Parallels can be drawn between Jesus Christ and military chaplains, as both were sent to minister to secular and religiously diverse communities. As such, His example should serve as the inspiration for members of the profession, with His words and actions deserving emulation in the course of one’s work. Two factors should be considered here: words and actions, as the two are separate yet equally important. One should act righteously, in accordance with Christian virtues, but for a chaplain, actions alone are not sufficient. They also have to carry God’s Word to those who need it, helping them find salvation. Christ serves as the principal example of how both of these tasks should be accomplished, and his deeds are recorded in the Bible. Hence, this essay will explore the Gospel of Matthew to identify truths about Christ’s ministries of presence and word and relate them to chaplain behaviors.
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Relating to Others
Christ was sent into a secular world with which He was initially unfamiliar. However, as He grew up and encountered various people, He came to understand their struggles and sin. With this knowledge, He was able to spread the faith effectively, appealing to the people’s weaknesses and offering them strength and salvation. He related the same instruction to His disciples: “You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless”1. He then directs them to be the light of the world, shining before men and showing them the glory of the Father in Heaven. The same notion can be applied to chaplains, who will often work in a similar environment to that in which the apostles spread the faith.
The military is a secular organization that incorporates people from a number of backgrounds and different faiths. Some of them may be interested in Christian values but unacquainted with it or hesitant to join due to past experiences. To serve such people, the chaplain cannot isolate themselves in the local Christian community and preach to them exclusively. Instead, they must venture outside of their comfort zone and engage people of different beliefs and backgrounds. In doing so, like Christ before them, they will learn of these people’s troubles and expand their worldview. Moreover, by demonstrating the virtues of Christianity through their example, they may persuade these people to join the faith. As such, a chaplain should both actively practice the virtues of Christianity and engage with non-Christians to demonstrate how joining the church improves one’s life.
Avoidance of Prejudice
Throughout His life on Earth, Christ met many people from different walks of life, including some less savory ones. Matthew himself was a tax collector, regarded poorly by his Jewish peers, before meeting Jesus and becoming His disciple. Even on the cross, He accepted the conversion of a thief and promised him Heaven despite his crimes. This tendency is reflected in one of Christ’s parables with the statement “The King will reply, ‘And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’”2. Regardless of one’s past actions or current condition, Christ states that Christians should extend them aid, leading by example. This notion applies to all believers at all times and is particularly relevant for chaplains.
The army consists of many different people, with one of the few unifying factors being that part of their purpose is to kill others, directly or otherwise. Its members will have different attitudes toward that objective and varied ways of dealing with their stress. The chaplain’s role involves looking past these potentially unsightly trappings to the innate worth of a person. Judgment is the domain of God, and His ministers should help people achieve righteousness without letting their preconceived notions interfere. They should reach out to anyone in need and sincerely offer them whatever help they can provide. Per the core tenets of Christianity, this aid should be given freely and without ulterior motives. In doing so, the chaplain will create the most good and serve their purposes both as a military member and a minister.
Acting as a Shepherd
Christ was born in a sinful land that refused to accept Him and His teachings, ultimately killing him. However, he never despaired, working tirelessly to spread the message of salvation and sacrificing Himself for humanity’s sins. To that end, He traveled throughout the land, teaching, performing miracles, and amassing a group of followers that went on to create Christianity. Seeing people and crowds that rejected His message, “he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”3. Christ knew that they, though currently unable to see the truth of His words, had the potential to understand and reach righteousness eventually. Like a shepherd, He guided them carefully, leading the lost sheep without force and helping them find their path.
Jesus’s story serves as an example for chaplains, who also have to deal with substantial, if less severe, difficulties and stress in their work. The purpose of a chaplain is to serve the spiritual needs of the people in their charge, which will often involve personal revelations and disclosure of inner secrets. To that end, genuine trust and close relationships have to exist between a chaplain and their parish4. However, neither of these is possible if the minister behaves non-authentically as a result of having given up on their mission, either overtly or implicitly. Love and compassion have to always remain at the chaplain’s heart, able to withstand the trials and temptations of the world, as they did in Christ’s.
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The Chaplain as a Servant
Though Christ was the Son of God, He did not use that fact or his miraculous abilities as the primary means of commanding attention and helping people. He mostly relied on speeches, preaching the message He had come to deliver and amassing followers. Ultimately, He subjected himself to the law of the land and permitted His execution, refusing to condemn those who unjustly consigned Him to that fate. His stated reason for doing so was as follows: “whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many”5. With this statement and his overall behavior, Christ set an example that all ministers, chaplains included, have to follow.
Chaplains are officers, outranking most of their flock, which primarily consists of privates. However, their superior authority should not obscure the fact that they are meant to serve the members of their flock. They have to show respect to everyone they talk to, regardless of rank, religion, or denomination. It is essential for them to remain humble and sincere as they perform their duties, serving others’ interests at least as much as their own. They should aim to replicate Jesus’s unconditional and equal love for everybody that drove Him to perform his deeds. In doing so, they will be able to serve their unit, country, and, most importantly, God to the best of their ability.
Jesus’s words and actions serve as a model on which all Christian ministers have to model their behavior. The lessons particularly apply to chaplains, who work in a comparable environment to that in which Christ spread His message and can benefit from His experiences of dealing with diverse and conflicted groups. To gain the experiences and abilities they need to deal with members of their flock, chaplains should leave their comfort zone and engage with different types of people compassionately. While doing so, they have to abandon their preconceived notions and appeal to each person’s inner worth. Authenticity is essential for this purpose, as the other person will see and appreciate it. All of these qualities contribute to the chaplain’s identity as a humble servant to those ranked lower than him, as Jesus served people despite His divinity. By emulating Christ to the best of their ability, chaplains will be able to accomplish their duties in letter as well as spirit.
Bohlman, Brian L. For God and Country: Considering the Call to Military Chaplaincy. 2nd ed. Scotts Valley: CreateSpace, 2015.
- Mt 5:13 (NLT).
- Mt 25:40 (NLT).
- Mt 9:36 (NLT).
- Brian L. Bohlman, For God and Country: Considering the Call to Military Chaplaincy, 2nd ed. (Scotts Valley: CreateSpace, 2015), 43.
- Mt 20:26-28 (NLT).