August 18, 2017

“Perform or Provide”—The Chaplain’s Guide

John Vaughn

Although the number of FBFI chaplains continues to grow, we continue to meet pastors and church members who wonder how a separatist chaplain can serve in the pluralistic environment of chaplaincy. Common questions include the following: “How can a Fundamental Baptist serve in a chapel with a liberal Methodist?” Or, “No Fundamental Baptist pastor would conduct a service with an ordained woman, so why is it okay for a chaplain to do so?” And, “Are you telling me that an FBFI chaplain can still take a good stand when his boss is a priest?” Often when questions like these are asked, reports of men being court-martialed for praying in Jesus’ name, or Internet articles appealing for funds to help the chaplains preserve their right not to perform marriages for same-sex couples are used to support the questioner’s fears.

“In Jesus’ Name”

Of course, all of these questions deserve answers, and those who have fears about FBFI chaplains’ ministries need facts. For example, it is a fact that chaplains are free to pray in Jesus’ name. However, if they are to pray in an assembly where attendance is mandatory, of course they must realize that no soldier can be compelled to participate in a sectarian event. In that case, the chaplain must inform his commander that he will need to pray in Jesus’ name. Then the commander will decide if he wants a prayer in Jesus’ name, or if he wants the chaplain to find a replacement. Whatever the commander decides places the impact on the commander and not the chaplain. As a staff officer responsible to his commander for the religious support of his troops, the chaplain cannot refuse to provide a substitute to offer prayer since he must either “perform or provide.” Nevertheless, military regulations and the United States Constitution fully protect the chaplain from being compelled to violate his own conscience or the requirements of his faith. But these rights cannot be taken for granted. They must be regularly defended when chaplains are challenged or restrained by superiors who do not understand them.

Accordingly, civilian pastors, whether they have heard the term “perform or provide” or not, apply the same principle in their ministries. For example, suppose a pastor is returning home from his church office when his route is blocked by an accident scene. The EMTs are preparing a severely injured man for transport while a distressed lady stands by. The pastor pulls off the road and offers comfort to the lady, who is clearly the man’s wife. When she accepts the pastor’s offer of prayer while her husband is being placed into the ambulance, the pastor prays quickly then asks if there is anything else he can do to help. Accompanying the EMT into the ambulance with her husband, the lady looks back over her shoulder and urgently replies, “Yes, please call Father Smith!” Now suppose the pastor, who knows of “Father Smith,” thinks to himself, “I will have nothing to do with a priest,” as he decides he is not going to make the call. Worse, suppose the pastor actually expresses that thought to the distressed lady.

How you evaluate that scenario will likely be based on your understanding of pastoral ethics. Compassionate pastors know not to ask, “Are you a Baptist?” when they approach someone in distress. Suppose he is making a hospital call when a stranger discerns his pastoral demeanor and asks, “Do you know how I can get in touch with the rabbi here in town?” Suppose he should just say, “Look him up in the phone book.” Or imagine this reply: “I do know, but I’m not going to send you to a rabbi.” Incidents like these may be rare for civilian pastors, but they do happen. For chaplains, however, they are routine. Pastors do not consider themselves compromisers just because they pastor in the same town as liberal Methodists, Roman Catholics, Jewish rabbis, Muslims imams, or Evangelical female pastors. The military base is, in essence, the chaplain’s “town.” Clearly, there are differences in the comparison of these two situations, but the principle of “perform or provide” remains. A chaplain can provide, or arrange for, services that he cannot personally perform. When a Roman Catholic soldier asks the Baptist chaplain how he can get in touch with a priest, the Baptist can, without compromise, kindly provide the contact info for a chaplain who is a priest.

“Forbidden to Witness?”

Note that the Baptist chaplain is not forbidden to witness to the soldier in such a case. If the soldier is willing to talk to the Baptist, and if the soldier opens the door for the gospel, the Baptist chaplain is free to evangelize. He cannot refuse to refer the soldier to the priest, and should make the referral if it has been requested, but why would he refuse if the soldier has asked for his help, any more than the civilian pastor would refuse to contact the priest for the lady to whom he had offered help? Better not to offer help than to be put in that situation, you may say, but the example of the Good Samaritan offers guidance on that question: you don’t walk by; you do what you can. Yet pastors who understand that application in civilian life stumble when confronted with the theological minefield of chaplaincy. Doing the wrong thing is not right, but doing nothing may not be right either. Compassion does not require compromise, but withholding compassion can also be compromise. Don’t compromise; do be Christlike. The minister who is “wise as a serpent,” must be “harmless as a dove.”

Chaplaincy calls for skillful, Spirit-filled subtlety. In the power of the Holy Spirit, the skilled chaplain is well protected by the principle of “perform or provide,” the separatist chaplain’s guide.


John Vaughn is the President of the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2015. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

Note: it is usually our policy to publish only one article from FrontLine during its first year of publication. However, due to the timeliness of the information in this article, we thought it would be a good idea to publish this one out now.


Although Proclaim & Defend is the blog of the FBFI, the articles we post are not an expression of the views of the FBFI as a whole, they are the views of the author under whose name they are published. The FBFI speaks either through position statements by its board or through its president. Here at Proclaim & Defend, we publish articles as matters of interest or edification to the wider world of fundamentalist Baptists and any others who might be interested.

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