As a Chaplain, Must I Always Publicly Pray in Jesus' Name?

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Dear Dr. Moore,

I’m a committed evangelical Christian, and also a chaplain with responsibility for people from all sorts of religious backgrounds. I am called on to pray at many functions, with mixed audiences. Some over me are pressuring me not to end my prayers “in Jesus’ name” but to instead pray more inclusively to God, generally. I can pray “in Your name” and that seems to solve the problem. I mean Jesus, of course, but it wouldn’t be as patently offensive and it would enable me to minister here longer and more effectively. Is that ethical?

A Confused Chaplain

Dear Chaplain,

You’re assuming this quandary is about language. It’s not. Praying in Jesus’ name isn’t simply a cultural addendum at the end of a request, something evangelicals do in the same way we repeat phrases like “just” and “lead, guide, and direct us.” We pray in Jesus’ name because Jesus commanded us to do so (Jn. 14:13). We pray in Jesus’ name because we believe that “there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Thus, we have no access to God apart from our being hidden in Christ.

When you pray publicly, you are not there to proselytize or to do apologetic battle against other religions. But that’s not what praying in Jesus’ name is. If you are asked to pray, you can only pray as a Christian. In so doing, you are actually, ironically enough, protecting the rights of other religions and their chaplains. I frankly don’t want a Muslim chaplain forced by the government to pray like a Episcopalian.

As for the old “in Your name” wink and nod, I would counsel you against that. Our ancient Christian forebears, under persecution in Rome, could have pinched the incense and proclaimed “Caesar is lord” while assuring themselves privately that they meant the “eternal Caesar” of Jesus of Nazareth. After all, wouldn’t they be of more service to Jesus alive and preaching than thrown to the lions? And what is a momentary acknowledgement of a civic faith, especially when one can be as specific as one wants in private?

Well, behind all those rationalizations hung a warning: “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32-33).

Christian chaplains have been ordained by their churches, and offered to the military, to be Christian chaplains. For them to pray as a civil-religion cleric is for them to enlist their services in another faith. You wear the Cross, and must speak it and not put it under the bushel of a more inclusive language of civil faith.

Chaplains don’t serve chiefly a civic function. They are there, first of all, to guarantee the First Amendment liberties of military and other personnel to the free exercise of religion. If the government decides that the only chaplains who can serve are those willing to pray like Unitarians in public, one wonders what would remain of the purpose of chaplaincy at all.

From the government’s point of view, it might not be that much to ask a chaplain to pray a sensitive prayer to a generic God. Perhaps it wouldn’t seem too much to ask a Catholic soldier to serve himself and his Protestant friends Mass since “bread is bread,” and a Muslim chaplain to lead people in the Rosary because “it’s just a prayer.”

But it is too much to ask. A Muslim who would speak of Mary as the Mother of God rejects the Koran, and he’s just not a Muslim anymore. A Catholic Mass without a priest is just not a Catholic Mass. And a prayer to a “God” who is not clearly the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ is not a Christian prayer.

When Caesar asks for service and for taxes and for honor, we should render such things gladly. Prayers don’t belong to Caesar, though, and they shouldn’t be brought before him for editorial submission. We owe Caesar submission and loyalty in almost everything (Rom. 13), almost.

But when Caesar objects to the mention of Jesus in a Christian’s prayers, we must have the conviction to say, “Sir, I wasn’t talking to you, sir.”

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).