Word from the Center Digest: Friday, October 4, 2019
Maneuvering Difficult Waters
by Craig Muehler
Have you ever really wondered how a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) pastor can serve as a chaplain in the military? On the surface it seems impossible to understand how a pastor who gets paid by the government can serve as a military officer and still be faithful to both. After all, no one can serve two masters.
The good news is that our country has figured out a way to accommodate the free exercise of religion for our military personnel and their families without forcing each religious organization to compromise its deeply held religious beliefs. This has been challenged several times by both sides in the courts. The courts have upheld the importance of having a military chaplaincy to ensure the free exercise of religion for those who serve our nation in the military. Those who wear the uniform of our nation and selflessly serve can’t and shouldn’t be expected to leave their religion and faith at home when they join the military. They have the constitutional right to exercise their religious beliefs just the same as anyone else.
It has been somewhat settled in the kingdom of the left hand (civil realm), but what about the kingdom of the right hand of God (the Church)? How is that reconciled with the Word of God that we can send LCMS pastors to serve in the military? Won’t they be forced to compromise the tenets of their faith, their ordination vows and their conscience?
Actually, no! While there have been challenges and there are organizations who almost daily seek to get policy and law changed to force military chaplains to have to violate their vows and conscience on some controversial culture issues such as same-sex marriage, sexual orientation, gender identity and others, those groups have not succeeded. The constitution, laws and policies protect the religious liberty of our chaplains to be free to be faithful to the tenets of their faith, their God and their conscience. They can truly practice “pluralism,” which means they can cooperate in areas of the left hand kingdom (government) without compromising the right hand kingdom (Church). Still, we need to be vigilant to ensure those freedoms are protected.
As Lutherans, we understand this very well. We understand that an LCMS pastor is serving in both kingdoms. In fact, many of the uniforms illustrate the two-kingdom theology very clearly. The LCMS chaplain will wear the cross on his uniform as well as the rank insignia. This is a great teaching tool as it shows that he is functioning in the two kingdoms. He is serving as a military officer (kingdom of the left), subject to all the rules and regulations (including the Uniform Code of Military Justice) while also serving as a called and ordained servant of the Word, as a clergy member of the LCMS, kingdom of the right. In addition to being accountable as military officers, they are also accountable to the LCMS for their doctrine and practice in the kingdom of the right (Church). If the chaplain violates the law in either kingdom, he can be held accountable by one or both.
Military chaplaincy is a great example of how the two-kingdom theology works. Our chaplains do serve two masters to some extent, but they all know that if the kingdom of the left crosses into the kingdom of the right and they are asked to compromise, they must obey God rather than men.
With this clear understanding of the two kingdoms, our chaplains continue to provide Word and Sacrament ministry to those of their faith. They are free to preach and teach the Word of God in Its truth and purity and administer the Sacraments rightly. Yet, in this vocation they are also able and expected to facilitate for others (in the kingdom of the left) to ensure all have the right to exercise their faith or to have no faith at all. This is all done because of our love for our neighbor (regardless of his or her background), and we treat everyone with dignity and respect without compromising our faith. The biblical understanding of the two kingdoms enables our chaplains to maneuver these waters with ease.
Chaplain Craig Muehler, retired U.S. Navy Captain, serves as the director of the LCMS Ministry to the Armed Forces.
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