“CONGRESS SHALL MAKE NO LAW RESPECTING AN ESTABLISHMENT OF RELIGION, OR PROHIBITING THE FREE EXERCISE THEREOF…”
Amendment 1 - The Constitution of the United States
What do Catholics, Buddhists, Wiccans, Christians, homosexuals, atheists and people that pray to all sorts of mystic creatures have in common? For some serving in the Navy for the last nine years their commonality was the uniform, the salty sea and U.S. Navy Chaplain John Freiberg.
A graduate of The Master’s University (2004) and The Master’s Seminary (2008), Freiberg served as a spiritual and moral leader on the seas and in Okinawa, Japan for three and a half years and is currently stationed in San Diego, Ca.
He is a man committed to the inerrancy of God’s Word, while simultaneously a government employee under a strict code of conduct who is in charge of men and women with various beliefs. How can those two almost opposite worlds coexist? What does life in an intense and isolated environment look like for this man of God?
Freiberg explained his chaplaincy as “a great ministry of being incarnational. You eat what they eat, you go where they go, you wear what they wear and you are there with the people you are called to serve.”
Freiberg is not alone in this. The Apostle Paul speaks to cultural immersion in 1 Corinthians:
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them… To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law… I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel…” (9:19, 21, 22b-23a).
“It’s a great field for evangelism and ministry, but you have to be very wise and grounded in biblical discernment,” Freiberg said, adding, “you are going to have to make hard decisions that will be life or death and the stakes are high.”
When leading chapel services or counseling someone who has sought him out, sharing the gospel is a no-brainer for Freiberg, but discernment is necessary when it comes to command functions. There are four core functions for a chaplain:
One, you must provide for your own. You represent your faith group. If you are a Baptist, you are their representative: you provide Bible studies, Sunday morning chapel services, and thankfully aren’t required to baptize a baby or lead a Buddhist meditation. Freiberg was once asked to perform a marriage service for two homosexual men, which he refused to do (and had to subsequently transfer them to someone who would).
Two, you care for all. You are there to take care of all the sailors and marines, no matter their faith group.
“What that means depends on the chaplain,” Freiberg qualified. “I would counsel everyone who came to me but would always get to a point where I said, ‘If the Bible had something to say about this would you want to hear it?’” No one ever said no, he added.
Three, you facilitate for others. “You are there to ensure the first amendment rights of service members are protected,” he said. “The government has some obligation to make sure you can express your faith somehow.” For example, if a Roman Catholic wanted to celebrate Mass, the chaplain would arrange a time during a High Holy Day in the Catholic Church for a priest to come out and celebrate Mass with the Catholics aboard.
Four, you advise the command. “The chaplain is the moral compass, telling the commander about a potentially unhealthy culture going on,” Freiberg said, “or even stepping in and saying, ‘Sir, I don’t think you should blow up that village.’ You have direct access to the commander of the unit and are in charge of thinking about the morality of what they are doing and the climate of the service members.”
For Freiberg the most difficult part of the job is interacting with the other chaplains; many claim Christ and use “Christian” phrases and words but with different meanings. In this way, the ship functions as a microcosm of the world, and it is important to exercise wisdom in understanding where each chaplain stands theologically. Surprisingly, he found that most of the “regular-line community”—the non-ordained—love chaplains and are almost always very open to the gospel. Their lives in many ways already correspond with its message; they already know what it is like to sacrifice for something greater than themselves, have a sense of mission and purpose, move across the world and care about justice.
Freiberg experienced a situation in which many sailors came back from Afghanistan and had lost some of their own, causing them to ask, “Where is justice in the world? If God is good how can he allow these things to happen?” So, John brought them to Scripture, explaining, “God does care about justice and we can see that with the cross. The cross is all about justice, and for God to love us He had to atone His wrath against all of us.”
A few men’s eyes were opened to the gospel and gave their life to the Lord through this interaction.
“That was neat to not just minister to their hurt but point them to the gospel and give them hope,” Freiberg recalled. “Nothing prepares them for what they see or what they go through and there’s no worldly philosophy that can give them that kind of hope.”
Freiberg has seen many come to a saving faith and has found that because of the undergirding qualities of a man who lives for something greater than himself, the military is an opportune place for mobilizing people for missions.
“We actually had a few people who were in our Bible study in Okinawa who left the military and are now serving in Southeast Asia as missionaries,” he said.
John now works as a reserve chaplain in San Diego for the helicopter wing unit and is preparing and fundraising to move his wife Sarah (’04, TMU) and four children to full-time mission work in Southeast Asia this coming summer.
“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (Prov. 16:9). Many of us know this to be true, finding ourselves in the unlikeliest of circumstances far from where we imagined we would be? “Growing up,” Freiberg explained, “there were three things I hated: the military, the ministry and God” and now he has given his life over to all of them.