The Council of Chalcedon on Clergy and Military Service

We have decreed that those who have once been enrolled among the clergy, or have been made monks, shall accept neither a military charge nor any secular dignity; and if they shall presume to do so and not repent in such wise as to turn again to that which they had first chosen for the love of God, they shall be anathematized.

Council of Chalcedon, Canon VII, A.D. 451

I recently ran across this decision of the fourth ecumenical council and my thoughts soon went to the question of chaplains and the bearing of arms. While my denomination doesn’t consider itself bound by the councils of the first millennium, it is worth reflecting on how our predecessors in the faith looked at the issue.

The council met a little more than a century after Constantine legalized Christianity and began supporting the church with the power of the state. Even in this new political situation, clergy were not supposed to serve in the armed forces. While the council did not state why it opposed military service by clergy, it appears to me that it has to do with the matter of vocation. In addition to prohibiting military service, the canon directed that clergy were not to accept positions of “secular dignity” within the apparatus of government. Canon III also prohibited clergy from engaging in secular business ventures or managing worldly estates. The vocation of the clergy is to lead the church, not to lead the state or its institutions.

I doubt that the members of the council were thinking about whether clergy should accompany the kings’ troops in the field, what dress they should wear and to what degree they should be organizationally aligned with military institutions. The modern concept of “military chaplain” did not exist. Today, Orthodox and Catholic churches which accept the decisions of the ecumenical councils as binding still send chaplains into military service. Apparently, these churches do not believe the canon prohibits the existence of a military chaplaincy.

Rather, I think  the members of the council were talking about “military service” in the ordinary sense of that term: service as an armed combatant. Since it is paired with “secular dignity,” they were also probably thinking about commanding men in battle. If some of society’s most talented leaders were taking up religious vocations, there may have been a temptation to turn to them for political and military leadership as well.

The members of the fourth ecumenical council would surely not approve of an armed chaplaincy if for no other reason than it confused leadership in the church with leadership in the world. They are two separate vocations. The members of the council might also, then, question the vocation of a chaplain who loses his or her pastoral identity and focus within the structures of the military environment. Whatever else they might do for the military institutions in which they serve, chaplains must remain closely linked – doctrinally, emotionally and relationally – with the churches that endorse them. Christian clergy lead the church. They exercise their vocation for and within the church. It’s easy to get swallowed up in other concerns. The bishops at Chalcedon remind us of where our priorities must lie.


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