Friday, 30 September 2016

Messengers of the Gospel - A Postscript

I had broadly planned my last blog post before the welcome weekend for new cadets. As it turned out, on the Sunday at WBC London, the UK Territorial Commander himself spoke of exactly what it means to be a Messenger of the Gospel. He too made clear that that should include all of us. Much of what he said stole any thunder from my forthcoming piece, which left me running the risk of looking like I was trying to steal his! Such is life. 

TC Clive Adams was as direct and to the point as I have ever heard him. Perhaps as direct and to the point as I have ever heard anyone in a major SA gathering. He summarised the gospel message, highlighting the gravity of the problem of sin (however much we don’t like using the word), the crippling, universal inability that sin means for us, the awful reality of hell, and the centrality and uniqueness of the cross-work of Jesus in atoning for our sin and opening the path to life. He was serious and he was sober and he was visibly moved. When he had finished there was a strong response in the hall, with extra chairs being needed to enlarge the mercy seat. 

My own reaction throughout his sermon was tears of relief and happiness to just hear the gospel. Here was the truth, presented with care and passion. It was thematic rather than expository, the themes unfolded with deliberate precision, firmness and love. The night before, I had actually said to Sarah that I was considering leaving the Army for lack of gospel clarity and hope; here was the very message to steady and encourage me. I wept with joy that anyone in a big SA gathering would publicly and strongly affirm the points he made. 

And it is that sense of surprise and relief that makes me write this postscript. With one arguable exception, at no point did he go a single doctrinal step beyond what every soldier and officer says they believe when they make their commitment and covenant. He proclaimed to cadets of the Salvation Army doctrines that they themselves will publicly affirm at their commissioning in two years, truths to which every soldier and officer in attendance has subscribed. And yet, what was striking was how out of the ordinary it was. And the fact that, alongside the widespread reactions of glad receptivity and personal commitment following from what he said, there was also a palpable undercurrent of shock and some negativity.

In the Salvation Army we have multiple belief streams. We have diverse approaches to truth coexisting, sometimes happily, sometimes with tensions, occasionally clashing severely. That diversity is perhaps more visible on Facebook than it usually is in major formal gatherings, but it is there nonetheless, and can surface. I’ve written before about the need to recognise that diversity, and to work out how to talk to one another within it. But for me, Saturday’s meeting highlighted two paradigm shifts with regard to doctrine that need to occur if the Salvation Army in the UK is to recover its role as an evangelistic, growing church. 

The first has to do with the nature of “Doctrine” in itself – or “The Doctrines” in themselves. I know that sometimes they are honoured as much in being ignored as being looked at; I've lost count of the number of Salvationists who have told me that there was a cursory or even dismissive discussion of the doctrines when they became soldiers. Or no discussion at all. 

And one gets the impression that when we do look seriously at doctrine, it tends to be primarily with a view to just such moments of transition. Doctrinal study occurs in preparation for our key steps of commitment – be it preparation of recruits for soldiership or cadets for commissioning. Approached like that, it is all too easy to see the doctrines as a static test, a one-off exam, a hurdle to be jumped. But doctrine is actually doctrine. It is the stuff we teach. It is a summary of our message. Doctrine is what we say, what we proclaim. It is an active, dynamic, exciting concept. “We who are being commissioned today are looking forward to getting these truths out into the communities which we serve.”

The trouble with the word “doctrine” is that for some reason it gives the impression of stuffy dustiness, of staticness. It is not only in TSA that “The Doctrines” are those old statements which are signed ‘at the beginning’ and never more referred to. But that isn't and can't be and mustn't be the case for any church. We should be saying, “Here is the centre of our message!” This is what we talk about, what we proclaim: God in his glory, his Word in its authority, his Son in his wonderful person and atoning work, his Spirit and his holy-making transformation, the eternal urgency of it all. When a senior officer proclaims the doctrines of the Salvation Army at a welcome service for new cadets, and that is cause for remark or even complaint, it does leave you wondering what he is supposed to be preaching!  We need to recover the Doctrines as Message, as Teaching and Preaching synopsis.

The other paradigm shift that is needed is to accept that the Salvation Army doctrines are a statement of specifically evangelical doctrine. Actually, they are a statement of a subset of evangelical doctrine; the eleven sections are a description of specifically Wesleyan belief and exclude evangelicals of other streams. They are more restrictive than the breadth of Evangelicalism, and deliberately so. 

Now, one of the oddities in Salvation Army theological circles is the frequent affirmation that the opposite is the case.  It is said that the doctrines were always very flexible, very broad, very accepting. The implication is that our statement is actually wider than evangelical doctrine. Indeed, despite the Army’s own self-description as an “Evangelical part of the Christian Church” (see, e.g. here), it seems fairly common to show disdain even towards the word evangelical. Given the awful mess the term finds itself in through association with Trumpery and the like in the USA, I can empathise, but historically there is no doubt that our doctrines position us squarely in one specific part of the movement called evangelicalism. 

The view we need to recover can be shown diagrammatically like this: against the backdrop of all the “non-evangelical” options out there, evangelicalism classically defines itself in terms of its beliefs. Salvationism, with its roots in the Methodist New Connexion, is a narrower subset within the evangelical family. Anyone coming to the SA doctrines with previous experience of the great, detailed, 17th century confessions (Westminster, Savoy, London), and then of the short 19th and 20th century doctrinal bases of the evangelical movement (EA, IVF, WEC, OMF etc) would immediately recognise the SA statement as falling into the pattern of the latter group. They would also quickly spot that we have a distinct Wesleyan slant that has deliberately excluded Calvinists, who would be welcome alongside Arminians in the other evangelical bodies. 

In contrast to this, a common view at present is shown in the second diagram. What is frequently implied, or even explicitly stated, is that the Doctrines are somehow wider and more flexible than evangelicalism, taking in views that would certainly be regarded as non-evangelical historically and at present. 

That the first diagram corresponds accurately to our historic and present identity is borne out by the excellent introduction to our Handbook of Doctrine:

Our doctrinal statement, then, derives from the teaching of John Wesley and the evangelical awakening of the 18th and 19th centuries. While there was significant correspondence between evangelicals in the mid-19th century, indicated especially in the nine-point statement of the Evangelical Alliance of 1846, the distinctives of Salvation Army doctrine came from Methodism. The Salvation Army Handbook Of Doctrine Page xviii

The tendency to emphasise the breadth and liberty implicit in the doctrines often leads to discussing them with an emphasis on flexibility and diversity of interpretation rather than from the standpoint of definite and clear shared truth. Sometimes one feels that the driving motive for this claimed flexibility is precisely the accommodation of non-evangelical views while “affirming” the doctrines. Beliefs that the SA founders were deliberately and explicitly excluding are now accepted as falling within the range permitted by a new, elastic reading of the founders' words. It is that reading which is an innovation, and insofar as it seems to permit people to say they believe the doctrines while actually believing something else, it is a danger to the movement. 

This may have been one motive for any angst at the TC’s sermon; by appearing to foreclose the question of “flexibility” through affirming the doctrines, he seemed to make that elasticity and the whole business of “exploring interpretations” look redundant, or worse.  Certainly, what he had to say entered into sharp confrontation with simple unbelief. I cannot forget being told “No one believes those crazy doctrines!” by an SA employee some years ago; however much that statement came out of immaturity and the desire to shock, I think it was a manifestation of a mindset with which the TC came into conflict at the welcome weekend.

I know I am an oddity in TSA. I can’t even sign the doctrines myself! But I am honest about that, and I don’t sign them. And I am trying to honour them. And I don’t think I am alone in longing for one thing, and one thing alone, to dominate again in our church – we want Jesus and his gospel. We long to hear about God and his creation and our fall into sin, and new hope through his Kingdom coming in Jesus. We long to hear about Jesus’ life and kindness and wisdom and death and resurrection and the coming of his Spirit. We long to hear about repentance and faith and assurance and growth and holiness and hope and homecoming. We long to hear about heaven and hell. We long for the old, old story. We long for a message which is recognisably the message of our Founders. We long for Blood and Fire – the atoning work of Christ, preached in the power of the Spirit.

That is what God gave us through the TC last Saturday night. We don’t yet know whether the hardest task for the Messengers of the Gospel is going to be to go on preaching the authentic message when they are ridiculed by the world... or ridiculed by the church. But until the headline “Territorial Commander Affirms the Doctrines at Cadetsʼ Welcome; All Present Agree Fully” sounds a bit less Babylon Bee, I fear that it may be the latter.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Messengers of the Gospel

Sessional Song
24th September 2016 and yet another Cadetsʼ Session began at William Booth College, London, as it did at other Salvation Army training colleges around the world. As ever, the session has a name: Messengers of the Gospel. I think that the General has decided that the next few sessions will all be Messengers. This is an interesting move, which may reveal something of what he sees as the pressing priorities of the time. 

What does it mean to be a Messenger of the Gospel  ̶  or even a messenger of the gospel, as every Christian should be?

First, you have to be a gospel person. You have to believe the gospel and live the gospel. The heart of Christianity, as summarised in our own Doctrines, must be in your own heart. God, who spoke the world into existence, has gone on speaking into the world he made, even after we had turned our backs on him. We were so affected by our rebellion, morally incapacitated in all aspects of life, that we had rendered ourselves unable to get right with God. We were cut off, estranged from him, strangers to his kingdom. But God, in his amazing mercy, grace, kindness and love to the utterly undeserving, sent his Son, his Word, into the world, incarnate as Jesus. This Jesus brings Godʼs kingdom into a kingdom-rejecting world  ̶  he brings rebels back to God. At the heart of his work was his atoning death on the cross, which dealt with the problem of sin and opened the way that we might know God. That is seriously good news  ̶  it is real gospel  ̶  and it is communicated to the world by the Holy Spirit, who opens eyes to see Jesus, changes lives to look like Jesus, and opens mouths to speak of Jesus. Godʼs word through people, empowered by the Spirit, is  a dead-raising, life-giving, world-transforming word that ALWAYS makes a difference. That is how God builds his kingdom, and this powerful, kingdom-building, Word-Spirit communication will go on until the end of the age. Then there will be a judgement, and our lives, and our treatment of this Jesus who we encounter in the gospel word, will go on trial. And then there will be two eternal destinations  ̶  one of unspeakable joy in Jesusʼ new world and another of unspeakable sadness in the place to which Jesus sends determined exiles. 

That, in some form of words or other, is the Message. A messenger needs to believe it for themselves. You need to be a real Christian. You need to know and love this Jesus and his saving love and work for you. You need to be living a life which is being shaped into his likeness by his word and by his Spirit. You need to worship him with your mind, learning more and more of the shape of this message, and working out how to communicate it in your context and generation.

Because that is what you are going to do. Here is the second requirement: You have to be a speaking person. With life changed and heart on fire, with mind engaged and will responsive to His call, you will be looking all the time for ways and means to get that message over. You will be a conscious messenger, a communicator of this message in words. You know that it isnʼt a matter of “when necessary, use words”; you know that God has given you a message to get across, and your duty and joy is to use words in the best way possible to show people Jesus. 

To be a messenger of the gospel is at one level to be as free as a bird. You donʼt have to answer to earthly masters, impress the great and good, get the approval of intellectual elites and academic examining boards. Even your accountability to the law of the land is relativised by having a message that comes from God. You have no one to impress but Jesus. You can be free of all earthly limits, but you are not free to adulterate or skew the message,  to make it more acceptable to the latest incarnation of “this corrupt generation.”  That you cannot do. You are free to communicate verbally in any way you like, provided you are totally unoriginal with regard to the message itself.

You must use your freedom, because if you donʼt, you will preach irrelevantly. You must be unoriginal, because if you arenʼt, you will fill the hearts and minds of your hearers with a fake gospel which converts no one. You will become part of the great process of vaccinating people against the gospel which has been a major and disastrous accomplishment of the church in the West for so long. Don't fall for that - be a real Messenger of the real Gospel.

So far as the cadets in London SE5 are concerned, there are many, I'm sure, who want to commit to praying for you all that you may really be what your sessional name implies and demands of you. And we pledge to help in any way that we can to stimulate and encourage you in the communication of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Personally, I canʼt do much; I am a fly on the wall at WBC, and on an outside wall at that! But I hope at least Iʼm a benign fly and not a hornet, and Sarah is certainly a productive bee; our home is open for cadets to come and talk, share and study.

And if youʼre not in SE5, thereʼs always the Internet!