Flags in Church
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ministry_matters 2011 Jun 30 3:04PM
Some say they're a fitting acknowledgement of our freedom to worship; others say they send the wrong message about where our ultimate loyalty resides.
What's your take on national flags in churches? Does your church have an American flag in the sanctuary?
evajem 2011 Jul 1 10:57AM
This IS a sensitive subject, and I have some strong feelings about the subject. They have changed over the years, but I believe this is a result of asking good questions and a deepening concern to grow in faithfulness.
First questioin: Why are flags present in sanctuaries in the first place?
Obviously the Church got started in Jerusalem in the 1st century, in a different language, culture and setting. So when did American flags show up?
It's my understandling that the first time flags appeared in churches, even within the United States, is during the civil war. That's almost 100 years after the flag was even considered as a national symbol in 1777. It was during this time that churches displayed the flags in sanctuaries as a symbol of national loyalty even as the nation was divided against itself. Churces were not safe from destruction and the spoils of war during this time period, and during war people search for things to give meaning and justify our behavior. The placement was a reminder for many that there was purpose in their cause on both sides of theconflict, and it wasn't anarchy.
so, for my thinking, there are a couple of interesting points on this 1st question:
1) the church had existed for at least 1740 years without a U.S. flag in it.
2) the nation had existed for almost 100 years without a U.S. flag in it.
3) It's placement was a symbol of national loyalty in war time....so what is its place when we are not in war?
Next I raise the question that is actually primary for me, but may lay under the surface: What does God think about it? What does the bible say about the matter?
Well is it to trite to say that all nations are subject to God? I think there is a sense of pride by many in the U.S. that borders on touching arrogance and sinfulness. Many point to things like Roman13 and I Peter 2 as signs that the nation is a God ordained instrument and that to question our loyalty is to question God. The trouble I have with this is the fact that we don't use that same criteria for other nations, OR we assume that we don't stand under the same judgment and need for critique when we question whether a nation is faithful to the cause of the gospel, kingdom of God, and the witness of Jesus.
Romans 12 says that we are to leave vengeance to God, and we are to NEVER repay evil for evil, and we are to do good. Do we do these things to people that stand in oppostition or even on another divergent path to the United States? Do we have national conversations in a pluralistic society about Christian calling and virtue? That has not been my impression.
My experience as well has been one where the conversations or conflict over these questions have not been prayerful dialogue that invite: scripture, tradition, reason, experience and the Holy Spirit as partners in the conversation, but have rather been name calling and belittling speech in the larger culture wars of the past several decades.
so what does God think of this? I won't pretend to answer as the chief authority on the subject, but I will raise a few points:
1) our loyalty should first be to God in keeping with scripture: love God with ALL your heart soul mind and stength AND love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus even goes on to say in John 13 that we should love one another as he has loved us. This is our first and highest calling. Also, we should rightly divide what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar...and what Jesus is teaching us in these reflections. If we have given everything that is God's and made in his image to God first...then what is left over for Caesar? Also, I'm not sure that cooperation and honor toward the king/caesar/ presidents....is the same thing as allegiance and unquestioned following. Could it be that we are to be respectful to those that have not yet given their allegiance to Christ as those who are at once,created in the image of God, yet still not on the path of redemption as ones who are seeking to grow in his likeness?
2) When I think of the witness of scripture, I am reminded of people like: shadrach, meschach, and abednego, the message to Jonah, and supremely Jesus as ones who prayed for their enemies, cooperated or were respectful with foreign powers without indulging their ways or mission but rather kept the mission of God as their focus.
3) God is reconciling all things in heaven and earth to himself. National identity as a primary source of allegiance or pride, divides us from other nations and doesn't bring us together.
4) I come from a distinct theological tradtion that understands church a certain way, to be sure. But in general, I think our calling is to be the people of God as church, and not substitute that for nation. Isn't our nation, even from it's founding, been full of protestants, catholics, and many diverse denominations? Why do we think that even the founders of our nation were of one mind?
Finally, for the purposes of this blog, I heard an evocative phrase from the author John Meachem that said, "history is to a nation, what memory is to an individual". For those of us who have been touched by persons with alzheimers or dimensia, we know that memory loss is cruel and erodes our personhood. Well how do we consider this when we cherry pick from history or the bible rather than developing "our memory" and "remembering well"? So that when we have these conversations we aren't quoting pundits and national/world leaders who are coopting our memory for the purposes of motivation? If we spent the time, prayer and reflection on learning the words of Jesus and the tradition of the church, I don't know that we would not have a difference of opinion...but we could put aside alot of the trivial, belittling comments that are more the result of anxiety and fear than they are to do with where we've come from, where we are, and where we're going. Too many people approach questions like: are we a Christian Nation? and What place does a flag have in a Christian sanctuary? without a sense of exploring the past and discerning the future.
This would truly be helpful for us to move into the future together without having to repeat the things we have killed one another over in the past.
Peace in Christ.
Bob_R 2011 Jul 4 5:00AM
As evajem says, too often what we have to say on this subject has more to do with deeply held emotional attachments than with reasoned reflections on scripture and tradition. I want to admit up front that my own opinions are no less emotional and unreflective than anyone else's.
One way to approach this subject, it seems to me, is to remember the purpose of symbols in the sanctuary or worship space. Our worship is directed toward God; its intent is to offer our sense of gratitude, awe, and purpose to the one who created us. Sacred space--the worship sanctuary--exists to focus our hearts and minds on the worship of God. Whether it's a medieval cathedral whose architecture, stained glass, and statuary immerse our senses in the Christian story, or a plain New England congregational meeting house whose stark simplicity inspires a quiet reverence, every symbol in that space should point us toward the worship of God.
And here is where the problem with flags arise. A country's flag (ours or anyone else's) exists as a symbol of that nation's sovereignty and identity. Its purpose as a symbol is to draw the mind toward the allegiance one owes to one's country. Its presence in the worship sanctuary introduces a second, and competing, object toward which one's loyalty and devotion are directed.
All human beings struggle with balancing the different things that compete for their attention and loyalty. Work, family, hobbies, political parties, even sports teams--all these and so many other things want us to devote more of our time and attention to them. As Christians we seek to subsume all of these competing loyalties under our loyalty to God, to love all of these good things as part of our love of God who is the greatest good.
But worship is different. Here we seek to set aside all other thoughts, all other loyalties and attachments, and lift up our hearts to God alone. As Scripture tells us, God is a jealous God, which is simply another way of saying that the one to whom we owe everything deserves our full attention. Throughout the week we engage in the struggle to place all our competing objects of devotion under the sovereignty of God. During worship we set that struggle aside and attend only to God, offering our whole selves to our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
To introduce the symbol of one of our secondary loyalties into the worship space is to enter right back into that struggle, and hence to compromise our worship. Outside worship, devotion to country can be an expression of our devotion to God (it can be other things, too, but that's another story). When worship is taking place, however, reminders of our devotion to anything other than God, no matter how important, are objects of idolatry. Bring that flag into the sanctuary and that’s what you’ve made it.
So my advice to pastors and other church leaders is to feature the flag of their country, but do so somewhere other than the worship space. Whether it’s the fellowship hall or the pastor’s office, place it where it can be seen and appreciated–just don’t put it where worship will happen.
If you love that flag, don’t make people choose between it and God.
MarkAtChurch 2012 Jul 3 10:51AM
I think I understand the perspectives being presented; however, I think it's sad that we've raised a nation of people that think that everything around them demands their attention and some choice of "loyalty" between the items.
When I attend worship service, I am fully capable of focusing on God, His Son and His Spirit (or God's Son and God's Spirit, if you are distracted by my use of sex-based pronouns), and disregard my preferences to piano music as opposed to organ music, and my preferences to singing from a hymnal as opposed to trying to figure out the melody of some contemporary "music" displayed on the screens now prominantly displayed on either side of our cross.
Thank God that I am fully capable of focusing on my Heavenly Father without being distracted by the fact that I don't fully agree with the pronouncements of the United Methodist Book of Resolutions, otherwise my denomination would be losing another head to count.
edwhitejr 2012 Sep 4 11:58AM
Then the question becomes this: Is having the American flag in the sanctuary the hill upon which you are willing to die? Is leaving it or removing it of such importance that you are willing to place yourself in conflict with the congregation to impose your theological intrepretation of its presence? Is anyone else being distracted by its presence? Is it a real problem, or a preceived problem? Simply being theologically "right" is sometimes not enough.
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