There is a good bit of misinformation circulating around the internet regarding military chaplains in general and Army chaplains in specific. I’ve seen posts that claim that Army chaplains cannot pray in Jesus’ name when they conduct their worship services. Some people claim that chaplains are forced to conduct services for other religions. Hopefully this post will help clear up some of these common myths related to military chaplaincy.
Myth #1: Chaplains Cannot Pray in Jesus’ Name
This myth stems largely from confusion regarding military ceremonies versus worship services. Attendance at a military ceremony is required by every soldier in the unit regardless of their faith affiliation. Because attendance is mandatory, a soldier who does not attend might face disciplinary action. Military ceremonies are not focused on a particular faith group or denomination. They are ceremonies for the unit that are part of promoting morale and unit cohesion. During these ceremonies, chaplains often offer an invocation and a benediction. In both of these prayers, because attendance is mandatory, the Army discourages chaplains from praying in Jesus’ name. That said, in the ceremonies I conducted as an Army chaplain, I prayed “in the name that is above all names,” “in the name of the Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world,” “in the name of the Prince of Peace who is Emmanuel, God with us,” and other references to Jesus drawn from Scripture. There was no question in the minds of my soldiers during these ceremonies that a Christian chaplain was praying.
In contrast, attendance at worship services is voluntary. Soldiers can miss worship services without disciplinary action. The chaplain presiding over the worship service is in charge of the service and has the freedom to conduct the service in accordance with their denominational affiliation and their endorsing agent, in my case the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. I always prayed in Jesus’ name during my worship services and was never reprimanded by any superior for doing so. As the chaplain, I presided over the service and planned it in accordance with my faith.
Myth #2: Chaplains Are Forced to Conduct Services for Other Religions
One of the responsibilities of an Army chaplain is to protect every soldier’s right to freedom of religious expression. In protecting that right, chaplains often will coordinate times, locations, and personnel to allow a soldier to worship within his or her faith affiliation. This might involve securing a Jewish chaplain to conduct services for a Jewish soldier. As a Protestant chaplain, I would coordinate with Catholic chaplains to conduct services for my soldiers who were Catholic. The focus was on providing the opportunity for soldiers to participate in religious services that coincided with their faith affiliation.
While I provided opportunities for soldiers to worship who were not Protestant, I did not perform worship services for faith groups outside of Protestantism. The Army would not require me to do so. In addition, the Southern Baptist Convention would withdraw my endorsement had I done so. I also was not present at worship services outside of my Protestant affiliation. The saying in military chaplaincy is “provide but don’t perform.” I was never asked or pressured to perform worship services outside of my identity as a Protestant chaplain in general and a Southern Baptist chaplain in particular.
Myth #3: A Chaplain is Not a Soldier
During my first day of training at the United States Army Chaplains Center and School, at the time in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, I was told that I was a soldier first, an officer second, and a chaplain last. As a soldier, I was trained to be technically and tactically proficient to perform on the battlefield. That meant I met the same physical standards as every other soldier. I needed to perform the common tasks like land navigation, night infiltration, performing in a nuclear and biochemical battlefield, etc. that every other soldier needed to perfect. As an officer, I was trained how to command soldiers and the various aspects of command on the squad, platoon, company, battalion, brigade, and division level. I was placed in different command roles during training in order to learn these skills. I also learned the different responsibilities of battalion, brigade, and division chaplains. I was trained how to operate on a battalion staff and the relationship between the chaplain and the various officers and enlisted personnel in the unit. Finally, the Army trained me how to operate as a unit ministry team in peacetime and war. The military taught me how to advise my commander regarding the ethics of war, the religious makeup of the unit, and the religious dynamics present in our area of operations (the area where our unit deployed).
This post scratches the surface of the life of the Army chaplain, but I hope that it clears up some myths and misconceptions that exist regarding Army chaplaincy. I had the privilege of serving as an infantry chaplain for eight years. My unit deployed on Operation Noble Eagle (2001) and Operation Enduring Freedom (2002). I experienced great freedom to share the gospel throughout my time in service and, by God’s grace, saw soldiers surrender to Christ as Savior and Lord.
Pro Deo et Patria!
Soli Deo Gloria!
(For more posts by Tim McKnight visit his web site.)