Everyone knows that the Salvation Army doesn’t celebrate (perform) the sacraments, right? The fact of the matter is that while yes, the Salvation Army does not celebrate Holy Communion (or whatever term you prefer to use in its place – Mass, Eucharist, The Lord’s Supper), and we don’t perform “water” baptisms, the Salvation Army is indeed a very sacramental church, and celebrates its sacraments on a daily basis. I hope to show to you today that the Salvation Army does indeed embrace the sacraments, and that they are in fact a wonderful thing.
What is a sacrament?
On a very basic level, a sacrament is a means of grace. By that, I mean that a sacrament is an outward sign of the grace of God that resides within us. The best way that I heard that related into everyday language was relating it to the love that I have for my wife. There are various ways that I could show my love for my wife. I could get her flowers, or jewellery, or give her a kiss, or a hug, or even tell her that I love her. None of these things are what love actually consists of, they are just outward signs that show that love. However, if I don’t do at least some of these, my wife would get rather upset – she may not know that I still love her. The sacraments are the same. They aren’t what the grace of God actually consists of. They are just outward signs that we reside in God’s grace. Through doing the sacraments, they are an outward sign that we reside in the grace of God. If we don’t do them, even though we still remain in the grace of God – how would anyone know?
So, What are the Sacraments?
The Roman Catholic church has seven Sacraments. Many of these are observed in many churches, so let’s list them here now.
- Holy Orders
- Anointing of the sick. (Formerly, the Last Rites).
Source: The Seven Catholic Sacraments.
These seven sacraments are what are generally considered as sacraments, however there are three that are (almost) universal amongst all denominations – Baptism, Eucharist and Marriage. These three are regarded as universal, because they are mentioned in the bible. I’ll discuss these three later.
For those that aren’t aware of the others, I’ll do a quick summary here. Reconciliation is the process of forgiveness. In the Roman Catholic church, this often takes place in the form of the confessional, where you confess your sins, the priest gives you some prayers to say, and you are absolved of your sins. In the Anglican church, this is done through a group confession within the liturgy, and the priest gives the absolution. It can be done in different ways in different churches. In the Salvation Army – while no formal setting may be seen, the confessional side may well happen at the Mercy Seat during a service (however, we should note that this is not the only use of the mercy seat.)
Confirmation is where you confirm God’s presence in your life. For those who are baptised at birth, confirmation is the opportunity to affirm the vows that were made for you by your parents. In Adult baptisms, confirmation is often done at the same time. In the Salvation Army, you may think of confirmation as someone becoming a Soldier after being dedicated as a child.
Holy Orders is one that causes some conjecture as to whether it really is a sacrament or not. With all of the other sacraments, they are open to all – anyone can partake in them. However, with Holy Orders – that is, to become a priest, minister, or Officer – there really should (or must) be a calling of God to this vocation. That being said, if we consider sacraments to be a means of God’s grace, then the sacrament of Holy Orders is indeed a sacrament, as it is through the process of formation for ministry, and the public ordination service that a public declaration of God’s grace within our lives is made.
Finally, the sacrament of Healing the Sick, or the Last Rites. In the Catholic church, the last rites were given to someone to ensure that their soul was right with God before they passed from this mortal world. This has progressed into the sacrament of anointing the sick, a practice which is also partaken in the Anglican church. Many other churches also have “healing” ministries (I put healing in quotation marks, as there is a wide range of healing ministries, from the simple anointing with oil, and a blessing, through to “slain by the spirit”-style healing acts.)
The universal sacraments
The three that are regarded as universal are regarded this way because they are mentioned in the bible. Marriage is mentioned multiple times in the Bible. We know that Jesus was baptised, and John the Baptist performed many baptisms. And finally, we know that Jesus celebrated the Passover meal, and instructed his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; Last Supper also found in Matthew 26, Mark 14 and mentioned in John 13).
My Wedding was a wonderful occasion, coming mostly from the Salvation Army Book of Ceremonies, with a bit of my Anglican heritage thrown in there with my Dad blessing the rings. This was very much a sacramental moment, where we were able to publicly declare the love we had for each other, and the love we had for God. However, note that the sacrament is not “Wedding” but “Marriage”. The wedding is a part of that, it kicks it all off, and is a very public statement of the grace of God. However, marriage comes as a sacrament every day. Every day, as we go out into the world, when people look at us, and see our marriage, it is a public declaration of the grace that God has for us. Marriage is the one with the least controversy surrounding it as to whether it is a sacrament or not – as all churches (to my knowledge – happy to be corrected on this) practice it.
For many, there is a belief that the Salvation Army does not practice baptism. While it is true that the Salvation Army does not practice “water” baptism, we do have our own ceremonies that have the same symbolism and the same public display of God’s grace. I guess the first question to ask is what role does baptism play?
At a very basic level, baptism is the process where someone becomes a member of that church. Some may say that you only become a Christian by being baptised – I don’t feel that is true. We read in John 1:12 that “those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Anyone who believes in the name of Jesus has the right to become a child of God – a Christian. Likewise, in Acts 4 we read “many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.” There’s no mention of baptism there, yet the number of men who believed grew. Nowhere in the Gospels do we read of the disciples being baptised – only that Jesus was baptised.
At a deeper level, baptism is also symbolic. There are connections to the healing pools used in Jewish custom, where you are cleansed of your ailment when you dip in the pool. For Christians, baptism is symbolic of us washing away our old life, washing away our sin, and rising again to a new life. The symbolic action in a water baptism is clear in this sense. But not all churches practice a full immersion baptism. For many – including the Catholic and Anglican churches, a small amount of water is poured over the head. It is still symbolic, and still has the same effect.
Someone once said to me this joke. Churches who practice full immersion baptisms – Baptists, some Church of Christ, etc – they’re like washing machines, they use a lot of water. Some churches – like the Catholics and Anglicans – they’re like hand washing, they use a lot less water. Now the Salvos, yes the Salvation Army, they’re a bit different. They’re Dry Cleaners.
Becoming a Soldier in the Salvation Army is very much like baptism. No, it doesn’t use water. But in putting on the uniform, we leave our old life behind, and start a new life with Christ. For me, the uniform has taken on even more meaning since becoming a cadet. We have to wear the uniform every day for class – and for some, being forced to do that might lead them towards lessening the importance of the uniform. But for me, it is a daily reminder that I am God’s child, and each day that I put it on, it is a little grace moment, where I can publicly display my love for Christ. Soldiership is very much a sacrament on par with baptism.
Now, this is the tricky one. Eucharist goes by many names – Mass, Communion, The Lord’s Supper. And yes, the Salvation Army do not “practice” Communion as a regular ritual. I make a distinction between “practice” and “celebrate” here. While the Salvation Army does not engage in regularly practicing the ritual, the Salvation Army does state that “When Salvationists attend other Christian gatherings in which a form of Holy Communion is included, they may partake if they choose to do so and if the host Church allows.” (Source)
The Salvation Army also states that “Salvationists are encouraged to use the love feast [fellowship meal] and develop creative means of hallowing meals in home and corps with remembrances of the Lord’s sacrificial love.” It must also be noted that “In accordance with normal Salvation Army practice, such remembrances and celebrations, where observed, will not become established rituals, nor will frequency be prescribed.” Basically, Corps can celebrate a “love feast” (personally, I dislike this terminology, and would prefer fellowship meal) which may include elements similar to a celebration of Communion. However, it cannot become an established ritual, and the Salvation Army will not prescribe the frequency in which it must take place. So a Salvation Army corps may celebrate a “love feast”, however it is at the discretion of the corps and the officers, and is not prescribed from higher up.
The big statement that the Salvation Army makes on communion is this one: “Christ is the one true Sacrament, and sacramental living – Christ living in us and through us – is at the heart of Christian holiness and discipleship.” Sacramental living is the big thing. That through every moment of our lives is an opportunity to show the grace of God.
This comes most strongly through the words of General Albert Orsborn.
My life must be Christ’s broken bread,
My love his outpoured wine,
A cup o’erfilled, a table spread
Beneath his name and sign.
That other souls, refreshed and fed,
May share his life through mine.
My all is in the Master’s hands
For him to bless and break;
Beyond the brook his winepress stands
And thence my way I take,
Resolved the whole of love’s demands
To give, for his dear sake.
Lord, let me share that grace of thine
Wherewith thou didst sustain
The burden of the fruitful vine,
The gift of buried grain.
Who dies with thee, O Word divine,
Shall rise and live again.
The Salvation Army is indeed a sacramental church, where soldiers are encouraged to live a sacramental life. May you find a sacramental moment in your life today, where you can publicly display the grace of God.