Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder


Chris Pitts is a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force Reserve serving as a chaplain. His family and our church say goodbye to him each summer for many weeks and eagerly await his return. He writes about what it means to be a military chaplain and the impact of the local church. Part one follows.

Over the last few months it dawned on me that we have an anomaly in our congregation. As with anything odd, peculiar or strange, we might not know what to make of it or how to interact with it. No, I am not suggesting we have a resident alien in our midst (subtle cultural reference to Men in Black). I am referring to my pursuit of military chaplaincy, currently as a chaplain candidate. What is military chaplaincy?

What is a military chaplain? As independent Baptists, we recognize only two offices: pastor and deacon (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3). If we take seriously the belief that pastors minister to a local church, which is the spiritual body of Christ, then chaplains are not strictly in the office of pastor. Chaplains provide spiritual care to both believers and unbelievers within an institution (including hospitals, prisons and elsewhere). I would admit I am still developing my position and I don’t want to press it too strongly; but currently I would prefer not to refer to chaplains as serving in the office of pastor.

Then what is a military chaplain? Well, what is a missionary? A missionary is someone sent out by the local church to fulfill the Great Commission in foreign contexts (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 13:1-3). I use the word foreign to simply suggest other than what is near or familiar. Missionaries are required to learn different cultures, customs and sometimes languages. If you have ever served in the military then you know that it has a foreign culture, customs and language! Simply, military chaplains are missionaries to military members in a specific branch.

Should we be involved in military chaplaincy? “What about separation of church and state?” This is a legitimate concern especially since separation of church and state is a Baptist distinctive. Actually, the legal basis is found in the same amendment which is often presented as the reason why chaplains should not be permitted. That is, the First Amendment provides the basis for the existence of the military chaplaincy. Specifically, it is the following: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

There are two clauses in this section: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. Military chaplaincy strikes an amazing balance between the two. It has been argued that forming an Army and sending the members away from their faith group prevents the free exercise of religion; therefore, the military is required to facilitate this exercise through chaplains. It is then required to provide chaplains of various faith groups both to effectively minister to the diverse members and to avoid creating a state-sponsored religion. There is solid constitutional and historical support for military chaplaincy.

Who can be a military chaplain? Qualifications for military chaplains can be separated into two categories: spiritual and professional. The spiritual qualifications for a pastor (elder or overseer) are likewise appropriate for a military chaplain. As a missionary, he is functioning as a pastor to a group temporarily within his care. Therefore, we turn to 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 to identify these qualifications. It is the local church that observes these qualities in the individual and affirms his qualifications.

As for professional, there are educational requirements that are set by the Department of Defense (DoD). The military chaplain must have a baccalaureate degree and a graduate degree in theological or religious studies, with at least 72 semester hours (almost always a Master of Divinity).

Finally, military chaplains need certain professional credentials to formally recognize the spiritual qualifications described above. Technically, this is known as an ecclesiastical endorsement that is provided by one’s faith group. As an independent Baptist, we partner with a group outside our church to provide this endorsement. It is essentially the way the government stays of out the business of assessing spiritual fitness without ignoring the need for fitness. The endorser provides the chaplain support throughout his ministry.

As always I welcome your feedback and any suggestions you might have for an upcoming Lunchtime Musing.