SBC chaplains cannot serve ‘God and country’

"Pro Deo et Patria" ("for God and country") is the motto of the Army Chaplain Corps. No longer can most Southern Baptist military chaplains continue to serve with integrity as military officers because their endorser, the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, has placed them in an unethical position.

By Tom Carpenter

The North American Mission Board has turned the Army motto on its head. They have forced their endorsed chaplains into the untenable position of either serving God or country. Given that choice, as men (NAMB forbids women to serve as ordained chaplains) of God the only honorable course of action for most will be to resign their commissions and return to civilian ministry.

On Aug. 31, the NAMB published its "Guidelines in Response to the June 26, 2013, Supreme Court Ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act." While they call this document "guidelines," there is no doubt it is mandatory. It clearly states, "chaplains in violation of these restrictions will be subject to removal of their endorsement." No endorsement means they lose their commission as a military officer, ending their military career and, in some instances, the loss of retirement benefits.

So what are these "restrictions"?

NAMB-endorsed chaplains are prohibited from:

1. Attending a wedding ceremony of a same-gender couple.
2. Performing pastoral counseling of a same-gender married couple. 
3. Assisting or supporting contractors or volunteers leading same-gender relational events. 
4. Offering any kind of relationship training, on or off a military installation, that would give the appearance of accepting the "homosexual lifestyle or sexual wrongdoing."
5. Conducting a service jointly with a chaplain, contractor or volunteer who personally practices or affirms a "homosexual lifestyle" or such conduct.

So what is the problem? While these restrictions are consistent with Southern Baptist beliefs that hold marriage to be "God's lifelong gift 'of uniting one man and one woman in covenant commitment for lifetime,'" in their present form, the "guidelines" are incompatible with military ethics and regulations. 

If these Southern Baptist chaplains were civilian pastors, there would be no problem. As civilians, they undisputedly have an absolute First Amendment right to believe, preach and counsel in accordance with their denominational tenets. But they are not civilians, and have a duty to not only God, but also country. It is instructive that they are not salaried by the NAMB but by the American taxpayer.

The Covenant and Code of Ethics for Chaplains of the Armed Forces adopted by the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces, advocates uncompromising ethical standards for all endorsed military chaplains. In part, the NCMAF Covenants require every endorsed military chaplain to agree and affirm the following:

I understand as a chaplain in the United States Armed Forces that:

1. I will function in a pluralistic environment with chaplains of other religious bodies to provide for ministry to all military personnel and their families entrusted to my care.

2. I will seek to provide for pastoral care and ministry to persons of religious bodies other than my own within my area of responsibility with the same investment of myself as I give to members of my own religious body. I will work collegially with chaplains of religious bodies other than my own as together we seek to provide as full a ministry as possible to our people.

3. I will respect the beliefs and traditions of my colleagues and those to whom I minister. When conducting services of worship that include persons of other than my religious body, I will draw upon those beliefs, principles, and practices that we have in common.

4. I will, if in a supervisory position, respect the practices and beliefs of each chaplain I supervise and exercise care not to require of them any service or practice that would be in violation of the faith practices of their particular religious body.

5. I will seek to support all colleagues in ministry by building constructive relationships wherever I serve, both with the staff where I work and with colleagues throughout the military environment.

6. I will recognize that my obligation is to provide for the free exercise of religion for ministry to all members of the military services, their families and other authorized personnel. 

There is no way to square this covenant with the new guidelines issued by the NAMB. The list of potential conflicts is endless. What will a Southern Baptist chaplain do when he is:

1. Assigned a gay chaplain's assistant? 
2. Scheduled to participate in an Air Force marriage retreat in which there is even one same-gender couple?
3. Requested by his commander to provide a prayer at a deployment ceremony with same-gender couples and their children in attendance?
4. Asked to conduct a memorial service for a devotedly Christian lesbian soldier killed in combat?
5. Scheduled to perform a nondenominational Protestant service with a chaplain whose faith tradition is affirming of LGBT service members and supports same gender marriage?
6. Asked to provide pastoral care by a lesbian sailor who believes her wife is not faithful?
7. Asked by a severely wounded gay Marine in the middle of a firefight to pray for him?

And the list goes on.

Southern Baptists make up the largest group of chaplains in the military, claiming some 1,400 endorsed chaplains. The NAMB has created an unnecessary and unprecedented conflict that appears irresolvable. It is a self-inflicted wound that could have a negative impact on the chaplaincy.

It is regrettable that the NAMB would place their chaplains in such an untenable position. It is likely some NAMB-endorsed chaplains do not agree with the position taken by the NAMB. For them, rather than resigning, an alternative would be to seek the endorsement of another denomination or faith group, one that truly endorses inclusion, collegiality and pluralism.

For those chaplains who do support the guidelines and feel compelled to follow them, the only honorable course is to resign from the military chaplaincy and return to civilian ministry.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.