Skip to content

Through Thunder and Flame: Thoughts on the Military Chaplaincy

By Bill Cork
In recent discussions
about the appropriateness of Christian pastors serving as military
chaplains, I have heard some suggest that a chaplain is someone who
just serves the status quo, serving as a sacred sugar coating of an
activity that is antithetical to the kingdom of God.  I disagree with that
negative assessment.
I served in the Army Reserve and National Guard
from the mid-80s to the early 90s as a chaplain candidate and
chaplain (endorsed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).
I’ve taken the title of this essay from the official march of
the U. S. Army Chaplain Corps, “Soldiers of God,” which
includes chorus: “Soldiers of God, we serve him faithfully, and
march in his name through thunder and flame wherever the call may
be.” That’s the essence of the chaplaincy—to follow
the call of God wherever it may lead.
The role of the
chaplain as understood by the U. S. Army is prescribed in Army
Regulation 165-1, “Chaplain Activities in the United States
Army.” Here are some selections:
chaplains have a dual role as religious leaders and staff officers. …
Chaplains are noncombatants and will not bear arms. …
Chaplains are required by law to hold religious services for members
of the command to which they are assigned, when practicable …
. Chaplains provide for religious support, pastoral care, and the
moral and ethical wellbeing of the command. Each chaplain will
minister to the personnel of the unit and facilitate the
“free-exercise” rights of all personnel, regardless of
religious affiliation of either the chaplain or the unit member. …
Chaplains are authorized to conduct rites, sacraments, and services
as required by their respective denomination. Chaplains will not be
required to take part in worship when such participation is at
variance with the tenets of their faith. … Military and
patriotic ceremonies may require a chaplain to provide an invocation,
reading, prayer, or benediction. Such occasions are not considered to
be religious services. Chaplains will not be required to offer a
prayer, if doing so would be in variance with the tenets or practices
of their faith group. … Chaplains will provide religious
support for confined personnel and Army personnel in foreign or
civilian confinement facilities. … Chaplains will advise the
commander and staff on matters of religion, morals, and morale, to
include—(1) The religious needs of assigned personnel. (2) The
spiritual, ethical, and moral health of the command, to include the
humanitarian aspects of command policies, leadership practices, and
management systems. (3) Plans and programs related to the moral and
ethical quality of leadership, the care of people, religion, chaplain
and chaplain assistant personnel matters and related funding issues
within the command.
The military expects
chaplains to be men and women of conviction, and underscores this in
their training, as I experienced at the U. S. Army Chaplain Center
and School at Ft. Monmouth, NJ, in the summers of 1986 and 1990, when
I did phase one and two, respectively, of the Chaplain Officer Basic
As prescribed in the
Army Regulation just quoted, chaplains are expected to be faithful to
the tenets of their denomination and to do nothing that would
compromise that standing. They also have a role as members of the
commander’s staff, advising the commander on matters of ethics,
morality, and morale, and facilitating the free exercise of religion
by all members of the command.

We were carefully
instructed in the morality of war, both jus ad bellum (what
criteria are necessary to declare a war) and jus in bello
(criteria regarding the conduct of war). We were told there might
be times when we would need to confront commanders over
violations—and that we would need to expect to suffer
consequences for sticking to our conscience.

Classroom instruction
on this point was reinforced in other activities, including physical
training, when the drill sergeant might start us in a cadence call
that said, “One, two, kill a commie, that’s right, kill a
commie.” In a Command Post Exercise, an officer might have a
sign on his desk reading, “No prisoners,” or something
similar. When we raised an objection, we were commended (though the
officer might yell at us and throw us out of his office at first). If
we said nothing, we were hauled on the carpet during the After Action
Review and the point was underscored—we as chaplains must be
prepared to speak out, regardless of the professional consequences to
My army instructors
were aware of the tension inherent in our role and did their best to
prepare us for it, so I was not surprised when I experienced that
tension in the years that followed.

During Operation Desert
Shield, in the fall of 1990, I served for several weeks with the 82d
Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, NC. One Wednesday prayer meeting I
gave a talk about just war, looking at our reasons for going to war
at that time in light of “The Law of Land Warfare.” I
candidly expressed my reservations from the pulpit of the 82d
Airborne Division Memorial Chapel, with the Assistant Division
Commander, a Brigadier General, in attendance. He came up to me
afterwards and expressed his appreciation—he said he expected
his chaplains would assist him in working through the moral issues,
even challenging of assumptions and policy, and was grateful for what
I had shared.
During that same period
I got some grief from the Acting Division Chaplain, a Christian
Scientist, who expected me to co-lead a communion service with him
for the General Protestant Service. I told him I could not, because
my denomination could not accept his as Christian. He thought I was
trying to shirk my duty, but I told him I’d lead it by myself.
He thought I didn’t understand his church’s teaching, and
gave me a book to read. I thanked him, told him I would read it, but
I had to stand firm. It was a heated conversation, but he backed off
(and a chaplain on post who was senior in rank came to my defense).
He also had the sense to realize he wouldn’t be a fair rater
when it came to evaluation time, and so had another chaplain serve as
my rater who he knew would be more objective.

When I was chaplain of
a tank battalion in the Vermont National Guard my commander was
insistent that I do my job, ask questions, teach morality, and tell
soldiers of their obligation to report immoral conduct. When I
preached a sermon on this latter point, some soldiers looked
nervously around at their commanders—who looked back at them,
nodded, and said, “Listen up.”

Chaplain (CPT) James
Yee was not as fortunate. You may recall the story. He was a Muslim
chaplain assigned to Guantanamo. He did exactly as he was supposed to
according to army regulations on chaplains and prisoners of war. He
gave briefings for new personnel on understanding religious needs of
prisoners (based on material developed at the U.S. Army Chaplain
Center and School). He raised concerns to the command about treatment
of prisoners. He ministered to fellow Muslims on staff and among the
prisoners. Chaplain Yee did exactly as he was trained to do—exactly
as I was trained to do—but his actions raised suspicions in the
mind of one reserve officer. He reported Yee and accused him of
espionage, and Yee was clapped in irons and thrown into solitary
confinement. False charges were stacked up against him and rumors
were spread in the press, but the Army eventually had to drop all
charges and release him. But the damage to his character had been
This was exactly the
kind of retaliation my Army instructors told us to expect if we did
our jobs properly during times of war.  But they—and we—felt
it to be worth the risk.
The role of the
chaplain is to “march in his name through thunder and flame”
(and sometimes that’s friendly fire) “wherever the call
may be.”
Yes, there are
struggles and temptations. But these temptations exist in any
ministry. The question here is the same as for any other
minister—will you do what you’re called to do, even in
the tough times? Will you be faithful? Will you love the people of
God, wherever they may be found?
Yes, the military has
its share of pragmatists, careerists, and people with anger and
authority issues. But it also has men and women of the highest
character. Part of my role as a chaplain was to strengthen these, so
that they would have a greater influence, so that they could shine as
“men who will not be bought or sold, men who in their inmost
souls are true and honest, men who do not fear to call sin by its
right name, men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to
the pole, men who will stand for the right though the heavens
Chaplains don’t
sit on the sidelines debating hypothetical situations. They go into
the trenches with their flock. They minister to people in the face of
death. They put their own lives on the line, walking into fire
without protection. Yes, they are “chaplains of the culture,”
but I don’t see that as a pejorative. Chaplains live in a
specific culture, and from that space they are able to speak to it.
They take risks, and make themselves vulnerable.
It’s called
“incarnational ministry,” and it is modeled on the life
of Jesus. It’s a ministry of being salt and light—and it
can’t be done from the outside. It’s a ministry I did by
hospital beds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, on the top of tanks
in the Canadian wilderness, under the stars in the field at Ft. Drum,
and in mess halls and motor pools and day rooms at Ft. Bragg. It’s
a ministry I did with other men and women of faith, as well as young
men and women who never would have thought to enter the door of a
church. But I went to them. I spoke their language. I wore the same
muddy uniform. I ate the same MREs and SOS. Together laughed and
cried; together we wrestled with questions of right and wrong, of
duty, honor, country. It was frustrating at
times, but it was the greatest experience of my life, that has
colored the way I have approached every ministry experience since. I
loved it. And I miss it.
William J. Cork, D.Min. serves as an Associate Pastor at the
Houston International Seventh-day Adventist Church in Texas.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.