July 2, 2013

Removing Old Glory for God’s Glory

by Steve Meister

flag-bibleOne 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 flag-crosscommon 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 unbchoir-pledge-allegianceelievers 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.

Steve Meister

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Steve is the associate pastor of River City Grace Church, in Sacramento, CA.
  • http://www.larryfarlow.com/ Larry Farlow

    Amen and amen.

  • Larry Bouligny

    Totally agree. The “God and Country” mentality involves God sharing His glory with another.

  • Cranios

    What about Veterans Day ceremonies in church?

    • http://www.affectedbytruth.com/ Steve Meister

      A great question that does not lend itself to a straightforward answer. Because of my concern that many American Christians think “American = Christian,” I would not be comfortable officiating an entire service purposely focused on Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, etc.

      However, in pastoral prayers during our corporate worship, I have prayed thanksgivings to God around such holidays for the liberties of our national home, the cost it involved, and especially praying that that might be used of Him to spread the Gospel in and from the US. So, I could see a church thinking through an entire service in the same way – thanking and asking God for the freedoms of our nation to serve the spread of the Gospel and building of the Church.

      That being said, I have been present during “patriotic ceremonies” at various churches and have never seen that pulled-off. In my experience, they’ve only been reinforcing “American = Christian” mythology that is so crippling to the evangelical church in the US.

  • http://michaelcoughlin.net/ Michael Coughlin

    Great points, Steve. I brought up this very issue recently as I observed a foreign exchange student in our church and thought to myself how confusing it must seem to her as we seemingly were associating ourselves with the USA in our service.

    But old habits and traditions die hard. And I’m not sure my little church would be very receptive to your arguments, however biblical they are.

    I wondered to myself, would an Iraqi church have an Iraqi flag in the building? If so, would that bother me?

    • http://www.affectedbytruth.com/ Steve Meister

      Thanks, Michael. That’s another great perspective from which one could approach this question. Truly, our unique experience as American Christians is reflective of our unique place in the history of the Church – enjoying freedoms and liberties that most Christians throughout most of history have not enjoyed. As they erode and the US becomes more and more explicitly hostile to the Gospel – see some of the events of last week, for example – I believe that the incongruity of such patriotic traditions will (rightly) become more clear. Perhaps this will be after the “Baby Boom” generation passes away? In my experience, most Christians who would oppose my perspective here are operating more on the basis of nostalgia than anything else – not to mention confusion on the mission of the Church as discipling her members, not preserving the broader culture. But that’s another post.

      • http://michaelcoughlin.net/ Michael Coughlin

        I think the question/problem I face is this: Is this important enough to annoy people or argue with people at my church over?

        I go to a “military” church. Probably half our membership or more served or have an immediate family member who served or is serving.

        Do I “open this can of worms” knowing how offensive so many people will find it? Do I think it is important enough to offend these brothers and sisters? I’m not sure the detriment of the flag outweighs that cost.

        Like, for example, I enjoy “Christian hip hop” – but I know my church membership wouldn’t…so I haven’t performed it at a church event.

        But maybe it is time to approach the leadership about this and get the conversation started.

        • http://www.affectedbytruth.com/ Steve Meister

          A very important question, indeed! One that I have not always answered rightly in my own ministry, to be sure. I think that’s always a struggle, that is, ensuring that we are rating the importance of every “can of worms” that needs to be addressed from Scripture. It may be low enough on the totem-pole to put-off for years, even. Or it may be indicative of deeper immaturity that needs to be lovingly addressed. In that latter category, beginning a conversation is a good way to go. Helping people address change by biblical conviction and not just by the force of our personality.

          Of course, sometimes you need to just plan to ask for forgiveness instead of permission! May He give you wisdom, brother.

  • Melissa Collins

    Wow. I have never even given this any thought. While I understand the truth of it, I still admit to feeling a bit sad about the entire subject but that speaks more to what is happening in this country/world than the truth behind the validity of it. If I were to separate my emotions from the subject, I think I would completely understand and agree. Thank you for a great thought-provoking post. I will however, look forward to seeing Old Glory waving all over the place on Thursday :-) (and of course will now be more aware of the flag in churches). I don’t believe my church has one.

    • http://www.affectedbytruth.com/ Steve Meister

      Thanks, Melissa. I do understand your sadness. As I tried to reiterate in the post, when where our emotions lead us is different [place from where the Bible would seem to lead us, it’s just a reminder that we still yet need to grow in Christ (which is not a surprise, of course). So, press on (Phil 3:14). And I do hope your 4th is full of flag-waving celebration!

  • METOWNSEND Townsend

    This world is not our home, we are strangers in a foreign land. We should be grateful to God for what freedoms we have, never taking them for granted, BUT we are citizens of heaven – our allegiance must be to our King and not to man-made kingdoms.

  • Sharon Betters

    I found it astonishing that in Germany that the churches there had the Nazi flag on full display. I always wondered how a good portion of the Christians could go along with Hitler’s agenda. It was because there was no separation of church and state, to be a good German, one was a ‘Christian’ and to be a ‘Christian’, it meant to be a good German…. with a strong sense of nationalism, even if it was Nazi.

  • Al Streett

    I hope you will read Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now. I devote an entire chapter to such issues. Alan Streett

  • busdriver4jesus

    I have a horror story just like R.C. from a wayward church I have since left: the American flag was the highest thing on the platform (above the Christian flag), and any questions about it were looked upon as an admission of unpatriotism.

    • Descriptive Grace

      Christian flag? When did you Calvinist Nazis invent this “Christian flag”?

      –James Jordan

  • Beka

    I have to say I’m embarrassed the thought never crossed my mind to not pair the US flag with the Christian flag, anywhere. Hhhhhmmmmmmm But you’re right! My first thought when I started to read your article was of my brother who, although he professes Christianity and was raised same as me with very biblical, evangelical teachings, is vehemently far left politically. He has a point of view I’ve never understood, but your article opened my eyes to how people could feel this way. He believes our government and culture IS, and always has been, controlled by the Christian church, and that it’s “time to give the minorities a turn”. He can’t stand it for anything with the slightest hint of Christianity to be a part of anything political or governmental. Thus he supports any group/person/position that would replace the word “Christmas” with “Holiday” or would not allow nativities in community parks, or would remove the Ten Commandments from courtrooms and prayers from school. He votes FOR things like gay rights and abortion rights, not because he thinks those are good things, but because he thinks telling people how to behave is forcing the Christian religion onto our country. Unfortunately, “christianity” as an organized religion, as opposed to Christianity as the body of believers worldwide, certainly has a lot to answer for in history for wrong kinds of control over people. I have to say flags in churches, or on church grounds, DO set us up as a political entity, NOT a spiritual one. WOW – thanks for opening my eyes!

  • Karl Heitman

    I really don’t understand why people get puffed up about this. We get so wrapped around the axle about “preferences” (i.e., music, wardrobe, drinking, ect.) and then cry like a baby when we see the red, white, and blue colors posted in the corner. Having the stars and stripes in the corner of the church building, to me, clearly seems like more of a preference than something to get excited about. If the church is preaching the Word, people are going to realize that we are Christians first and foremost. However, it seems like many in our camp seem to look down on patriotism all together. We have to remember that the US of A does have Christianity as part of its heritage (not saying we’re a “Christian nation”). The flag doesn’t represent an idol. It simply represents the freedom we have to worship Christ where ever, when ever, and how ever we want. That’s a precious freedom many countries do not have….

  • David

    This phenomenon is not limited to the US. I have seen the Colombian flag, along with the Christian flag, displayed on the podium in a church building in Bogotá.

    • http://www.affectedbytruth.com/ Steve Meister

      Thanks, David. Same arguments would apply for Columbians who need to remove their national flag. Christian worship should be universal – even eternal (Heb 12)

  • Andrew

    Yes, that was one of my strangest experiences when visiting your country – the national flag in some of the churches!! It made me glad not to be an American, and much more profoundly, I am glad that we are brothers in Christ of the Kingdom of Heaven! Ministering for a citizenship worth it! And what is the “Christian flag”??!? (That’s OK, I googled it, … but want to write a post on it?)

  • http://ozforjesus.webs.com/ Wesley Pittman

    I’ll have to disagree with you about the Old Glory flag being in the church. I also have to disagree with you about the fact of other national flags in churches in other countries. I am a Pastor in Australia. The Australian flag and the state flag is flown along with the Christian and the Baptist Flag. There is nothing Biblically wrong with showing patriotism. “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.” I am a proud American who believes in freedom and liberty for all.

    • http://thecripplegate.com Jesse Johnson

      There is a baptist flag?

      • http://ozforjesus.webs.com/ Wesley Pittman

        Yes it is Red and White = Has the words, The Book, the Blood, and The Blessed Hope on it.

    • http://www.affectedbytruth.com/ Steve Meister

      Thanks for your comment, Wesley, especially since you illustrate my point so well.

      Applying Ps 33:12 to a modern nation-state does not seem warranted. Especially when you only cite half of it. The remainder of this synonymous parallel is key: “the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!” Do you really mean to suggest that Americans (or Aussies) are the people whom our God has chosen? Unless you’re reading the Book of Mormon in private devotions, I’m not sure that’s a warranted application.

      In fact, Ps 33:12 rightly-applied supports my view. In the Church, we are blessed to be the heritage or inheritance of the Lord, a holy nation (1 Pet 2:9) – that’s why we should remove flags of lesser and fleeting nation-states with no such hope from our meeting-space.

      I hope that’s helpful to you. I’m leaving now to take my kids to a parade and wave flags, seriously. Patriotism is not unbiblical, but calling it Christian or mixing it with a church’s worship is.

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  • GinaRD

    I respectfully disagree. The God who made us placed us in nations, and tells us in His Word to be good citizens of those nations. The flag is a symbol of that God-given citizenship.

  • http://stowellbrown.blogspot.com/ stowellbrown

    When I was a Girl Scout way back in the 50’s we met in a
    church. The church had an American
    flag. We saluted the flag before each
    meeting. We then opened with
    prayer. Of course this was in
    Virginia. Maybe it was different in
    other states.

    When Eisenhower was in the White House “Under God” was added
    to the pledge of Allegiance to prove that we weren’t communist. So I like to see a flag in a sanctuary. To me it means that America is under
    God.

    • http://www.affectedbytruth.com/ Steve Meister

      What does it mean for America to be under God? Is it?

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  • Stephen Schutt

    Steve, Thank you for your honest & open discussion on this subject.

    HOWEVER, I must respectfully disagree. Placing an American flag in a church is nothing more than showing respect where respect is due (Rom 13).

    Regarding love of country detracting from love of God, I fail to see the issue. I can love my mother without worshipping her; I get little judgment when I send her a mothers-day card for being a good mom. Why is this any different?

    As for American = Christian argument, leftist Christians have been building this straw man for years. Honoring a country that has treated Christians uniquely well is not a personal soteriological statement. The New Testament has made it clear that honoring the governing authorities is required and that doing so is neither worship nor moral endorsement. Furthermore, pagan rulers like Cyrus were praised for their kind treatment of God’s people.

    And why the snide comments about Chick-Fil-A & Prop 8?

    One of the unique things about the *idea* of America is that the foreigner is no less American than the 8th generation native-born. Meaning that the Pakistani, Iranian & Syrian Christians should feel no alienation from an American flag. Have you asked Pakistani & Iranian Christians what they think of that symbol or have you merely assumed? You may be surprised.

    My time on the mission field revealed just how overblown such sentiment was. I attended a church that not only flew their national flag but were proud to fly an American one right beside it (sidenote: I almost got kissed by a grown man when he found out I was American, he was so grateful for what America had done in the world). Though their country was too tiny to contribute much to the world, they were still very proud of it; and could completely understand my love of country.

    In closing, a high-profile Iranian Christian, Saeed Abedini, is rotting for his Christian faith in an Iranian jail (a country which, unlike America, has a non-Christian state religion, which is a key difference here). Were he ever to return, do you believe he will feel alienated or comforted by a flag in an American church?

  • John McGinnis

    I’m going to have to say that Stephen Schutt nailed it. When I read the comment about Chick-fil-a and prop 8 it became clear that this article was somewhat of a hit piece.

    • http://www.affectedbytruth.com/ Steve Meister

      What’s a “hit piece” Josh? Never tried to write one, before. See my comment to Stephen, I actually think he missed the point.

  • Descriptive Grace

    Why do Calvinists hate America? Because every day it proves that Free Will exists, simply by existing. Because America recognizes in its founding documents that you have Free Will, therefore it is anathema to both the Calvinist and the Atheist determinists who believe ‘selfish genes’ and subatomic particles have predetermined all your actions.

    I don’t know why Diqus is not in sync with Google+ but the displayname should show my name: James Jordan.

  • Descriptive Grace

    “We can’t have the Christian flag subordinate because it’s our highest devotion.”

    What is the “Christian flag”? Never heard of it. Do Dever and Sproul mean their T4G flag? “Four friends. One Passion” it says on it. Who are these “Four friends”? Dever, Sproul, and who else? And why do they get to be so pre-eminently mentioned on a flag idolatrously called “the Christian flag”? Why should these four friends become “our highest devotion”??????

    –James Jordan

  • Descriptive Grace

    The Calvinist homosexual who wrote this article says “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.”

    Now. Now. If the “Christian” in Pakinstan is not against gay-marriage, like you Calvinist faggots are not, then he is no true Christian.

    Fact is, I have more in common with the guy standing in line behind me at Chic-fil-a supporting traditional marriage than I do with you Calvinist butt-bangers even if he is a Muslim: at least he isn’t a homosexual like you, Steve Meister.

    And I see you live in Sacramento. That combined with your comments about Prop 8 prove you’re in a booty-buddy relationship with another man in your little Calvinist “born that way” church down there.

    –James Jordan

  • http://descriptivegrace.wordpress.com/ James Jordan

    Maybe before you take the little spec of American flag out of our eye
    you should take the beam of sexual perversion out of your own, Steve
    Meister. God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.

  • drew

    I think what was clear to me is the understanding of the values and virtues of the two kingdoms. One is based on self perserverance (1 sam. 8 discribes this clearly), while the kingdom of God beliefs that we do not need to pick up arms to defend ourselves, that our existance is not dependant on our might, power, coersion, or strength. This was the cry of the prophet Isaiah when Israel wanted protection from Egypts chariots and armies.

    The Kingdom of this world (and country) pledges allegiance to a flag and country, we pray the LORDS pray, that they kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven (this is accomplished by following the model of our Lord, Jesus Christ, who was the embodiment of this statement).

    This country identifies you by where you were born, Christians bury ourselves in the death of Christ, and emerge a new creation (baptism), no one is born into the faith, but surrender into one mans death to unite with many.

    This country partakes in consumerism, an attitude that is never satisfied and allows looking to consume more, while Christians partake in communion, communsuming the body of Christ, thus becoming the body of Christ in this world (church), loving our enemy, caring for the poor, widow, orphan, and alien. This cycle is cyclical. We take from the body, only to become it, then to take from it again. It realises it’s need to refuel, not consume something fruitless that will not satisfy.

    When I began to understand how this world practices beliefs that are counter ot that of Christ, I realized I could not belong to both. This is by no means an anti-American rant. I just think that if Christians realized that you can change the world/country/community through other means than political, then they could be real agents of the Kingdom in this world. When the church is actually a church, a community living out sermon on the mount principles, they can change their community.

    • http://www.affectedbytruth.com/ Steve Meister

      Thanks, Drew, helpful thoughts.

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