Almost a decade ago, we removed the American flag from the sanctuary of the church I was pastoring. I don’t remember why. It was probably a part of decorating for Advent. But it got put in such a safe place that we didn’t know where it was for several years. It eventually showed up during a massive clean-out, but those few years it was as if it didn’t exist.
It took almost two years for people to notice that it was gone. But when they did notice, a World War II veteran asked to have it back. And that raised a question for me: Is it appropriate for there to be a national flag in a Christian church?
I worshiped in eight different churches when I lived in Canada. Not one had a Canadian flag displayed in it. And during a mission trip to Mexico, our team worshiped in two churches, neither of which had a Mexican flag on display. Most churches I’ve been in in the United States don’t either. But there are some that do. Ours had been one of those that do.
I understand the desire to honor the flag.
One of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry, has these lines in one of his poems: “Denounce the government and embrace the flag. Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands.”
We don’t always agree with our government; in fact, Americans take pride in the liberty we have to vocally and vehemently disagree with those in power. So, Berry distinguishes vocal disagreement with the actions and policies of our government from a deeper patriotism that ties the flag to a love of the idea of what America really is at heart.
Too often, we divide ourselves into “flag wavers” who blindly follow the government and “flag burners” who blindly reject the idea of America. But it’s far more complicated than those two options.
We live in a wonderful country that has done some absolutely heroic things and some absolutely horrific things in the past. We denounce the horrific, while embracing the symbol of the heroic, the flag.
So, the flag is an important symbol. But should it be raised in a church building? Yes, it should fly over public schools, police stations, legislative buildings, post offices, fire stations, veteran’s associations, and so on. Those all have close ties with the government and the idea of what it means to be American.
But what about those churches in Canada and Mexico? Should they have had their national flags on display? Would it have been appropriate for churches in the Soviet Union or even Nazi Germany to fly their national flags in the place where we proclaim Jesus is Lord? I know those last two are extremes and I definitely do not associate our nation with those, but if it wasn’t appropriate to fly those flags in those churches, why would it be appropriate for us to fly our flag in our churches?
The most patriotic city in the Roman empire at the time of the New Testament was Philippi. After the battle of Actium, the final battle of the civil war between Antony and Octavian (who later became Caesar Augustus), Octavian had to decide what to do with the losing army. Instead of punishing them for standing against him, he gave them all veteran status, gave them full Roman citizenship (something only 10% of the empire had), and land in the nearby city of Philippi. Instead of being dishonored losers, they were honored Roman citizens. And because of that, they were fiercely patriotic.
Therefore, it comes as something of a shock to read in the book of Philippians these words by the apostle Paul to the Christians in that city: “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). By the way, the terms kyrios (Lord) and soter (Savior) were two titles Caesar gave himself. What Paul is doing is reminding the Philippian Christians that Jesus is their new king and heaven their new country.
Christians have a new citizenship and a new patriotism.
And yet the Philippians still retained citizenship in the Roman empire, just as I do in the United States. And throughout Scripture, we see God’s people called on to be good citizens of the nations they find themselves a part of — even bad ones, even ones they’ve found themselves forcefully exiled into. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon is so powerful.
“This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters … Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper’” (Jer. 29:4-7).
That was a hard letter for the exiles to receive. They wanted to hate Babylon. They wanted to pray for its destruction. They wanted to pack up and leave, to head back to Jerusalem.
We’ve got Roman “flag wavers” in Philippi and exiled “flag burners” in Babylon. To the Philippian flag wavers, Paul writes that our citizenship and loyalty are elsewhere, with Jesus. To the flag burners in Babylon, Jeremiah writes that we should settle down and pray for the peace of the city/nation God has brought us to.
We followers of Jesus are like my son, Emett. He is a dual citizen, having been born in Canada to American parents. He has two countries. And so do we.
Christians in America are dual citizens. We are Americans who love our country dearly but whose truest citizenship is in heaven and who pledge allegiance only to Jesus.
So, back to our initial question: Is it appropriate to have a national flag flown in our church building? Here’s my thought. The sanctuary is where we proclaim Jesus alone as our Lord. Having an American flag flying in a place where we pledge allegiance to Jesus communicates something else to me.
Case in point: A few years ago, a Swiss teenager was living with us for a couple months and accompanied us as we visited another church while on vacation. It was Veterans Day and the sanctuary was festooned with American flags. They rippled in the wind on two large screens. They adorned flower arrangements.
During the service, the boy leaned over to me and asked, “Why are they worshipping the flag?”
It was a fair and revealing question, because the flag had taken pride of place during our worship.
But having an American flag anywhere else in the building — anywhere not devoted to worship — seems appropriate.
When we finally found the flag in my former church, we put it in our prayer chapel and found it very appropriate and helpful. Not just in Jeremiah 29, but elsewhere in Scripture we are called on to pray for our nation and those in authority over us as public servants. It’s one of the biblical commands that I continually forget to obey. So, having that reminder and call in our prayer chapel was helpful to me.
So, yes, the flag has a place in church, because it has a place in the lives of us as Christians who live in a particular country where God in his wisdom has placed us. We are to love and pray for our neighbors and the civil servants who govern us, especially when we are at odds with them. But symbols are powerful and putting a flag in a place of honor during worship comes dangerously close to the idolatry of nation that Karl Barth denounced in the Barmen Declaration, having watched the far too cozy relationship between the German church and the Nazi regime.
We need to retain the tension of our dual citizenship.
When the governing of Jesus and the governing of our local and temporary human leaders are at odds, our allegiance to Jesus always comes first. Because of this, many human regimes have found Christians to be subversive and dangerous to their rule. We are. And we must always be so.
Loving and prayerful as Americans? Yes. Cozy in our country? Never.