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

Jimmy Akin

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.


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