If you realize that this is an issue at all – in any way a topic for conversation, then you are likely aware of the heated discussions it prompts. Some view the absence of the US flag in a sanctuary of Christian worship as tantamount to treason, and very certainly prove an utter lack of patriotism and love for the country which gives them the freedom to worship as they choose, a freedom bought with the blood of generations of soldiers – “freedom fighters”. In response to this argument flushed faces will proclaim the idolatry of any symbol in the sanctuary that calls our attention away from God and promotes allegiance to any other being or institution. They will sound like the High Priest and the Council of the Sanhedrin who called out “Blasphemy!” when Jesus at his trial presumed to place himself equal with God. It would be like Caesar erecting a statue of himself in the Jerusalem Temple in 70AD. In the same community are many who lack the passion of either side with their stake firmly driven into the ground and their heels deeply dug in. And of course, the leaders – clergy and laity – who are seeking to follow God’s voice and will as they lead the congregation toward faithfulness in this and every other matter of dispute.
I am an Eagle Scout, and have participated in innumerable flag ceremonies over the years, both in civic, public, private and religious settings. I love our country, her history, her present reality, and her potential future which outshines both. I firmly believe that our best days are ahead, even while I wish to honor the labor and sacrifice of all, soldiers and civilians, leaders and followers, rich and poor, slave and free, who have given themselves to build this nation. Paul encourages Christians to honor their political and civic leaders – to be good citizens of the state (Romans 13).
I also understand that, as a Christian, my primary allegiances lie not with nation, or even with family, but with God. Often my allegiances will be in harmony, and I can honor my country, support my family, and worship my God in the same words and actions. There do come times, however, when my loyalties are divided. Paul cautions about this as he counsels those single to remain so (1 Corinthians 7:8). He also states that our primary place of belonging, our home, our citizenship, is in heaven (Philippians 3:20).
So we see here, as is often the case, that scripture could be read and used to support both sides of the argument. The phrase “used to support” is telling for us in this instance, for such a utilitarian approach to scripture is inappropriate at best, and potentially deadly. Scripture, as a primary source through which we hear the Word of God speak, is not for our use, in the way a cookbook, textbook, or repair manual are. Our posture before scripture should be humble listening and receiving, whether or not what we hear appears ‘useful and helpful’. When Jesus called people to leave behind their family and their livelihood and follow him, that was not ‘useful and helpful’ in the normal sense of the word. That call ran contrary to what they would have said were their wishes and desires for their family, business, and life. Yet he called, and they followed. So must we.
Symbols represent a greater reality. Christian worship is filled with them – candles, crosses, communion, baptism, the bible. All of these point us toward the same reality – God’s creative, self-giving, redemptive love. We gather to hear, receive, experience, affirm, celebrate and share this love. Everything we do in Christian worship points in this same direction. Anything that is done, said, or experienced to draw our attention otherwise becomes a disruption to our command to worship, and to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.”
The US Flag is a powerful symbol, as a discussion of flag burning or other forms of desecration clearly illustrate. The flag engenders and stirs feelings of loyalty and love for the nation, for our fellow citizens, and for the high ideals that hold us together. Much of this is good and desirable and even to be affirmed by us as Christians. Many of those who came to found this nation did so in the hopes of living out their Christian faith free from the dictates of higher authorities other than God and the religious leaders in their own traditions. It would be a stretch to say that a nation built on land stolen from the native populations and through the efforts of slave labor were “Christian”. In fact, there is really not room in the New Testament for the idea of calling an institution beyond the family and the church “Christian”. The term Christian, first used in Antioch (Acts 11) applies only to the individuals and groups thereof who are followers of Jesus – nothing more or less.
And that’s really, to me, the root challenge of having a US flag in a sanctuary where Christians worship. Its mere presence might suggest to some support for the notion of a Christian nation, and the United States being one, and other nations not being so, even if Christians live there too. And when we begin to think this way, then we may get confused and think that all the actions of our nation are sacred and sanctified and approved by God. And further, that our love and loyalty belong equally, or very nearly so, to “God and Country.” Such an idea is problematic, I think.
On the other hand, we do live in the United States, and our flag is a symbol of identity and unity. We certainly ought to pray for our nation and her leaders continually, that God would lead and guide, and that we Christians who live here might follow God’s will and God’s ways, honoring God in the sanctuary and in the community. So, we pray for ourselves, that as Christians in the United States we might have a godly influence on our neighbors and nation, as an expression of the second half of the great commandment – love your neighbor as yourself.
So, how can we symbolize that our first and greatest allegiance is to God alone. Further, how can we illustrate that our US citizenship bows in humble submission to God in our faith and life through the church? The presence of the US Flag in a sanctuary of Christian Worship, or anywhere on a church’s facilities, would need to serve the purpose of representing for ourselves and others that we are Christians who happen to live in and love the United States of America, that we, with our national identity firmly in tact, bow before the one and only God who is the Lord God, maker and father and redeemer of all nations, so that people from every nation, tribe and tongue are our fellow citizens in the kingdom of God, which is far and away our primary identity.