Soldiers for God: Learning from Luke's Gospel
The missional potential of today's military
Matt Coles trained for ordained ministry and is now Chaplain to the Forces and Chaplain to BFC HQ, 1PWRR and JSSU(Cyp). Here he examines the surprising ways in which the Roman military are portrayed in Luke's Gospel, and asks what this could mean for the potential of today's soldiers to play a major role in God's mission.
Soldiers are only in the public consciousness for acts of heroism or atrocity. Recently, British soldiers have supported the NHS and manned pop-up Covid-19 testing facilities, but are otherwise largely forgotten. In Luke’s Gospel, however, they are presented in a positive light, which is highly surprising and hugely significant.
For Luke’s audience, his Gospel challenged public perception of the Roman military and demonstrated that the most marginal groups remained in scope for salvation in Jesus Christ. The centurion’s faith, we are told, amazed Jesus; the Roman military was instrumental in the expansion of the Early Church.
Today, the military is also strategically placed for Kingdom purposes. Army personnel broadly fit the socio-economic, gender, geographical and average age profile of the Church’s ‘missing generation’. They have the potential to be back in the public eye as instrumental in the re-evangelisation of the nation.
In the Bible, God repeatedly elects to choose the smaller, weaker or more foolish and sinful people. Jesus dined with drunkards and was friendliest to the least educated and lowest classes. Historically, the Roman military had been overlooked as a mission field because they were the occupying force and extorted from the Jews; they were theologically polytheistic, culturally pagan and responsible for crucifying Jesus.
But God remained true to his missional impulse to pursue the outsider and use them in spectacular ways. He saved his people using Pharaoh’s hardened heart; he built the Church on a man who publicly disowned him and, for the Gentile mission, used the fiercest persecutor of Christians. Many commentators on Luke declare his gospel to be an inclusive story, with a universal scope and salvation open to all. And yet they rarely include soldiers. Soldiers are considered beyond God’s love.
Of the Evangelists, Luke alone developed the characters of the soldiers he recorded. Further, in contrast to the Jesus of Matthew, Mark and John, Luke’s Jesus was tortured by the High Priest’s guards (Lk 22:63) and, at the trial before Pilate, those who mocked Jesus were Herod’s personal soldiers (Lk 23:11).
Luke is not blind to the cruelties of the Roman soldiers, but uniquely, he portrayed them constructively. At the foot of the cross, Luke alone records the centurion saying that Jesus was righteous (Lk 23:47) and, by writing as he does, Luke undeniably presents Roman soldiers in a specifically positive light. When the Evangelist reports that the soldiers spoke to John the Baptist (Lk 3:14), they are not told to lay down arms. Their question: Τί ποιήσωμεν καὶ ἡμεῖς (“And we, what should we do?” with emphatic pronoun), suggests their seriousness and wish to not be left out. They could easily have been baptised with everyone else (Lk 3:21), and this pioneering conversion foreshadows Cornelius in Acts, a typical Lukan literary technique between his two volumes.
In accordance with Luke’s Gospel, Queen’s Regulations and Missio Deo, army chaplains today should be peerless in their conviction and fearless in their communication of the Gospel, the exclusive salvation offered in Jesus. Effective evangelism – by faithful, relational and credible chaplains – can replicate the very high value in God’s economy that soldiers hold.
In a Covid-19 context, this requires new thinking to meet pastoral problems with spiritual solutions (see video below). To embrace the institution with its unique outlook and operational focus can help the Godly chaplain effect change both in the institution itself and across the country it serves. May soldiers soon be in the press not for manning testing facilities, but, highly surprisingly and hugely significantly, for being in step with Christ and shoulder-to-shoulder with the Church.