Back in March, William Harrison earned his Ph.D. in Missiology from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. (Missiology is the study of religious missions, usually Christian ones.)
Harrison’s degree and subject matter aren’t the issue… but look at that title again: “The United States Military: A Field for Great Commission Fulfillment.” It appears to be saying that the military is an ideal place for Southern Baptists to fulfill their biblical duty to “make disciples of all nations” (i.e. convert people).
That’s especially concerning because Harrison spent the past 27 years as an active duty chaplain in the U.S. Army. According to Chris Rodda of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who first broke this story, Harrison was “working on his doctoral plan to subvert military chapels while still on active duty.” (He said he began working on it last August and retired in December. Hence the overlap. That also means he completed a Ph.D. dissertation in seven months. It normally takes much longer.)
A portion of Harrison’s dissertation is online, for those who are curious. (Rodda obtained the full 211-page copy, which she later shared with me.) In it, Harrison makes clear that the military ought to be seen as a vessel to spread Christianity to the masses:
… American military installations exist all across the nation and in various places across the globe. By establishing churches outside the gates of these areas, the church is actively taking the gospel to the nations. Service members and their families are not only a field for the harvest (in need of baptizing and teaching), but Christian discipleship among this population can ignite new sparks in global, gospel proclamation. These men and women and their children will move to new places every few years with a potential of taking the good news of Christ with them everywhere they go.
… Active-duty, Army chaplains are woven into the fabric of the military culture and have direct access to soldiers and their families; therefore, this strategic position for gospel ministry should be fully leveraged by the SBC (and its local churches) through intentional education, training, and other support to disciple America’s military families.
Elsewhere in the thesis, Harrison argues that Southern Baptists ought should work on “planting biblically grounded churches near military installations”… so that they can later “send these trained disciples on mission, equipped to carry the gospel with them when they move or deploy ‘to the ends of the earth.’”
As Rodda notes, Southern Baptist chaplains already constitute about 28% of the military chaplaincy—more than any other group—yet Harrison wants to “flood” the zone with even more of his own people in order to undo the work of the “non-Christian chaplains that are confusing the masses within the military.” (He’s suggesting their mere existence is a threat to Christianity.)
It’s not even enough to stay within the boundaries of the chaplaincy. Harrison says Southern Baptists can also open up faith-based “counseling centers” that accept the military’s Tricare insurance plan and specifically target veterans dealing with “mental health issues, such as PTSD, moral injury, suicide ideation, and intervention for marriage or family crises.” This has the advantage of converting people while raking in the profits.
… When the church plant becomes self- sustaining via its attached counseling center, that funding facilitates a church’s reproduction (self-propagation), thus satisfying two components of indigenous church planting.
Keep in mind that the purpose of military chaplains is to provide religious comfort to everyone. It’s always nice if a chaplain shares your faith, but even if they don’t, it’s literally their job to put aside those differences and counsel those who need help without treating them as a target for religious conversion. That’s especially important considering that there’s not a single Humanist chaplain despite a growing number of non-religious military members.
It also raises the question of whether Harrison, when he was an active duty chaplain, was more interested in winning converts or helping soldiers. No matter what he thinks, those two goals don’t necessarily overlap.
Maybe there are Christians out there who would argue this is all a giant misinterpretation. Harrison isn’t saying military chaplains should convert everyone; he’s just saying they can be inspired by their faith to set a good example and people will naturally drift towards them.
No. That’s wrong. He’s literally saying chaplains ought to convert the people with whom they come into contact. Harrison even sees the pluralistic nature of the military as an opportunity, saying “this situation also offers access to people in need of the gospel.” To him, non-Christian soldiers are nothing more than moving targets for Jesus.
Just consider an example he offers of a chaplain who had to conduct a funeral for a Christian who died in combat. After being told the funeral needed to be secular, the chaplain pushed back and said he couldn’t, “in good conscience, intentionally remove Christ from a memorial service for another Christian.” The commander relented after saying the chaplain would have to deal with the consequences if there were any.
Here’s how Harrison uses that situation as a model for his readers:
… Rather than temper the Christian nature of the service and the message, the chaplain (with a somewhat rebellious tendency) accentuated these elements for the memorial. After the service, approximately thirty of the foreign nationals in attendance lined up to talk to the chaplain, with the commander sitting close by to listen, ready to wash his hands of it. Rather than taking offense, however, these foreign nationals ranged from those who quietly whispered their thankfulness for the message (as underground Christians) to Muslims, asking about this God who sent His own Son to die for the forgiveness of sins. This deployment (and the opportunities to share the gospel across a diverse population and ideological spectrum) could be echoed by other Christian evangelicals within the Army Chaplain Corps. A greater abundance of such stories can exist when chaplains are fully trained and prepared for the pluralistic system that seeks to diminish the gospel. Great Commission churches, colleges, and seminaries have an opportunity and an obligation to equip chaplain candidates for their mission field.
See, kids? By pushing Christianity even in secular spaces, you might win over some Muslim converts, and that’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it?
It’s truly disturbing content. And we know that because if a Muslim chaplain wrote a thesis all about how the U.S. military was ideal grounds to spread Islam, using the exact same kind of language Harrison just earned a Ph.D. with, it would be a national scandal. That person would not just be described as having a “rebellious tendency.” But because Harrison is a Southern Baptist, it’s barely going to raise an eyebrow.