The Army I Serve
I did not expect to receive an overseas education, much less to serve full-time in the Singapore Armed Forces. But both were gifted to me not long after I entered National Service in 1988. With a government scholarship, my future seemed determined. Yet God had other plans. First, I became a Christian and was baptised within three months of my arrival in London. Second, I received “the call” six months later while watching the late John Stott preach at St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Trafalgar Square). Me, a pastor? But how, Lord? I had another two years of studies, and then an eight-year bond which I could not afford to break—be it financially or morally. “Wait” was the reply. And so I waited.
I returned to Singapore in 1991 with a view of becoming a pastor one day. Meanwhile, I would serve the Lord while I served my nation. Little did I know that God was using my years in army fatigues to prepare me for my decades in priestly robes. As a platoon commander, I learnt that the powers given to me were a solemn responsibility, not a weapon of ego. Once, a recruit almost lost his life because, as I realised later, I cared more about my performance than the welfare of my soldiers. In my next appointment as an instructor in Officer Cadet School, I was firmly taught that even if only one man out of a hundred managed to stay awake during my instruction (due to lack of sleep) I must still give of my very best to him. It was during this period that God gave me the spiritual gift of teaching so that I could communicate effectively with my trainees. I had never been a public speaker (even in private, I’m known to be quiet!) and this was the tentative beginnings of my preaching vocation.
Perhaps the most important lesson that God used the military to teach me was that of humility. Three incidents come to mind. The first was when a lance corporal wrote me(then a captain) a letter telling me how bad my men-management skills were. The next lesson came in the form of a verbal rebuke by a fellow Christian who was my sergeant in the scouts (recce) platoon. In short, he chided me for a disregard of safety regulations in my zeal to impress my superiors. The third humble pie was served to me one afternoon when I was a staff officer in the Ministry of Defence, about a year before my bond ended. A female colleague who had taken issue with my work ethic, which to her lacked compassion for others, said to me, “Are you sure you want to become a pastor? I’m not really sure you would make a good one.” Till today, I hold these and numerous other experiences close to my heart—grateful that God had used many to tame this proud war horse.
And so here I am.
I left the SAF in 2000 and entered the pastoral ministry three years later. Although I was never involved in any physical war, my decade in the military has readied me for wars that matter for eternity.
If you are a parent of a son, having read my testimony this far, you might be asking, “Must military service be the mandatory way for my son to serve the nation?” Or if you are a young man awaiting enlistment, you might be wondering if it is right for a Christian to participate in military service––which could, in unfortunate circumstances, require the killing of human life.
Our Methodist Social Principles contain the following statements with regard to “The Christian and military service”:
- We believe that, in general, war goes against the teachings and example
of Christ and that the influence of the Church should be on the side of every effort seeking to remove the seeds of war. In the event of widespread threats to peace and justice, war may be supported as a last resort.
- The Methodist Church teaches respect for civil authority that is properly constituted. It encourages both love of country and of all people. It believes that the security and defence of the country is the responsibility of every able-bodied citizen.
These principles are consistent with what the Bible teaches about military service and citizen responsibility. An early example of military service amongst God’s people was when Abraham’s nephew Lot was taken hostage by the king of Elam (Genesis 14). We read that Abraham speedily summoned 318 “trained men” to pursue the Elamites, thereby rescuing Lot and his household.
Throughout the Bible, the ethics of military service is not questioned. It was assumed that every nation, even Israel, needed to defend herself from enemies and oppressors.
Most battles in the Old Testament resulted in deaths (e.g. 2 Samuel 18:6–7). On rare occasions, we read of “just war” practices that pre-dated the Geneva Convention (2 Chronicles 28:8–15, referencing Bishop Dr Gordon Wong’s recent AldersgateSG sermon).
In the New Testament, neither Jesus nor Paul, or any other biblical writer, disparaged military service. Instead, Jesus praised a Roman centurion for his faith (Matthew 8:10) while Peter baptised the household of another (Acts 10).
Not only was the “soldier” not frowned upon, he was often used as a metaphor to describe the Christian and his journey of faith. For instance, Paul describes Epaphroditus as a “fellow soldier” (Philippians 2:25). In Ephesians 6, Paul called upon believers to put on the “whole [military] armour of God”! Jesus himself, hours before his arrest, instructed his disciples to sell their cloaks and buy swords if they did not have one (Luke 22:36). Why? Because we live in a fallen world, and self- defence and God’s divine protection are not mutually exclusive.
Dear parent, as far as God’s Word is concerned, your son is fulfilling an honourable duty by doing National Service (NS). Dear soon-to-be-enlisted brother, see your call to NS not as something regretful, but as an opportunity to serve God with dignity and distinction. God has called us to be His witnesses. Why not let the military camp be the ordained place to shine His marvellous light and love (1 Peter 2:9)? In light of the current Russia-Ukraine war, let us be reminded that military service is ultimately an act of sacrifice for the people and the country we care about.
Rev Lai Kai Ming is a pastor at Barker Road Methodist Church. Prior to the pastoral ministry, he served as an infantry officer in the Singapore Armed Forces from 1991 to 2000.