Greetings in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Have you ever wondered why the American flag is so visible and prominent in our worship spaces. Although I love my country, and proudly served it for 31 years in the United States Navy I am one of a growing number of people who believe that our flag does NOT belong in our worship space. I am also one who believes that ever since Constantine was baptized in 313, we have been traveling down a slippery slope where we have become "the powers and principalities" that the Apostle Paul warns us about.
Now that I have hopefully gotten your attention, let me elaborate along with Robert Ratcliff who wrote an article on this subject. I think it is important to say that when churches display their country's flag in the sanctuary, it is because we want to say things that we need to say. I just believe we need to find another way to say them.
Why, you might ask? 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 during the other 167 hours of our week.
When we contemplate what symbols to place in the sanctuary, we do so with the intention that they contribute to the presence of God in our lives. One 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, candles, and the various Trinitarian symbols serve as visual and tactile reminders of God's presence in our midst. There is also the view, represented by the spare and beautifully simple Puritan meeting houses of New England which claim that all symbols-including crosses and the like-function only as distractions from the pure worship of a holy and transcendent God.
Please notice what is 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 represents a very specific reality: a particular sovereign nation and in our case a nation founded on an understanding of the divine but also free, tolerant and inclusive of others. However, 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, standing tall and proud, hands on my heart. Why? Because if we're allowing the flag to do its job, if we are honoring it the way we should, then it reminds 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.
When we place the flag in the worship space we have 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, might we be engaging in idolatry?
So when we place the flag in the sanctuary we are presenting two untenable options: either ignore the flag, and treat our 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. So maybe a third option is best: leave the flag out of the sanctuary.
Would love to hear your thoughts.
Blessings this week,