Peculiar and Imperfect

Seoul Boys Home Percussion Samulnori

Seoul Boys Home Percussion Samulnori

The Salvation Army is a peculiar and imperfect organisation, consisting of many peculiar and imperfect people – like me. The peculiarities sometimes make med cringe with embarrassment, while the imperfections make me angry – until I remember that I too am imperfect and that my opinion isn’t automatically the only reasonable way to think. On occasion my frustrations have led me to wish I was working somewhere else, but when it comes to the crunch, something has always held me back from jumping ship.

This Summer I was privileged to attend the Salvation Army’s 150th Anniversary Congress in London. Certainly a show-case for the Army’s peculiarities (tambourines? in 2015?), the main sessions were a sort of cross between an Olympic opening ceremony and a revival meeting. Lots of flags, drums and razmatazz – I think somebody spent a weekend with a light and sound effects catalogue and decided to buy the lot. And the O2 arena, even if not full to the rafters, is a great place for special effects. So they put on a great show. But lots of people can put on a show. What made the Congress special was all the other stuff. The sight of 16000 people, from every continent (bar Antarctica), almost all in some variety of Salvation Army uniform, all in one place. And realising that this was just a tiny proportion of the actual number of salvationists in over 120 countries around the world. The variety of music and dance from Korea, California, Angola, Argentina, Indonesia, Sweden, Australia, India and so many more. The smile on the face of the boy from the Seoul Boys Home as he played his drum. And the stories from all over the world. Some old – like the German SS officer who became a Christian and joined the Salvation Army after hearing a group of forced labourers from France singing from a Salvation Army song book. Some more recent, like the salvationist who travelled for six days across Papua Guinea to rescue a girl, a former prostitute, who was kept tied up in a pig-pen. It turned out she had Aids, and the villagers were scared of her “demons” until the salvationist shared a cup of tea with her (really!) and persuaded them to give her proper care. Then there was the Angolan refugee who escaped a firing squad and became a Salvation Army Officer. Or the more “mundane” stories of development work (helping villagers build an irrigation system for crops in Kenya) and rehabilitation (encouraging a South-American street kid to stop stealing and finish school). And the simple things – like the fact that all the bags for the delegate packs were made by participants in the Others programme.

The simple truth is that for all its peculiarities and undeniable imperfections, the Salvation Army does do an unbelievable amount of good for and with an enormous number of people all over the world. And although my little part of that may never make a story worth telling – for once, I’m just proud to belong.


Universal Lord 3

International Theology and Ethics Symposium

3: Christ, Universal Lord of the Church

(Back to Introduction and Post 1, Post 2)


To call Christ “the Lord of the Church” is in a way a truism. Christ is by definition the author of our faith, the head of the Church. The Church is in turn the body of Christ, the community of those who profess Christ as Lord and Saviour. Yet we know that alongside these truths we must take account of the reality that the Church – whether in its organisation or individual members – has not always demonstrated the spirit of Christ, has often misunderstood his will, and has not always done his will even when we have understood it. In one sense, then, we could say that Christ is Lord of the Church in the same way that he is Lord of the World – whenever and wherever his Lordship is not only acknowledged, but also truly reflected in action. However, this would be to deny an essential aspect of the Church, and indeed of our relationship with Christ as individuals: The Church belongs to Christ, even when it goes astray. The Christian belongs to Christ, even when s/he fails in obedience.

Salvationist doctrine states that “continued obedient faith” is necessary for us to remain in a state of salvation. In the Norwegian translation, this has become “one must continually obey and have faith”. The translation is unfortunate, because it can imply that any act of disobedience will lead to losing our salvation. This is surely not what we believe. A soldier who rejects the call to officership, for example, is not therefore “a backslider”. Nor is obedience to Christ primarily a matter of obeying laws or commandments. Instead, “obedient faith” describes our personal relationship with Christ. Because I have faith in him, I want to be like him, I want to reflect his spirit in the world. I may not, in my human weakness, have the courage to say “yes” to every opportunity for service that he shows me. I may struggle to make a sacrifice that he asks of me. And yet my innermost desire is to be like him – and it is this that constitutes obedient faith. There is obviously a connection to our holiness teaching here. If we reduce holiness to a legalistic avoidance of deliberate sins, it may be easier to be “holy”, but we are more likely to be seen as self-righteous. A holiness that focuses on living in relation with Christ and growing increasingly like him, will certainly be more fruitful, even when we do not succeed in every aspect of our lives.

In the same way that we as individuals live in this tension, so does the Church as a whole. Christ is Lord of the Church, even when it fails in practice. But just as individual Christians need to grow in holiness, so must the Church. We must strive to narrow the gap between what the Church actually is and does, and the ideal of the body of Christ living his life in the world. This is a challenge which calls us not only to seek personal holiness – but also to consider the way we do business, our management structures, our communication, the way we exercise leadership: In other words, every aspect of our organisation. Do we, in fact, seek the Lord’s will in our decision-making, or are we merely guided by the same considerations as any other agency? Do we allow office politics to dictate our actions, or are we aware of Christ in our midst? Does our leadership reflect the spirit of Christ and the values of the Kingdom – or administrative expediency and current management culture?

The challenge for the Church, then, is the same as it is for any Christian: to be in practice what God has declared we are in principle. Christ is Lord of the Church – but still we must make him Lord in practice. Faced with such a challenge, however, we recognise that Christ is not only Lord, but also Saviour, and it is in his grace that we find the means of fulfilling his calling.

Universal Lord 2

International Theology and Ethics Symposium

Post 2: Christ, Universal Lord of Mankind

(Back to Introduction and Post 1)

There is inevitably an eschatological aspect to the title “Universal Lord of Mankind”. We look forward to the day when “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:10-11). The implication of this is naturally that the Lordship of Christ is not universally recognised in the present age. But in what sense can we say that Jesus is Lord, even when he is not recognised as such?

Again we must make a contrast with the Reformed view that God is the ultimate cause of everything that happens – and everything we do. Such a view, although not perhaps consciously thought through, may lie behind phrases such as “God willing” (as in – “I’ll see you tomorrow, God willing!”) or the song text “the days I cannot see have all been planned for me”. It is however one thing for God to have a plan for my life, and another to believe that I have no choice but to follow that plan. Although the Bible does occasionally give the impression that people are not entirely masters of their own actions (e.g. Genesis 45:4-8), there are far more references to people making choices, and specifically choosing either to obey God or reject him. It is quite clear, throughout the Bible, that people are held to account for the choices they make, and that they are responsible for the consequences of their actions (e.g. Joshua 24:15, John 3:18). Wayne Grudem, in his “Systematic Theology” maintains that our choices are real, and that we are therefore responsible for our actions – but that God nevertheless is the ultimate cause of everything that happens and everything we do. This is self-contradictory. If God is the ultimate cause of all of our actions, we cannot be said to have made real choices – and therefore we are not accountable. In the end such a viewpoint must undermine the gospel, for if we are not accountable, our sin is not real, and there is no need for forgiveness or atonement.

The opposite of this is viewpoint is the Pelagian heresy that we are entirely free, and that by consistently choosing the good we may attain salvation. Pelagianism has in a sense resurfaced in Existentialism, so that Sartre, for example, can insist that mankind is bound only by itself. Each individual has the freedom to make choices in life, regardless of other influences, and in this way we can construct our own unique identity. It is not hard to see the extent to which this individualist philosophy has influenced Western society in recent years, but the idea is nevertheless flawed because it fails to take into account that people’s choices are not, in the final analysis, entirely free. We are naturally influenced by our genetic history, our environment, and by our (and our parents’) previous choices, which may develop into habits of thought and action that we no longer question.

The Salvation Army, then, has again maintained a middle position. We insist that people are accountable – and this must mean that our actions are not determined in advance, or entirely directed either by God’s agency or sociological determinism. Despite everything that influences us, we have a genuine choice – or at least an element of choice – in what we do. Habits may be broken, circumstances overcome – at least to some extent. But we also recognise that our choices are not entirely free and unfettered. In many ways we are caught in the patterns of behaviour that our background and circumstances dictate, and, humanly speaking, our freedom of choice will always be limited. Nevertheless, as Salvationists we also believe that mankind is influenced by God’s prevenient grace – the work of the Holy Spirit who calls us to Christ and makes it possible for us to break free from our circumstances.

All this means that the Lordship of Christ in the present age is in a sense a matter of potentiality rather than an actual fact. Although as creator God he could force his will on mankind, he has chosen to limit himself. His power is revealed not in his controlling people or events, but in his spirit of love and self-sacrifice, and it is when this spirit is evident that we can recognise his lordship. Each individual has the opportunity to accept or deny his lordship over their life – and it is ultimately this choice which will be decisive when Christ is finally acknowledged to be Lord indeed. (At this point it would be relevant to explore what form this choice takes for those who have not heard the gospel, or who have only heard a caricatured version of Christianity, but that lies outside the field of this post).

In addition, Christ asserts his lordship over mankind in a number of ways. The first of these is his universal standard of behaviour: The dual command to love God and our neighbour. This command is not just a matter of discipleship, but sets the bar for all mankind. This is what God expects of us, and but for redemption through Christ, it is the standard we will be judged by. In a sense, then, we can say that Christ’s lordship is visible whenever anyone acts in a way that reflects his spirit – whether or not they are conscious of following Christ. An example might the act of mercy in which an Iranian couple forgave the man who killed their son, saving him from the death penalty, or a simple act of kindness for a colleague at work.  Secondly, then, Christ’s lordship is apparent in universal judgement. Although the Bible speaks of a final judgement at the end of the world, Jesus also made it clear that the most important judgement is the one that happens in this present age. By choosing to follow him or to reject him, to acknowledge his lordship or to cling to our supposed freedom, we in fact judge ourselves. The eschatological lordship of Christ is in this sense a present reality. Thirdly, however, we assert that Christ’s redemption is also universal. Not universal in the sense that “everyone will be saved in the end”, but universal in its potential application. Whoever responds to Christ’s invitation, will be saved, and Christ’s desire is that everyone will respond to him. It is the tragedy of our world that some, at all times, reject him, but the atonement is nevertheless universal in its scope and intention.

Again we see that the dual roles of Lord and Saviour come together in the person of Christ, and are ultimately inseparable. He is our Saviour because he is also our Lord, and in his lordship we find salvation.

Universal Lord

Last weekend The Salvation Army hosted an International Theology and Ethics Symposium, considering the statement

Jesus Christ, Universal Lord and Saviour.

In the run-up to the Symposium, they invited Salvationists to comment on what this phrase might mean to them, and this and the next two posts were my contribution. Obviously, these posts only scratch the surface of some of the issues that the subject raises – but for what they are, here they are…

International Theology and Ethics Symposium

On reading the title of this symposium, I was first drawn to the phrase “Universal Lord”. Thinking about what that means raises all kinds of questions, and I have tried to categorise some of them below:

  1. Christ, Universal Lord of Creation
  2. Christ, Universal Lord of Mankind
  3. Christ, Universal Lord of the Church

I will attempt to say something about all of these aspects in separate posts: In this post I begin with the first:


  1. Christ, Lord of Creation:

Col 1:15-17  He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

In the New Testament, Christ is several times linked directly to God’s acts of creation, and so when considering his Lordship, it is appropriate to consider also what we mean by his sovereignty over the created universe as Triune God.

At one end of the spectrum, we have the theistic view of the “watchmaker God”, who creates the universe with its regularities and laws and then lets it live its life without further intervention. This is a view which is very convenient in the context of the natural sciences, as it allows room for theories about the development of the Universe and the evolution of life on Earth which are independent of theology. It also to some extent lets God “off the hook” in relation to the human pain and suffering that natural events can cause. This view of God as inactive and distant is however very problematic in relation to Christ, who in the incarnation represents God as active and involved in the World.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Reformed/Calvinist view that God’s sovereignty is absolute and specific, so that every event in the natural world, whether harmful or beneficial from a human point of view, is seen as a reflection of God’s will and purpose. This is a view which fits well with the general view of the Old Testament, but which may be offensive to modern ears, both because we can demonstrate the natural causes of most events, and because we are reluctant to admit that God would wish to cause the pain and suffering that follows from natural catastrophes or epidemics.

As I understand it, the Salvationist understanding has been a middle way between these extremes. We believe that God has created the Universe, and sustains it – which is to say that its continued existence is dependent on his continuing creative will. But for the most part the Universe has developed according to laws and regularities that are part of God’s original creation, so that any particular event may be seen as the outworking of the mechanics of the Universe, rather than a direct “act of God”. Nevertheless, we also believe that God can and does from time to time intervene directly in his creation, so that an unexplainable healing or other “unnatural” event may be seen as a sign of his active presence in the World. The laws of nature belong to God and may be bent to his will.

The question that then arises is whether this middle way is genuinely the consensus view in the Army, as I have supposed, and whether we have a biblical foundation for it?

Finally, of course, the Bible promises that there will be “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1). Exactly what this phrase means is impossible for us to know, but it emphasises that creation belongs to the Lord, and that (regardless of “natural laws”), it is in his power to renew it when his purposes are fulfilled. From this point of view, the dual roles of Lord and Saviour eventually come together in Christ’s ultimate victory.

Some people are hard to love. But we have to – I mean, that’s what Christianity is all about, right? Particularly hard to love are all the people I don’t know except by their opinions. And there are lots of them, and a lot of them are Christians. And there are some Christians with whom I really, profoundly, disagree. It’s not that they’re not entitled to their views – the problems start when they suggest that I’m not entitled to mine. It’s really not easy to greet someone as a brother or sister in Christ while they are condemning you as a heretic. One such is the author of the web-site This sounds like a great web-site, doesn’t it? A web-site proclaiming the love of God in Christ for the salvation of the World. And that is indeed what wants to be:

This website is a pulpit, a VOICE reaching around the world. By the grace of God, this website is presently receiving over 315,000 visitors per week. That’s more members and visitors than most churches could see in a hundred lifetimes. Praise God! I thank God for giving me the humble opportunity to influence people for Jesus Christ in this needy area.

But if that is what you want to do – then why oh why oh why must you fill page after page condemning more than half the Christians of the World as heretics or blasphemers? Here’s an example:

Many heresies have crept into our churches because of corrupt versions of God’s Word, especially the damnable New International Version (NIV). Why would anyone use the NIV? Our Final Authority on ALL matters of faith and living is the inspired and preserved Word of God, which in English is our beloved King James Bible.

There is a whole page devoted to the NIV, with a pretty picture of a couple of corrupt clerics conspiring with the Devil to promote their book:

We hope you like our Bible

There is another page devoted to Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army and staunch defender of women’s right (and duty!) to preach the gospel. Not only is Catherine described as «a blaspheming liar», but William «compromised his beliefs to appease the wickedness of his wife» and preached a number of heresies (another web-page lists the supposedly heretical teachings of the Salvation Army) and apparently The Salvation Army is «in bed with Rome». The Roman Church, of course, being heretical by definition.

I could go on – the web-site does go on, at depressing and judgemental length, although to be fair to the author, he claims to be «as narrow-minded as the Bible» and nothing more. As far as I can gather (his name appears on some pages but not others), the author is David J. Stewart, about whom I know absolutely nothing except what he writes. What he writes makes him hard to love. But then he also writes

… the entire Bible is based upon the FACT that God loves mankind, so much so that God the Father sent His only begotten Son into the world to suffer and die for our sins

And that opens up a whole new perspective. Because that is the whole point. All of us, fallible, misguided, weak-willed people – God loves us! So David – whoever you are. You probably don’t care what I think of you or your web-site. You may call my beliefs heretical if you wish, and I can call yours misguided. But apparently we agree about this one amazing fact: God loves mankind and sent Christ into the world to save us all. And because we agree on that, I wish you all God’s blessing, and hope that all the thousands that you say read your web-site will be able to filter out all the opinions – and just accept the love of God in Christ. Because in the end, that’s what it’s all about. Not that the other stuff doesn’t matter. It just matters less.

A failed experiment?

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts…

Jeremiah 4:4 NIV


In the early days of the Salvation Army, a decision was made that we should not celebrate “the ceremonies known as sacraments”. This was a courageous decision, although it seems that the motivation for it was quite mixed, and the Army has spent considerable time and energy over the past hundred odd years attempting to defend it. The Booths’ central argument, however, was neither radical nor even original: Salvationists were not to build their faith on external rites or ceremonies, but were to live a religion of the Spirit, with hearts and minds changed from within.


This idea of religion as primarily a matter of the heart and mind dates back to the Hebrew prophets, and especially Jeremiah, prior to the fall of Jerusalem in the 6th Century BC. Despairing of the Judeans ability to “change their spots”[1] Jeremiah realises that they will never be able to do God’s will of their own accord. Instead, he preaches a new covenant, based not on the Law of Moses or the rites of the Temple, but on a direct act of God to change the people from the inside; “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.”[2] This is the “circumcision of the heart” – and now no-one will need to teach another the knowledge of God, for all will know God equally.


The same ideas are central to the theology of Paul in the New Testament. Although Paul makes much of the symbolism of baptism, it is clear that this rite was for him only a symbol of The Holy Spirit’s activity in the believer. Indeed, Paul almost quotes Jeremiah in Romans 2:29 –


No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.


In this way the “gentile” Christians become a part of the People of God, not by an outward rite, but by the act of God in the heart and mind. Although Paul is often quoted by sacramentalists, he is in many ways one of the most spiritualistic authors in the New Testament, writing as he does of the believer’s mystical union with Christ, and with other believers, in the life of the Spirit. Discarding the yoke of Jewish legalism as he did, it can hardly have been his intention to replace it with a new “external” religion.


The same might also be said of Jesus himself. Like his forerunners his main thrust was not against the externals of religion as such, but against the hypocrisy of a religion which consisted only of externals. For Jesus, as for Paul and Jeremiah, it was the heart and mind that was of significance.


For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. [3]


The Sermon of the Mount, far from being a book of rules to rival the Law of Moses, contains rather Jesus’ teaching that the thoughts and motivation behind our actions are at least as important as the actions themselves. And in the parable of the two men who went to pray in the Temple[4], Jesus points out that the man who went home “justified before God” was the penitent sinner, not the self-righteous man who must be assumed to have lived a blameless life as far as “externals” are concerned.


There are countless examples like these which show that the Booths’ conception of religion was entirely in accordance with Biblical teaching. But how successful were these experiments in “inward religion”?


Jeremiah’s view of religion as a personal, inward matter clearly had some influence on the subsequent development of Judaism. Nevertheless it was the twin pillars of Temple worship and the Law that were to dominate in Israel after the exile. Jeremiah’s grand vision of a people who all lived in the intimate knowledge of God was replaced by a religious elite who indulged in endless casuistry. The British Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, suggests that Judaism has moved “from a world in which God speaks to a world in which there is dialogue between God and humanity, to a world in which human beings speak and God listens but He doesn’t speak”[5]. First there is revelation – then there is interpretation. How far is this from Jeremiah’s direct encounter with God!


The religion of Jesus and Paul, it seems to me, was a direct challenge to these “twin pillars”, insisting on personal, inward religion as the only genuine worship. “The true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks”[6]. Yet it was not long before the Christian Church was itself a prisoner of ritualism, with a new caste of priests standing between the people and their God, administering sacramental rites which were (and often still are) thought of as being effective “ex opere operato” – by the mere fact of their being performed. Apart from the absence of animal sacrifice, this was the worship of the Temple all over again. At the same time, Christians developed methods of interpreting of the Bible which in many ways matched the nit-picking arguments of the “Scribes and Pharisees”.


Of course, this is only half the story. Both Judaism and Christianity have had periodic revivals of a personal piety that goes beyond externals into the heart, and some have also achieved a synthesis which combines the formal and academic aspects of religion with worship “in spirit and truth” – John Newman, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement and later a Roman Catholic Cardinal, is an example of the latter, with his famous dictum “cor ad cor loquitur” (heart speaks to heart). For all its faults, the Church has never been entirely given over to empty formalism.


Salvationists, however, were to be saved from formalism not by filling the symbolic rites of the Church with deeper meaning, but by simply not using them at all. In theory, the whole of life was to be regarded as sacramental, in the sense that God’s presence could and should be felt equally whether at work or at worship. Albert Orsborn’s hymn is so often quoted as to be almost a cliché, but it remains one of the best expositions of what Salvationists mean by “sacramental living”: “My life must be Christ’s broken bread, My love his outpoured wine…” Such is the theory; Yet while Salvationist worship at its best is undoubtedly as rich and powerful as the most profound sacramental experience, we must also admit that our worship at its worst is as shallow and superficial as any of the ceremonies we have rejected can be. General Frederick Coutts wrote (quoting Barclay) that we prefer “the power to the form, the substance to the shadow” [7]. It would, I think, take a brave man to argue that all of our meetings, much less our everyday behaviour, always reached that standard. In many ways it can be argued that our non-sacramentalism has merely led to the invention of a host of other “externals” upon which we have come to rely almost as much – the uniform, the mercy seat, the emotional “appeal”.


Must we then admit defeat? Is the Biblical ideal of inward religion a holy grail attainable only by a few? A standard to be raised from time to time by prophets and saints, but not sustainable over time?  The Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli regarded the sacraments as merely symbolic acts, and so might be regarded as the Protestant leader most in tune with what came to be the Salvationist position. But even Zwingli regarded baptism and communion as nevertheless necessary, as public confessions of faith. Mankind, as physical beings, seem to need a physical as well as a spiritual point of contact with God. Perhaps this applies at least as much today, in an age when we are constantly bombarded with audiovisual stimuli. Whether it’s lighting candles or raising hands, surely we need concrete actions to express our faith. And in that case – why not use the rites that are hallowed with two thousand years of tradition, alongside (or instead of) the formalities of Salvationism, or the more informal customs of the modern church? The Bible, after all, has never condemned formal religion as such, only its divorce from inward spirituality.


But here is the crux of the problem. If our return to the sacraments is motivated by a confession of failure in our goal of sacramental living or inward worship, then how will the reintroduction of such rites help us? Surely we will simply take our failure with us, and end up with a life and worship that is only externally different from what we have now. The true question is not concerned with which external rites we use or do not use, but to what extent these rites truly reflect an inward religion of “spirit and truth”. To break bread, to light a candle, to kneel at the mercy seat – to raise your hands, to play in the band, to wear uniform – all of these may be expressions of the work of the Holy Spirit within us. Or they may be the empty, even hypocritical, acts condemned by the prophets. The danger is that we will fall into the trap that Booth was so anxious to avoid, that some of our people will mistake the form for the substance – whatever the form is. The only way to avoid this is to insist that “form”, however hallowed by tradition, whether in the Army or outside it, is essentially a matter of no consequence. It may well be that mankind – or the majority of us – cannot get by without some kind of ritual. But it surely must be possible for that ritual to be founded on an inner spirituality that takes precedence over it.


Of course we need to talk about externals as well. The ways in which we express our faith – what sort of music to use, what kind of uniform to wear, which ceremonies are appropriate – do raise issues of cultural relevance which need to be addressed. But let us at least remember in our discussions that such issues are secondary. What matters – as we all know, but too easily, in the heat of argument, forget – is the work of the Spirit in our hearts and minds. This, after all, is not merely William Booth’s, but God’s great experiment; the transformation of mankind from within. As the Spiritual Life Commission said in the language of church bureaucracy:


“We affirm that the consistent cultivation of the inner life is essential for our faith life and for our fighting fitness.”[8]


Jeremiah said it better:


Circumcise your hearts…




Paul M Waters



(Published in “The Officer” magazine, 2004)

[1] Jer 13:23

[2] Jer 31:31-34

[3] Matt 15:19

[4] Luk 18:9-14

[5] Lecture  “Revelation – Torah from heaven” – 26 March 2001

[6] John 4:23

[7] ”No ContinuingCity” chapter 12

[8] International Spiritual Life Commission Report §6