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Theological Drift - A New Reality Within
The Salvation Army

by Captain Erin L. Wikle

Originally published in Volume 4 of The Western Territorial Salvation Army Biblical, Theological, and Missiological Society.

 

Introduction: Under Pressure

 

In the age of deconstruction and post-pandemic life, post-Christian America is experiencing dissatisfaction accepting simple faith in Jesus. Some seek a faith less limited and tethered to a biblical heritage and history that collides with the pervasive and convincing values of secular Western culture.

 

It stands to reason while we (followers of Jesus) should not be divorced from culture, perhaps we too, should not be wed to her. Recall to mind Jesus’ wisdom when he said we are to be in the world, not of it.[1] Consider then how culture has not just had her way with the world but is demanding (though not for the first time) the devotion of the church. Culture is deceptive, persuasive, fickle, and feigns satisfaction. She is ever boasting: “to thine own self be true”.[2] Estranged from True Reality which anchors right thinking, right living, and righteousness itself, she has captivated our gaze.

 

We are under pressure. We are a polarized nation holding fast to its freedoms. We are a divided people bearing the scars of every hill we have insisted on dying upon. Racial tension is at an all-time high. Equity and individuality are at the forefront of the new American dream, as is transcending the limits of human design. Never before have we had access to so much information. Twenty-four-hour news cycles and platforms espousing opinion and self-canonized truth wreak havoc on the human psyche, having become systems of widespread indoctrination entirely unto themselves (because if it is written, it must be “true.”). Meanwhile, everyone has become a best-selling author.

 

In view of this, what course of action does scripture advise regarding the teaching of truth?

 

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.[3]

 

If the time referred to in this passage is not now, it is simply a matter of when. Written near the time of his death, the words of Paul remain a critical warning today where “the self—not God or Scripture—is the new locus of authority in Western culture.”[4]

 

When under significant pressure, the human body enters a stress response of “fight-or-flight.” How will we respond to such pressure threatening the very core of our thinking, believing, and operating as a people of God who have been given all authority in heaven and earth to do just as Jesus’ disciples did?[5]

 

Thesis

 

This paper explores the critical dangers of theological drift to our movement, with novel doctrine and culturally motivated reinterpretations threatening the authentic witness and mission of Jesus as expressed by The Salvation Army. This is examined through how theological drift relates to our foundation, our beliefs, and our practice.

 

The Threat of Theological Drift

 

The term “drift” implies gradual movement from a starting point. Our starting point is the life of Christ Himself, revealed through scripture which is infallible. Recall the Road to Emmaus, how both travelers were kept from recognizing Jesus until He reminded them what Scripture and the prophets said about who He was and disclosed himself as Immanuel, the Word made flesh. “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him…”[6] Remember how their hearts burned within them when they were helped in their unbelief by Jesus himself.[7] So, too, the problem of post-Christian America does not exceed the solution of a post-resurrection Jesus. There is no truth that is not connected to the narrative of God’s self-revealing and saving action through the person of Jesus Christ. How we view and interact with the world must be entirely encompassed by the Gospel.[8] More than a perspective or lens by which we interpret the world, Jesus invites us to receive His Kingdom where He has more than taken up residence but is Lord. By his authority, He invites us to citizenship that requires both obedience to and emulation of the Risen King Himself.[9]

 

Drift occurs over time. Most may not realize they have arrived at a new idea, belief, or different theological destination altogether because the nature of “drift” is derived from its subtlety. One hardly knows he has wandered before realizing he is lost. Imagine where those on the Emmaus Road may have wound up had Jesus not appeared before them. Remember how Cleopas explained that he had hoped Jesus was the one.[10] This is no criticism against thinking deeply about how we arrive at belief, nor is this an indictment on deconstruction itself. Deconstruction is not the problem; rebuilding on anything but a firm foundation is. Blind faith is also not the answer. Rather, the answer is faithfulness to the person of Jesus as revealed through Scripture and history. This must remain our foundation: “We believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were given by inspiration of God, and that they only constitute the Divine rule of Christian faith and practice.”[11]

 

Orthodoxy: A Totalizing Gospel

 

Fifty days after the resurrection, Pentecost occurred, and the early church was formed and catalyzed following the events our entire faith hinges upon. The early church centered itself on devotion to the apostle’s teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer; everything was shared and held in common.[12] Yet, this early faith community would soon experience its first fracture when Ananias and Sapphira, swayed by a simple lie sewn into the fabric of their thinking, would assert: we don’t have everything we need. Thus, they took what God was not giving them, lied about it, and received death as their reward. When others soon heard about it, a people first compelled by Love became gripped with fear.[13] The letters written over the course of Peter, Paul, and John’s lives and ministries remind us of what seemed a constant calling back to truth and full trust in Jesus, from the beginning. For centuries, this has been the plight of the church.

 

Though it rapidly advanced across nations, extending to both Jews and Gentiles moving beyond cultural boundaries, the Gospel of Jesus was met with contention and contempt by those who could not accept Truth in its totality. Those who rejected the gospel completely were less a threat to the church than those who rejected it in part. Paul in his letter to the Romans wrote about those who knew God but did not glorify Him, saying: “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.”[14] To the church in Colossae and Laodicea he warns, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy.”[15] To the church in Corinth he appeals, “that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”[16] To the church in Ephesus he reminds, “You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.”[17] And so church history would include stories of schisms, both great and small, and the rise of denominational distinctives, setting faith groups distinctly apart from each other, where they could not otherwise agree.

 

And what of this rising reality within The Salvation Army? Of greatest concern is growing disagreement over matters of social justice, human sexuality and expressive individualism, transhumanism, and acceptance of the Bible as complete and all-encompassing – each indicating a lack of unity in “mind and thought.”[18] What we believe must be centered on the Gospel and the truth of scripture properly interpreted. Interpretations themselves may seem fruitless, but each perspective is not relative. We must put in the work to determine the most likely intent of the biblical authors and thus arrive at the meaning and truth God has for our lives. Those outspoken about certain theological distinctives, on many sides, have experienced cancel culture run amuck. We aim for healthy dialogue to affirm the truth of God but lack strategy for what happens when we honestly disagree with each other and cannot reconcile perspectives.

 

What happens when there is disagreement about what the Word says? Will acceptance of novel interpretations become the only reasonable way to avoid division, altogether? More likely and more dangerous would be that we look away, ignoring the tell-tale signs of theological drift, uniting instead over what we are most famous for: doing good. The issues of our beliefs, doctrines, and Scriptural interpretations must be dealt with. Dr. Stephen Blakemore, philosophical theologian, warns, “failure to deal with the Church’s nature and focus on the Church’s mission can lead to a kind of cultural “Babylonian captivity.” Focus on the “how” questions without serious consideration of the identity of the Church can lead to a preoccupation with what the situation of the world is “demanding” of the Church.”[19]

 

It is not that Jesus has called us away from fulfilling his mission on this earth. It is simply that we must not allow our doing to precede our being. It is not either-or, but both-and. What we think, believe, and know to be true about the Gospel of Jesus Christ is vital. It can never be an after-thought. What we think informs what we believe. What we believe informs our ability to rightfully engage in mission. With the confession of Christ on our lips, it is how mission bears out through our apostolic witness to the world that matters.

 

The Gospel of Jesus, upon which our entire movement came to be, is totalizing, touching every corner and crevice of our thinking and doing, finding no closet door closed or attic space un-swept.[20] It is not a gospel of convenience, rather one quite inconvenient and unconventional given the narrows Jesus calls us to live within and the widening path the world says it prefers.

 

Brian Zahnd, author and expert in the age of deconstruction writes: “[…] We all have a theological house – some of it we inherit and some of it we construct ourselves. Our theological house is not Jesus, but the space that Jesus inhabits in our thought and speech. Our theological house can be helpful and enhancing, worthy of our King, or it can be inadequate, possibly injurious, and unworthy of our King.”[21]

 

What will those whose human needs we are positioned to meet come to know about Jesus? Will we adopt a message loosely based on the Bible for the sake of making it more palatable? Or will we pick apart Scripture to better suit the moment, allowing secular culture to dictate what is needed?

 

Needham writes of the challenge of keeping the Salvationist movement truly alive, calling our attention to the “either or” prioritization issues of our institution: evangelism or discipleship, social outreach or spiritual witness,[22] as though our work in these unique spheres is not of one garment – each thread tightly woven together in both faith and practice. It is here our orthodoxy must intersect with our orthopraxy.

 

Orthopraxy: Love God, Love Others

 

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself…’”[23]

 

In other words: “Love God, love others. Poignant at best, this seems somewhat an ill-defined, oversimplification of mission. What is it to truly know and practice love as it was designed, embodied, and intended by God Himself?

 

Let us begin here: God is love.[24] His essence is Father, Spirit, and Son, each person deferring to the other. He was before the foundations of the earth. And He will always be. Jesus, the very image of the invisible God,[25] whose life was poured out in an act of decisive revelation displays to humankind a Creator who “truly is love, [whose] divine power is not a ruling fist, but an open bleeding hand.”[26]

 

John writes, “Beloved let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows (γινώσκω/ ginōskō) God.”[27] The call to action emanates from our first being loved. It is not that God gave us love, but Himself is love, and has given us Himself. Then in verse 11, Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us, and his love is perfected in us.” Love is perfected in us.

 

We love because we know capital “L” Love, not love as the world defines, describes, or demands it. Jesus commands we first love God entirely – with heart, soul, and mind – nothing withheld. Second, He commands we love our neighbor. Let love be actualized through our doing: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, serve the needy, sit with the lonely, welcome the estranged. But what more? Blakemore contends, “Calling people to repent is an act of love as much as meeting needs. The last is easier, but fallen culture confuses and corrupts us, and confronting people’s lifestyles and worldviews regarding gender, race, sexuality, greed, rage, and meaning, is to offer holy love’s healing, recreating gift.”[28]

 

If love is perfected in us, does it not point right back to Jesus who is Holy Love, Himself? Identity-obsessed Western culture says love affirms and agrees. In Jesus’ economy and in His Kingdom, it’s different: love doesn’t give itself over to the whims of culture for the sake of agreement, it stands for truth and leads with grace. Author and speaker John Mark Comer writes this about Jesus: “You do see [Him] say hard things on a regular basis – uncomfortable things, unpopular things, the kind of things that eventually got him killed. But most of the time, his tone was tender and wise. […] Jesus disagreed with people constantly, in love.”[29]

 

Acceptance and affirmation are headlining this cultural moment. Human nature has become something individuals or societies have taken to invent for themselves.[30] The Creation Story in Genesis highlights humanity as the crown of God’s creation, the culminating result of His Divine work, saving the very best for last. Creating us male and female, designed in His perfect image, but otherwise incomplete, Holy Love breathes His being into our bones.[31] Yet, contradicting this Biblical narrative is the notion that “the world exists as raw material to be manipulated by our own power to its own purposes, requiring humanity to bear the burden of discovering meaning and purpose entirely on its own, according to its own terms”[32] We were created; we are not being created, or recreated for that matter. It is inarguable: if we did not make ourselves, we cannot define ourselves.[33] Yet, with “love” so tightly bound to affirmation and acceptance (no questions asked), we have condemned our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, to some sort of “hell on earth” where Jesus has no right to access the whole of who they are. This wrong ideology will only ever result in the resurrected Jesus being anything but King. We must come back to a fuller understand of what it means that God is love.

 

Conclusion: Strengthen What Remains

 

Where we do not agree, what might result? Dr. Andy Miller, Professor of Historical Theology, suggests, “We are essentially a part of two different Armies.”[34] We must first acknowledge that “functionally and theologically,” separation has already occurred within our movement.[35] Though inherently united in Christ, The Salvation Army suffers from fundamental disagreement over what is truth and what is true reality. Competing Scriptural interpretations span the spectrum of faith in Jesus, resulting in the real challenge to reconcile differences. James warns, “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.”[36] We now face a crisis of identity, our One Army suffering the ill-effects of not knowing what it believes, though it remains unchanged within our doctrine. As Commissioner Needham urges in his seminal work, Christ at the Door, we must decide who we are, warning of “the creeping intrusion and unconscious adoption of the values of the surrounding culture” which seeks to threaten the church and water down the ethics of Jesus.[37] On either side of the camp, Jesus did not give us his resurrection power that we might pervert it for our purposes. [38] We must do the hard work of prayerfully and graciously engaging in hard conversations with those we do not share everything in common.

 

As Salvationists, we must continue to affirm that Scripture in its totality is inspired by God and contains His saving revelation, [thus] its authority “overshadows all other authority.”[39] Nothing should persuade us otherwise: not personal opinion, not social pressure, not secular rhetoric, not theological drift. “[Scripture’s] authority supersedes all other claims, and its teaching authenticates all other spiritual truth.”[40] Subverting the authority of Scripture threatens to dismantle the grounds by which we can reliably know our Triune God, understand the essence of humanity, and interpret His best for our lives. If we cannot stand firmly on what the word of God says, we cannot stand at all. We must “strengthen what remains” for the sake of the church, for the sake of the lost, for the sake of The Salvation Army.[41]

 

There is work yet to be done. We each have a holy obligation to put our hand to the proverbial plough of reading and interpreting Scripture from a singular, Biblical worldview, faithfully imparting its meaning to those we witness to – this is love made manifest among God’s people. The authentic witness of The Salvation Army depends on its remaining anchored to True Reality which informs right thinking and practice. Where we have unanswered questions and unresolved concerns, we must engage in the hard conversations and have faith to take Jesus at his word.

 

 

 


 

Works Cited

 

Blakemore, G. Stephen. 2022. “Holy Love and the Church.” In Holy Love: Essays in Honor of Dr. M. William Ury. Ed. Diane Ury. Atlanta: The Salvation Army USA Southern Territory.

 

Comer, John Mark. 2021. Live No Lies : Recognize and Resist the Three Enemies That Sabotage Your Peace First ed. Colorado Springs: WaterBrook an imprint of Random House a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

 

Lodahl Michael E. 1994. The Story of God : Wesleyan Theology and Biblical Narrative. Kansas City Mo: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City.

 

Miller, Andrew S. “Conservative vs. Progressive Visions for the Salvation Army Part 1 with Christina Tyson”. Produced by Andrew S. Miller, III. More to the Story with Dr. Andy Miller III, May 11, 2003. Podcast, 77:00. https://andymilleriii.com/media/podcast/

 

Needham Philip D. 1987. Community in Mission : A Salvationist Ecclesiology. London: International Headquarters of the Salvation Army.

 

Needham Phil. 2018. Christ at the Door: Biblical Keys to Our Salvationist Future : A Resource for Helping Salvationists Revitalize Themselves & Their Corps. Alexandria. VA: Crest Books.

 

The Salvation Army Handbook of Doctrine. 2010. London: Salvation Books.

 

Trueman Carl R and Rod Dreher. 2020. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self : Cultural Amnesia Expressive Individualism and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Wheaton Illinois: Crossway.

 

Zahnd Brian. 2021. When Everything's on Fire : Faith Forged from the Ashes. Downers Grove Illinois: IVP an imprint of InterVarsity Press.

 

Zondervan Bible Publishers (Grand Rapids Mich). 2011. Holy Bible : New International Version Black Bonded Leather Thinline Bible. Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan.

 

 



[1] John 17:16 NIV.

 

[2] Shakespeare, Hamlet.

[3] 2 Timothy 4:2-4 NIV.

 

[4] John Mark Comer, Live No Lies, 117.

 

[5] Matthew 10:1-8 NIV.

[6] Luke 24:31 NIV.

 

[7] Luke 24:32 NIV.

 

[8] Blakemore, Stephen. “The Story of God’s Self-Revelation: Divine Action, Historical Narrative, Human Response, Explanatory Power. Ideological Threats to the Church at Wesley Biblical Seminary, January 24, 2022.

 

[9] Phil Needham Community in Mission, 109.

 

[10] Luke 24:21 NIV.

 

[11] The Salvation Army Handbook of Doctrine, 1.

 

[12] Acts 2:42-44 NIV.

 

[13] Act 3:5-11 NIV.

[14] Romans 1:21-25 NIV.

 

[15] Colossians 1:8 NIV.

 

[16] 1 Corinthians 1:10b NIV.

 

[17] Ephesians 2:18 NIV.

 

[18] 1 Corinthians 1:10b NIV

[19] Stephen Blakemore, Holy Love, 61-62.

 

[20] Blakemore, Stephen. “The Story of God’s Self-Revelation: Divine Action, Historical Narrative, Human Response, Explanatory Power. Ideological Threats to the Church at Wesley Biblical Seminary, January 24, 2022.

[21] Brian Zahnd, When Everything’s on Fire, 46.

 

[22] Phil Needham, Christ at the Door, 112-113.

 

[23] Matthew 22:37-40 NIV.

[24] 1 John 4:8 NIV.

 

[25] Colossians 1:15 NIV.

 

[26] Michael Lodahl, The Story of God, 60.

 

[27] 1 John 4:7 (NIV) know: γινώσκω/ginůsků: to know through personal experience, used to convey “knowing” as though through sexual intimacy.

[28] Stephen Blakemore, Holy Love, 68.

 

[29] John Mark Comer, Live No Lies, 57.

 

[30] Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 41.

 

[31] Genesis 1:27, 2:7 NIV breath of life: נִשְׁמַ֣ת/neshemah: refers to “Word”, different than “ruach” which refers more to the Spirit of God.

 

[32] Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 39, 41.

 

[33] Blakemore, Stephen. “Systematic Theology: Eschatological Perspective in All Our Soteriology.” Ideological Threats to the Church at Wesley Biblical Seminary, January 2, 2022.

[34] Andy Miller, Conservative vs. Progressive Visions for The Salvation Army, 1:05:55

 

[35] Andy Miller, Conservative vs. Progressive Visions for The Salvation Army, 1:08:08

 

[36] James 1:23-24 NIV

 

[37] Phil Needham, Christ at the Door, 104

 

[38] Romans 8:11 NIV

[39] The Salvation Army Handbook of Doctrine, 6

 

[40] The Salvation Army Handbook of Doctrine, 8

 

[41] Revelation 3:2 NIV

 

 

  

 

 

   

 

 

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