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The Salvation Army and the Eucharist: Mission First

The Salvation Army does not practice the Eucharist. Instead it chooses to see Christ in all aspects of life, especially in our mission to the world.

The History of The Salvation Army and the Eucharist

In its early days, God led The Salvation Army not to observe specific sacraments including the Eucharist, sometimes known as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion (amongst other names). God helped us to see the danger in relying on external rituals to signify the experience they point to.

A Sacramental People

However, Salvationists are a sacramental people. We find God living and at work not in bread and wine but in our every day life experiences. We celebrate his presence in our own lives and the lives of others by connecting them with the earthly life of Jesus.

A Sacramental Mission

Radically, we also find God in our mission. We believe that when our lives bring grace, healing and reconciliation to the world around us, then Christ can be seen. One of my most cherished Salvation Army songs, written by General Albert Orsborn, reminds me:

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.

2 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.

3 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.

Albert Orsborn (1886-1967)
© The General of The Salvation Army.

Used By Permission. CCL Licence No. 30158
Copied from The Song Book of The Salvation Army
Song Number 610

Recently, in a discussion on The Salvation Army and the Eucharist, a Salvationist dismissed our radical approach to sacramental mission as mythology that surrounds the original decision not to practice the Eucharist and argued this song was not an adequate explanation as to why we do not practice the Eucharist.

My Life is Christ’s Broken Bread and Outpoured Wine

I disagree. In our mission to save souls, grow saints and serve suffering humanity Christ can be seen. My life is sacramental, my life is Christ’s broken bread and outpoured wine when it is centred on Christ and when it reveals and offers to others the unexpected grace he has shown me and longs to show to them. Christ is seen when I speak on behalf of God. Christ is seen when my lifestyle reflects him. Christ is seen wherever you see compassion for the lost, lonely and vulnerable. Radical love for the marginalised in our society is an image of God.

Experiencing Christ in Our Mission

The Salvation Army would never suggest Christians should not practice the Eucharist, if it helps them connect with God. But we do testify that we can see, smell, hear, touch and taste Christ in our mission to the world as we share God’s grace with those around us.

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

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23 thoughts on “The Salvation Army and the Eucharist: Mission First”

  1. Lieutenant,
    Thank you for your post on the Eucharist. It is something my family, and especially I, have struggled with as we began attending the corps here in Tucson, AZ. I was a high-church United Methodist minister before relocating to Arizona to be near my widowed father (I now teach on the Tohono-o-Odham Nation at a Franciscan mission school and play guitar for Mass). My youngest son and grandson (both the same age) have taken the step and become junior soldiers and our faith home is with the local corps.
    As a high-church Methodist, it’s been something of a transition and I have yet to make the step forward. But I do find what you write about the Eucharist (and what I’ve read elsewhere to have a good deal of truth). The late Alan Kreider (a Mennonite who served in England), documented many times over that early Christian gatherings were centered around an actual meal where the hungry were fed and all enjoyed koinonia. Interestingly, some early Anabaptists took the same approach. Hans Denck was one of the proto-Quakers in their midst.
    I have read that the Salvation Army (in its own Methodist roots) did at one time practice the Agape or Love Feast regularly. Still, I agree that all life is sacramental (Osborn’s poem sums it up perfectly). In addition, the good works done through soup, soap, and salvation are no less sacramental than anything in the high church traditions. I did my MA on the Lord’s Supper at Corinth and concluded that a “real meal deal” was what was at stake. Ritual is nice and can have great personal meaning, but it can also serve to isolate us from concrete love for neighbor (and enemy).
    Forgive my rambling.
    In peace,
    Randy Myers

    1. Hi Randy. Thanks for your response and for engaging with the content of this post. It is a tricky subject, and I can well appreciate how much of a transition it is having come from a tradition that practices the sacraments. The Love Feast does seem to have fallen into disuse in many Salvation Army settings. I am not sure why. Certainly, the Spiritual Life Commission encouraged its use when it issued its report in 1999. Perhaps we need reminding of the theology behind it? Or maybe our emphasis on Christ as the one true sacrament and whole-life sacramental living has superseded even that ritual meal.

      It’s good to hear from you, and I pray God’s blessing on you and your family as you continue your journey in faith.

      In Christ.


      1. Thank you, sir.
        I hope to speak to our officers after the pandemic lets up here in AZ about next steps.
        Will keep in touch.
        Covet your prayers.

  2. Salvationists I know of regularly practice the Sacraments and have been baptised as they feel it important in their spiritual life. As an Officer I have no problem with this provided they also understand living the sacramental life.. which they do. We are not anti-sacraments but do not practice them within our movement. Personally I think that a lot of our issues arise from developing into a Church rather than focusing upon being a Mission to the unconverted. The Idea of clergy and laity seems to have crept in to the extent that Soldiers have said to me they are not good enough to pray or lead worship… every soldier and officer should be engaged in the salvation war as ‘missionaries’ and feel equiped for the task. May God bless us as His movement – and yes as part of His body the Church of God on earth… but distinctly The Salvation Army.

  3. Rob, you make the statement that: The Salvation Army would never suggest Christians should not practice the Eucharist, if it helps them connect with God.
    But, our official stance contradicts this. As Christians seeking to be “Jesus with skin on”, serving Him as soldiers of this peculiar religious order- The Salvation Army- could it be true that we too could be helped in our connection with God?
    Here in Australia many corps incorporate Eucharistic observances in meetings; some perform baptisms.
    The response I receive in seeking to understand their rationale is driven by a passion to be all things to all people, if by some means they might be won for Christ.
    I observe that these communities of faith “crossing the official line” are healthily growing the Kingdom of God on earth.

    1. Hi Mervyn. My statement is based on what our Handbook of Doctrine says.

      I think we have to be careful when suggesting cause and effect. Can we really say those communities of faith are growing because they practice some kind of Eucharistic observance or would they be growing at the same rate without it? I couldn’t say I definitively know the answer to that.

  4. Rob, we might want to be careful about suggesting that The Army’s non-practicing position with regards to the sacraments was divinely inspired. Most of the literature that exists where William Booth discusses the issue makes no allusion to divine direction. But Booth does state that the decision was arrived at in order to avoid theological controversy within the church. The Christian Mission maintained the Methodist practices because Booth was, at that time, a Methodist minister. And Methodism at that time was a sect/branch of the Church of England. When Booth took the Christian Mission in a new direction as The Salvation Army and incorporated it as an independent evangelical movement, he determined then that his movement would not practice the sacraments to avoid controversy with other churches. He even stated that the sacraments should be reinstituted at such a time as they become valuable for Salvationists as a means of grace. That the Army did not begin as a church, but is now accepted as a church by most Salvationists and by self-identity, perhaps the time has come for serious consideration to be given to what it would look like for us to bring the practices back, rather than continue the self-talk about what ministry and membership looks like without the practices. I think the Army has flogged that horse enough.

    1. A good point, Peter, though I would hope that even ecclesiogical decisions might be made with some divine inspiration! My problem with your suggestion is that whilst I understand senior leadership has embraced The Salvation Army being a church in many territories, manufacturing Salvationists (including me) believe we should not be. We are a Christian movement, not a church.

  5. I can hardly believe that a supposedly Bible-based Christian Church would choose to ignore – or even deny – a clear and important passage of God’s Word and then claim that God had led them to be the only Christian Church to be told the passage was not important enough to obey.

    Every other Christian Church observes the Lird’s Supper in obedience to Scripture – AND each of their members treats everyday life as the opportunity to show Christ in action.

    It would be arrogant of The Army to believe it is the only one to show Christ’s love in action. In fact, while all Christians do that, The Army has become the odd-one-out by refusing to obey Jesus’ instructions to “Do this in remembrance of me” … AND His command to “Repent and be Baptised”.

    No amount of scholastic re-interpretation of those verses can make the Army stance right.

    Finally may I remind everyone that when surveyed some time ago, some 85% of the public interviewed thought the Army was just another Social Work organisation – completely failing to see … or failing to recognise … Christ in what they were doing. That finding completely invalidates the statement that the work is an adequate substitute for The Lord’s Supper (AND Baptism) in witnessing to the Power and Love of Jesus.

  6. I was hoping for an actual look into the history of the Salvation Army and the Eucharist, given the heading. There’s no mention of the fact that the dismissal was because it was often rote and misunderstood.

    However, if you ask a great many salvationists (soldiers and officers alike) what the sacramental life means, your answers would indicate an equally distressing lack of understanding as to its significance.

    What if, instead of dismissing the outward symbols, we simply educated people as to what they meant? The reason It is so beautifully significant to a great many people is because it is a reflection of what they understand to be true.

    If we are eliminating outward signs purely because they are outward signs – then it is also time to get rid of the uniforms.

    It is true that Christ is seen when we minister in various ways – that our lives are to reflect Christ as we do all of those wonderful things. Christ did, after all, tell us to do them. However, he also told us to “do this in rememberancr of me”. Justifying the dismissal of one instruction because we are following others is not a strong defense.

    We should be sacramental in our lives – as well as in practicing those ancient habits that point us to our Savior. Worshipping and fellowshipping with the Church universal.

    1. Thanks for engaging Jason. Others have dealt with the history. I wanted to remind Salvationists of what the decision not to practice certain sacraments should mean today. I completely agree with your second paragraph, which is why I would suggest we forget arguing about whether or not we should start practising rituals we felt God called us not to and focus on ensuring that we do know, without a shadow of a doubt, what it means to live a sacramental life.

      1. Understanding is deeply needed, and of primary importance.

        However, as we clearly seem to believe, signs, symbols, and practices are helpful to redirect the mind toward the meaning within. We wear uniforms, we salute, we have a deeply symbolic crest, we sing the doxology, we have holiness tables and mercy seats. We believe symbols and outward expressions are important – but only when they fit the narrative we like.

        Educate – demonstrate – participate. All of them are important in the life of the believer in any type of sacrament – whether the more traditionally symbolic, or the living sign of Christ..

  7. Moira Mae Underwood

    I’m wondering if I am the only person who was struck by the irony of the statement “God helped us to see the dangers of being reliant on external rituals”?
    As an army we love our rituals !!

    1. You are right, of course, but we should be careful always to emphasise the inward grace they symbolise. I recognise we could do the same for sacraments, but remain convinced God has called us not to practise these.

  8. I believe The Salvation Army is doing it self a disservice by not participating in some of the biblical ritual. As a Salvationist I think it cost us new members, a lot of people love the work the Army does they volunteer with us but won’t worship with us because of this.
    I think is time the leadership of this wonderful organization of ours take another look at with a view to remedy the situation.

    1. Hi Leon. On the contrary, I believe The Salvation Army was called to be of service to both the world and the universal church by not practising some of these rituals. I understand some won’t want to worship with us because of that, but the important thing is they worship somewhere. My personal experience is that I have attended a church where I was excluded from participating in communion because I was not baptised in that church, and I found that just as deeply painful. I suspect there are a number of people who worship with us because they are not placed in that position.

  9. I can deal with not celebrating the Eucharist as it’s become a ceremony which I don’t really think was as Christ intended. I struggle a little more with the lack of observance of baptism. What are your thoughts?

    1. Hi Jon. Thanks for engaging. That’s possibly material for another post! But quickly, it’s another outward symbol of an inward grace. In other words, it signifies the transformation that takes place at the moment of salvation. We believe the most important thing in this is that the person is baptised in the Holy Spirit. And we celebrate this through enrolments, amongst other things. Non-observance of baptism is another way we try to ensure we don’t rely on the external and focus on the internal change.

      1. Thanks Rob.

        I get that, and I get the official position. But(!), Jesus said “Go and make disciples, baptising them…”. It’s a direct command. Whilst it is an outward expression of an internal and spiritual transformation that has already happened in a believers life, it’s an outward expression commanded by Jesus.

        Anyway – bless you for your blogging. It’s both interesting an helpful so keep the conversations going. 🙂

        1. Thanks for your encouragement Jon. Baptism is mentioned only a handful of times in the New Testament as a condition of salvation or of making disciples. Jesus also told the woman, “Your faith has saved you” with no mention of baptism being required. Cornelius and his household were saved and baptised in the Holy Spirit. Water baptism wasn’t necessary. There are over 20 other occasions of salvation where baptism isn’t mentioned. I continue to believe the inward change is the most important thing.

          1. Hi Rob

            I don’t hold out that water baptism is necessary to salvation. I didn’t intend to give that impression. I do believe that an outward expression of salvation that was expressly commanded by Jesus may well be an important sacrament to offer and support. TSA does need to continue to reflect on its stance on various things and adapt according to meeting the need ms of those we are called to save, whilst maintaining its identity as a holiness movement.

            Whilst I value what has become the traditions and ceremonial trappings that the army has developed over the years I see them simply as that. Any reliance on, or exaltation of those risks the increeping of religiosity where relationship is key.

            I suppose the issue of the sacraments is far more about the hierarchy’s historical actively anti-sacramental approach, which is difficult to justify when we have replaced one sacrament with another (eg. baptism with enrolment).

            But, irrespective of relationship, the real issue I see for TSA, certainly in the UK, is the lack of willingness to fully embrace the covanented life of a soldier, or, more dangerously, the outward expression of that covenant whilst the lifestyle doesn’t align with the value and lifestyle that public pronouncement would indicate.

            As William Booth said “When TSA ceases to be a militant body of red hot men and women, whose business is the saving of souls, I hope it vanished utterly.” “I’m not ready for it to be less than God intended”.

            I guess the risk is we are ok with TSA being what we want and are comfortable with, and not what God intended.

            So I’ve digressed. But, we need these conversations, and those willing to engage in the conversation should be encouraged and heard. The work of TSA is not done yet, but maybe it’s not TSA who will end up doing it – if we don’t grasp the vision and move.

          2. I totally agree with you as regards the real issue, Jon. Hence this post.

            But we do have to be careful of the language we use to. I would not describe The Salvation Army as anti-sacramental. As Commissioner Charles Durman has commented on this post elsewhere on Facebook, the Booths suspended use of the sacraments, they did not ban them. And The Salvation Army has never said that our Christian brothers and sisters should not practice the sacraments. Simply that we are called to worship differently.

            But you’re right, we do need these conversations. Thanks for having one!

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