By David V. Barrett, from The New Believers
The Jesus Army, or the Jesus Fellowship Church (its formal name), developed at around the same time as the hippie-style Jesus Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but from related but different roots: ‘more the impact of the charismatic movement on an old-established Baptist chapel,’ says John Campbell, communications officer for the Jesus Army. Its doctrine is straightforward Evangelical Christianity, with both a Reformed and a Charismatic element; it is included in this book because of its very visible style, and because of some concerns which have been raised about it over the years.
The Church seems particularly sensitive about being regarded as any form of new religious movement, stressing its theological orthodoxy. At the foot of its letterhead are the words, ‘Jesus Fellowship Church upholds the full historic biblical faith, being Reformed, Evangelical and Charismatic. In particular, it upholds the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the full divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ.’
‘There is no sense in which we represent an “Alternative Religion”,’ says Campbell. ‘Our beliefs are mainstream Christian, and we uphold the historic creeds of Christianity. We also recognize and respect the wide spread of “flavours” within the Christian Church at large.’
The origins of the Jesus Army can be traced back to 1969, when Baptist minister Noel Stanton and some members of his small church in Bugbrooke, Northamptonshire, were baptized in the Holy Spirit, and began speaking in tongues, healing, and preaching the gospel with new enthusiasm and effectiveness.
His church soon became too small for his rapidly increasing congregation; money was raised and donated to buy more buildings, including an old rectory and then a farm, which became the New Creation Farm. Stanton’s congregation became a community. The Jesus Fellowship now numbers about 2,500 members.
The Jesus Fellowship Community Trust owns around 60 New Creation Christian Community houses in the UK; it also owns a health food company and health food shops, building and plumbing companies, and a clothes shop. Members of the Church may continue to live in their own homes, but about a quarter – some 700 – live in communities.
All members are on an equal footing, with no privileges or extra financial incentives being accorded to anyone, including any of the leaders.
The assets of the community consist solely of the houses we live in, the vehicles we drive, and the stock and goodwill of the businesses that we operate to provide employment for members. There are no other ‘riches’ of any kind.
Within the community, each house has a ‘common purse’ arrangement, with members pooling their income to meet all personal and household expenses. (Jesus Fellowship Church/Jesus Army information sheet)
The way of life in Jesus Army communities has been described as austere. Everything is shared – their money, their possessions, even sometimes their clothes. TV and radio are banned; only Christian music is allowed. Children are allowed few toys, and are given strict discipline, including corporal punishment, though the slipper has replaced the rod because of external criticism [and that is no longer used either – Webmaster].
The popular Christian festivals such as Christmas are not celebrated, on the quite accurate grounds that they have Pagan origins. (One of the reasons that Christianity took root throughout Europe during the Dark Ages was its habit of taking over local Pagan festivals and sacred sites, adapting the customs of the Winter Solstice into Christmas, and of the Spring festival into Easter, and building churches over ancient wells and springs.)
Non-members are most likely to be aware of the Jesus Army by its brightly painted double-decker buses and highly visible form ‘Of street evangelism. Their clothing is often military-style; the colours may be brighter, but their jackets appear to be based on camouflage combat jackets. Campbell stresses that ‘our evangelism is based on friendship’, and strongly disputes any suggestion of a militaristic, assertive form of evangelism, but the Church does have a public image of being ‘macho’, which some critics have found off-putting. The Jesus Army does a lot of work among homeless street-people, those involved in drug or alcohol abuse, and prisoners and ex-prisoners. Unlike most new religious movements, a large proportion of its predominantly young membership is working class and without higher education.
The Church teaches that celibacy is a holy calling; even long-married couples living in their communities sleep in separate beds. Romantic liaisons between community members have to be approved by the leadership.
The Jesus Army has been accused of being very male-orientated, not only in its thrusting approach to evangelism, but also in its treatment of women. It believes firmly in traditional gender roles in society. Men are the leaders; the women in the membership have very much a supporting role. They appear content to ignore the societal changes of the last few decades, giving up the rights and status women have fought to achieve in recent years.
The Church organizes occasional ‘Men Alive for God’ days, when hundreds of men meet together for fellowship and worship, and to help men re-establish their manhood. They have never had an equivalent day for their women members. ‘We’ve never found that we’ve been able to do that, simply because we haven’t had a woman who has had the vision and the calibre to lead it,’ says Ed Hunt, organizer of the event.
The Church has had problems with the wider Christian community; it was expelled from the Baptist Union, and it resigned from the interdenominational Evangelical Alliance in 1986 over its ‘perceived isolationism’. However, it ‘is part of the Multiply Christian Network, a partnership of independent churches and groups promoting living charismatic Christianity’ which it launched in 1992, and which is a member of the Evangelical Alliance; it rejoined the Alliance itself in 1999.
The Jesus Army is careful with both members and money. New members have to live in a community for a probationary period for two years, and must be over 21, before being allowed to commit themselves to full community membership. Community members donate all their money to the Community Trust Fund; if they later leave the Community, their capital is paid back, sometimes with interest. The Community keeps its running expenses and its capital completely separate, and has its accounts audited by the international firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
Reprinted with permission. Source: David V. Barrett, The New Believers, Sects, ‘Cults’ and Alternative Religions (London: Continuum, formerly Cassel & Co, 2001).