December 18, 2017

The Military Chaplain – Missionary, Evangelist, or Pastor?

Tavis Long

Is the military Chaplaincy a legitimate New Testament ministry? What, if any, is the Chaplain’s affiliation with the local church? Does he lead a local church, as does a pastor? Is he a ministry of the local church, as is a “sent” missionary? Is he a tool of the local church, as is an evangelist? Or is his ministry completely manufactured and extra-Biblical? After all, the Chaplain’s salary is paid by the United States government, and this can draw him dangerously close to an alliance with the State that can potentially usurp his loyalty and responsibility to the local church.

The answers to these questions can be found in analyzing the four ecclesiastical functions of church ministry as found in Ephesians 4:11: (1) apostle, (2) prophet, (3) evangelist, and (4) pastor-teacher. Therefore, if the ministry of the Chaplain is going to receive God’s blessing, the Chaplain ministry cannot usurp any Biblical role but rather must be governed by Biblical principle. Any extra-Biblical creation of ministry is no better than were the scribes and Pharisees in the Gospels who sought out “salutations” (Mark 12:38) and “the uppermost seats in the synagogues” (Luke 11:43). In other words, without Scriptural backing, the military Chaplain is nothing more than a vain position with no Biblical purpose. But into which of the Biblical categories does the Chaplain fall?

Many claim the Chaplain falls into none of the categories, citing the following arguments:

  1. He is not an apostle or prophet because doctrine teaches that these functions have ceased.
  2. The government claims that Chaplains cannot be missionaries because that would be a violation of the First Amendment.
  3. The military warns against Chaplains’ being evangelists because they are not permitted to proselytize.
  4. Finally, many within the local church say Chaplains are not pastors because they are not working in a local, autonomous church.

Responses 2 through 4 above are based upon misconceptions, and the truth lies in the definition and practical application of each of the functions as seen in Ephesians 4.

The Chaplain as Missionary

The functions of the apostle and prophet have long since passed away. This is because the qualifications for both can no longer be met. However, there is still a practical work of the apostle that comes in the form of a missionary to the foreign field. The word “apostle” is a transliterated word that literally means “a delegate.” Both apostles and missionaries are delegated for the same purpose, but both do not have the same sending agent. The original apostles were sent out by God (Gal. 1:1), while missionaries are sent out by the local church (Acts 13:2, 3). This is the impetus of Paul’s questions in Romans 10:14, 15: “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent?” The local church has an obligation to continue the ministry, though not the office, of the apostles by deputizing and sending out missionaries to “preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).

Since the military positions, pays, and promotes the Chaplain, it is easy to assume that he answers primarily to the military, secondarily to the government, and only has a tertiary obligation to his local church. Nevertheless, the good military Chaplain reverses this order and makes a strong local church affiliation his priority. Though the Chaplain must receive an endorsement from an ecclesiastical organization (a government requirement), that organization has virtually no authority over the Chaplain. The endorsing agency does have the power to withdraw the endorsement, thus legally disqualifying the Chaplain from military service; but this action can be very problematic, especially for those who believe the authority for ordaining ministers lies with the local church and not an outside organization. The Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International believes this to be true as well. As an endorsing agency, they understand, prefer, and require accountability between the Chaplain and his local church. The FBFI handbook for Chaplains requires that any Chaplain endorsed by the FBFI will be “sent out from his local church.” Every aspect of ministry that the Chaplain performs— from the administration of the ordinances to the Chaplain’s daily interaction through counseling—is done under the umbrella, authority, and blessing of his sending church. The FBFI merely facilitates this opportunity for local churches. The FBFI does not usurp the role of the local church but rather partners (similar to a mission agency) with local independent Fundamental Baptist churches to send men into the armed forces to speak the language of the troops, endure the hardships they endure, and reach them with the Word of Truth.

It is certain that the military Chaplaincy is not the only means to carry this message. Many argue that civilian missionaries who establish servicemen’s centers, Bible studies, and gospel-preaching churches outside the gates of military installations can more effectively reach the military masses with the gospel of Christ. Though all of these are important to spreading the gospel, only the military Chaplain can go with the men and women who receive orders to deploy to the farthest reaches of the earth. It is when those orders come that local churches can be thankful that they deputized men who willingly packed a sea bag and deployed with the unit. Only the Chaplain has the ability to respond immediately with the gospel as the serviceman prepares to enter the “valley of the shadow of death.”

The Chaplain is effectively a foreign missionary. Whether his military community is the United States Army, Navy, or Air Force, each has its own language and culture. There are many similarities between Chaplains and foreign missionaries, but there are differences. The Chaplain ministers in an institution that prides itself on being ecumenical, pluralistic, and universal. Most civilian missionaries are not faced with these types of challenges, though they certainly have their own issues to confront. Chaplains— especially evangelical, Fundamental, independent Baptist Chaplains—find it difficult, though not impossible, to navigate through these treacherous waters while still providing compassionate, faithful ministry. The Chaplain must be careful not to compromise the theological moorings of either his conscience or his sending church. After all, the Chaplain needs the authority of his local church to continue a Biblical ministry. Nevertheless, the commonality of the civilian missionary and the Chaplain missionary is simple: both are watching for the souls of men. Both have answered the beckoning call: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me” (Isa. 6:8). This is the Chaplain as a missionary.

The Chaplain as an Evangelist

The third ecclesiastical function of the church as outlined in Ephesians 4 is one that also receives discussion regarding its current usefulness. Some believe that the functionality of the evangelist has also passed. However, the reality is that once the missionary has been sent out, he has the sole purpose of preaching the gospel. The word “evangelist” literally means “preacher of the good news.” This is a responsibility of every Christian, though there are those who have specifically dedicated themselves to doing “the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5). It is common for men to travel abroad with the sole purpose of proclaiming the gospel to churches, congregations, or any place that they can gain an audience. These men are fulfilling the spirit of Ephesians 4:11.

The military Chaplain is one who proclaims the gospel to the branch of service which he is assigned. This can present a problem, for the military adamantly opposes proselytizing. However, rather than throwing up hands in defeat because it appears that souls cannot be won for Christ, it is advantageous to understand the mission of the evangelist.

To its credit, twentieth-century Fundamentalism emphasized a confrontational approach to evangelism. The gospel will always be confrontational (Luke 14:23). However, there were many within Fundamentalism who went beyond confrontation and emphasized a brash, militant, often rude approach to sharing the gospel. This approach has little effect within the military. When it comes to evangelization, the Chaplain should keep in mind the instruction Christ gave to His disciples in Matthew 10:16: “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”

The wisdom of evangelism is demonstrated in the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:3–9, 18–23). Some of the seed that the sower cast fell on wayside, some on the stony ground, some amongst the thorns, and some onto fertile ground. However, the most fruit was produced by the seed that fell onto the good ground. The military Chaplain must have a discerning sense of evangelism. This discernment comes by developing a relational ministry. It is vital for the Chaplain to first develop a relationship with the service member before he can provide a meaningful presentation of the gospel. This relationship is formed by the Chaplain doing “deck plate” ministry. He is not afraid to sleep on the ground with the Soldiers, hike with the Marines, chip paint with the Sailors, or run with the Airmen. When the Chaplain spends time among the men and women in his unit, he shows himself available, approachable, and attentive. When the troops see this, it will not be long before those who are the “good ground” become apparent. The Chaplain is then in a great position to confront them with the gospel in a loving, Biblical, effective manner. This is how the Chaplain preaches Christ—not out of envy and strife with contention but out of good will and love” (Phil. 1:15–17). This is the Chaplain as an evangelist.

The Chaplain as a Pastor-Teacher

The fourth and final function is that of the pastor-teacher. This is combined into one function because 1 Timothy 3:2 says that the bishop, now commonly called a pastor, must also be an “apt” teacher. Ephesians 4:11 is the only time in the New Testament where the word “pastor” is used in reference to a ministerial title; but a pastor is not so much a position or title as it is a function. That is, the title should be conferred only upon those who are actually feeding “the flock of God … taking the oversight thereof” (1 Pet. 5:2). “Pastor” is a title based upon action, not merely position. Therefore, it is impossible for a pastor to not be a teacher, because if at any time his congregation fails to learn from the Scriptures, he is no longer pastoring—he is no longer “feeding the flock.”

The converse is also true. Every time a person is teaching the Scriptures, he is pastoring. This means that even a layman can fulfill the function of a pastor. Many fear such ministries among the laity; however, we should encourage any person whose knowledge of the Scripture is such that he can be a teacher (Heb. 5:12). We should enable all those whose “senses [have been] exercised to discern both good and evil” (Heb. 5:14). It does not take a seminary degree for those who love Christ to feed His sheep (John 21:16). It takes mature understanding of the Scriptures that can be attained as easily (and perhaps with greater effect) by years of home study as it can in the halls of academia. Military Chaplains must be teachers.

The Chaplain is often called upon to use pastoral gifts. When any military unit goes forward, it endeavors to embark as a self-sustaining entity. Each provides its own command and control, administration, operations and planning, intelligence, logistics (which includes transportation of personnel and gear, maintenance of equipment, medical staff, mess men [cooks], armory, and supply), and communications. Among the organic staff of a unit, the Chaplain is provided to ensure that the religious needs of the unit are either provided for or facilitated. This means that the young men and women leaving their churches in the continental United States are embarking for a destination where neither pastors nor their staff can go. Would it not be expedient to send a pastor with them to continue to feed them, nurture them, and counsel them in the ways of righteousness? The military Chaplain can accomplish this mission. The plethora of other denominations and religions recognize this and are sending Chaplains by the droves. Therefore, rather than sitting idly by, hoping that Christian young men and women do not get “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14), Fundamental churches must send men into the Chaplaincy to pastor those believers who have vowed to “defend the Constitution against all enemies.”

When the unit returns to garrison, the Chaplain coordinates with local, Fundamental, soul-winning, Bible-preaching churches to ensure that the souls he has pastored in combat can assemble with other believers for the sake of edification and exhortation that stems from corporate worship (Heb. 10:25). The relationship between pastors and Chaplains should be complementary, not competitive. Even the Chaplain should find a Fundamental church in which to participate. This way he too can receive regular spiritual nourishment.

By definition, therefore, the Chaplain is a pastor. Whether he is in garrison, assigned to a base chapel, or whether he is operational and deploys with a unit, he still feeds the flock. Though the base chapel is not a traditional “church,” it is still an avenue of ministry where the Chaplain must “preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2). And, if he deploys, he goes forward to “give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:13). Regardless of his assignment, the Chaplain must “[hold] fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” (Titus 1:9). This is the Chaplain as a pastor-teacher.


The ministry of the military Chaplain is unique. In many ways it is truly bivocational: Chaplains are often tasked with collateral duties as military officers that they must deconflict from their ministerial duties. Physical training requirements, community qualifications (e.g., jump school, Fleet Marine Force qualification, martial arts qualifications, aircraft qualifications), social work (e.g., equal opportunity, suicidal ideations, gambling addictions, sexual harassment), and command and staff meetings are among the things that can “distract” a Chaplain from providing ministry to his unit. However, if the Chaplain is vigilant, he will view even these additional responsibilities as opportunities to minister.

The military Chaplain is definitely outside the box of traditional, local church ministry, but his is a Biblically legitimate ministry nonetheless. The Chaplain is the embodiment of a missionary, evangelist, and pastor who wears the cloth of his nation. It takes discernment, vigilance, and discipline to battle the apostasy that is prevalent in institutional ministry, but, then again, civilian ministry also has its daily battles with heresy and wickedness. The joy comes in the realization that both the Christ-centered civilian minister and the Bible-preaching military Chaplain can fellowship together as “labourers together with God” (1 Cor. 3:9).

Bio as originally published: Lieutenant Tavis J. Long, CHC, USN, is the Battalion Chaplain for 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2D Marine Division in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. In September he returned from a six-month combat tour to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is married to Kendal and has two daughters, Karalyn and Karsen.

Chaplain (LCDR) Tavis Long currently serves as Deputy Ex. Asst/Staff Secretary, Pentagon, Washington, DC.

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

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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