Chaplains have two roles: one is civil and military in nature; the other ecclesiastical, or spiritual. These are complementary roles.
First, chaplains are commissioned as staff corps officers who have specific military staff responsibilities within a command. They are under the command officer’s authority in terms of these military duties.
Second, each chaplain is ordained and endorsed by a specific denomination. Their ministry is to people from a myriad of backgrounds, regardless of their affiliation.
Chaplains are under the authority of their church in the conduct of their ministry. Their role, in this sense, is like that of any biblically based pastor: to win, train, and encourage believers. Credibility within both the military setting and the Christian community is essential to accomplish this.
The Christian officer, unaware of this duality, can easily become unjustly critical of chaplains’ attempts to fulfill their military role well. Many want them to be chaplains first and officers second. The reality is that they are both, simultaneously.
A second misunderstanding is, who owns the chapel program. Who really is responsible for the religious program on any base? The answer is: the commanding officer.
Every commander, regardless of his personal convictions, is responsible for the welfare, including the spiritual welfare, of his personnel.
That responsibility extends to insuring appropriate programs are provided. He is responsible for what occurs on his base. This means he will want to know and exercise approval or disapproval of programs. The special staff professional who is provided to assist him is the chaplain.
Officers’ Christian Fellowship groups meeting or advertising on any base (including quarters areas) should submit to the military authority of the command via the chaplain.
Any Christian commander will do well to know what groups are meeting on his base and what they are all about. When religious organizations wish to operate on base, they must be subordinate to military authority. This is not restrictive; it opens doors to witness! Military authority at its best is supportive of expressions of faith.
Here’s an example of the chaplain fulfilling his military staff role. A sailor sent notice to the command paper of his religious group meeting. He was holding meetings in his home.
The commander was furious that a cult operated on his base, and he contemplated official action. Before he took action against the sailor, however, he asked the advice of his chaplain. Here is what the chaplain did:
- First, he reminded the commander that, as in our larger society, a military installation is a pluralistic society and that this sailor’s affiliation with this group was legitimate. It was not an illegal activity, no matter how much the command, or the chaplain, might believe it to be misguided.
- Second, the chaplain talked to the sailor about the proper way to establish a religious activity on base. (Check with local base or post protocol for more information.) The purpose of military regulations governing religious activities is justice, freedom, and fairness for all–which we endorse on the basis of Christian ethics. God blesses where there is obedience to proper authority (Romans 13:5) and the practice of justice (2 Corinthians 4:2).
From a command perspective, OCF is a religious organization. Decisions that protect the rights of one legal group also protect the rights of others to meet on base. Christian ethics require our strict accountability in such matters.
How can chaplains and laypersons work together to exalt Jesus Christ in our military society?
A comprehensive description of roles and relationships in military ministry requires a thorough study of the New Testament. Here are some possible actions.
- Build a friendship and maintain contact with the chaplain regardless of differences in theology.
- Pray for and with one another when you can.
- Find positive ways to express and discuss your differences.
- Make OCF or personal ministries part of the Command Religious Program by staff procedures that show you are acting openly in accord with military customs and regulations.
- Participate in the chapel if you can. If God leads you to a local church, try to find ways to serve and ways to participate in events at the chapel.
Adapted from COMMAND magazine 1982. At that time, Chaplain Beach was commanding the Naval Chaplains School at Newport, Rhode Island.