Recently, there have been many examples of Christians in the military coming under fire for their religious beliefs.
Some of the higher-profile issues include senior leaders who have been chastised or punished for preaching while in uniform, Marines who have been relieved of duty for passing out evangelical coins to the Iraqi people, and chaplains who have made the news for burning Bibles. These examples may leave Christian officers wondering about their role as ambassadors for Christ in uniform.
Contributing to this confusion is the tension between our freedom of religion and our responsibility to follow orders that include not proselytizing. For evangelical Christians, our religious freedom includes the right to share our faith. So, where is the line between evangelizing and proselytizing? In military circles, the definitions of these terms are intentionally vague in order to prevent religious persecution on account of having a Bible, talking about God, or praying with others while simultaneously avoiding legal challenges to either definition or policy.
Here are 9 tools that a Christian officer can reasonably draw on while serving both our Lord and our country honorably:
“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).
It is easy to underestimate the importance of support. A Christian brother or sister of the same gender-whether a mentor or a peer-can go a long way to encourage, correct, and instruct. Prayerfully seek opportunities to mentor those who are younger in their faith. If you do not have a mentor, ask a Christian to mentor you, and then make the commitment to stay in touch with him or her.
At least as important as a mentor relationship is a mutually supportive peer-to-peer connection. Ideally, this relationship should be with someone you contact frequently. Many units may be too small, or an individual’s responsibilities within a unit may inhibit the opportunities for peer-to-peer bonds within the unit. In this case, pray for and look for someone outside of your unit.
Let others know where you stand: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
One does not need to preach sermons to have their personnel know what they believe, and there are advantages to them understanding where you stand. When your people know about your faith, it not only contributes to keeping you accountable by challenging you to maintain your integrity, it also helps them to understand the basis for your decisions and behavior.
Provide Alternate Reading Material
“No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Filth will find its way into your unit’s spaces. It may be a magazine rack in the latrine or a footlocker in the barracks. Given the choice, many people will chose a contemporary magazine or book over a Bible, but if one is not available, they will not even have the opportunity to choose it.
Of course people can be encouraged by sources other than the Bible, too. Books such as Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith or magazines such as Command are just a few examples that might prompt a curious reader to reach for something other than the glossy pages of a risqué periodical.
There are many places to make wholesome resources available. You can put them in the same magazine rack, or in a unit library or book locker, or even on a table with a sign to take or borrow.
Provide Alternate Activities
“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way” (Romans 14:13).
Whether you are the brand new ensign or second lieutenant, or the commanding officer, do not underestimate your ability to set others up for success. It may seem like everyone is planning to go out for an activity that you are not comfortable with.
Believe it or not, you can choose to not participate–or even better, you can decide on another course of action. Your option might not seem popular, but it just might encourage another who thought his or her only option was to join the crowd. You can help provide the way out for others.
The other side of the coin is that if you choose to go along, you may become a stumbling block for others. Your participation becomes an endorsement of the activity.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:5).
Don’t forget to thank God for the blessings that He provides. You don’t need to be showy. You don’t even need to draw attention to yourself, but taking a moment to pause and give thanks can be an encouragement to others, and a reinforcement of your beliefs to those around you.
“But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
Actively trying to convert your subordinates, allies, or host nation has the potential to get you in trouble for proselytizing. But if someone were to come to you and ask about what you believe–or better yet, ask why you believe–you do not want to be caught unprepared. Give some thought to how you would answer those questions, and be ready to give an answer should the opportunity arise.
Support, Host, or Lead a Bible Study
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).
Personal time in God’s Word has tremendous benefits in understanding His will, and grounding your life in the context of His design for your life. Joining in fellowship with others to study God’s Word can multiply that effect. Not only is there an opportunity to learn from others, but it also improves the likelihood of finding accountability partners or mentors as discussed above.
Participation in such a study will help achieve those objectives, but there are levels beyond just participating. If there is no Bible study in your area, you can start one. Contact the OCF home office at 800-424-1984 to see what is available in your area.
You may find the best way to support a Bible study or community fellowship is to be the host of the group. Some groups find it useful to keep a consistent host, while others prefer to rotate host responsibilities among the members.
Another way to support this type of activity is to be the leader or facilitator. As with hosting, some prefer to rotate this responsibility, and some choose to keep a consistent facilitator.
Finally, there might be an opportunity to help coordinate OCF studies in your community. This is particularly valuable in big military areas, where there can be multiple studies. Make a point of learning about the different fellowships in the area, as well as points of contact for each of those groups. In doing so, you can be a central point of contact for people who are looking for a study to join.
By advertising yourself as a point of contact or coordinator through your church, chapel bulletins, the OCF website, or with area chaplains, you can be in a position to inform others about the times, locations, contact information, and other considerations such as childcare.
Volunteer to be Your Unit’s Lay Leader
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
One of the explicitly sanctioned mechanisms to share your faith with others is to fill the capacity of lay leader within your unit. Chaplains cannot be everywhere. When you are in a unit that is too small to warrant its own chaplain, or if you are remote enough to be away from your chaplain, let your executive officer know that you are interested in the position.
With the endorsement of your commanding officer, make contact with the chaplain at the appropriate echelon and volunteer to be a lay leader. They will usually welcome the assistance, and provide training and resources to support you in that capacity.
While serving in this capacity, you will ensure that worshipers of all backgrounds have a time and place for their religious observances. As you facilitate Christian worship, both believers and seekers will come to you, and you are not at risk of proselytizing in that environment. This is a perfect opportunity to exercise your religious freedom, while protecting the freedoms of others.
Take a Missionary Trip
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Churches often sponsor short-term mission trips, and parachurch organizations set up a variety of trips to choose from. These are appropriate opportunities for Christians in the military to travel overseas and promote their faith while off duty.
Participate in Your Church or Chapel Community
“And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:28).
We should be attending church regularly, but it is important to recognize that being part of the church body involves more than attendance. We all have gifts that can be put to use within our congregations. Guest preaching, teaching Sunday school, ushering, serving on a church or chapel council, or coordinating events are just a few examples of service opportunities.
This toolbox is not all-inclusive. Nor is it meant to imply that all of us should be doing all of these things all of the time. If you are looking for opportunities to expand your influence as a Christian in the military, these suggestions might provide some ideas to consider.
We cannot allow ourselves to be defeated by perceptions that Christian activities will not be tolerated in the military! At the same time, however, we must also balance the responsibilities we have as leaders to ensure our service members can enjoy religious freedoms.