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Jun
26

Flags in Church?

This coming Sunday (July 1st), many churches in our nation will choose to honor America during the worship service.  Some will include America-centered songs, military-oriented hymns, and perhaps recitation of the pledge of allegiance.  Others will honor those in attendance who served in the military.  A few churches will preach sermons equating America of today with Israel of old: God’s chosen nation.  The vast majority will display the American flag.

All of this raises the question: does nationalism belong in church?  I think not.  When we strike patriotic tones in worship, we dishonor God, disobey scripture, and misunderstand the relationship between God and country.

Why the Confusion?

Since Bible-believing Christians start with scripture in fleshing out how to practice and understand our faith, how is it that so many consistently conflate faith and flag?  It’s not just at Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Veterans Day, or other national occasions – many churches have made the American flag a permanent fixture in the sanctuary and many of those same churches lead all Vacation Bible School attendees in a recitation of the pledge of allegiance (first to country, then to the Christian flag and then to the Bible).

There is much well honed research detailing how nationalistic fervor finds it way into faithful worship (including the recently released Chosen Nation: Scripture, Theopolitics, and the Project of National Identity by Braden Anderson.  For me, the question of why Christians worship gets polluted with nationalism comes down to a simple truth: both matter deeply and, in our zeal to honor both, we confuse and conflate the two.

A similar confusion occurs on Mother’s Day, when a simplistic logic (“Mothers are important, so we ought to give them focus in worship”) leads churches to do all sorts of strange things in worship on that day.  But not all sentiment belongs in worship (or in church for that matter).

With nationalism, the confusion runs even deeper than with other sentiments.  American nationalism is a story with faith at its center.  While I’m no David Barton, I cannot read American history and not see the faith of our forefathers.  But just because Americans have chosen to believe faith and country can be combined does not make it so.  No matter what John Winthrop (“city upon a hill”) thought or said, no matter how deeply Americans wish to support the American experiment and American exceptionalism by writing faith into the national narrative, the narrative of scripture makes no room for nationalism in the modern sense.

It’s not up to America to adopt Christ, it’s up to Christ to adopt America – and He hasn’t.  He has adopted all who will come and follow.  For those who choose to follow, national identity wanes as kingdom identity grows.

What’s the Harm?

So what’s the big deal?  It makes people feel good to stir up patriotic pride, so why not wave the flag a bit and honor the courage, conviction, and sacrifice of those who have been willing to serve a greater good?  Why not pump up the pride we have in our country?  Why not give some glory to Old Glory?

Well, therein lies the problem, doesn’t it?  To whom (or what) is glory due?  The answer, of course, is God and God alone.  To give glory to country is idolatry.  To weave faith into nationalism is heresy.

Conservative Christians rightly resist religious syncretism (mixing Christianity with aspects of another religion in order to make our faith more palatable to those who are sympathetic to the other religion and who don’t wish to fully let go of it), but we fail to see that equal and greater harm comes from the syncretism of Christianity and nationalism. As Christians, we resist nationalism in all forms, especially those forms that would hijack the story of God’s activity in the world, that would synthesize national identity with His hopes and plans for creating, saving, and sustaining all peoples of the earth.

I forgot most of what I learned in seminary, but one thing I will remember forever was a slide shared by Dr. Hans Hillerbrand, whose devout Lutheran family escaped Nazi Germany when he was a boy.  The slide showed a Christian communion table draped with a Nazi flag and holding a communion cross that had been reformed to bear the swastika.  It’s easy for us to stand such a great distance away and see how blatantly heretical that display was.  Today we feel such great repugnance to the Nazi regime. But many of the Christians who were steeped in that culture saw no problem mixing the two because their loyalties to church and country were both high and they were unable to choose the higher (and ultimate) good.  Many Christians in the world today feel repugnance when they see our flag or other symbols of our national pride and exceptionalism.  This doesn’t mean we should be ashamed of our country or deny our citizenship – to the contrary, we should appreciate our country and strive to make it a force for good in the world.  But we should not hold up America as a Christian nation and we should not pollute the worship of our Lord with fervor, faith or devotion to our nation (or any nation).

When we choose Christ without hesitation, we make no room for mixed motives and refuse to share God’s glory with any other person or institution – no matter how good, noble, or sentimental.

Questions for Conversation

What about you and your church?  How do you manage the desire to honor country while remaining true to the message of scripture?  In your opinion, what (if any) displays of patriotism should find home in church?  In worship?  Where do you draw the line?  I look forward to the conversation.

About Chad Hall

Chad Hall is the Director of Coaching for Western Seminary and also serves as a leadership coach for ministry and corporate clients through his role as Partner with Coach Approach Ministries and iNTERNAL iMPACT.

Comments

  1. Cultural pride is within us all…that is what living in a different culture will reveal.

    Things in one’s own setting like flags that may only bring national sentimentalism will make you quite uncomfortable when you see people in another country pledging “allegiance” to their flag, as you well pointed out.

    There will always be things one’s country does that produces both pride and shame. Since God is above all cultures and national systems, it seems the one place within our borders that ought to be free of politics should be a sanctuary–a set apart place for honoring God–free of that country’s flag and free of the support of a certain political party.

    He is Lord of the Nations, so if we display anything it should be His lordship overall human governments. Let the church be free of flags!

  2. Chad:

    Excellent article, thank you. I fear when I see a nation’s flag taking main stage in a place of worship. We can respect people who thought that it was the right thing to serve in the military without making church the place to honor them when Christ is the one who should be honored when we gather for worship. We can be good citizens without convoluting our national identity with the Kingdom of God. I think places of worship should be a safe zone for Christians of all nationalities. When we come together to celebrate Christ we transcend the temporal national identities that divide us.

  3. Miles Nelson says:

    AMEN!!

  4. Thank you for this. I have attended many churches who have crossed this boundary. I’ve been accused of hating my nation and dishonoring my forefathers because I wouldn’t participate in church activities that I felt were far too nationalistic to be acceptable. I’ve felt attacked and my intentions questioned by my own church family because of this. I have not been able to really express or explain why I feel this issue is important and have felt alone in this frustration.

    It’s interesting how we can agree that good and positive things can become idols in our lives (our career, our children, our hobbies), but when we talk about patriotism becoming too much of a focus, it is quickly disregarded as impossible. Why?

    When I first realized that this was a problem was when I returned from living in a foreign country that has a bad history with the USA, and tried to share about the things God was doing there. I was told over and over again that this particular country was evil and that it was not possible that their citizens could freely worship God like we do in America. I realized that people were more threatened by the idea that people in another nation such as this one could be able to fully experience God’s presence and power, than they were excited to hear about what God was doing in another part of the world. Why?

    I think there is a generation that lived and sacrificed through defining times in our nation’s history and therefore will never understand the issue with nationalism in worship. So, while I would prefer not to have a flag, I don’t mind if there is one. But it rarely stops at one. I also don’t mind if the church meets outside of the worship service to do something like a Fourth of July picnic or a Mother’s Day brunch. In fact I think that’s great. However, the one thing that I do think has a place in the worship service is prayer for our nation and I will participate in nothing else. In the end, I have resigned myself to simply not attending service when it falls on or near a major national holiday.

    I agree that it’s dangerous ground to claim America as God’s nation. I truthfully feel that any church leadership who plays up patriotic themes to encourage the congregation to feel good is doing a great disservice, is guilty of sensationalism, and is trying to build a sense of community around something other than God. Pride has crept into our churches in a quiet and deeply threatening way that few are willing to speak out against. So again, thank you.

  5. Chad,
    Great article, thank you. I was almost fired once for removing the flag from our sanctuary!

  6. Ken Garrett says:

    I’ve learned through experience that making a big deal out of removing a flag from the sanctuary is just as symbolic, and often dogmatic, as the very form of nationalism that you decry. I’m not so sure Jesus cares, really.
    I could imagine Him saying, “You have heard it said, “Do not display foreign, national flags in the sanctuary,” but I say to you, “Do not honor your militancy, or your pacifism, or your politics, over honoring the king, which is actually loyalty to the King. Bring Me a flag–who’s stars and stripes are on it?”
    I think He’d mess us all up with something like that….
    This is a time to simply be grateful to God for what He’s given us. I truly hope you have a great Fourth of July!
    Blessings, Ken

  7. Gary Eble says:

    I find your opinion to be interesting. However, I can find no Scriptural backing to such an opinion regarding no national flags in a church.

    Gary

    • Chad Hall says:

      Hi Gary,
      On the surface, I’d say you’re right. On the other hand, neither can I find backing for national flags in church. Immediate evidence for or against a particular practice is not always available in scripture (in fact, immediate evidence is the exception). In such cases, we have to consider the weight and message of scripture to make decisions. I’m sure some read scripture and find support for displaying flags while others of us would find support for abstaining from such displays of nationalism.
      Thanks for adding to the conversation.
      -Chad

    • Murray Hibbard says:

      “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,” Phil. 3: 20

  8. Ron Swaren says:

    Other things that result in emotional fervency should not get in front of the gospel. And that has happened to such an event over the last few decades that a lot of people, to whom the Gospel would be directed, exclaim ” We don’t see any difference between you and us.” Call it the Culture War. But I don’t think there is something wrong with honoring one’s own country at times—–as well as those who sacrificed. I saw a video that I thought was touching about World War 2 vets who are nearing the end of their lives titled “Before You Go.” People in churches, despite clinging to an identity as Christians, enjoy huge rewards from living in and being citizens of this country and I question whether Gen X people understand how close we actually came at one time to losing the American Dream….. that they are enjoying. My pastor turned down my offer to present this four minute video, though, saying we follow the Church Calendar, not the national one. But that isn’t entirely true since they celebrate Mothers and Fathers days, too. If there are new believers in Kenya or China I don’t think there is something wrong with a certain pride of nationality. During the Olympics people display a lot of national pride. Would it be wrong for Christians who are participating in that event to not have national pride?

    But all things in balance……

  9. I find this very thought provoking. I have been in my church for six and have survived many such services (especially Mothers Day, since I am not a mother nor do I have a mother anymore) but I cannot think of a time when we actually worship those we honor on those days. A mention and a thank you early in the service are basically the extent of honors given. I think the flags appear but we do not pledge to them. Which makes me ask, what is a “Christian” flag, anyway. One that is saved? I truly do not understand it’s existence, and I abhor the idea that the U.S. flag, then the Christian flag and then God, last of all would be deemed honorable.

    I am a serious patriot. I love my country and those who serve it in the military. I am proud of the capabilities and strength of our Armed Forces, but worshiping them is never in my mind. I love the fuss we make, but, as you say, I do not think they should be worshiped, and I do not think they are in our church. Praise the Lord for that.

  10. Bill Kelsey says:

    Thank you for a great article. As a United Methodist Lay Speaker, I am called to preach in the church from time to time. This Sunday just happens to be one of those times. I will not ignore our nation, but recognize it where it should be — in prayer. If we ever hope to have revival in our country, we Christians and church leaders and those in worship need to make sure Christ is at the center of not just our worship services, but in our lives as well.

    Again, thank you for an article that should make us all think.

  11. Zachary Gagnon says:

    Chad, I cannot express how deeply I affirm what you are saying. You hit the nail square on the head of a problem within the church. Now, it may not be as harmful as divorce or other sins within the church, but the patriotism and nationalism evident in churches sometimes is sickening. It can very easily be idolatry, as you say. This is a wonderful post, so thank you for that.

  12. Dwight Gingrich says:

    I agree! When we gather as citizens of the heavenly kingdom, we should be so enthralled with the glory of that kingdom and of that King of kings that allegiances to earthly kingdoms fade into nothing by comparison. To have a flag on stage (often next to a cross or a “Christian” flag) is to put earthly kingdoms on the same plane as the heavenly one.

    I am Canadian and grew up as quite a patriotic young man. In Canada 50% of patriotism consists of emphasizing “I am not an American.” Since moving to the United States (and even before, as I gathered American friends), my patriotism has cooled. It is not that my Canadian patriotism has been replaced by American patriotism, but that I now see that (dare I say it?) too much of patriotism, no matter in what nation, is too much like the “Thank God I’m not a Samaritan” attitude of New Testament times, and directly counterproductive to the realization of the one people of God which is celebrated in the NT. I remain thankful for the blessings found in both my nation of birth and my nation of residence, but see no more virtue in most popular forms of patriotism than in the fanaticism displayed by many sports fans for their teams.

    I will honor my governmental leaders and try to obey them with respect and love, but nowhere in Scripture am I called to celebrate Caesar. Certainly not as a focal point in the gathering of God’s people!

  13. Willliam Fitzgerald says:

    As a Christian and an American I feel it is not mandatory to have an American flag or a christian flag in the church sanctuary. I think that mothers day, Fourth of July etc. etc. can be recognized and the people who we are recognizing can be held up as examples in a service without demeaning the Lord. Most services play the patriotic tunes and tunes about mothers to acknowledge the reason for the day. Is it right ? I guess it depends on how it is handled. Most services use that day to pray for the people who are being honor not worshiped and to remember those who have passed. If prayer for mothers or country or soldiers doesn’t belong in a church building where does it belong? This country is taking prayer out of schools and out of public domain and we say ” Don’t fight for it because God is in control ” Throughout the bible God has called on men to stand up and fight for whats right and for what God teaches. This country is headed downhill so fast these days if we don’t instill christian beliefs in our children and patriotism then who will?? Muslims are radical in their beliefs too many instances if Christians stand by as they are being persecuted or Gods people are being persecuted then who stops it? Do we blindly follow a corrupt government?? No !! Do we put America ahead of God??? NO !!! As the Boy Scout lays it out in their pledge it is God, then Country Then others. We can be a part of it without losing site of God if we hold to these beliefs.

    • Dwight Gingrich says:

      William, I agree that we should be praying for our nations and our national leaders, as Scripture clearly teaches us. I also agree we should be radical and fight for what is right, especially in light of spreading Islam. However, there is another way to do this, without taking up the sword or honoring the practice of doing so. The early Anabaptists modeled this way in the face of the Turkish Muslims who were threatening to overwhelm Europe militarily in the 16th century:

      “A Turk or a heretic cannot be persuaded by us either with the sword or with fire, but only with patience and prayer…” (Balthasar Hubmaier, 1524)

      “Therefore I believe that many children of Abraham are to be found among the heathen, carved in stone (Mt. 3:9, Rom. 9:8). Similarly, this unpartisan God took pleasure in Adam, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Job, Abraham, who was a heathen before his circumcision, Naaman, Cyrus the Persian king, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, Nathanael, the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 2:9), and Cornelius before and without the external circumcision in baptism… We must listen to Christ when he says that many, who are today called Turks and heathen, will come from east and west and eat with Abraham in the kingdom of God. By contrast, the children of the kingdom, the so-called Christians and the Jews who presume to sit in the front and who believe that God belongs to them, will be thrust out.” (Hans Umlauft, 1539)

      “If the Turks should come, we ought not to resist them. For it is written (Mt. 5:21) Thou shalt not kill. We must not defend ourselves against the Turks and others of our persecutors, but are to beseech God with earnest prayer to repel and resist them. But that I said that, if warring were right, I would rather take the field against so-called Christians who persecute, capture, and kill pious Christians than against the Turks was for the following reason. The Turk is a true Turk, knows nothing of the Christian faith, and is a Turk after the flesh. But you who would be Christians and who make your boast of Christ persecute the pious witnesses of Christ and are Turks after the spirit!” (Michael Sattler, “Trial”, 1527)

      The Anabaptists were persecuted by other Christians for holding such beliefs. Today, however, this heritage of refusing to fight Muslims is opening amazing doors for Anabaptists to fight the spiritual war against Islam. David Shenk is a good example of this. For example, he writes: “In 2004 eight Mennonite theologians were invited to Iran in the context of the commemoration of the 25 anniversary
      th celebration of the Iranian Muslim revolution. We were then invited to Qom for a couple days of dialogue on Revelation and Authority. Why were these Anabaptists invited? As I listened and participated, it seemed to me that these were some of the reasons for the invitation: we do good; we do not have political power; we seek to bring every area of life under the authority of the kingdom of God; our story includes suffering and martyrdom (This is a theme that Shi’a Muslims identify with.); we are a People of the Book; we represent a community of faith committed to faithfulness to God; we are committed to non-violent peacemaking.”

      You can read more of his story in the links below if you wish. I especially recommend the first one, which is an essay he wrote about Christianity, Christendom, and Islam. May God give us courage to die as Jesus, laying down our lives for him and for the advance of the gospel rather than taking up the sword to defend a “right” to serve him without opposition, a right the Bible explicitly denies. Rather it assures us that it has been “granted” to us to suffer for Christ (Philippians 1:29-30).

      http://s3.amazonaws.com/churchplantmedia-cms/peacecatalyst_az/three-journeys-david-shenk-article.pdf
      http://lancasteronline.com/article/local/369785_-A-Muslim-and-a-Christian-.html
      http://www.emu.edu/seminary/features/Iran

  14. Murray Hibbard says:

    Thank you for this article. As a Canadian who was visiting at my niece’s church in Ohio last July, I was shocked to see them reciting the pledge of allegiance in the middle of the worship service. I believe that Christian worship should be something that all Christians should be able to fully engage in regardless of their nationality.

  15. Great article few will debate. Our allegiance belongs to Christ none other. I know of one service that went so far in their patriotic service they had fake fireworks! We are not one nation under God!!! We have the highest divorce rates, highest prison population, highest abortion rates, highest drug usage, highest porn usage in the world. Does that sound like one nation under God ?? The church has failed, the home has failed and because of that we have a world that is drifting away from scriptural truths at an alarming rate! We need a great revival of brokeness and complete dependability on God to turn this great nation!

  16. Great article. I was reminded of my Scottish born Spiritual Formation seminary professor saying “Any church that has a national flag in it’s sanctuary is guilty of idolatry.” I must admit I struggle with the separation. That is being a patriotic Christian and yet keeping God and country in separate spheres. Very thought provoking.

  17. Michael Teston says:

    Amen Chad. The God of Creation, the God of the Universe, the God of the Cosmos is no flag waver. The link between the US of A flag and the cross/church continues to grow to the point where as a former pastor, would exit the pulpit on any Sunday, weekend where the frenzy would happen. Now that I am no longer in the pulpit, I avoid church on any of the typical holidays, Memorial Day/week, Veterans day/week, July 4, errr 9-11, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day. What’s funny is that this list gets longer every year. Kingdom culture completely co-opted. Talk about the tail waving/wagging the dog.

  18. Displaying a flag in church is neither commanded or condemned in Scripture. Our church displays the American flag and we sing patriotic songs from our LCMS-sanctioned hymnals. Our pastors offer thanks to God for our country, for the safety of all who live in it as well as the safety and health of all humans. We pray for all our leaders, local, state and federal, as commanded in the Bible. And we always pray for those from our congregation who are presently serving in the military and thank the families of those who have given their lives. Perhaps as the body of Christ, we ought to concern ourselves with our struggles against the culture and consumerism. Our divorce rate equals that of non-believers, as does the abortion rate for those who claim a belief in God. And who knows what’s in the history files of our smartphones, desktops and computer pads? Well, God knows what’s in them.

  19. Robert Hellam says:

    I am associate pastor of a very small church, smaller and more grey-haired than we would like, and also very traditional. That traditionalism includes displaying the U.S. Flag and the Christian Flag in the sanctuary. When I raised questions about that at an executive-council meeting, you would have thought I had just confessed to being a Communist. But I agree: a national flag in church is an idol. I don’t know how many other nations have a similar custom. I don’t remember seeing the national flag in churches in Germany, Austria, Hungary, or the Czech Republic. (I have worshiped in England, and I notice that it is common for the Union Jack to be displayed in Anglican churches there.) Do Canadian and Mexican churches, for example, display their national flag?

  20. Ron Swaren says:

    Religions, when they enjoy tax exempt status, should return benefits back to the temporal community. And that can be a lot trickier to do than imagined, especially in Left Coast cities like ours, where conservative religion is usually equated now with conservative politics and held at arms length. I think we necessarily rely on political governments to rid our society of dangerous cults. And Christians also believe that all rulers are ordained by God. So showing a measure of respect to the state is not wrong, and I can take a symbol as only that. I think the problem is when churches are used for political movements, instead of their expressed purpose.

    • Jim Sellers says:

      Ron
      You make an excellent point about churches taking advantage of government tax exemptions and at the same time suggesting separation from GOVERNMENT and church. Comes across as hypocritical from those who want to deny a flag in their church and yet take advantage of Government authorized benefits. I am an older veteran who served in a combat zone during the Viet Nam era and certainly enjoy seeing the flag displayed as a symbol of honor for my country and two high school friends who did not return home to their families. They did not want to die on foreign soil, but still went to defend the freedoms and a country they loved. I don’t hold to the idea of theologians or clergyman who perceive it as idolatry. Mature Christians know the difference with worship of our Lord and Savior versus a flag merely displayed as symbol of honor to a nation. I somehow feel opposition comes from those who have never served in a military capacity and perhaps deal with some personal inner conflict for not having served. They should not be ashamed of that fact, but certainly don’t deprive honor or recognition to those in your church who did. I can assure you, we serve but one God. I serve on our Deacon board and have yet to have anyone in our church complain or feel offended because we display an American flag in our sanctuary. On the contrary, the biggest complaint has been because a young Praise and Worship leader continues to remove the flag sitting in a far corner sitting in the appropriate designated space where it has been for the last 40 years. His reasoning is because it conflicts with his theme, bright lights and stage decor. Go Figure. :-) How do I tell my fellow veterans in the church we chose not to display the flag because it doesn’t go with our decor? Isn’t is amazing that we in America find ourselves sitting around defending the American flag on our home soil! Can we not be Americans and Christians?

Trackbacks

  1. Luggaged says:

    [...] It isn’t a hill I would die on, however, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Here Western Seminary’s Chad Hall weighs in on the issue. I appreciate what he has to say. [...]

  2. [...] talking about politics. Earlier this week, Chad sparked quite a discussion when he argued against flags in church. So I thought it would be appropriate to add to the discussion with this video from John Piper on [...]

  3. [...] Flags in Church?- This is a terrific article about the issue of having an American flag displayed at church. The only possible way this would be permissible is if a church wanted to display the flags of all nations where church-supported missionaries were serving, and one of those countries was the USA. Otherwise, it should never happen. The article does a great job of saying why. “To whom (or what) is glory due? The answer, of course, is God and God alone. To give glory to country is idolatry. To weave faith into nationalism is heresy.” [...]

  4. [...] & patriotism: * Flags in Church? by Chad Hall; * Idolatrous Worship by K. Rex [...]

  5. [...] we do have a link that’s tied to the 4th of July: Chad Hall looks what happens when patriotism comes to church. “Conservative Christians rightly resist religious syncretism …but we fail to see that [...]