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July 4, 2012Culture, Leadership

Rightful Revelry: Cautions Concerning Combining Patriotism and Worship

I am joining people all over the United States celebrating the 236th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence today. I'm thrilled to join in because I think Christians should, when possible, celebrate their country and be good citizens where they live. Since I live in a country where freedom matters, I can and do celebrate that country. In other words, I am deeply patriotic-- and today is the highlight of that.

My family and I will read the Declaration of Independence and will celebrate our nation today. Furthermore, I think if you are in Brazil, you should celebrate Sete de Setembro or Independence Day (August 15th) in India.

Christians are, in a sense, dual citizens-- of the Kingdom and of the nation where they live. I live in a country that is not without fault, but I am proud to be a citizen of that nation. I teach my children to be proud of their nation-- not unaware of its challenges-- and patriotic citizens.

Yet, I think that Christians in all those places need to be careful about mixing their faith and worship with their patriotism and nationalism.

For example, this past weekend was undoubtedly one of much pomp and patriotism in many churches throughout America. As an interim pastor at several churches, I've participated in such celebrations and appreciated the intent. However, as a pastor at churches I serve, we have not made a major practice of emphasizing patriotic holidays during worship services. We acknowledge them, pray for our nation and leaders, and are thankful. However, we are also cautious because, as I see it, some churches have overemphasized patriotic celebrations and this has led to a confusion of where "God Bless America" and "All Hail King Jesus" do, and do not, mix.

I tweeted my concern on Sunday:

US pastors: If you sang more abt America than abt Jesus this morning, repent & remember: God loves people, not countries.

– Ed Stetzer (@edstetzer) July 1, 2012

The statement was, not surprisingly, polarizing. While it was retweeted more than 420 times, I received some push-back as well. Though hard to articulate in 140 characters, I believe that anytime we place country over cross in worship, we have forsaken our primary obligation as pastors-- God-focused worship and gospel proclamation.

Now, please note that I did not say that you should not be thankful for your nation, acknowledge the holiday and the freedom we have, and even sing songs that express such. However, my concern is that-- on every Sunday-- we need to be careful that nothing (including patriotism) distracts from the gospel and confuses the issues. Your nation is important-- and I am exceedingly thankful for mine-- but I celebrate that today (on July 4th) not in Sunday worship. (Actually, I am patriotic year-round, but you get the point.) If your church service (on July 1 this year) was driven more by America than by Jesus, I think you need a change.

If your church has a regular habit of celebrating and singing about America and its greatness in the world, the line between God's sovereignty over creation and America's sovereignty as a creation will become blurry. America is not God (nor is it Israel in the Old Testament), and you should not sing about a nation in church with the same enthusiasm with which we worship God. Worship God and celebrate your country, not the other way around.

Yes. Sundays are to be days of celebration. But our celebration is always to be rooted in a resurrection, not a revolution-- a conquering King, not the conquering of a king.

And that's where the message becomes mixed in many churches. Maybe not in your church, but in too many churches nonetheless.

If you are going to talk about your nation, talk about it from the scriptures-- for example, what does the Bible say about our role as citizens? Many strike that balance nicely on Mother's Day. We don't sing (borderline worship) songs about our mothers, but we are still thankful and can even teach on the value of motherhood.

So, I wonder, what if someone visited your church from France on Sunday? Would they have been confused and uncertain where the gospel's story and America's glory begin and end. I hope not. You can celebrate (yes, even in a church service) and not conflate the two-- and it is worth the effort to do so.

For many, if not all of us, are American by birth. We played no part in deciding our nationality. And for those of us who were born here, we should be thankful. We are citizens of a great country, but as Christians, we are called to be citizens of greater kingdom. While we can state our allegiance to a great country that gives us many freedoms, it is this greater kindgom to which we state our ultimate affection for the freedom it has given us-- the freedom over sin and death through Christ's work on the cross.

So as we celebrate today, let us remember that our freedom was not of our doing. It came with a price paid by those before us-- and I celebrate their sacrifice today (July 4th), on other holidays (like Memorial Day), but also year round. Don't take my comments here as against patriotism. I love patriotism-- I just am concerned about syncretism. You avoid syncretism by being discerning about what you do in worship and not mixing nationalism and Christianity in an unhelpful way.

So, I love my country. I celebrate my nation's freedom and the good it does around the world. (And, I hope you can love your country as well.) But, I worship God and I work hard-- and urge you to work hard-- to make sure those two things do not get confused in our worship services.

For the freedom in our country, I am extremely thankful. But for my freedom in Christ, I am eternally grateful.

So, be patriotic, love and celebrate your country. And love Jesus and worship God. But be VERY careful when they are near one another.

I expect that not everyone will agree-- but please be gracious and follow the comment rules as you opine.

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