NASHVILLE (BP) — Chaplain-led ministry near overseas military bases someday may become part of the North American Mission Board’s church planting outreach if a proposed ministry amendment is approved during the June 16-17 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The SBC Executive Committee approved a recommendation to be presented to messengers in Columbus, Ohio, to enable NAMB to “provide specialized, defined and agreed upon assistance to the International Mission Board in assisting churches to plant churches for specific groups outside the United States and Canada.”
EC leaders said the possibility of military chaplains facing religious liberty constraints is a key factor for the recommendation, though the wording allows for other contingencies that may prompt NAMB-IMB overseas cooperation in the future.
Our culture “is becoming increasingly hostile to Christianity and to the Christian message,” EC chairman Mike Routt said in response to several questions raised before EC members voted without opposition to forward the recommendation to messengers in June.
“There might come a day to where our chaplains can’t really preach the Gospel,” Routt said. “How are you going to minister to these military bases overseas, to these military personnel if you can’t preach?
“So these chaplains, on their own, not paid by the government but on their own, would plant a church close to that base so that they could have a Bible-believing, Bible-preaching church that our soldiers and their families could go to,” said Routt, lead pastor of Circle Drive Baptist Church in Colorado Springs, where the Air Force Academy and NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) are located, along with two Air Force bases and one Army base.
“This is just to be proactive,” said Ben Kelley, chairman of the EC’s Cooperative Program Committee, in case military chaplains are “restricted in what they can do” in sharing the Gospel.
Implementation, if it is ever needed, can proceed in cooperation with the International Mission Board and in matching stateside churches with potential church plants near military installations, said Kelley, a healthcare executive from Montgomery, Ala.
Questions raised during the EC meeting included why the International Mission Board couldn’t undertake church plants near military bases if need be.
Al Gilbert, NAMB’s vice president for evangelism, noted that the Executive Committee “approved the exact same language for the International Mission Board” in 2011 to enable the IMB to assist NAMB with unreached people groups in the U.S.
“Since that time, we have been working in agreement with them, defining special needs and agreeing upon ways they can assist…,” Gilbert said. The proposed ministry assignment amendment for NAMB, he said, is “an attempt to get consistent language for both of our boards to be able to cooperate globally for the Great Commission.”
The proposed amendment was approved by NAMB trustees in February 2014. The SBC’s Organization Manual requires that changes to ministry statements of the SBC’s entities be approved by the EC as well as a majority vote of messengers at an SBC annual meeting.
IMB President David Platt, in a Jan. 15 letter to Page, reported, “The leadership of IMB gladly affirms and supports this recommendation, as a step toward further cooperation between the two entities, for the sake of the spread of the Gospel throughout the world.”
The proposed NAMB ministry amendment comes amid ongoing wariness among evangelicals of the military’s attitude toward religious expression within its ranks.
After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, NAMB adopted a policy stipulating that Southern Baptist-endorsed chaplains must not perform same-sex marriages nor provide counseling to same-sex couples. Rather, such individuals will be helped in finding other military chaplains willing to assist same-sex couples.
NAMB faced criticism from homosexual rights advocates but the policy has given Southern Baptist chaplains — to date — denominational backing for their convictions.
The NAMB guidelines also include explicit statements that Southern Baptist chaplains will practice ministry in light of the biblical definition of marriage as “the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime,” as described in the SBC Baptist Faith and Message.
The guidelines also state that Southern Baptists view all sexual immorality as sin that violates God’s biblical standards for purity and that “responsible pastoral care will seek to offer repentance and forgiveness, help and healing, and restoration through the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial gift of love on the cross.”
Finally, Southern Baptist military chaplains are prohibited from participating in jointly-led worship services “with a chaplain, contractor or volunteer who personally practices a homosexual lifestyle or affirms a homosexual lifestyle or such conduct.”
NAMB guidelines acknowledge that Southern Baptist chaplains serve in a pluralistic setting but expect, under U.S. Department of Defense guidelines, that the rights and freedoms of chaplains will be protected so they may “preach, teach and counsel in accordance with the tenets of their denominational faith group and their own religious conscience” while treating all others with dignity, respect and Christ-like love.
Earlier in 2013, Kevin Ezell, NAMB’s president, and Russell Moore, then-president-elect of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, released a joint statement assessing several alleged encroachments on religious freedom within the military.
“We reject any and all attempts to sensationalize or misrepresent situations, in this or any other context. Having said that, we are concerned,” Ezell and Moore stated, noting that various issues seem to be “indicative of a troubling lack of respect for true religious diversity in our military.”
The statement included a detailed section about Department of Defense definition of terms like “evangelizing” and “proselytizing.”
“After all, who defines what is proselytizing and what is evangelism?” Ezell and Moore asked. “What could seem to be a friendly conversation about spiritual matters to one serviceperson could be perceived or deliberately mischaracterized as ‘proselytizing’ to the person on the receiving end. The fact that this has been raised at all in such a subjective fashion could have a chilling effect on service personnel sharing their faith at all.”