Proving that my grandfather was right when he told me I don’t have the sense God gave baby chickens, I’d like to say a few words on the slightly controversial subject of flags in the sanctuary. Three words, to be precise: take them out. Or, leave them out. Whichever you prefer.
Having perhaps won that bid for your attention, allow me to elaborate. Many churches believe that displaying the American and Christian flags in the sanctuary honors both God and our country, placing love of country within the context of love of God. Flags in the sanctuary can also represent the freedom we enjoy to worship as we feel led, and they can help us remember those who died in defense of that and our other freedoms. All of these are unequivocally good and worthy goals. I want to be entirely clear on that point: when Christians display their country’s flag in the sanctuary, it is because they want to say things that we as Christians need to say.
We just need to find another way to say them.
Why? Because the sanctuary is where worship takes place, and we need to remember the reason we come together for Christian worship in the first place. Worship is that moment when we devote our whole selves to God, when we set aside the distractions of the week and focus our attention solely on God. For that period we seek God and God alone, forgetting all the other things that compromise our mindfulness of God’s presence the rest of our time.
When we decide what symbols to place in the sanctuary, we ask whether they will contribute to that mindfulness. Actually, the church has had a majority and a minority opinion on this question. The majority point of view—embodied in the great Gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe—says that we place symbols of Christian faith in the sanctuary to help focus our minds and hearts on God. Elements like crosses, doves, and the various Trinitarian symbols serve as visual and tactile reminders of God’s presence in our midst. The minority view, represented by the spare and beautifully simple Puritan meeting houses of New England, claims that all symbols—including crosses and the like—function only as distractions from the pure worship of a holy and transcendent God.
Notice what’s missing from both of these perspectives? Symbols that point to something other than God. If the purpose of worship is to devote our minds and hearts to God alone, and the only purpose of symbols in the sanctuary is to help focus us on that task, then a symbol that points to a reality other than the divine is going to defeat the purpose of worship. The U.S. flag (or that of any country) represents a very specific reality: a particular sovereign nation. However much the history of that nation has contributed to our freedom to worship God, the fact remains that God is God, and the nation to which the flag points is not. And when it comes to worship, there are only two realities: God, and everything else. In worship, only God counts.
Have you ever had an emotional experience that involved the flag? I have. I get choked up all the time at events honoring our country and its heritage. Present the colors and play the national anthem and I’ll be there with you, every time. Why? Because if we’re allowing the flag to do its job, if we are honoring it the way we should, then it’s going to remind us of our love of and loyalty toward our country. I don’t know about you, but I have to respond to the flag that way; I can’t treat it as an object of indifference.
And when the flag fulfills that purpose during worship? In so doing, it has placed a competing loyalty alongside our devotion to God during the one time when all such loyalties should be set aside. The Bible has a word for this: idolatry. God, as we know from the Old Testament, is a jealous God–meaning that having gone to the trouble of creating us and redeeming us, God considers it reasonable to expect our full devotion. If, during worship, we lift our hearts up to anything that is not God, no matter how worthy, we are engaging in idolatry.
So placing the flag in the sanctuary presents us with two untenable options: either ignore the flag, and treat your country with disrespect; or honor the flag and commit an act of idolatry. I’m sorry, but this is not one of those times when we can have it both ways. The only good option is the third one: leave the flag out of the sanctuary.
If we love that flag, we won’t make people choose between it and God.