesus Christ himself.  These institutions were therefore invested with divine authority, such that, any “charismatic” who arose outside the established order would be seen as problematic. As Johann Adam Möhler summarized this view, “God created the hiearchy and in this way provided amply for everything that was required until the end of time.”

Of course the problem with this perspective was that, for one, it was not historically accurate.  It embraces what Avery Dulles describes as a “regressive method” of theology, whereby the latest teachings of the Church are adopted “as if they have been present from the beginning” (Models of the Church, 32), since any change would be seen as an “innovation,” and would undermine the view that all had been provided for in the Church’s institutions (including the magisterium).  Clearly, the Church’s institutions have developed over time, and many innovations have been made along the way.  Among these innovations, we must include some which I would call “charismatic movements”: monasticism of various kinds, the mendicant orders, apostolic societies, and so on.  These are among Catholicism’s most treasured institutions, but in the modern “perfect society” scheme of ecclesiology, it would have been difficult to explain their origins, apart from rooting them somehow in the divine institution of Jesus Christ.

These ideas are pretty far removed from the life of the Church today, even for Roman Catholics. However, the “institutional over charismatic” mindset is by no means absent.  Institutionalism is a pervasive social phenomenon, and all of our churches (even those which are highly charismatic) have to wrestle with the challenges it brings.  Therefore, the natural tendency in any church tradition is to be sceptical of leaders and movements who arise from oustide the established order.  We could say that, though it is not argued for theologically, “institutional over charismatic” is the default operating perspective of most churches.

Clericalism is perhaps the best example.  Even in evangelical churches, which profess a strong doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers,” there is a tendency to view the pastors as “professional Christians,” and to exclude lay people from fulfilling many roles which they ought to be able to fulfill.  Those who have the gifts (charisms), should be freed to exercise them, but they are sometimes excluded simply by virtue of the fact that they are not clergy.

I grew up in a denomination (The Salvation Army) where the clergy are largely responsible for the business of the church.   It strikes me as rather odd that we should expect pastors to be business-savvy, when there are likely members of their congregation who are business men and women themselves.

I’ve noticed that a lot of other evangelical traditions tend to have a “pastoral prayer” at every service.   This is where the pastor stands up and leads the congregation in a long prayer prayer.   I suppose most people see this as harmless, but I think it promotes a clericalist mindset.  Why would we want the pastor to be the only who publicly prays during worship?  It sends the message, again, that pastors are the “professional Christians.” It is interesting that in the older traditions (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, etc.), which most evangelicals assume are more “clericalized,” the prayers are not led by the pastor, but by lay intercessors. In the SA, the officer often leads this prayer, but sometimes it is a layperson.

The problem is that we can’t go too far in the other direction.  We need institutions, including ordained ministry (in my opinion).  We need stable structures that endure over time, and provide a means for passing on the faith from one generation to the next in a way that retains the historic core of gospel teaching.  We cannot escape this need.   We must embrace the institutions of the Church, without absolutizing them, and thereby excluding any new wisdom that the Spirit might bring from unexpected places.  That means, in part, that the institutional authorities of the Church must be open to discerning and coordinating the charisms that arise among the people.