Monday, November 21, 2016

The American Flag in the Worship Service

* I was part of a church in which there was some controversy generated by the decision to remove the American flag from the worship area of the church.  I wrote the following to give my perspective.  Hopefully its reasoning and use of Scripture may be of help to others. (Note: The picture below was not from our church.)

1.     How will this controversy serve the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ?  After the discussions and decisions, will we love Jesus more?  Will we be more excited about the trans-national kingdom of God which is bigger than any one nation?  Will we have a greater commitment to unity and peace in the body of Christ?  Will we have a greater zeal for the lost who do not know Christ Jesus and are, therefore, under the wrath of God?  If controversy causes us to dig deeper into Scripture and to reason in a way that is more gospel-centered and Spirit-filled, then the controversy will be worth it.  If not, then we will have wasted this controversy—wherever the flags are placed.

2.     There are many things God wants us to do in worship: read the Scriptures, preach the Word, pray, confess our sins, sing, affirm our faith, bless one another with benedictions, give to one another for physical needs, participate in the Lord’s Table with purity and unity… these things we do in the name of the risen Savior, Jesus Christ.  Therefore, our worship services are Christian in nature—whatever flags may be present or not present.

3.     We are not given a specific pattern for a worship service or are we given specifics as to what the surrounding environment should look like in a worship service.  Therefore, there seems to be some freedom as what the surroundings can look like.  If we have the choice to decorate our surroundings for worship (and not all have this luxury) our decisions should be made on the basis of biblical principles.  Does the architecture and environment “speak of the gospel?”  For example, we should not purposefully adorned the walls of the sanctuary with a Nike “swoosh” logo—not because there is a specific verse that says not to do this.  Rather, such a logo would send the wrong message for those who are gathered for worship—we are gathered to worship Jesus as the church and not as a marketing demographic.  We do adorn the sanctuary with a cross because this is one of the central symbols of the love of God displayed in Jesus Christ.  We want to follow in Paul’s footsteps and “boast in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6.14).

4.     Architectural space is not simply neutral.  The Reformers recognized this.  The following is from Presbyterian theologian Bryan Chapell in his book Christ-Centered Worship:

Structures tell stories.  Martin Luther knew this when he designed the first Protestant church in Torgau, Germany.  Prior to the construction of this chapel for the castle of Luther’s protector, the Elector John Frederick I, Protestant services were held mainly in churches that were formerly Roman Catholic  The main architectural change that occurred when Protestants took control of such churches was the replacement of a cross on the spire of the church with a rooster, symbol of the new dawn of the Reformation.  And it was not rare in the competing tides of Reformation times that if Roman Catholic forces returned to power, they would replace the rooster with another cross.

Each faith movement signaled its control by the changed “hood ornament” most obvious to all in the town or region, but the basic architecture of the church changed little.  Thus, when Luther had the opportunity to design a church that would reflect the new perspectives of the Reformation, he made sure that the basic structure of the church would convey the gospel story he wanted to tell.  No structural change would have been more obvious to sixteenth-century worshippers than the placement of the pulpit. In deliberate contrast with the Roman Catholic practice of placing the pulpit at the front of the congregation, Luther arranged for the pastor to preach among the people.  The pulpit was at the center of the long wall of the worship sanctuary.  In addition, the altar, while still located at the front of the church, was no longer separated from the people by screens that had designated sacred space for clergy alone.

Luther preached “the priesthood of believers,” and his structures conveyed the same message.  The placement of the pulpit silently explained that the preacher was not more holy than the people.  He ministered among them because all were fulfilling holy callings as they served God in their occupations for which he had gifted them.  The architecture of the altar “said” there was no need for priestly intercession or separation, since everyone had equal and immediate access to God.  The early Calvinistic churches of the French Reformation pushed the idea further by putting the pulpit in the center of a circled congregation.  This structure not only symbolized the priesthood of believers, but also asserted the centrality of the Word in Christian worship.

I do not mention these architectural details in order to mandate designs for church architecture.  In fact, the various ways in which the Reformers expressed their views can also argue for the liberties in church architecture that modern Christians have obviously exercised.  But such freedom is best applied when we have some sense of the story we are trying to tell, and this requires understanding our place in God’s unfolding plan for his Church.[1]

Again, the issue, as Chapell states, is not slavishly following Luther or Calvin but, rather, to consider what elements of the gospel-story are we attempting to communicate with our architectural space.  What are we saying with the presence of the American flag?  What are we communicating by its absence?  Does the gospel message shape our practice?  What biblical principles are we attempting to use in our decision-making process.

5.     Reformed Pastor Douglas Wilson writes:

If the church places an American flag in the front of the sanctuary, this becomes part of our sacred architecture, and therefore says something.  It becomes a shaping influence.  Important questions should come immediately to mind: What is this saying?  And is it scriptural?  It should not be too much to ask for some kind of scriptural agreement with what we are saying before we say it.  Placing a flag in the sanctuary has many possible implications.  It could convey the idea that we claim some sort of ‘favored nation’ status.  It could imply we believe that the claims of Caesar extend into every space, including sacred spaces.  It could imply that our version of Christianity is similar to some kind of syncretistic ‘God and country’ religion, where patriotism and religion are one and the same.[2]

What is the biblical or theological argument for including the American flag in a worship service space?  What biblical principles are being upheld by the presence of the American flag?

6.     One of God’s goals in Christ Jesus is to transcend ethnic, cultural, and national distinctions.  Consider Ephesians 2.14-16

For he himself [Christ] is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in his flesh the enmity, which is the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in himself he might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.

Consider Colossians 3.11 which speaks of the renewal in Christ Jesus, “a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.”  One Bible commentator has written of this verse:

In contrast to these artificial, earthly distinctions, Paul said, “Christ is all, and in all” (3:11b).  The new distinction is Christian/non-Christian, rather than nationality, race, religious background, or economic distinctions.[3]

7.     The Old Testament as well speaks to this issue of the eventual blessings of the nations—all of them—as they participate in the reign and rule of God (Genesis 12.3; Psalm 22.27; 117.1-2; Isaiah 2.1-4).  Isaiah 19.24-25 is an especially clear passage which speaks of how the people of God will no longer be just Israel but will also encompass even Israel’s enemies (Egypt and Assyria) on equal footing.  Christopher Wright, an evangelical Old Testament scholar, has written:

The identity of Israel will be merged with that of Egypt and Assyria.  In case the implications of verse 24 was not clear enough, the prophet makes is unambiguous (not to mention scandalous) by applying to Egypt and Assyria descriptions that hitherto could only have been said about Israel…The shock of reading ‘Egypt’ immediately after ‘my people’ (instead of the expected Israel) and of putting Israel third on the list is palpable.  Yet there it is.  The archenemies of Israel will be absorbed into the identity, titles, and privileges of Israel and share in the Abrahamic blessing of the living God, YHWH.[4]

8.     Another Old Testament passage to consider is Isaiah 56.7

Even those I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer.  Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.

The context of this prophecy is about the inclusion of “foreigners” (Isaiah 56.3, 6) in the people of God.  Even those formerly excluded from the worship of God from among the “peoples” will be granted access.  Jesus takes this passage very seriously.  He quotes this passage when he is clearing out the temple (Mark 11.17).  So in the New Covenant where is the “house” of the Lord?  The church is God’s temple, God’s building (1 Corinthians 3.9; Ephesians 3.19-23; 1 Peter 2.5).  The gathered church in the New Covenant should reflect this universal reality of God’s kingdom.  His people are not isolated to one nation—his kingdom is trans-cultural and includes all the peoples.  He still desires that his house be a house of prayer for all the peoples.

9.     New Testament scholar Greg Beale writes regarding the heavenly worship scenes in Revelation chapters 4 and 5:

John intended the readers to see what is told of in the vision [Rev. 4-5] as a heavenly pattern that the Church is to reflect in its worship rather than the other way around (just as the heavenly pattern of the tabernacle shown to Moses on the mountain was to be copied by Israel in the construction of their own tabernacle)[5]

It is good to remember that this heavenly vision of worship stresses the international character of God’s people who have been purchased by the blood of the Lamb

Worthy are you to take the book and to break its seals; for you were slain, and purchased for God with your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.  (Revelation 5.9)

10. In light of all this above our worship space ought to reflect and not contradict this international focus of the people of God. To enter into the sanctuary without the American flag symbolizes that we worship as the trans-national Church—the international people of God bought by the blood of Jesus.  Our worship space does not send mixed signals in this regard.  Rather, our architectural space devoted specifically for corporate worship conveys a significant gospel-truth in this regard—the church of Jesus is universal, for all peoples. 

11. However much we may love our country and its flag, our allegiance and love for our Savior, Jesus Christ should so far exceed it that our love for Jesus makes all other loves pale in comparison.  Consider how Paul speaks of his nationality and upbringing in Philippians 3.5-6.  He can point to a proud heritage as being of the nation of Israel and especially of the tribe of Benjamin.  He was a “Hebrew of Hebrews”; a Pharisee full of zeal.  And yet when Paul begins to consider Jesus Christ is speaks of the “surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” and counts everything else as “rubbish.”[6]  Paul did not hesitate to use his Roman citizenship when it helped further the gospel message (Acts 16.36-40; 22.25-29).  He would even use his background as a Pharisee as credentials to further the gospel (Acts 23.6-9).  But over all these allegiances Paul’s first allegiance and love was to Christ.  This should be our first allegiance and love.

12. Good Christian men and women can disagree on the issue of placing the American flag in a worship sanctuary.  This disagreement, however, should not disrupt the unity in the body of Christ.  Ephesians 4.1-3 is still the Word of God and ought to be heeded as we seek to put on its commanded virtues:

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

13. Differences of opinion on matters such as these should be placed in the category of Romans 14.  In Romans 14 the issue was one of eating meat or not eating meat.  Also, there were those upholding special religious days and others treated all days equally.  Paul’s counsel is instructive for us:

            One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.
            He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.
                    For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
             For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
             But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.
                                     For it is written,
As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me,
And every tongue shall give praise to God.”
                                     So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.

In Romans 14.17 Paul reminds us what are some of the central values that should characterize our lives:

…for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

14. We should always keep in mind the distinction between God’s word and human tradition.  Human tradition is not necessarily bad or inappropriate.  But it becomes a stumbling block to truth when it is elevated to the position of equality with God’s word.  This was part of the failure of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time.  Mark 7.1-13 is crucial reading in this regard.  I want to write very carefully here so as not to be misunderstood.  I am not saying that those who want to have an American flag in the sanctuary are evil Pharisees.  I am saying that the presence of an American flag in a worship sanctuary is a tradition—there is no specific command to have such a flag in our worship service.  It may be a good tradition that serves biblical purposes—even if that has yet to be established or articulated.  But allegiance to this tradition should not over-ride the very clear commands of Scripture to love one another and pursue unity in the body of Christ.  When our allegiance to human traditions—even good ones—trumps the Word of God then that human tradition rightly falls under the censure of Jesus’ words in Mark 7.8—“neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”

     [1] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2009), 15-16—bold-face added.
     [2] Christianity Today July 5, 2012.
     [3] Richard R. Melick, Jr. Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (NAC; Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Pess, 1991), 298.
     [4] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2006), 493.  Wright adds: “It is very possible that his triple expression of the inclusion of the Gentiles within the identity and titles of Israel (as coheirs, a co-body, and cosharers with Israel) in Ephesians 3:6 owes something to this verse in Isaiah.”
     [5] Quoted in Jeffrey J. Meyers, The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2003), 134.
     [6] The Greek word translated “rubbish” in the NASB is a very graphic word.  “This is harsh language.  [Skubala] means ‘excrement’ or in some contexts refers to the parts of the carcass of an animal that are unusable.” Jerry L. Sumney, Philippians: A Greek Student’s Intermediate Reader (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2007), 78-79.