(NOTE: The Western Territory requested The Salvation Army’s Ethics Center in Winnipeg, Canada, to examine ethical questions in relation to government funding of faith-based charities; the following questions were posed. Dr. James Read, director of the center, responds throughout the issue.)

In examining the issues that arise when The Salvation Army partners with the government, we first need to reflect on some general background issues and ethical principles.

  • Does The Salvation Army have a God-given duty to be active in the field of social services?
  • Are there any over-arching ethical principles to guide the Christian individual and Christian organization?
  • What ought to be the model of the relationship between The Salvation Army and those who provide funding? And what ethical principles fit that model?
  • In general, what ethical principles ought to govern the relationship between The Salvation Army and its employees?
  • What does Christian ethics have to say about government in general?
  • What ethical considerations ought to guide the relationship between The Salvation Army as an evangelical branch of the Christian church and governments in the United States?
  • Is it ethically permissible for The Salvation Army to form program partnerships with government?

Do we have a moral duty?

Does The Salvation Army have a God-given duty to be active in the field of social services?

The Salvation Army is one of the largest providers of social services in the United States. Why? Is this simply a matter of historical accident and strategic positioning by its leadership? Or has God’s hand been in it?

Concerning the future: why should The Salvation Army continue its work in the field of social services? Simply to further its market share and its place in public affection by doing something worthwhile? Or because doing so is a response to the call of God?

To put the questions a different way: to what extent is The Salvation Army’s mission to “serve suffering humanity” (to use General Gowans’s phrase) a God-appointed mission?

If the Army’s service is merely something it chooses to do, then it can raise the question about whether it is smart to continue or smarter to re-vision its position in society, and answer the question according to self-interest.


But if the Army’s service is a part of a God-appointed mission and vision, then its options are limited by that. Obedience to God is first among our moral duties. And so, if God has raised up The Salvation Army for the purpose of serving suffering humanity (among other things), then the Army would be doing something wrong were it to withdraw from the field altogether.

That God calls the Army to a role in social service–that this work is not just a matter of organizational preference or reverence for history–is an important consideration.

This is not to say that The Salvation Army has a moral obligation to continue doing exactly those things it is presently doing in social services, in exactly the way it is doing them, with precisely the same funders and employees. But it is to say that there is a kind of “burden of proof” that falls on the Army if it proposes to stop doing something that has benefited people in need.

Three crucial principles

Are there any over-arching ethical principles to guide the Christian individual and Christian organization?

As a Christian body, The Salvation Army ought to be guided in its decision-making by agape-love and justice–two moral values that are primary in a Christian understanding of things. Although they need to be applied with full sensitivity to the concrete situation, the principles of agape-love and justice are themselves enduring, not merely situational.


Let’s briefly examine the meaning of love and justice. Agape-love attends to the need of the neighbor (as Jesus understood “neighbor”). This covers all needs–the need for respect, for community and for God, as well as the need for food, shelter, safety and rest. Agape-love is based on care and concern for others, not on the need of the one who is giving help. Agape-love does, however, take the helper into account as well as the recipient of help. This is because the ideal of agape-love is a covenantal relationship: such love aims at the building and sustaining of healthy human community.


Justice concerns what people are “owed” by way of moral duty. One aspect of justice looks at individual rights. Another aspect of justice looks at individuals in comparison to each other and asks what would be fair to all. Whether a society treats its “widows, orphans and strangers” equitably often seems to be the Bible’s indicator of the justness of that society. In today’s world, the biblical indicator would be how fairly and equitably the vulnerable, marginalized, easily-forgotten groups of people in our society are treated.


Moral consistency is a third enduring value and is expressed in the Golden Rule–it would be unethical for me to do to another what I would not be prepared to have done to myself. Moral consistency is also expressed in the conviction that one ought to judge similar cases similarly unless the cases are marked by morally relevant differences. Therefore, moral consistency is another name for “non-discrimination.”

Other ethical values that are generally important to Christian thinking include humility, community-mindedness and grace. Life is complex. We don’t know everything and cannot control everything; so Christian ethics calls us to be humble. Life’s complexity calls us to community-mindedness because some of the duties that God has given us cannot be performed without the help of others, and some of the duties God has given to others cannot be performed without our aid. And life’s complexity calls us to be people of grace. This is a fallen world, and no matter how pure and well-informed our intentions, we make our choices in a world marked by error, tragedy and wrong-doing.

Guides to a funding model

What ought to be the model of the relationship between The Salvtion Army and those who provide funding? And what ethical principles fit that model?

Love, justice, consistency, humility, grace and community-mindedness ought to be The Salvation Army’s guides, both in dealing with those who receive service and with its funders and employees. But how do they apply?

Just what is the relationship between The Salvation Army and those who supply funding for services it provides? Is it a donor-donee relationship? Purchaser-provider relationship? Partnership?

Ethical responsibilities vary somewhat depending on the answer to this question. Donors and purchasers are less entitled to a say in the decisions of providers than are partners. Because our social services have historically been seen as “Army programs,” we have believed that the primary decision-making power rightly belongs in the hands of Salvation Army personnel. Once they have made the decisions, others have been asked to support them by way of donations or funding grants.


Lately, the “partnership” model has been preferred in voluntary and not-for-profit circles. What difference does that make ethically?

Partners in an ethical partnership aim at: transparency with each other and with those to whom they are accountable; honesty; and fidelity to the terms of the partnership. Much the same could be said about ethical purchaser-provider relationships. What distinguishes a partnership, then, is a re-distribution of authority. If The Salvation Army is a partner in a program then the character and objectives of the other partner(s) need to be considered in ways unnecessary if the Army is the “sole owner” of the program.

So we must ask, Is it morally acceptable for The Salvation Army to be a partner rather than an owner? And especially–is it is morally acceptable for The Salvation Army to partner with government? But the question needs to be asked more broadly. Today philanthropic foundations and the general donor public are also seeking to be thought of as partners–and with that comes greater accountability and more say in what the Army decides to do or how it decides to do it. The core ethical challenge is whether partnerships jeopardize Salvation Army integrity.


In theory, they don’t have to. Just because different partners in a joint project have different purposes and aspirations does not make the project unethical so long as a) each partner’s purposes are morally acceptable and b) each partner is held morally accountable for its contribution.

For instance, a charitable foundation interested in early childhood education of underprivileged children may wish to partner with The Salvation Army on an inner city daycare program. The reasons the foundation has this interest are likely different from the Army’s reasons. While the Army is seeking to care for children, who are special in God’s Kingdom, as an expression of its evangelical Christian faith, the foundation may be seeking to perpetuate the memory of its chief benefactor. The goals are different but compatible, and a partnership is not only ethically permissible, but ethically desirable.

But suppose that the charitable foundation refused to let the Army pursue the goals for its reasons. Then we would be talking about manipulation, not partnership, and the relationship would be ethically undermined. The same is true in reverse, if The Salvation Army were to deny the motivation of the foundation.


In the abstract it is easy to separate out the different contributions, rationales and accountabilities of the different partners in a collaboration, but in the concrete it is very difficult. In reality, it’s not usually a question of partners getting everything they want or nothing of what they want, but rather of each getting enough of what they want or need. At what point does collaboration for a good cause slip into “selling out”? Is this a question that can be answered in the abstract?

What looks like a good partnership on paper could fall down ethically if the practitioners did not act as they intended.

Have we sufficient experience in the arts of negotiation, collaboration, and integrity-preserving compromise to operate Salvation Army social services as partnerships? Does conceiving of “our” social services as partnerships require an adjustment of ethical expectations? Do we have sufficient trust in those who make Army decisions that they will not compromise too much on what ought to be non-negotiables?

The Salvation Army and governments

What ethical considerations ought to guide the relationship between The Salvation Army as an evangelical branch of the Christian church and governments in the United States?

Despite the importance of church-state relations, The Salvation Army has no official view on the subject.

The closest we come is in the oft-made remark that The Salvation Army is to be “apolitical.” But what does this mean?

If the Army would refuse on principle to have any views about whether a form of government, or any of its laws and policies were just or not, that would be scandalous.


In the past, The Salvation Army and other churches ought not to have been neutral about racial segregation laws. In the present or future, similar situations may occur that not only permit, but require, Christian conscience to speak out in opposition. While there were, and perhaps now are, American laws that deserve denunciation, by and large these governments exercise their power legitimately, and The Salvation Army can (ought to?) say that. This is not a trivial remark: if The Salvation Army in the United States operates within a generally just and humane political world, it needs to be grateful–the same cannot be said for the situation of the Army and its people everywhere in the world.

However, maybe being “apolitical” means that The Salvation Army recognizes different spheres of responsibility. It is the job of government to govern; it is not the job of The Salvation Army to govern. While this does not define the different spheres of responsibility, it does help form the question about joint ventures between United States governments and The Salvation Army. If God has “raised up the Army,” but not to govern, and has raised up legitimate government to govern, the question is whether the government can retain its integrity as government and The Salvation Army its integrity as an evangelical branch of the church while entering into a partnership for the delivery of certain social services.

Ethics of SA partnering with government

Is it ethically permissible for The Salvation Army to form program partnerships with government?

There are many practical questions about the ethics of partnerships between The Salvation Army and the government groups with which the Army is involved in its social services programs–often raised due to the large amount of dollars committed to a diverse range of programs, and the difficulty keeping it all true to purposes with which the Army would be happy.

To look at the questions of principle: Is there an in-principle reason for The Salvation Army not to partner with government? Recall the points made earlier about the ethics of partnerships:

  • Are the outcomes which the partnership is to achieve worthwhile?
  • Do the outcomes fit with the legitimate purposes of each partner?
  • Where the purposes of the partners are different, are they at least compatible?
  • Is there agreement or compatibility in the ethical standards or other constraints demanded by either partner in the pursuit of the program’s goals?

Those who, on principle, believe that it is wrong for government to be in the business of providing social services (even by funding them) must then hold that it is ethically wrong for The Salvation Army to partner with government to provide such services. But that is not necessarily a Christian political philosophy, and based on the decisions of principled Salvation Army leaders over several generations that it is not their chosen political philosophy .


At the same time, The Salvation Army does not simply accept a government initiative as automatically right and believe that no ethical questions need be asked. Army leaders have refused to be involved in certain programs or to comply with certain expectations of government funding partners.

One well-known case is the refusal of the Army to continue a partnership with the government of New York City once that government demanded that an employee’s sexual beliefs and behaviors could not be a factor in hiring even those who would be agency representatives. Given the Army’s ethical convictions, no gay person could faithfully be its representative. Even though the outcomes of the program were unquestionably worthwhile, no integrity-preserving compromise was possible. And therefore, no ethically acceptable partnership was possible.

In other cases, The Salvation Army and government have agreed that full conscientious support of The Salvation Army’s moral and religious convictions is a valued qualification for filling certain jobs within a program, and so have been able to collaborate.

The collaboration works in many respects. But that doesn’t mean we can suppose that all the issues of conscience have been settled for all time. There are those in our community who sincerely doubt that any employee position can be filled by a non-Christian or a person who does not live by the moral standards of The Salvation Army. And we know that there are those who sincerely question whether public money ought to be entrusted to agencies like The Salvation Army that have specific moral standards.


These are big issues. They are ethical and theological issues. The substance of our discussion and the spirit in which we discuss will both be measures of the grace of God in our midst.

Christian ethics and government

What does Christian ethics have to say about government in general?

God alone is God. This is the place to begin. The ethical principle that follows is that God is to be our only object of unquestioned authority, unqualified allegiance and trust. God is King of kings, Head of the church, and the Saviour of all people. All other moral obligations, therefore, are subject to this ultimate obligation.

Governments, their policies and laws are ultimately accountable to God. Church leaders, their policies and decisions are similary accountable to God. And the personal decisions and actions of individuals are accountable to God too.

What this means is that no human individual, no group, and no state is self-justifying–that is, its actions are not beyond question. Idolatry–the subject of the first of the ten commandments–is the sin of misplaced authority. Christian ethics cautions us to be on guard against our tendency to assume we ourselves have more authority or wisdom than we actually do. And Christian ethics also cautions us to be on guard against governments that pretend to have more authority or wisdom than they do.


The Salvation Army has no doctrine or Position Statement on government as such. Christian ethics has no blanket answer either. Particular human governments and systems of government may be morally legitimate; or they may, at the other extreme, be thoroughly corrupt and morally illegitimate. Their moral legitimacy depends upon whether they are serving purposes for which God set up government. When they are, they deserve allegiance, and when they aren’t, they don’t. When governments exceed their legitimate role, they may be able to force compliance, but that is a mere exercise of power and does not constitute authority. It is authority, morally legitimate power, that Romans 13 instructs Christians to obey.

The Apostle Paul in that same passage says that the divinely appointed role of government is to be God’s agent in doing good and in upholding justice. These criteria are very general, and there has been much debate as to what sorts of good the government is authorized to do. Many have also debated what entails justice. Regardless of these debates, the general principles are solid. Governments that fail to be agents of good and justice fall away from God’s purpose of government. Obeying such governments is not morally necessary.

The Army’s relationship with its employees

In general, what ethical principles ought to govern the relationship between The Salvation Army and its employees?

First, arbitrary discrimination is both unethical and counterproductive.

The Salvation Army’s primary reason for hiring its employees is that they are needed for carrying out the goals for which the Army exists. Particular individuals, then, are hired because they are a sufficiently good fit for this purpose, and because they are able to do specific jobs. Second, the Army ought not just “use” its employees, but treat them as persons who bring their own moral beliefs with them to work.

Beyond this we must ask how much The Salvation Army ought to take an interest in the well-being of its employees. Is it ethically appropriate to say that the employer-employee relationship in The Salvation Army is strictly a “money paid for services rendered” arrangement? Or is there some other measure of what goes into a remuneration/benefits package? Should we consider the employee’s needs–for example, the employee’s needs for access to health insurance for dependents?


Officers are covenant partners with The Salvation Army, meaning that there is a commitment to a deep, personal, life-long bonding of the officer with the purposes and beliefs of the Army. In essence, the good of the Army is the officer’s goal. And on the other side of the relationship, because officer allowances are determined on a “needs” basis not a “market value” basis, we see that the general well-being of the officer is one of the Army’s important goals.

The Army cannot and need not expect the same degree of buy-in from all who work for it.

It is ethically all right that some employees work for the Army primarily because it’s a way to put food on the table, isn’t it? If, however, it is right for the Army to expect all its workers to understand the mission that gives the Army its reason for being, and right for the Army to expect every employee to willingly cooperate in carrying it out, is it not similarly right for employees to expect the Army to care about their needs even if they are not immediately pertinent to the work of the Army?

For example, the Army expects its front-line workers to genuinely care about “clients.” Shouldn’t those workers expect the Army in turn to care about their needs? Or is that to misunderstand the nature of the employer-employee relationship?

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