Discovering who we are

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It’s about history

by Raymond L. Peacock, Lt. Colonel – 

Is The Salvation Army a church or a movement? Is The Salvation Army a church or a social agency? If The Salvation Army is a church, what evidence supports that claim?

Sixty years a Salvationist, and I must admit that while these questions have been raised repeatedly within my lifetime, my own understanding of their importance has been limited. I would venture a guess that what is true for me is true of the majority of Salvationists today who hunger to be a church, but have limited understanding of the full implications of that yearning.

Dr. John G. Stackhouse, Regent College Professor, underscores the importance of this topic. “When we, the church, are confused about who we are and whose we are, we can become anything and anyone’s…So we need ecclesiology—the doctrine of the church—to clarify our minds, motivate our hearts, and direct our heads…We need ecclesiology so that we can be who and whose we truly are…We evangelicals have acted out our convictions about the church more than we have set them out.”

This series is prepared for those hungry to know and hungry to discuss this topic, and in some measure “to set out” something of evangelical and Salvationist doctrine on this matter. The series is comprised of six articles as follows: 1. It’s About History; 2. It’s About Community; 3. It’s About Mission; 4. It’s About Structure; 5. It’s About Equipping; and 6. It’s About the Future. This first article focuses on history: biblical, church and Salvation Army history.

Biblical History

The editors of A Contemporary Wesleyan History tell us that “The church did not coin the name by which it was called but rather inherited and consecrated the term into its own life…The earliest form of ekklesia was in a pre-Christian period when it was used as a ‘summons to battle’.”

Two Old Testament words, meaning assembly and community/fellowship/synagogue, were eventually translated into Greek as ekklesia. While there were some slight nuances between the two words, “…the followers of Jesus chose ekklesia rather than synagogue.”

Ten out of twenty-seven of the New Testament books do not use the word ekklesia, and it appears only three times in the Gospels as the recorded words of Jesus. By the time we get to Acts, the term is used with greater frequency and variety. Paul uses the term 46 of the 114 times it appears in the New Testament. The term is related to local congregations in the general epistles and in Revelation both the singular and plural are used when speaking of the seven churches of Asia Minor.

Post-Biblical History

Church history can be broken down into several periods as follows: primitive, patristic, medieval, reformation, post-reformation, modern, post-modern, and eschatological. It would be impossible in this column to summarize the growing understandings of the church in each of these eras. Consequently, a summary of the traditional marks of the church and the challenges to those traditional marks will have to serve as synthesis here.

According to John G. Stackhouse, Jr. in Evangelical Ecclesiology, “The classical marks or notes of the church are four: unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. While not accepted as the full definition of the church, the four classical marks are unquestioned among Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox.

Not all agreed that the number of marks should be four. Others have suggested as few as three and as many as one hundred. Thomas Oden adds three essentials to the foregoing classical marks: Word, sacrament, and discipline calling them “the Centrist Ecumenical Tradition.” Oden consolidates the seven by saying “that ekklesia in which the Word is rightly preached, and sacraments rightly administered and discipline rightly ordered will be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”

Stackhouse says there are two major challenges to the four classical marks, they are ambiguous and have inadequate biblical grounding. He then cites Oden again as supplying the missing scriptural half as follows: (1) The church is many as well as one—see I Cor. 12:13: Gal. 3:23-29; Col. 3:11 (2) The church is charismatic as well holy—see Acts 1:8; 2:4-38; Heb.2:4; I Peter 2:9 (3) The church is both universal and local—both uses are found in the N.T. (4) The church is as truly prophetic as it is apostolic see Rom. 16:7; Matt. 5:14,; John 8:12.

Salvationists’ History

General Eva Burrows says that in our first century Salvationists were content to concentrate on their work rather than our role in the church. Commissioner Phil Needham elaborates on that in Community in Mission: A Salvationist Ecclesiology. He says, “The Army began as an evangelistic agency with no intention of becoming a church. Hence, its eleven doctrinal articles included no ecclesiological statements.” In other words, The Salvation Army does not include a doctrine on the church among its eleven doctrines. But as the decades have passed, the yearning to understand the nature and the calling of the church, and the Army’s particular calling as part of the body, grows. And the good news is that there is more to be shared as this series unfolds.

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