Should the Flag be in the Church?

This question is utterly about one theological issue: ecclesiology, i.e., the theology of the function or role of the Church. The Church is full of symbols: the cross, the baptistery, the seasonal colors, etc. Moreover, for most American churches, it also contains another symbol, the American flag. It is not a small issue for churches to decide if the American flag should occupy the same level of symbolic significance as the other symbols in the Church (i.e., be placed alongside them).

Though the Church was independent of (suppressed and oppressed by) the State for the first three centuries, from Constantine (4th cent.) on the Church exercised an enormous amount of influence in civic issues. For centuries the Roman and Orthodox Churches held enormous sway over the various governments across the European landscape. The Roman Catholic Church has changed its position through the years, but has typically held to the separation of the Church and State in modern times. The recent position of Roman Catholics is that they are to be firmly divided. Pope Benedict XVI said in October, 2008:

She [the Church] carries out this mission fully aware of the respective autonomy and competence of Church and State. Indeed, we may say that the distinction between religion and politics is a specific achievement of Christianity and one of its fundamental historical and cultural contributions.

When the Protestants broke off from "Mother Church" in the 16th cent., they took with them the same mentality: the Church should, in fact, be the foundation of the State (usually predicated upon the imagery used in Augustine's City of God, written in the 5th cent.). Lest we forget, Jean Cauvin (John Calvin) was brought to Geneva in the mid-16th cent. to help establish a (better) Christian government (cf. Mohammed's trek to Medina in the 6th cent.).

But, there were some really odd-balls. They were called "Anabaptists." Anabaptists were hated by Protestants, their own "kindred," among other things, because they insisted on re-baptizing adults (hence, "believer's baptism") and the absolute separation of Church and State. They are probably the spiritual antecedents of "modern" Baptists (like Smyth and Helwys in the 17th cent.). In other words, if you're Baptist or similar to Baptist, you have a long tradition of absolute separation. The Anabaptists were pacifists. They could not conceive of the Church having any close relationship with the State. Why? Because the Church and State held competing worldviews, competing values, competing destinations.

When we walk into a church today, we are struck by powerful theological symbols. The cross represents the atoning death of Jesus; the baptistery represents the death and resurrection of Jesus in the water and our unification with Him in that event; the pulpit represents the proclamation of the Word of God, and so forth.

Then, look a little to the left or right and you'll see the flag, the symbol of the nation of the United States of America. This symbol can stand for freedom and a democratic republic. It can also stand for enormous corruption and devastation. It doesn't really matter what it stands for. What matters is whether or not this symbol should be present inside of the Church, since it is NOT a symbol from within the tradition of the Church.

When is the last time you celebrated Easter at your local courthouse? What about Christmas? No? Never? Why not? Have you ever celebrated Lent at your mayor or governor's office? No? Why not?

It would never occur to us to celebrate a Christian event in a location that has no Christian significance because those events are only significant within a Church. The exact same could be said of why we do not hold Passion plays at a courthouse. That event has no business in a courthouse, and the judges would concur. And they would be right.

The American flag should absolutely not be placed within any Church in the USA. We should hold our symbols so sacred, so significant, that only Christian symbols should enter into our sacred space or be directed by our ministers.

The exact same is true of civic events (e.g., July 4th events) at churches. If we don't have Passion plays at the Mayor's office -- and we would never do that -- then we should not have a service "recognizing our troops" in the sanctuary.

Why not have the American flag, a symbol on its best days for something good, next to other "good things" at Church? Then let's bring in any symbol of "good" -- say, for example, Great Britain's flag. No? Because we don't live there? Ok, why not Wal-Mart or McDonald's signs? They give millions of dollars every year to various causes. Even still, let's put more "Americanana" in the Church: let's put some Elvis and Michael Jackson tunes in the hymnal (or Powerpoint slides; though, I must admit that I would prefer this to the Chris Tomlin pablum that I'm forced to endure each week).

Are these ideas really so silly? Why? We have seen the flag in the Church for so long in the USA that we think that its symbolism is just as equal in status as the cross. And when this happens for the disciples of Jesus Christ, our devotion is most certainly split.

This argument is not about whether or not American Christians should "obey the government." I've already written on this issue elsewhere ( The issue is whether or not patriotic symbols or activities have a place in the life of the Church. And they have none. None at all.

Am I thankful for what the troops have done in our protection throughout our nation's history? Of course I am. Does this mean that I need to spend one second of time within the Church recognizing them in a special ceremony? Absolutely not. I have never, in 31 years of Church involvement, recognized teachers, doctors, ministers, chaplains, nurses, plumbers, construction workers, or the rest of the workforce in this country. And if we did, the same critique would apply.

There needs to be one place and one time, at least each week, where the boundary lines between the work of the Kingdom of God and the work of human nations are clear and distinguished. Christians should be about the work of transforming our nations, for certain. A chief component of Paul's declaration to the Gentiles in the first century was that Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord and that eventually, "every knee would bow" just at the mention of His name (Phil 2:10, quoting a privilege accorded only to God in Isaiah 45:23; cf. Rom 14:11). The same Rome who is to be heeded in Romans 13 is the same Rome who is the Beast, fueled by Satan, in Revelation.

I'll be watching fireworks tonight. I'll say a prayer for some friends of mine who are serving, this very day, on the other side of the planet (thanks Matt Weathers!). I'm thankful that I live in this great country and I'm thankful for the people who came before who made certain that I didn't have to live under a Nazi regime.

Yet, I will not be saluting the flag tomorrow in church. I will not sing patriotic songs in church. There are some things that are just too sacred. There are some places where I will only perform certain acts because I believe the presence of God is most attentive.

So, what's the point of this blog? It's simple: tomorrow morning, run down to the sanctuary, grab the flag, run hurriedly to the nearest courthouse (never letting it rub the ground), and leave it. Then, tell the Pastor and Music minister that there will be no patriotism today in church, only the Kingdom of God.

I know. I dream. . . but it's a good dream. And one worth doing something about.