Warrior Monks?

Warrior Monks?

I just finished a week of co-teaching a course for nine military chaplains. It was an “intensive”–which means all day, every day, for five days. I did something like this about two decades ago, at the Chaplain School at the Rhode Island Navy Base. My memories of that earlier time are very positive ones, and this past week, teaching in our Doctor of Ministry program,  only reinforced my sense of the importance of the ministry of military chaplains.

In our course last week, we covered topics in theology and ethics with reference to military life. My co-teacher, Russ Spittler, himself a longtime Navy Reserve Chaplain, did an amazing job of relating 1 Corinthians to the realities of military life. And Anne Tree, my research assistant, got some great discussions going on case studies.

One thing that stood out for me is how comprehensive the chaplaincy is as a ministry. Military chaplains are dealing with marriage and family issues, youth culture, sexuality, cross-cultural communication, multinationalism, treatment of prisoners, questions of authority, legal challenges–and in all of that, the most fundamental realities of life and death.

One aspect of military life that is not often acknowledged is the importance of community. The 1989 film Glory–I highly recommend it–is about a platoon of African-American soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Near the end, they have agreed together to face a military maneuver that will mean certain death for all of them. Sitting around the campfire the night before their final battle, they talk about the importance of sticking together, even in the face of death, and one of them remarks that he sees no alternative for himself. “I ain’t never had family before,” he says.

There is an old tradition in Asia of the “warrior monk.” I thought a lot about that last week. Like monks, people in the military have a strict discipline, one that is designed to nurture certain virtues: loyalty, solidarity, a spirit of sacrifice, courage, fidelity (semper fi!). For many young men and women entering the military, these patterns are brand new. For some of them, this will even be their first experience of something like “family.”

I have done my share of marching against wars and criticizing prominent aspects of American foreign policy. For all of that, though, I have great respect for the military. And I have an even greater appreciation for those who wear the chaplain’s cross on their uniforms. People who serve as chaplains are often viewed with suspicion by both their sending churches and their military peers. They often struggle alone with complex theological and ethical challenges. The ones that I spent time with last week are the best and the brightest of “warrior monks”!



  1. Thank you for drawing my attention to this overlooked ministry and its challenges. It’s a call to pray, and I’m sure I will hear that call every time a story related to the military comes on the radio news, which is often these days.

    I am studying with Fuller Online, far from any of Fuller’s campuses, and it’s a tremendous blessing to be able to do so. I so enjoy President’s Mouw’s blog, the podcasts that are available and other extensions of the seminary. Thank you so much for all of it!

    Comment by Marilyn — April 24, 2007 @ 5:21 am

  2. Dear Dr. Mouw,

    Thanks for the thougtful reflection on the incredible ministry undertaken by these warrior monks. I entered into ministry after a decades long career as a “boots on the ground” professional soldier. In my seminary and ecclesiastic preparation process, the most confounding question which was repeatedly asked — often by people who should have known better — was “How can you reconcile a career as a soldier with a call to ministry?”

    I think your reflection here about the warrior monk tradition answers it vwery well. I strugggled to provide understanding by discussing the ways God used my military experiences to prepare me. I also became quite enamored of a passage from Hugo’s Les Miserables.

    In the passage he talks about the only difference between an old soldier and an old priest. One committed his life to his country, the other to his God.

    May God continue to bless you and your ministry. I have been a fan since you published “Calvinism In The Las Vegas Airport.”

    Comment by Rev. Jim Yearsley — April 24, 2007 @ 6:55 am

  3. Dr. Mouw,

    Thanks for this entry. I am an Army chaplain serving in Ramadi right now. You’re reflections are right on. I served as a pastor in Southern California for four years. That ministry was challenging, but military ministry is challenging for completely different reasons. We really do deal with nearly every issue that could come across, and in my case, I am practically alone–serving as a chaplain for a large task force with no other chaplains on my base.

    So thank you for the thoughts.

    Chaplain (Captain) Patrick Lowthian
    1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2d Brigade Combat Team, 2d Infantry Division

    Comment by Patrick Lowthian — April 26, 2007 @ 2:36 am

  4. Dr. Mouw,
    If it is possible, we would love to serve these new chaplains as they go overseas. Just over 2 years ago we began with 3 boxes of goodies for a chaplain in Afghanistan. Then it became a hobby that got out of hand, and has developed into a ministry. Now we will ship box #5000 in mid May. We send the chaplains resources for their study, counseling, worship, goodies for their troops and almost anything they need that enhances their ability to serve their ‘congregations’. Currently we have almost 90 in Iraq and Afghanistan and a couple on ships. If you would forward the website to them, we would be honored to add them to our adoptees. Being adopted is just a process of asking, and that’s all.
    Ellen Hoebeke

    Comment by ellen hoebeke — April 28, 2007 @ 11:19 am

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  7. Dear Dr. Mouw,
    You remarked about the comprehensiveness of the chaplaincy ministry, e.g., … dealing with marriage and family issues, youth culture, sexuality,…

    What was your observation of their regard for the novel phenomenon of “woman as warrior”, an historic novelty wherein fathers and husbands are relinquishing traditional, and I suggest a Biblically grounded duty to be sacrificially loving/protective, even (as in marriage), as Christ loved the Church… .

    Does a Christian view of marriage and sexuality accomodate the abandonment of what in popular moral culture was called chivalry?

    Thank you.

    Comment by R. H. Miller — January 18, 2008 @ 3:54 pm