In October 2017, my wife and I came to Italy to plant a church to minister to the military community (originally to Aviano, but now in Vicenza).
Some might question why the military community needs a church, after all, they have the base chapel. As a retired Air Force member, I have a great appreciation for our military chaplains and the chapel program. Chaplains provide an invaluable service to our military men and women, and I am very thankful for their dedicated service to them and our country. Make no mistake, there is a definite need not only for the base chapel, but good chaplains who love the troops and want to serve them well.
That said, it is helpful for us to us to keep in mind what a base chapel is, and how that differs in important ways from a local church. The first thing we need to keep in mind is that the base chapel, while providing religious services, is not a local church. Four key reasons why it is not:
1. There is no church government: For a gathering of believers to be a properly constituted local church, it must be shepherded and governed by elders chosen by the congregation, or in the case of new church plants, overseen by the founding pastor (ideally with oversight from an outside body of elders who govern the church until such time as the congregation can elect its own elders). (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:3-6; Heb 13:17; 1 Pet 5:2-3).
2. There is no church membership: Sadly, many Evangelicals think that church membership is not biblical. Unfortunately, such a view is entirely at odds with Scripture. We must remember that believers are not islands unto themselves. They are commanded to be joined to a local church—a covenant community—where they are submitted to the elders and the other believers in that local congregation so that they can be engaged in the lifelong disciple-making process, be cared for and nurtured spiritually, and have accountability for their spiritual life. (Acts 20:28; 1Thes 5:12-13; 1Tim 5:17; Hb 13:17; 1Pet 5:2-3). 1
3. Because there is no church government nor membership, there is no corrective church discipline. In a local church, Christians are accountable to their shepherds in the church (Heb 13:7), and to the other members of the church (Matt 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5:1-12; Gal 6:1-3). When one engages in persistent unrepentant sin, the church administers varying levels of discipline depending on the circumstances (admonitions, suspension from the sacraments, or finally and sadly, excommunication) in the hope that he/she will be restored by God’s grace. Church discipline is essential to the purity of the church and the spiritual health of the believer.2
4. All of this has a bearing on the administration of the sacraments, since they are tied to the local church, and their proper administration is to be overseen by the elders in the church (1 Cor 4:1/Titus 1:7; 1 Cor 10-11). Chaplains, as ordained clergy, may certainly administer the sacraments in the field or in a chapel context. However, the full import of the sacraments is brought to light and experienced by their vital connection to the local church and church discipline.
For example, in baptism, one is admitted not merely into the universal body of Christ, but into a particular local expression of that body (i.e., a local church) for discipleship and spiritual care (Matt 28:18-20; 1 Cor 12:12-14).
In the Lord’s Supper, we partake of the sacrament in part by recognizing that we are united to the universal body of Christ, but to a particular expression of the body of Christ, where we commit ourselves to obeying, by God’s grace, the “love one another” commands (John 13:34; Rom 12:10; Eph 4:2; 1Pet 1:22, 1 John 4:11). Further, the Lord’s Supper is connected to church discipline, where there is biblical church government established, and church membership.
Again, chaplains can and should administer the sacraments in the field or in a chapel service, and I am thankful that they do that. The point here is about experiencing the full import the sacraments as connected to a local church, and church discipline.
Well, if the base chapel is not a church, what is it? The base chapel is a place where government sponsored worship services patterned after various faith traditions are conducted, the two main ones being Roman Catholic, and Protestant.
It is fine if the U.S. government wants to conduct services like that, especially with the intended purpose to help military personnel who are stationed in locations where no opportunity for gathered worship might exist. But, we must keep in mind what it is, and what it is not (a local church).
Does this mean that Christians should never attend the base chapel? Not at all! In some overseas contexts, it can be difficult to find a gospel preaching church off base, and a Protestant service on base can help fill the void and afford believers the chance to gather together to worship the Lord. When I was stationed in Turkey, I was very much involved in the base chapel program and will always cherish that time and the brothers and sisters in Christ that I fellowshipped with there.
However, as with attending a local church, great discernment must be exercised. While there are sound, gospel preaching chaplains, there are also many that come from theologically liberal traditions that deny the inerrancy and historicity of Scripture, espouse unbiblical views on sexuality, and who may diminish or even deny the gospel. I have seen both kinds.
As for theologically conservative chaplains (as with local pastors!), there is no guarantee that there will be sound teaching. Not only this, but with the laws that have redefined the meaning of marriage, it is difficult for chaplains to teach biblical truth regarding human sexuality without fear of reprisal.
So, attending a chapel service is definitely an option, especially in contexts where there are no or few gospel preaching churches, but only if the chaplain did not teach things that undermined or denied the essentials of the Christian faith. If they did, then it would be worse for a Christian to attend there (just as it would to attend a church that did the same things). In situations like that, if there were no gospel preaching churches off base, a better option would be to gather with other like-minded believers and have their own service, and if no one was apt to teach, they could read a sermon or watch bible lessons or sermons from trusted sources.
The ultimate test, as with anything else, is God’s Word, and what I have said about the need to exercise discernment where chaplains are concerned applies just as much to local churches–we are always needing to discern if what is taught is sound and gospel-centered.
Again, I am thankful for our military chaplains, their service, and the provision of a base chapel, especially in places where there are few or no options off base. And, as a pastor near a military installation in an overseas context, I am committed to partnering as much as possible with the chaplains and the base chapel to serve the troops. In closing and to sum this all up: the New Testament vision for believers and their children is to be connected to a local gospel preaching church. Our first priority should be to find a good gospel preaching church to get connected to. If we can’t find one, or feel that we are just not a good fit for one for whatever reason (theological, etc), then the base chapel is certainly an option, provided that the teaching is Christ-centered and does not deny the essentials of the faith.
1 For other lines of evidence, see these brief articles:
2 For more on the nature of church discipline in its various forms, see Church Discipline by Fred Greco