Allowing Good Works to Get in the Way of the Gospel?

November 26, 2013 | 15 comments

Now that we’re entering the last part of the year, the familiar sight of Salvation Army bell-ringers has returned.

The bell-ringers are volunteers or employees of the Salvation Army, and they stand in public places, such as in front of supermarkets, ringing bells and soliciting donations, which are placed in large red kettles (or buckets).

In other times of the year, people drop off donations—often of clothes, furniture, and other used items—at Salvation Army drop boxes or at the many Salvation Army thrift stores.

When a natural disaster strikes, or when a civil conflict breaks out, the Salvation Army is often among the first to respond and provide relief to the victims.

The Salvation Army undoubtedly does a great deal of good for the poor and the afflicted.

Its activities have justly earned the Salvation Army the reputation of being one of the most active charitable and relief organizations in the world.

They’ve also masked something . . .

They’re a religion

They were founded in London in 1865 by a former Methodist minister named William Booth, along with his wife, Catherine.

As a Methodist offshoot, they have much in common with Methodism and other Holiness churches founded in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

They do believe in the Trinity, in the atoning death of Jesus, and other key points of the Christian faith.

They also have some distinctives. One of these is the reason that they call themselves the "Salvation Army.” Their organizational structure is not like that of other churches, with bishops, priests, deacons, etc.

Instead, they model their internal structure something like that of an army, with officers, soldiers, and a general (their equivalent of the pope) at the top.

Given their doctrine and their organizational structure, it would be possible to view them as a somewhat eccentric form of Protestantism, except for one thing . . .

They’re not actually Christians

Startlingly, given how much they seek to root their teachings in Scripture, members of the Salvation Army (or Salvationists, as they call themselves) do not practice baptism.

Instead, they “swear in” soldiers.

You can read their statement about why they don’t practice baptism on their website here.

I must say that I don’t understand their reasoning.

Their principle doctrinal statements include:

  1. 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.
  2. We believe that there is only one God, who is infinitely perfect, the Creator, Preserver, and Governor of all things, and who is the only proper object of religious worship.
  3. We believe that there are three persons in the Godhead—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, undivided in essence and co-equal in power and glory.
  4. We believe that in the person of Jesus Christ the Divine and human natures are united, so that He is truly and properly God and truly and properly man.

So if Scripture then records Jesus, the God-man, saying:

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" [Matt. 28:19].

Why shouldn’t that be taken a face value as a command to go baptize disciples from among all the nations?

We certainly see people in the book of Acts practicing water baptism. And we see St. Paul practicing it. And St. Peter even says:

God's patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.  Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ [1 Peter 3:20-21]. 

Even Protestants who don’t believe in the efficacy of baptism recognize that Jesus commanded us to do it.

So I don’t understand the Salvationist perspective on this.

Unfortunately, their failure to practice water baptism means that, although they regard themselves as Christians, they actually are not.

Unless a particular Salvationist has been baptized (e.g., in another church), he has not received the first sacrament of Christian initiation and so has not been initiated as a Christian.

By not practicing baptism, the Salvation Army itself—no matter how much it seeks to serve God and no matter how much good it does—lacks the sacramental foundation of Christian initiation.

This is unfortunate. But there is another misfortune . . .

They’ve let their charitable activity eclipse their message

The charitable work that the Salvation Army performs has eclipsed their presentation of the Christian message.

For the vast majority of people they reach, they aren’t even communicating the partial presentation of the Christian faith that is found in Protestant churches.

The fact is, many people don’t even realize that the Salvation Army is a religion. They think of it merely as a charitable organization, like the Red Cross.

Even the presence of the word “Salvation” in their name does not come across, because it can be understood in other ways—such as saving people from poverty or material distress.

(Growing up, I personally thought they were called this because they saved—or salvaged—old clothes and furniture.)

This should serve as a cautionary tale for us.

The Church is called to help the poor and the suffering. It must work toward this end.

But it must not allow the relief of this-worldly suffering to eclipse its fundamental message, which points beyond this world.

“But can we ever do too much to help the poor?” some might ask.

It depends on what you mean. If you mean, “Is there always more we could do to help the poor?” then the answer is yes.

But if you spend all your time serving the poor and not telling them about Jesus, that is not truly serving them, because it only helps them with the material problems and does not give them a clear and direct presentation of the Christian message.

The Church’s service of the poor must be paired with a vigorous presentation of the Gospel.

In words. Not just deeds.

The fact that the Salvation Army is commonly thought of a charity rather than a religion shows just how badly things can go wrong.


Jimmy Akin is an internationally known author and speaker. As the senior apologist at Catholic Answers, he has more than twenty years of experiencing defending and explaining the Faith.

Jimmy is a convert to the Faith and has an extensive background in the Bible, theology, the Church Fathers,...

Comments by Members

#1  Zachery Moore - Columbus, Ohio

From what I understand, from a recent list put forth, the Salvation Army contributes money to Planned Parenthood. I have cut off all of my donations to the organization, as I have seen their name pop up on many lists noting them as contributors of pro-choice companies. Any thoughts or clarifications?

November 26, 2013 at 3:24 pm PST
#2  Carol Vega - Alvarado, Texas

I do not know anything specific about the Salvation Army currently. What I do know is that about seven years ago they saved my daughter from drugs and the life it involves. They saved both her and her 10 year old daughter (who previously was living with me) from sure death in the streets.

When my daughter became involved with them through the courts, they moved her and her daughter into a halfway house. They taught her how to budget, clean her small apartment, shop (always in groups), went to AA and Narc-Anon. Every Sunday they went to church services, everyday they had prayer services.

She was baptized (as I was) Lutheran. She knew she was Lutheran and went to their church services since they were mandatory. She did learn a lot about the Bible while there. Her daughter was also baptized Lutheran.

Part of her counseling and reformation was that she had to recognize the baby she killed at each abortion. She had to name the baby and write a letter to the child explaining what she did. They in no way condoned abortion. I do not know if they used Planned Parenthood for female examines.

I know and realize that teaching non-Catholic doctrine is not the best and right way to go. But as Pope Francis has said today, the church has to get a little dirty to save people.

Today my daughter actually teaches Sunday School at a Lutheran Church. Sorry to say, I did not encourage her to become Catholic because I have seen the degradation that some women must go through when they've had sordid past lives.

Her daughter, however, who went to mass with me every week from the time she was six did become Catholic and is still Catholic. She was at that halfway house and praises the love and respect they received while there. She knows the differences between Catholicism and them but she also has lived the change that they can provide a broken woman.

Sorry to say, broken women from the street do not run to the Catholic church for help especially if they are not "cradle Catholics." I just wanted to let people know that the Salvation Army does do good services. While I will not donate to Planned Parenthood, I do know for a fact that the Salvation Army does nothing to condone abortions.

I feel so strongly about this one that I had to register to speak up. I wouldn't miss mass to go to one of their services. But they do serve a purpose to many people who have no where to go.

November 26, 2013 at 3:49 pm PST
#3  Betsy Rheaume - Deckerville, Michigan

I had heard that the Salvation does allow for abortions so I had to look it up, and unfortunately, they do.

November 26, 2013 at 4:16 pm PST
#4  Racheal McCauley - North Richland Hills, Texas

My heart goes out to Carol Vega and her daughter and the struggles they've been through. Everything happens for a reason and for Christ's reason for those that love Him. So to say your hardship will have a victory is only to confirm that Jesus came for the sinner. He looked down upon us and saw those of us that were the brother of the prodigal son would and could have victory. you remember the story? The brother that was good and all deserving? The bad son fled from the father with his inheritance and when he was broke thought to himself 'even my Father feeds the I shall return to him and be like a slave.' But when he returned the father was so happy to see him that he gave him a cherished ring, and killed a calf to have a party for him. This only illustrates that no man can say what is in the heart of God for our toil, and also for our suffering.

November 26, 2013 at 5:29 pm PST
#5  Christine Anzalone - LEVANT, Maine

My husband is a Knight of Columbus. Every year at this time he and other knights do stand out in front of stores with the Salvation Army bucket and ring the bell for donations. From what I'm reading above, this should be prohibited and is contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church. Am I correct? Please comment.
Thank you, Christine Anzalone.

November 26, 2013 at 5:46 pm PST
#6  FRANK ANTONUCCI - Ipswich, Massachusetts

One of my first jobs out of college was working for the Salvation Army in Boston. They from the beginning told me that I could be fired at any time which should have been a warning sign. They also didn't pay me the salary that promised in the job announcement. The Salvation Army uses their social justice work to win participants for their church. They use their charity work for the poor as a carrot to join their church. People feel obligated to join after getting help from them. They pretend to be a secular organization but instead are always working to get more church members. Members of the church who join their military like organization are usually former drug addicts who have no other prospects for employment so they become members. They usually join up as couples and get ordained after their prep course. Advancement is based on seniority not merit so lots of them get high positions for simply being there.

In the end the women who hired me left the organization and the new manager wanted to hire his own people so I was out the door. (There one day and fired the next)

November 27, 2013 at 8:38 am PST
#7  Jon Angelo - Birmingham, Alabama

Catholic Churches often send people to the Salvationn Army. They do the job Catholics should be doing. As a Catholic I looked for something similar and found the work of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day who started the Catholic Worker Movement. If you feel called you might try them.

November 27, 2013 at 1:35 pm PST
#8  Clinton Ufford - Sweet Home, Oregon

"The Salvation Army recognizes tragic and perplexing circumstances that require difficult decisions regarding a pregnancy. Decisions should be made only after prayerful and thoughtful consideration, acknowledging the tremendous pressures that occur during an unexpected pregnancy. There is a responsibility on all involved to give the parents of the unborn child, particularly the woman, appropriate pastoral, medical and other counsel. The Salvation Army believes that termination can occur only when

Carrying the pregnancy further seriously threatens the life of the mother; or
Reliable diagnostic procedures have identified a foetal abnormality considered incompatible with survival for more than a very brief post natal period."

November 28, 2013 at 8:04 am PST
#9  Clinton Ufford - Sweet Home, Oregon

November 28, 2013 at 8:27 am PST
#10  Ruben Solis - Buda, Texas

The Salvation Army has indeed helped so many in the world by promoting donations to the unfortunate; but, I did not know that they have also donated to Planned Parenthood, which has done an even greater harm to the most unfortunate and least of us. We need to love the person and hate the sin, especially those women who have fallen to the lies of abortion.

The Gabriel Project has helped so many pregnant women who need help especially those that are without work. I am sorry for the degradation that you may have experienced in your area, Carol. But, I can speak on behalf of so many good Catholics when I say that not all Catholics in the family are the same.

Their is always something that we as lay people can do to better the delivery of the message of Christ into the world and to demonstrate His love in Our daily lives, more than just ringing bells! We will need to "get dirty" by going in after those that are lost and bringing them to the fullness of the truth. Taking others by the hand and teaching them our Catholic faith is the best way to start!

December 1, 2013 at 3:42 am PST
#11  Blessing Herman - Middletown, New York

LIfe Decisions International runs a comprehensive database of PP donors:

Also, STOPP may be helpful.A division of American Life League.

December 6, 2013 at 10:53 pm PST
#12  Michael Rogala - Chicago, Illinois

"So I don’t understand the Salvationist perspective on this" . . . Then you shouldn't comment nor denigrate the Salvation Army, Jimmy. Your comments are truly inappropriate and misleading whereas many of the commentators here express an understanding of the Salvation Army that you do not as well as being woefully unequipped to comment on Roman Catholic teachings.

For your guidance, you might want to look at Wesleyan Doctrine of "complete/entire sanctification" to find the theological and philosophical basis for the Salvationists belief in neither Holy Communion or Baptism. It's quite enlightening and holds a good suggestion for all Christians including us Roman Catholics . . . that our entire life should be lived as a sacrament. Not bad . . . not bad at all.

Many Catholic and Protestant communities and religious institutions share ecumenical and social justice relationships with the Salvation Army. I have had direct experience with them and find them eminently respectful. They may not be of my Faith, but I cannot say that they aren't a sign of God's Grace and compassion in this world. You do them a grave injustice and our Church as well by attacking them without substance.

August 23, 2014 at 4:33 pm PST
#13  Robert Gdyk - Hampton, New York

This was a very good informative article about the Salvation Army by Jimmy Akin. I only wish it expanded further on such topics as marriage, which differs distinctively from the Catholic faith.

August 24, 2014 at 6:05 am PST
#14  Tony Lewis - Eureka, California


Sorry to say, but if any organization donates to planned parenthood, it is at LEAST indirectly condoning abortion.


"I don't understand..." is a polite way of saying "This is nonsense".

Jimmy never attacked them in a way that did "grave injustice". He pointed out that they disregard the sacrament of Christian initiation, which they do. For your guidance, you might want to get a copy of Jimmy Akin's book, "The Fathers Know Best", and read the section on the necessity of baptism.

November 26, 2014 at 5:53 pm PST
#15  Donnie Gardner - Chesapeake, Virginia

Jimmy, I appreciate your respect and defense of the sacrament of baptism but with an organization who's purpose is charity, can't we focus on the good and not the details that divide us as Christians of different denominations. Please reflect on this scripture, Romans 14:13-23.

God bless and have a Merry Christmas!

November 30, 2014 at 12:19 am PST

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