One of my favorite parts of international travel is returning to the U.S. and hearing “Welcome, home” from the Customs Agent. I’ve been around enough of the world to be grateful to call the United States home – and to celebrate her birth later this week. But superseding any celebration of our nation is the worship of our God for giving us a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Heb 12:28).
Before I’m an American, I’m a Christian. It only seems appropriate for the physical elements that attend our worship to reflect that. Displaying the American flag in church buildings is a passion that is quite beyond me. Only a few short weeks after I became a Christian, I noticed the American flag in our church’s worship center. Though I could not have offered a theological articulation for it at that point, my instincts told me, “That’s not right.” Beside the fact that the Church is not a branch of the American government, there are at least four reasons why churches should not display the American flag in the same room in which it gathers for corporate worship.
1. Christians worship to honor Christ as citizens of His Kingdom. When the church gathers, it is not as a Americans – even if that is the citizenship of every member. I have found more than a few American Christians to be confused on this point. They bring up affection for our nation as justifying the presence of an American flag in a church building. We should definitely honor our veterans, remember the pivotal events of American history, along with cultivate a sense of American identity in our families, especially using holidays like Independence Day to that end. But this has nothing to do with the Church. She is the kingdom of God’s Son, Jesus (Col 1:13), and is to be a witness for God’s glory (Eph 3:21) – not to wave around old glory.
2. Corporate worship is an experience of Christian unity. Though it may not always feel like it, if you’re a Christian, you have more in common with the Iranian, Syrian, and Pakistani Christian, than with the guy who stood in-line behind you at Chic-Fil-A or who mourned the death of Prop. 8 with you. And the very fact that may strike many of us as strange demonstrates just how far we still have to go in embracing the union we have in Christ with every other Christian (Gal 3:28; Rev 5:9-10). We are united with one another by work of our Triune God (Eph 4:1-6). As we assemble, we gather not primarily in the United States, but “to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering” (Heb 12:22-23). So I would suggest that we do not encourage our congregations to assume anything less by how we decorate our buildings.
3. Christian worship should not offend or confuse any Christian. We congregate for the “common good” and for “building up” (1 Cor 12:7; 14:26). If an American flag is a stumbling-block to Christians of other nationalities, whether they are visiting or have immigrated, it is a grievous error that misconstrues what Christ has accomplished among every tribe and people and nation. That’s not paranoia, just ask the next non-American Christian you meet. I’ve been privileged to worship with local churches in 7 nations on 4 continents and have never seen their respective national flag in their buildings. My (non-scientific) hunch is that this is a particularly American hang-up.
4. Christian worship should evangelize. We pray that any unbelievers who visit us may fall on their face in the presence of God (1 Cor 14:25). I’m sure that you’re familiar with the popular myth that Christianity is a religious phenomenon originating in American or Western culture. Since our Lord was incarnate as a Middle Eastern Jew, that obviously cannot be true. But good luck explaining that while you stand in front of an American flag where you worship.
Our corporate worship, which is through Christ, by the Spirit, to the Father (Eph 2:18), is not an American phenomenon. It’s a Trinitarian one. It does not seem to be a sign of spiritual health that removing the American flag from church buildings causes many Christians heartburn, not to mention that we even have to discuss this at all. In many of our churches, we still need to grow in understanding who we are as Christians and why we worship at all.
A couple years ago, Mark Dever and R.C. Sproul discussed this very issue:
Dever: When I was coming to the church in Washington DC, I requested the flag be left out of the sanctuary. Over a year later, an older member of the church asked me where the flag was. I said, “What flag?” She was asking where the American and Christian flags were because Memorial Day was coming up, and we needed a flag. When we gather in the church we’re more fundamentally Christian than American. We have much more in common with the Nigerian who is in Christ than the non-Christian across the street. She was not happy and it was taken to the church leadership. I told the deacons we could leave the flag but it’s a fairly new custom and in this age things are so politicized that the flag looks like a right wing political statement. We want to reach democrats too with the Gospel. After tearful discussion, we decided to keep them out of the sanctuary.
Sproul: That was the first crisis I had to face in the church when I was a student pastor. I raised the question of the law that anywhere an American flag is flown and another flag is present, the other flag must be placed in a subordinate position. We can’t have the Christian flag subordinate because it’s our highest devotion. It’s sheer arrogance on the part of the government to say otherwise.
Dever: So what happened?
Sproul: We got rid of it.
Let’s get rid of old glory because “in the church we’re more fundamentally Christian than American.” Be sure to thank God for this country on Thursday, with a few hot dogs and fireworks. Just remember that on the Lord’s Day you will not be one nation under God, but a kingdom that can never be shaken.