How to Make The Gospel Chaplaincy Work In a Secular World

How to Make The Gospel Chaplaincy Work In a Secular World

The Venerable Bede informs us that in the 8th century, a priest called Utta accompanied a princess on a sea voyage from Northumbria: an early reference to a chaplain and his [1] work. During the years of Christendom, chaplains have ministered in a wide variety of settings, living and working alongside people of every conceivable different point along faith’s spectrum, but until recently always within a fundamentally Christian understanding and value system. Much faithful work, and many blessings have proceeded from these ministries. However, for an evangelical ministering now there is an urgent need to re-examine chaplaincy for at least three reasons:

  1. Christendom is on the wane and secularism is in the ascendancy. Chaplaincy is now conducted within pluralistic secularism rather than a Christian context, but chaplaincy traditions, assumptions and exemplars are largely located in Christendom. As this transition continues to work through, chaplains will need to be sure of their biblical moorings.
  2. The predominant ecclesiology of many chaplains, who have contributed much helpful thinking and practice, seems to have been Anglo-Catholic. A consciously evangelical pastoral theology does not seem to have been applied to chaplaincy. Evangelicals need to develop this for the integrity and credibility of their own ministries, and to contribute to the chaplaincy of the wider church.
  3. Few, if any, writers of any persuasion seem to have attempted a biblical-theological examination of Chaplaincy. This may not be a critical weakness among the many gifted Chaplains who unconsciously sense what their calling requires of them, but for the rest of us it probably is.

The aim of this paper is to inform and equip evangelicals and others in developing a gospel approach to chaplaincy in a secular age. It will do so first by identifying the chaplain’s current role (Part 1) and then second, matching a biblical-theological template to it (Part 2). This approach is necessary because we come to an existing ministry, rather than seeking to develop a new one from biblical ‘first principles’. Some practical suggestions will be also made, and both principles and practice discussed in relation to chaplaincy may also bear on the church’s and the Christian’s wider place in the world.

Part One: A Chaplain’s Role


The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a chaplain as a member of the clergy attached to a private chapel, institution, regiment, etc. Most of these host ‘institutions’ require that chaplains are ministers in good standing with their churches, appointed by an institution’s leadership for the benefit of the institutions they serve. Implicit in that appointment is the value to an institution of having someone to attend to the spiritual dimension of its people, whether that is seen in eternal terms, moral terms, cost-benefit terms, or simply a vague superstition.


In contemporary UK culture it is the ‘diversity agenda’ (often suspiciously regarded by Christians) which, in making allowance for spiritual needs, gives chaplaincy work justification. The bottom line is that institutions are prepared to provide, and even pay for, a spiritual ministry, sometimes in the most secular environments [2] . Some institutions try to recruit chaplains from religious constituencies so as to represent roughly the make-up of the people whom they serve. It is usual for a chaplain’s terms of reference to require him to serve all within the institution [3] rather than only those of the particular church [4] from which they are sent, even though it is the sending church which gives them their qualification to serve. Finally, most chaplaincies are multi-faith and ecumenical. This needn’t preclude evangelical participation, but it does take careful thought at times.

Relationship to the parent church

The chaplain is not a freelance Christian. The requirement to be a minister in good standing with a church or denomination is probably seen by the host institution as simply a safeguard to ensure they are getting someone reliable and qualified. The chaplain and church value their mutual relationship for other reasons: the church valuing the opportunities and openings for extended gospel ministry by one of her own, the chaplain valuing and relying upon the church to support him in prayer and practicalities. Chaplains represent Christ in his church to the world; that is the very nature of the work.

Evangelical Paradigms

Evangelical ministers identify from the Scriptures that they are called to preach Christ and him crucified. This is easily traced from apostolic example and command, and proficiency here is a key component of the call to the ministry, however perceived and recognised. However, majoring on gospel preaching is not a model of ministry expected from chaplaincy, nor would it be effective. Worship activities may result from an effective chaplaincy in a secular setting, but they cannot be its focus. Proselytising/evangelism is usually prohibited, and anything which could be construed as coercion is most certainly out of court. Hence, a chaplain is a witness, not a missionary – and so the role is very similar to that of most of our church members. So, a chaplain’s role can be seen as ways for gospel ministers personally to match texts such as Gal 6:10, or to apply Paul’s emphases in Titus 2-3, living lives which exemplify and commend the gospel. Part 2 of this paper supplies broader chaplaincy biblical examples and principles, but the broad brush strokes are as follows:

Creation and Fall:

God made a very good creation (Gen 1:31), in which human society and enterprise flourishes by God’s common grace (Gen 4:17-22), albeit tainted by human sin (v23) in every way. The defacing of creation by human rebellion has not effaced God’s sovereignty over, claim to, or interest in this world (John 3:16). So a chaplain is God’s witness to God’s blessing, rule and care.


God’s saving and common [5] grace is focussed in, and channelled through, a chosen man (Gen 12:2f – Mt 12:18), and a chosen nation (Ex 19:5f). God chooses people of grace as means of grace to those outside his kingdom. Election brings distinction to, and frequently, conflict with, the world from which we have been called. Hence, there will be tension in a chaplain; on the one hand, awareness that God’s blessings should come through him to individuals and to the institution he serves, and on the other awareness that he must be deeply distinct if he is to bring God’s grace to others. Remembering his prime loyalty to God is key to ministering within that tension. The chaplain is called by God to bring his grace, common and saving, to those he serves in faithfulness to his truth and righteousness.


On the cross and through the resurrection, Christ became our substitute, making atonement for sin (2 Co 5:21). He also gave us an example (1 Pet 2:21), secured absolute victory (1 Co 15:54, Col 2:15) and brought in the New Creation (2 Co 5:16f). Chaplains are earthen vessels containing great treasure, living examples of gracious perseverance in the New Creation secured by Christ’s atonement. When curiosity is aroused, we are free to give a reason for all this (1 Pet 3:15f), and offer Christ in his gospel as the Bread of Life, in the expectation that abundance will enter the lives of those who receive him (John 6:35, 10:10). This gospel outcome is the prayer, hope and aim of an evangelical chaplain, but this does not invalidate his patient ‘common grace’ work mandated by the other considerations noted; evangelical chaplains should neither despise nor abuse the opportunities simply to do good, even if they never see conversions. Chaplains need to be content to imitate Christ (Acts 10:38) in his…


God himself entered this world in Christ. As his elect people have maintained God’s footprint among the nations for thousands of years previously and since, so in Christ, God personally planted his feet here. Incarnation was primarily God’s means to make Christ the High Priest of salvation, but his priestly office extended beyond Calvary, both forwards and backwards. The Incarnation was about more than one day; Immanuel – God with us was fulfilled in his physical presence here for thirty three years; it was again fulfilled as he rose into this world, still clothed in a human body; it is fulfilled now by his spiritual presence. So, a chaplain’s consistent presence in the host institution is at the core of his calling; from his presence flow all the opportunities needed to bring God’s rich grace to those he serves as the elect witness to the atoning work of Christ in the fallen world that God still sustains.

The overriding paradigm of chaplaincy then, is ‘presence’, its slogan, ‘Immanuel’ – God with the people among whom we move; presence in God’s world, among people he loves, for whom he cares; presence among people to identify with, serve, and be gracious towards; presence so that when we have opportunity, and without contravening the understanding we have with the institution and people who have welcomed us, we can offer the crucified and risen Saviour to them. So what biblical-theological principles help us to honour the true Immanuel in chaplaincy?

Part Two: Biblical-Theological Principles of Chaplaincy


The biblical-theological method takes Jesus as the prime referent and supreme authority for all Christian ministry (and everything else!). So we consult him first, then understand him better by exposing ourselves to the OT which cradled his worldview. Next we turn to the apostolic church in Acts and the Epistles to see how he works by his Holy Spirit to make this world his kingdom. Finally, Revelation displays the path to the terminus, the consummated New Creation. We are guided and controlled throughout by our analogy of faith – all the other branches of evangelical theology (systematic, pastoral, historical etc.)


In the following section, we identify Jesus as the Chaplain to the World. Under an evangelical analogy of faith,we will make observations about his Old Testament background and New Testament development as we trace Jesus’ life and ministry through its stages. Reading the whole Bible through a chaplain’s eyes yields much more that could be said; for brevity, we will sample rather than exhaust the material available, checking that our understanding of Jesus in the chaplaincy context is true.

Jesus, Chaplain to the World

Jesus’ life and ministry had three cardinal points: Incarnation, Crucifixion and Glorification; the latter in its stages of Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, and Return. Central in these is his death, which was both the principal purpose of his Incarnation, and the precondition of his Resurrection. The primacy of his death is implicit, if not explicit, in the purpose statements [6]he himself gave; the gospel centres on the substitutionary death of Christ applied for the salvation of sinners. However, Jesus’ ministry was more than one Good Friday and Easter; while we recognise that primary reason for his thirty three years was for him to learn obedience and for his body to be prepared for sacrifice, the cross was not all of which his ministry was comprised. We must give proper weight to all his example and teaching, including the thirty years of almost complete silence. For chaplaincy to be gospel ministry, it will be patiently cross-centred, even if our years of preparation and waiting seem as frustrating, exasperating and even as fruitless as the Lord Jesus’ first thirty years may have appeared to the watching angels.

Cardinal Point 1 – Christ’s Incarnation


The triune God relates to creation and humanity as Creator and light-giver (Gen 2:7, Ps 104:27-30). In the NT, we learn that Christ is the source of common grace indiscriminately (John 1:3ff, 9, Col 1:16f), as befits the only-begotten of the Father who loves and blesses the evil and the good (Mat 5:44f). The grace of the triune God in the gospel is built upon the goodness of the creation; before there could be saving grace, there was common grace. To deny such general goodness has serious consequences (1 Tim 4:1-5). Jesus’ positive attitude towards creation and the ordinary people in it was obvious to those around him. His readiness to receive God’s goodness through created things brought him under the (false) accusation of being a drunkard. His love for people of the world earned him the precious title of ‘friend of sinners’. Chaplains are confident they minister in part of God’s good creation, as fellow-sinners and friends to sinners, as much dependent on God’s grace for every breath as anyone else; but we are definitely in Immanuel’s land.

‘God with us’ before Christmas:

At his incarnation, God’s promise (Is 7:14) of Immanuel, ‘God with us’ was fulfilled. But his practice of Immanuel long preceded Isaiah’s prophecy. God’s chaplaincy was through:

  1. lonely Enoch or Noah (Gen 5:24, 6:9) walking with God; likewise, the chaplain’s spiritual walk is essential to his experience and representation of God’s presence.
  2. the Lord’s presence with and through the patriarchs (Gen 18:17ff, 31:42, 41:39f); chaplains can identify with, for example, Abraham’s chaplaincy failures (Gen 12:10-20) and successes (Gen 18:23-33).
  3. Moses and the chosen nation (Ex 3:12 – the verse contains both the singular and plural ‘you’) experiencing the trials of being the people of ‘God with us’ in a hostile world:
    1. The tabernacle (Ex 40:35) and temple (2 Chr 6:20) demonstrated the Lord’s presence in mobile and static circumstances among his chosen people and, through them, in his world. By this we learn his gracious presence is mediated to the world through his covenant people, both individually and corporately. This indirect (or mediated) mode of God’s saving dealing with the world through his chosen servants is demonstrated and taught by Jesus, and continued through Christians and his church (John 16:7f). God dispenses his common grace more directly (Acts 14:17, 17:28). As we’ve seen, the chaplain is one of God’s elect, extending his church‘s gracious ministry in his name.
    2. In the remainder of the OT, ‘God with us’ is located geographically and ethnically in Israel, but also personally in the offices of priest (teaching, operating the sacrificial system, and maintaining the ‘place’ of Dt 12:5); king (ruling in God’s name and under his anointing (1 Sam 24:6 ,[1 Ki 10:9]); and prophet (speaking God’s Words, but also as the locus of God’s active rule [Elijah is the classic case as he preaches, prays, acts, executes]). These offices in the first instance ministered to the covenant people, and then indirectly to the world as we noted above.
    3. This three-fold office works well in David’s reign, and chaplains can learn from the worshipping, teaching king; the true prophets who certainly ‘speak truth to power’ [7] and encourage faith in king and people, and the effective priests frequently enquiring of the Lord. Chaplains can also be warned by the selfishness and idolatry of David and later kings, the bored ritualist priests, and the cowardice and dishonesty of false prophets.
    4. God was revealed and present in Wisdom ministry, which complemented the Torah, especially as it disallowed over-mechanical interpretations of the Mosaic Covenant’s blessings and curses. Hence Job and Psalms develop a refined doctrine of Providence, so essential to skilful living on earth. And of course, they have much else to say on living in a world of thorns and thistles. Proverbs shows God’s wisdom to be the ‘operating system’ for creation, and the path of safety and blessing for those who heed it. Chaplains need, and may dispense, this wisdom – and as they reflect on these scriptures, will be chastened by the mistakes of Job’s friends, warned by the corruption of Ahithophel, and encouraged by the example of Daniel.

Old Testament Summary:

The promises given to Abraham are the clear, early manifesto of ‘God with us’. The formation of the nation of Israel at the exodus was the next great step in God being with the people of this world, but a tension is immediately evident as the world’s enmity had to be crushed for Israel to be established. Israel herself as a nation had the Immanuel principle instilled within her through the formal presence of ark, temple, prophets, priests and kings. The sinfulness of Israel’s people meant that God’s presence amongst his own people led more frequently to judgment rather than blessing, and consequently it was only on rare occasions that the world recognised that Israel was God’s blessing, and not just an irritation. The high point comes in Solomon’s reign when the Queen of Sheba recognises not only Solomon’s wisdom, but also his relationship to the Lord. The low point is recorded by Ezekiel who records what Paul would turn into the accusation that God’s name is blasphemed among the gentiles because of you Jews (Ezek 36:20ff/Rom 2:24). But nonetheless, God’s purposes were not thwarted, and at the close of the inter-testamental period when Jesus came, for all the failure of second-temple Judaism, synagogues honoured God and attracted God-fearers. The old covenant had done its work despite the sinfulness of the covenant people, and the stage was set for Jesus to be born under the law and fulfil God’s promise to Abraham to bless the nations.

Birth to Baptism:

In the person of Jesus, God was present with people, and not just his chosen people, as Matthew quickly shows us through the visit of the Magi, which account also shows us the tension God’s Chosen One experienced whilst in the world he loved. Jesus entered the spiritual milieu of the OT; he came to those who rejected him and sought to kill him – the ancient war of the Serpent against God, carried on within humanity through murder, lies and other schemes (John 8:44, Eph 6:12) was brought to bear on him, as it would be until he died. Chaplains, whilst welcomed by an institution of this world, remember that human cultures reflect God’s goodness and image, but also oppose his kingdom by many schemes.

From Jordan to Gethsemane:

Through the Holy Sprit coming upon Christ at his baptism, God was with many more people, as Jesus taught them and did good to them; and his teaching, while primarily to provide for his disciples and church, is full of wisdom which blesses all who will learn from it, whether they are believers or not. Likewise, Jesus’ personal relationships, and certainly his miracles, blessed those around him indiscriminately with love and care. Jesus also fearlessly critiqued the Jewish establishment which was his ‘host institution’: Herodians, Sadducees and Pharisees alike. In sum, even before Jesus had died, he had made Palestine a better place by bringing the presence of God to its various peoples. In preparing for the cross by entering creation, Jesus had helped people and began to redeem the world. So, chaplains bring Christ and his kingdom personally with them; sharing his wisdom, and that of the Scriptures which testify of him; being generous and doing good (if not miracles!) to all. Prophetic words of comfort and rebuke are another duty of chaplains.


In calling his disciples and devoting himself to them, Jesus takes particular responsibility for believers. His main aim in this was to raise up an apostolate to carry on his work and build his kingdom, and chaplains should have a particular care for the Lord’s people in our host institution. Indeed, under the current diversity philosophy, meeting the needs of Christian people may be the principal justification for chaplains being present in an institution. We can show special interest in believers without embarrassment; we have a special duty to pray for them (Jesus’ prayers [as far as we know their content] were for his disciples). Believers are then strengthened to carry on his kingdom work as his witnesses in the institutions we serve.

Cardinal Point 2 – Christ’s Crucifixion


On the cross, Christ was making peace through his blood, shed on the cross (Col 1:20). This peace is, in the first instance, vertical but it has horizontal implications, most obviously between those who are brother and sister in Christ. However, we learn, and can (and should) exemplify and teach peace-making, reconciliation and forgiveness. Chaplains should be able to bring the oil of Gilead to bear upon the wounds and ruptures of human life and relationships in any institutions.


Chaplains are under the authority of the leaders of the institutions they serve, and in common with other employees, will be exposed to the petty and not-so-petty strictures imposed by flawed bosses and sinful colleagues. We must be willing humbly to follow Peter’s direction to follow Christ’s example when this happens; to respond with grace to aggravation comes from a chaplain’s second nature. Indeed, personal suffering is key to all effective ministry (Col 1:24f) – so chaplains expect daily crucifixion and, from that, gracious blessing.

Cardinal Point 3 – Christ’s Glorification


The Resurrection confirms that this creation, and all the human activities and enterprises that God ordained within it, are not only the theatre of his activity, but also the object of his redemption. That includes the chaplain’s host institution. Resurrection, Pentecost and the church which came from those events, are now God’s means of Immanuel; indeed God’s presence through his church in the world is both more extensive and intensive than ever before. But the church is also a signpost ahead to the glory of the new creation, and Christ’s life and ministry in her are the first-fruits of, and witnesses to, the transformation that will come at his return. As an extension of the church’s mission and ministry, the chaplain is a standing witness to Christ’s, and the general, resurrection.


The resurrection vindicated Christ. He was content to die, trusting God to raise him. Chaplains don’t need to justify themselves by activities, words, contributions or qualification. We are content for God to vindicate us in due time, and meekly endure alongside those who also meet the consequences of being misunderstood by the host institution and its assumptions.


Christ ascended and was enthroned to exercise supreme authority to bring in God’s kingdom through his church. This gives chaplains confidence in prayer, and confidence that God’s project to transform the kingdom of this world into the Kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ(Rev 11:15) will be accomplished; as Chaplains minister in this world’s institutions, we know we are part of the coming of his kingdom. The outpost may be lonely; the outcome will be glorious!

Pentecost and the Church:

The sending of the Spirit marked the effective beginning of the church’s ministry. She bears witness to the coming age in many ways; she receives the blessings of being under the lordship of Christ, being fed and cared for by him. She understands the spiritual context of humanity which is hidden from, yet so perplexes and frustrates, our race. She has prayerful access to the power of God. She has been given spiritual gifts unavailable to the rest of humanity. She bears spiritual fruit, much of which is seen in the contexts of human suffering and human relationships, both of which pose the greatest challenges to human resources. She reminds humanity that this world is passing, and that we must give account of what we have done to God himself. She offers redemption through the Gospel of Christ to all without discrimination. All these ministries do much to improve human lives, and so it’s no surprise that institutions seek Christian ministers from churches as their chaplains so that they might share in the blessings which come from the kingdom of God alone. As we have seen above, chaplains represent Christ in his church to the world; they can do so because of Christ’s presence in them and in his church by his Spirit.

Christ’s Return:

Chaplains remember that Christ’s return is when they and the people they minister to will be judged. They remember and bear witness that this age is passing but that the next is eternal. Christ’s glory on that day makes sense of frustrations, lends urgency and gives significance throughout our ministry in this day (1 Cor 15:58).

Summary and Conclusion

Evangelical ministers have every reason for confidence as chaplains. The world has opened a door to us, and in that we should see the providential hand of God. Whilst the change of ministry paradigm from preaching to presence can be disconcerting, we are not being unfaithful to our calling. The triune God who has unlimited patience (1 Tim 1:16) has always been content to be present among our race. Even when he appeared on earth in human flesh, he waited thirty years before he proclaimed the kingdom. In any event, the responsibilities we have towards sinners – the love we feel towards lost souls in their confusion, the weakness of the saints God has placed in the institutions we serve, the urgency that Christ’s impending return imparts – all these exert a right pressure to keep chaplains zealous as well as patient. As chaplains grapple with the challenges of being witnesses, we also become better pastors to our people. May God raise up many more gospel men and women to serve him as chaplains in this secular age.

And by the way, might you be one of them?

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