12 January 2023

What does it mean to be a soldier?

Captain Tom Dunham

Photo shows a close up of a soldier's uniform.

Captain Tom Dunham considers the spiritual rhythms of soldiership.

A couple of years ago, my wife, Rachel, and I were prompted to create a rule of life together that would shape our priorities and discipleship as a married couple. We committed to grace, boldness, rest and hospitality, both personally and together. Each of these points was elaborated on with measurable goals that we committed to living out.

Rules of life are used in monastic and new monastic movements to give spiritual rhythms and patterns for living. Many people, including Rachel and I, have adopted this practice.

What is a rule of life? It sets out the spiritual principles that guide a community of believers, with a commitment to prayer, discipleship, seeking God’s love and sharing it with others. Rules of life have been described using different terms, including ‘a framework for spiritual life’, ‘radical discipleship’, ‘a disciplined lifestyle’ and ‘a holistic approach to the spiritual life’. They cover beliefs, actions and lifestyle practices, as well as a commitment to the mission of God in the world.

Does this sound familiar to you?

To me, these terms resonate with the language often used when talking about the Soldier’s Covenant. This started my interest in researching a little more and discovering the similarities and differences between new monastic rules of life and the Soldier’s Covenant. Looking at the founding motivation of monasticism, new monasticism and The Salvation Army, there is a clear desire among them all for faithful holy living and mission to others in response to a changing culture. The rules of life and the Soldier’s Covenant are frameworks for living out this calling.

There are several differences between them. First, many rules of life are specific, giving strong guidance to daily and weekly rhythms. For example, prayer at a set time each morning. While the Soldier’s Covenant covers a broad range of areas in life, the details are less specific, leaving space for individuals, or corps to find their own spiritual rhythms.

Second, the Soldier’s Covenant is international, uniting soldiers worldwide who live in different cultures, while the rules of life within new monastic communities are often created by the faith community and can easily be adapted as God leads. The Soldier’s Covenant leaves room for individuals and corps to find their own rhythms and expressions but it perhaps poses a question about whether there would ever be a need for local or territorial variations.

Third, rules of life are meant to be lived out within a faith community. While everyone within a new monastic community commits themselves to the rules of life, a distinct difference with the Soldier’s Covenant is that not everyone within a corps is called to commit to it.

We have adherents and other members within our corps communities who are as committed to their discipleship as soldiers are. Care is needed that one is not elevated over the other and that soldiership is not equated to membership. Indeed, there are some challenges around soldiership if it is simply considered as a rite of passage or a gateway to fulfilling certain roles within a corps, rather than being fundamentally a relationship with the living God and a fulfilment of a calling.

In the same way that the new monastic movement has reimagined the disciplined life of the ancient monastic tradition, I feel that there is opportunity for the Army to reimagine and be faithful to its calling. Part of that is the call to the sacred covenant of soldiership. Maybe the challenge is for each soldier, individually and together within corps, to regularly revisit the Soldier’s Covenant and consider how God may be prompting them to put healthy spiritual rhythms and practices in place. Covenant Sunday is a natural time to do it.

Written by

Tom Dunham

Captain Tom Dunham

Corps Officer, Plymouth Exeter Hall Whitleigh

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