US Troops Walk Out on Chaplain’s Sermon
The following account is provided anonymously, and certain details have been intentionally obscured to protect the identities of those involved.
I walked out of a church service last Sunday.
It wasn’t because I had a crying child or a vibrating cellphone. It was because when the singing stopped, the pastor who stood up in front of the congregation to deliver the sermon represented religious beliefs I disagreed with.
Now why, you might ask, was I even at a church whose pastor didn’t hold the same beliefs as me?
Easy: I’m in the US military.
Unfortunately, we don’t always have the luxury of “choosing” our church. Other times, we might choose the chapel on the post, yet watch as the pastor — the chaplain — changes from one year (or even one Sunday) to the next. And every service member will go through the process of moving, which means a new “job,” a new home, and a new church — every couple of years.
The way some people seem to tell the story, the military is being run (or overrun) by conservative, evangelical Christians. While I didn’t necessarily believe that, I did think that America generally has conservative “Christian” beliefs, so I figured most Christian chaplains would probably hold beliefs in the same general area, if not the same denomination, as mine.
Boy, was I surprised.
Everybody knows a Muslim chaplain is an Imam, and their beliefs are reasonably rigid. Catholic chaplains — who are Catholic priests — also have pretty set doctrine. I guess the Buddhist chaplain probably doesn’t, but then if you’re a Buddhist you don’t either, so that probably goes well together. In other words, if you hold one of those beliefs, you can reasonably expect your chaplain will, too.
The same can’t be said of the “Protestant” chaplain, who is essentially any chaplain who is religious but “none of the above” (Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, or Buddhist). Unlike those other faiths, there is no such thing as a set, unified “protestant” religion or denominational doctrine. “Protestant” chaplains can hail from denominations from one end of the spectrum to the other — from ultra-conservative to uber-liberal.
And that’s not conservative or liberal style, but conservative or liberal beliefs.
What that means is you can find chaplains in the military wearing a cross on their uniform who do not believe “sin” is “sin,” or who don’t believe the Bible is actually true, or who think women and men are universally interchangeable — both physically and spiritually.
You won’t find a Muslim chaplain who doesn’t believe that Muhammad is the Prophet. You won’t find a Priest who disowns the role of the Pope. But you absolutely will find chaplains in the military wearing a cross on their uniform who do not believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
And that’s what happened to me last Sunday.
The awkward part is that there’s sometimes no way to even know there’s a problem until the chaplain comes to the front of the chapel — and even then, sometimes not until they start to preach. In my case, I’d been enjoying and benefitting from the sermons of seemingly Godly men for some weeks, until last Sunday when, unannounced, a different chaplain took the podium.
And when she did, I made the tortured decision to leave.
I’m not totally against hearing “different” or even wrong theology. On some occasions, I might actually like to be involved in a “religious gathering” of people whose beliefs were different than mine. If someone invited me, a “protestant,” to the Catholic service, I would have little problem going — but I’d know what I was doing when I went.
When I go to church on an average Sunday, though, the reason I’m going is to fellowship with like-minded believers. When I attend, I realize I may place myself under the teaching of a spiritual leader. It’s not too fun to be “ambushed” by a “spiritual leader” who is neither spiritual nor a leader. It’s not right to attend a Christian service that is “led” by a chaplain who clearly isn’t living out Christian beliefs — the cross on her uniform notwithstanding.
I ran into one of the other chaplains later, and they grimaced a bit when I talked to them about it. It turns out I wasn’t the only one unhappy about the “surprise” visiting preacher, and I wasn’t the only one who left — though the former number did not equal the latter.
It seems the popular thing to do is accuse the military of discriminating against anyone who isn’t a Christian, including claiming the military has chaplains who are too “evangelical.” Those accusations forget that there are also some very non-evangelical chaplains, and they, too, can stand in front of US troops and spread their beliefs — even to a congregation that does not share them.
I don’t begrudge those chaplains their ability to practice their beliefs — nor the (few) religious Soldiers who share them. I do wish they would let people know what their beliefs were and when they were going to preach, which would avoid the awkward moment when significant numbers of the congregation look around almost shocked and walk out.
I appreciate the ability to practice my faith on Sunday morning. I also know the military cannot always have a chaplain that shares my beliefs — even if they wear a cross. My only wish is that others would show me the same due respect.