December 18, 2017

Faithful Ministry within the US Military Chaplaincy’s Pluralistic Environment

by Scott M. Bullock

Have you heard about the Muslim imam, Buddhist monk, Jewish rabbi, Catholic priest, and Baptist pastor who all joined together for the same ministry class and coffee?

An Open Minefield

Does this sound like a joke opening, or does it describe a rare interfaith gathering? Possibly both, but where I serve — at the US Army Chaplain Center and School — this is a regular event. With a cadre of twenty-seven Chaplains, this school trains over four hundred Regular (Active) National Guard and Reserve Component Chaplains and Chaplain Candidates annually. It models an environment of religious pluralism that exists throughout the Armed Forces. Pluralism poses a tremendous challenge for all Chaplains ministering in the military. It tests the limits or resolve of one’s faith convictions yet also bolsters the legal basis for the Chaplain’s very existence. Fundamentalist Chaplains must wisely maneuver through pluralism’s open minefield to avoid compromising Biblical truth. Amid today’s rising ecumenical pressure, FBFI Chaplains need your earnest prayer and local church support. Your support encourages our Chaplains to fulfill God’s calling as faithful disciplemakers of Jesus Christ in the US Military.

The FBFI[1] must first know and then must articulate to its people how the Department of Defense (DOD) defines religious pluralism. I claim the DOD’s definition because Biblical Fundamentalists justly abhor how mainstream civilian religiosity defines pluralism. Try googling “religious pluralism” and you will find a plethora of opinions and means to attain it. For example, the Wikipedia entry summarizes religious pluralism as “a loosely defined expression concerning acceptance of different religions.” And, further, “the worldview according to which one’s religion in not the sole and exclusive source of truth,” or, “acceptance of the concept that two or more religions with mutually exclusive claims are equally valid.” Additionally, pluralism is ecumenism on steroids. If you have a “coexist” bumper sticker with the various major religious symbols on your car, you advertise yourself as a pluralist. Evangelical apologists such as Ravi Zacharias are justified in refuting this relativism masquerading as pluralism. While I reject philosophical pluralism, I fight to ensure the freedom underpinning it for all Americans.

But it’s crucial to note that the DOD does not and will not enforce the above commonly held definition for religious pluralism. Properly defined in the military context, religious pluralism is simply the reality of a constitutionally mandated interfaith body of spiritual leaders providing for the free expression of religion for all servicemen[2] and their families. This expresses the collective effort to uphold the First Amendment rights for all our citizen-servicemen. The First Amendment to our Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These precious freedoms act as a dual-edged sword, cutting two ways for Chaplains.

A Dual-Edged Sword

First, like all Americans, our servicemen are free from the establishment of any state religion.[3] The existence of compensated Chaplains does not contradict the Constitution’s establishment clause. Neither is the military chapel an endorsement of government religion despite enjoying free facilities, utilities, and ministers. Chaplains execute the constitutional intent by representing their faith group or church to the military while providing for the free exercise of religion for all under their spiritual care. They do not establish independent local churches from their sending faith groups. Chaplains are not church planters. They are best understood as what I call missionary-evangelists to the military. We are called of God, recognized by Fundamental Baptist churches through ordination to the gospel ministry, and sent to bear the precious gospel of saving grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone to men and women serving in uniform. Most Chaplain ministry is gospeland discipleship-centered. However, groups such as the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MR FF) under Mickey Weinstein chafe and misunderstand the freedom Chaplains enjoy. They determine to censor evangelical Chaplains in particular from any evangelizing, equating this with proselytizing, which is prohibited. The military defines evangelizing differently from proselytizing. Chaplains are free to evangelize all self-proclaimed unaffiliated, nonreligious members or especially anyone who initiates inquiry about faith. Chaplains may not actively engage to convert those declared members of another faith group to their own church group. Proselytizing happens when I go out of my way to Catholic, Muslim, or Jewish Soldiers and pressure them to convert and join an Independent Fundamental Baptist church outside the post gate.

Second, the First Amendment forbids prohibiting the free exercise of religion. This central legal right is critical to our Chaplains’ legitimate existence. Simply put, how will the military provide for the free expression of religion to servicemen especially when deployed? Good question. This is why the Supreme Court upheld the military’s right to employ Chaplains in the 1986 Katcoff v. Marsh ruling. If Congress did not establish a Chaplaincy, it would deny servicemen the right to exercise their religion freely, given the deployable nature of the Armed Forces.[4] This reality describes the military’s pluralistic environment. Chaplains are commissioned by Congress to provide for the free exercise of religion according to the Constitution’s free expression clause, the primary legal basis for faithbased ministry in the military.

Definition vs. Application

Defining pluralism and its legal justification is simpler than applying pluralism in the military context. The Chaplain’s officer commission requires subordination to superior officers and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Couple this demand alongside faithful adherence to one’s divine calling, faith tenets, and ordination vows and you create tension for all Chaplains. For example, all Chaplains must maintain a good relationship with their representative faith group by ecclesiastical endorsement. I am grateful for the FBFI as my own endorser. These endorsers demand accountability of Chaplains through quarterly reports, church membership, and upholding their doctrinal statement. I believe this inevitable tension between our calling as an officer loyal to the president and superior officers and my loyalty to the Holy God is tough but good. It demands our solemn prayer on behalf of Chaplains for wisdom and faithfulness to God first and country. Maybe this is why the Army’s Chaplain Corps motto is Pro Deo et Patria, “For God and Country.”

I asserted earlier that pluralism in the Chaplaincy was like an open minefield. Pluralism’s potential application has its obstacles though open to plain sight. I do not believe the military’s pluralism sets up our conservative Chaplains for failure. On the contrary, it ensures freedom to minister in addition to providing escape routes from seemingly mandatory compromise. One must simply be wise in maneuvering the obstacles of compromise. To illustrate, I remember time spent with the mechanized combat engineers of the proud 3rd Infantry Division. They used a weapon system called the Volcano Mine Dispenser to deploy airborne-dropped unexploded ordinance called FASCAM (Family of Scatterable Mines). Chaplains similarly face a figurative narrow pass filled with FASCAM lying around while serving in military ministry. But they need not fear when practical solutions abound for those desiring to reflect God’s glory.

Tactical Evasion

One means to negotiate pluralism’s minefield is what I call tactical evasion. First, this does not mean avoiding or eluding any gospel ministry. Neither is this theological or doxological compromise. I do not mean the Chaplain shirking an opportunity to boldly proclaim Biblical truth out of fear of supervisory Chaplains and superior officers. Tactical evasion means following our Savior’s admonition in Matthew 10:16 to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” Just as serpents illustrate knowing their limits and avoiding danger and doves picture a gracious believer who does not forcibly oppose the enemy,[5] so Fundamental Chaplains must exercise wise discretion in military ministry.

For example, Chaplains typically enjoy the freedom to lead worship at those chapel services they identify with in faith and tradition. It goes without saying that FBFI Chaplains gravitate toward those services that most reflect their conservative background in both worship style and theology. Yet this is an ongoing challenge. Sometimes there is a void of strong, conservative, evangelical Chaplains nearby at smaller installations or while deployed at various FOB s (Forward Operating Bases). Additionally, the Chiefs of Chaplains’ policy for all active-duty Chaplains is to attend at least three chapel services each month. Chaplains may fulfill this obligation while ministering in a solitary role apart from cooperation with other Chaplains in youth ministry, leading the chapel Bible study, or by planning and leading chapel fellowship programs. I am grateful for the current majority of other evangelical men faithful to the inspiration of Scripture, the Bible’s place of supreme spiritual authority, and their commitment to faithfully and accurately proclaim the gospel. I can serve on the chapel platform with these men.

Savvy Intelligence

Finally, Chaplains may navigate pluralism’s minefield with savvy intelligence. Just as British General Sir Bernard Montgomery defeated Germany’s Afrika Korps in Libya during World War II with superior intelligence in better minefield maps, so Chaplains avoid compromise by knowing and using military policy and regulation. Part of being “wise as serpents” means knowing your limits and rights regardless of the event — whether a simple Bible study, voluntarily attended chapel service, or mandatory military ceremony. For example, there is a difference between the local church and the chapel. Simply, the chapel is not a local church, so I can participate in worship with people whom I would not find in my independent Fundamental Baptist church.

Likewise, there’s a difference between voluntarily attendance at a chapel service and a mandatory event such as a funeral ceremony, change of command, or graduation. Chaplains are often called to provide the invocation at such events. Make no mistake about it, Chaplains are free to pray according to their faith convictions. The Army Chief of Chaplains’ policy on prayer is “no policy.” We cannot regulate prayer. But wisdom must prevail. I believe our FBFI Chaplains should pray in a Christocentric manner. I often pray “in the name of my Lord and Savior” or “in the Name above all other names.” I believe that faithfully praying Christ-centered prayers at all events while honoring the Soldiers forced to be in front of me gains Divine favor.

Our FBFI Chaplains must also be savvy about ways out of compromising events. When I served a year away from family in Korea at Camp Humphreys, I was tasked by my supervisory Chaplain to preach at the Easter Sunrise Service. What a privilege, I thought. Then I saw it, a mine right in front of me. I saw the worship bulletin had me following the Catholic priest and the Latter Day Saints Chaplains, who were providing the Scripture readings and prayers in the same service. What do you do, Chaplain?

First, I requested a humble release since I cannot worship in good conscience with non-Trinitarians or those who preach another gospel. This did not go over very well. I was rebuffed with “this is your worship obligation.” Well. That was patently false. I was finally forced to appeal to Army policy in AR 165-1, where no Chaplain is required to perform worship outside of his or her faith convictions. We teach at the Chaplain School the central doctrine that Chaplains must provide for the free exercise of religion but not necessarily perform it. We do this by finding an appropriate Chaplain who will meet the worship obligation. For example, in any one of my past eight battalions, if one of my Catholic Soldiers requested the Eucharist, Absolution, or any other sacrament, I simply found the nearest Catholic priest. This is not compromise; it enables Chaplains to fulfill their constitutional obligation while retaining their own freedom of faith and conscience.

Contribution without Compromise

Further, we teach our brand-new Chaplains at Ft. Jackson to exercise savvy intelligence amid pluralism by communicating their faith seasoned with grace. Nobody likes arrogant, selfish Chaplains with a “chip on the shoulder” attitude. If you typically pontificate a “my way or the highway” attitude or always draw a circle in the sand as a response to difficult situations, the military will limit your ministry opportunities.

I am differentiating here between a fighting, meanspirited attitude and one of grace, looking for satisfactory solutions for all. They abound! The bottom line is that Chaplains must find those ways they can contribute to the ministry effort at their installation without compromising the gospel among those who reject it.

Religious pluralism is often misunderstood or feared by those unfamiliar with the military. I am often asked, “How can you serve in the ecumenical military without compromise? Does the military forbid praying in Jesus’ name? Are Wiccan Chaplains coming? How can you work right next to a senior Muslim imam in the cubicle next to you at the Chaplain School?” All these are good questions and merit good answers.

I trust this article fuels more gospel light than needless controversial heat. May this illuminate for our readers the tension and challenges coupled with the joy and opportunities of ministry to the military. Please pray that God would place our FBFI Chaplains in positions of stratgic influence to make an impact for Christ in the military. Please pray for much-needed daily wisdom, discretion, and faithful ministry.

Chaplain (MAJ) Scott M. Bullock currently serves as the Training Developer and a Small Group Leader for the Army’s Chaplain Basic Officer Leader Course (CH-BOLC) within the US Army Chaplain Center and School (USACHCS) at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. He has served nearly thirteen years on active duty in various battalion and staff assignments including two deployments to Kuwait and Iraq.

(Originally published in FrontLine • November/December 2009. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. I could simply say “Fundamental Christians” instead of “FBFI.” I specifically hold in mind our constituent local church pastors’ ability to grasp and articulate the challenges of pluralism in the military. It starts with a proper definition which then qualifies its application. []
  2. I use “servicemen” collectively for both men and women in uniform as Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen. []
  3. We know the United Kingdom, like most European nations, maintains a state church. I served with a few Church of England (Anglican) Chaplains serving Her Majesty’s Royal Marine Commandos while deployed to Iraq. They explained the majority of their small Chaplain Corps are Anglican since “that’s Her Majesty’s church,” while others, such as mainstream Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, were permitted the privilege to serve if approved by their Defense Ministry. The US military places all faith groups and endorsers on an equal footing. This is a key principle of pluralism. []
  4. Richard D. Rosen, University of Toledo Law Review, Vol. 38. []
  5. Louis A. Barbieri Jr., The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Chariot Victor Publishing, Colorado Springs, 1983), p. 42. []

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.

Submit other comments here.