Should Churches Display the American Flag in Their Sanctuaries?
Should Churches Display the American Flag in Their Sanctuaries?
Just Don't do it
Douglas Wilson is pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, and author of many books, including Letter from a Christian Citizen (American Vision, 2007).
A Christian church has absolutely no business displaying a national flag in the sanctuary, at least not as it is commonly done. The church born at Pentecost was a reversal of Babel, not a doubling down on the fragmentation of Babel.
Our churches should not place any unnecessary barriers to the worship of visiting Koreans, Russians, or Portuguese. We already must deal with natural and providential barriers, such as differences in language. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile (Gal. 3:28). I wouldn't want to worship in a sanctuary with a Scythian flag up front (Col. 3:11), and the Golden Rule requires that we not do to the visiting Scythians what we didn't very much like when they did it to us.
The New Testament is all about this principle. Where customs interfere with transnational fellowship, those customs must give way (Acts 15:29).
Of course, I do want to note that this should be taken as a general principled stand, which is not the same as a perfectionistic one. I am not interested in applying any strictures to churches that are renting space in American Legion halls or in high school gyms, where a flag would already be displayed in the ordinary course of things. I am simply arguing that the flag up front should not be part of how the church as the church arranges things. When we in the church have a decision to make, we shouldn't decide in favor of displaying national flags.
If the church places an American flag in the front of the sanctuary, this becomes part of our sacred architecture, and therefore says something. It becomes a shaping influence.
Important questions should come immediately to mind: What is this saying? And is it scriptural? It should not be too much to ask for some kind of scriptural agreement with what we are saying before we say it. Placing a flag in a sanctuary has many possible implications. It could convey the idea that we claim some sort of "favored nation" status. It could imply we believe that the claims of Caesar extend into every space, including sacred spaces. It could imply that our version of Christianity is similar to some kind of syncretistic "God and country" religion, where patriotism and religion are one and the same.
It is unlikely that we as Christians would display another country's flag, such as the flag of communist China, in a sanctuary. So we should seek to be consistent in our choices. One last caution is in order: Many don't like the national flag in the sanctuary because they have no natural affection for it anywhere. But being a Christian doesn't mean we should hate our home country, just that we should know how to rightly order our allegiances. This is why, in my ideal scenario, the elders who vote in session to remove the American flag from the sanctuary should all have that same flag on their pickup trucks, right next to the gun rack.
It's all Right By me
Lisa Velthouse is a Marine Corps wife and author of the memoir Craving Grace: A Story of Faith, Failure, and My Search for Sweetness (Tyndale, 2011).
In recent years, I have become one of those people who can get choked up at the sight of a rising American flag. Hats with "Veteran" stitched across the front and yellow-ribbon magnets can have a similar effect. I am neither a nationalistic person nor an especially patriotic one, but I have two years under my belt as a military wife. Those two years have caused me to see different things now when face to face with our country's symbols. I see many reasons to display our flag proudly.
The most common argument I hear for not hanging flags in churches is that flags fly over armies at war, and that under God's rule war will not be necessary. We will beat our swords into plowshares. Peace will be our banner.
Yes. But a flag is not war and war is not a flag. A flag is a symbol, and symbols are strong. The range of ideas and realities represented by a single symbol can be vast and broad. If we are going to say that a flag calls to mind terrible things, we must be willing to accept that a flag can call to mind greatness too.
It is no small thing, for instance, when a man or woman commits to serve in the United States military. It is a powerfully real idea, not a cliché, when you realize that someone—a real person—would be willing to pay what is often called the ultimate price.
Less than a week before I sat down to write this, a man my husband had served with was killed in combat, and several others from their company were seriously wounded. The rest of us do not have to bear the costs those men paid because they volunteered to pay them on our behalf. Every day they went to work knowing the risks.
In the military, such sacrifice is so common that at times it almost ceases to seem extraordinary. But it has echoes and glimmers of what is most incredible in Christian faith: that one would willingly lay down his life for his friends. Greater love has none than this, and even the extreme pacifist doesn't scorn it. This is one of the reasons why our flag is not out of place in a church.
There is the risk that some will confuse this perspective with the belief that America is Christianity and vice versa. But putting the flag in our local church does not mean we have made religion bow to nation. The symbol cannot be blamed. A flag on its own cannot display a community's full point of view; it is up to the community to do that. Different local church bodies will hold differing views and will mean different things when they hang or keep from hanging flags. Their positions on what that symbol represents, however, will be clearly evident no matter what they choose.
Fly it responsibly
Russell D. Moore is dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a contributor to First Freedom: The Baptist Perspective on Religious Liberty (B&H Academic, 2007).
Every so often I hear of a pastor embroiled in controversy over his removing the American flag from the church sanctuary. The most memorable incident to me was the pastor who simply secreted the flag away in the middle of a Saturday night, as though the flock wouldn't notice the next morning. But, by dawn's early light, they saw the flag was not there. And that's when the metaphorical bombs started bursting in air.
I agree with the impulse behind such a pastor's concern. The church, after all, isn't an outpost of American society but instead a colony of the kingdom of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23; Phil. 3:20). Christian worship isn't a routine act of mere civil society, like a parent-teacher association meeting or a union gathering, but instead a gate between the covenant body and the larger gathering of the redeemed of all ages in heaven (Heb. 12:22-24). Your church is a "satellite campus" of the Mount Zion sanctuary, and the vast majority of worshipers at that sanctuary are not, and never were, American citizens.
The flag can be a perilous thing in an American evangelical subculture so infected with civil religion. Sometimes patriotism for the United States seems easier than patriotism for the New Jerusalem because it's so experientially immediate. This doesn't mean that we should treat Old Glory like an Asherah pole. Patriotism is dangerous, yes, but that's because it's a strong natural affection that's rooted in something good and right. When rightly applied, patriotism is akin to what God commands us to do in showing honor to our father and mother.
When we honor our country, we are recognizing that we are not self-made or self-situated. We are here, placed by God in a particular plot of land because of the sacrifices of forefathers and foremothers we haven't known. We have a responsibility to our neighbors of all faiths for the generations to come. Patriotism can become idolatrous, sure. So can family affection. But the gospel doesn't evaporate family love. It just re-narrates it, and situates it in a right context, in which we seek first the kingdom of God.
The same is true for the flag. Removing a flag doesn't remove the tendency to idolatry or triumphalism; it just leaves such things unaddressed and untroubled. If a congregation already has a flag in the sanctuary, the first step might be for the pastor to use it as an object lesson in a right-ordered patriotism.
The flag can prompt the church to pray for and honor leaders. The flag can prompt us to remember that national identity is important but transitory. There will come a day when Old Glory yields to an older glory, when the new republic succumbs to a new creation. Until then, let's reorder all our affections, including our flag-waving. But let's do so maintaining the paradoxical tension of "resident aliens." There is no need to play "Rapture the Flag."