God and country article

God, Country and Military Chaplaincy

August 24th, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Thousands of Christian ministers currently serve as military chaplains—in the Army, Navy and Air Force—on Active Duty, in the Reserves and in the National Guard.

Why should the armed forces employ these chaplains? Why should Baptists support them? And why is it important to answer these questions?

Many Baptists give no thought to them, presuming our armed forces have always employed chaplains and thinking these positions are permanently secure and uncontested. This is a mistake. The United States has not always had military chaplains, and in almost every generation of our history, objections have been raised against their existence.

Some opponents have purely hostile intentions. They object to any form of religious ministry at all—civilian or military.  Others with kinder motives raise thoughtful objections based on the following religious and political considerations.

  • Pacifism: Should a gospel minister belong to an organization that uses the ‘sword’ to impose its will?
  • Church-state separation: Isn’t this ministry a form of government-sponsored religion?
  • Evangelism: In such a pluralistic setting with many regulatory restrictions, are chaplains really free to share the gospel?
  • Effectiveness and Stewardship: Aren’t churches more effective than chapels in ministering to service members, and isn’t it a better use of resources for Baptist ministers to stay in churches rather than to leave the ministry to become chaplains?

Most Baptists disagree with these objections. They say there is a biblical basis for supporting the ministry of military chaplains. So, let’s look at what the Bible says about how Christians should view the government.

First, it obligates Christians to certain duties — to honor and obey governing authorities as long as they are doing good and not evil for society (Rom. 13:1-7) and when their commands do not conflict with God’s will (Acts 4:19-20; 5:29); to pray for their officials (I Tim. 2:1-3); and to give the state its due — “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mk 12:17).

Second, the New Testament speaks positively about soldiers. When John the Baptist answered the soldiers following him, he instructed them how to carry out their duties honorably as soldiers (Luke 3:14). Jesus commended the centurion in Capernaum for his great faith (Mt. 8:10-13). The centurion at the cross recognized and proclaimed that Jesus was the Son of God (Mk 15:39). God used a centurion in Caesarea to show Peter that Gentiles as well as Jews could be saved (Acts 10:44-48). In every instance, military service is not forbidden but depicted as an honorable profession consistent with God’s will.

Third, the Bible uses military analogies as positive models for instruction. Christians are to put on the “full armor of God” (Eph. 6:10-20) — to endure hardships as a “good soldier of Christ” and not to become entangled in “civilian affairs” as they strive to please their “commanding officer” (II Tim. 2:3-4). Paul commends Epaphroditus as “a fellow soldier” (Phil. 2:25).

Fourth, the Bible never forbids all use of deadly force. The sixth Commandment prohibits murder but not all killing. One exception is deadly force for self-defense — the necessity of using this to preserve life is an Old Testament principle not erased by the New Testament.

When Jesus said, “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:38-42), He was talking about personal discipleship and urging prudence and humility — not to seek revenge or lawful retribution, but to exhibit self-denial (Luke 9:23) and, according to Paul, a yielding spirit (Phil. 4:5). But this did not prohibit the use of force to protect one’s own life or family or nation. How else can civil rulers punish evil and keep good order if they do not “bear the sword” (Rom 13:4)?

So, what do Baptists say to those who object to the ministry of military chaplains? Concerning pacifism, we respect the views of Quakers, Mennonites and Brethren who conscientiously object to military service. On the other hand, we believe that, in good conscience, Christians can “bear the sword.” In fact, didn’t Jesus order His own apostles to arm themselves with a sword (Luke 22:36)?

Some scholars say this was just a metaphor for spiritual power. However, Peter used a literal sword in the Garden of Gethsemane to lop off Malchus’s ear! So, clearly, Jesus did allow His apostles a sword. But He would not allow use of that sword to defend His Kingdom — that is where He drew the line (Matt. 26:50-52)! Baptists say the appropriate use of the sword is defined in Romans 13 — to punish evil and to maintain good order. For this reason, historically, Baptists willingly have served in the military forces.

What about the separation of church and state, and why do Baptists support this principle? One reason is that we have always been strong supporters of religious liberty — the idea that all persons should be permitted free exercise of their religious beliefs.

History has proven this can only occur if the government does not try to establish a state church. So, a political corollary of ‘free exercise’ is the separation of the two institutions — of church from state. This is embodied in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or preventing the free exercise thereof.”

Baptists also believe this principle of separation is based on biblical doctrine. When Jesus said, “Render to Caesar those things that are Caesar’s, and to God those things that are God’s,” He was not just delineating two spheres but also identifying two institutions that represent those spheres — state and church. He further clarified this point by saying, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

So, how can the government pay Baptist chaplains to minister to soldiers? Isn’t this a form of state-sponsored religion — an establishment?

No! Military chaplains are recruited from many denominations, and they must follow regulations designed to prevent preferential treatment of one religion or any set of religions. One of their jobs is to ensure that nobody — local minister, another chaplain or a commander — breaks this rule. Instead of violating the principle of separation, government-paid chaplains are needed to protect against establishment.

But doesn’t this still violate the principle of separation since ministers from Baptist churches and denominations are serving in government positions? Again, no! Though Baptist churches ordain ministers who become chaplains and Baptist conventions endorse them for that purpose, each chaplain serves as an individual uniquely and separately called by God to that ministry.

There is no institutional connection between churches/conventions and the branches of military service. Military chaplains are paid by their government agency and not by churches/conventions. In fact, the same is true for all Baptist chaplains — in hospitals, prisons, business corporations and other areas of the public sector.

For anyone still not convinced by these arguments, there is another important reason for the government to employ military chaplains. They are essential for the protection of free exercise rights. Another one of their jobs is to make sure every service member has equal access to religious worship and ministry. When those services are not available, chaplains coordinate to provide them. Sometimes the need is met by other chaplains, sometimes by local ministers.

This raises another issue. Critics of military chaplain ministry are right about one thing. Local churches should and do minister effectively to men and women stationed at bases near them. But what happens when units deploy to war zones or to remote sites in peacetime?

Only chaplains can deploy with them and insure their free exercise needs are met. Even when soldiers are able to attend local churches, certain needs can be met only by chaplains who understand the military system that controls virtually every aspect of their lives. Chaplains can help them with problems even the military chain of command cannot resolve. So, in more ways than one, chaplains go where others cannot go – civilian ministers and military commanders alike.

In this warrior culture, they establish rapport with troops in ways civilian ministers cannot duplicate or even understand. At the same time, chaplains are unique within that warrior culture: they are unarmed non-combatants in a culture that lives or dies by wielding the temporal sword, but chaplains are the only soldiers commissioned to bring life by wielding the spiritual sword!

Perhaps the most compelling reason to support military chaplains is the Great Commission. Christ called us to preach the gospel throughout the world and to all creation. Since Jesus died for all persons and God wants no one to perish, we must go everywhere to make disciples.

The armed forces make up a unique community with special needs that can be met most effectively by specially trained ministers – chaplains who have one foot in each world. As commissioned officers they perform as fully functional military (non-combatant) personnel alongside their peers in the fraternal order of warriors.

Yes, this is a pluralistic and secular world with regulations designed to guard against any form of establishment. So, chaplains must be cautious not to violate anyone’s free exercise rights. At the same time, Baptist chaplains are commissioned by Christ to keep their other foot firmly grounded in the spiritual world.

The military world is ready for harvest. It is one of the greatest mission fields in the world with unlimited potential for evangelism.  Chaplains who exercise discretion and creativity in ministry are hardly ever prevented from openly and boldly proclaiming the gospel in ways Christ Himself would consider appropriate.

When Baptist ministers become military chaplains, they don’t leave the ministry. They answer the call to honor their nation with service in line with Romans 13, and they answer God’s call to a unique mission field in fulfillment of the Great Commission.

Article written by Dr. James Spivey. For more than 30 years, Dr. Spivey served in the U.S. Army at locations in the United States, England, Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and Nicaragua. Before completing his time in the military, he served as the assistant chief of chaplains of the U.S. Army (Brigadier General). He currently is serving as the Senior Fellow and Professor of Christian Heritage at B.H. Carroll Theological Institute.

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2 Responses

  1. thomas says:

    I have a man interested in becoming a prison chaplain. I have had several become military chaplain. I understand how they become one in the military. How do I help.my friend become a prison chaplain? Thank you.

  2. Please call our office at 214-828-5277

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