Sunday, July 2, 2017

Flags in Church. . . yes or no?

No less than Christianity Today has published an article saying that the American flag does not belong within the sanctuary of a Christian Church in the US.  A Christian church has absolutely no business displaying a national flag in the sanctuary, at least not as it is commonly done. The church born at Pentecost was a reversal of Babel, not a doubling down on the fragmentation of Babel.

Another author put it this way: 
I don’t think any (or many) churches have bad motives in placing a flag on the stage where we worship God, but this shouldn’t be grounds for us to refrain from rising up and forcefully questioning the practice in our own congregations. As Jesus followers, we must lovingly call our own people back from the edges of culture and remind them of our citizenship in God’s other-worldly Kingdom, encouraging them to give this radical new Kingdom their undivided loyalty.
Most of all, we should remind people that God is holy, and the space where we worship him should be kept holy as well– which means violent symbols of secular empires should not share the same stage where the Prince of Peace is worshiped.
So is it time to remove the flag from the church sanctuary?
Yes. Yes it is.
 The Wisconsin Synod has weighed in on the issue as well:  “Some churches like to include the national, Christian, and denominational flags in the chancel.  While many Lutheran congregations have displayed flags of one sort or another, building committees ought to carefully analyze this tradition.  Altar, pulpit, and font ‘all point to Christ,’ while national flags ‘speak not of Christ, but of the nation’ [Brugginck and Droppers, Christ and Architecture, pp. 250ff].  Especially in an age when so many Christian churches confuse the separate roles of church and state, it may be wise to place national flags in the narthex rather than in the chancel.  The use of the Christian flag may promote an imprecise view of the church and false ecumenism besides.

The LCMS gives some context to the appearance of the flag in the chancel:  "To the best of my knowledge, the U.S. flag began appearing in our churches in response to two things: the desire to express an unquestioned loyalty as U.S. citizens (a reaction to WWI sentiment) and the growing sacralization of the flag in U.S. culture. In the history of my home congregation (Immanuel, Bristol, CT), the story of the responses to both WWI and WWII is given in some detail. However, the picture of the church after the renovation in 1948 does not show a flag. There was a flag on the grounds between the church and the school, and it was raised and lowered with considerable ceremony when school was in session. I think that is one response evident in many congregations: we could show our loyalty in many ways without placing the flag in the church; other congregations seem to have brought it into the building itself, with great debate about the proper location (nave, chancel, narthex, etc.)." 

Undoubtedly this is a matter that evokes emotion and strong feelings on both sides.  However, if the point is made that this is a patriotic gesture, it would do well for us to remember that as the Church we demonstrate our relationship to the nation better in our role as intercessors than by including a flag among the chancel appointments.  What I mean to say is this.  Just like a checkbook (or bank register) demonstrates the values and priorities we attach to things, so does the diptych (a list of names of the living and departed that are commemorated by the parish during the Divine Liturgy). Our prayer list demonstrates our patriotism in the most profound way we know how -- bringing to the Lord the most important concerns of His people.  These include, prominently, our nation but not only our nation but the oppressed everywhere, the cause of peace, and the freedom of all Christians to worship unhindered by fear or terror.  We pray by name for our President, Governor, Mayor, etc... and for all who make, administer, and judge our laws.  We pray for those who enforce them and for the prisoners judged guilty of them.  We pray that unjust laws would be overturned (abortion, for example).  Our patriotism on Sunday morning is most profoundly demonstrated not by patriotic music or pledge or color guard or flag but by the earnest prayers of God's people for our nation, our citizens, our leaders, our laws, justice, and the cause of virtue.  Unless we are doing this, nothing else we do out of patriotic feeling really matters.

6 comments:

Ted Badje said...

The United States is unique in its history in granting religious freedom. I have no problem with the flag being in the narthex. You are right, Pastor, to emphasize prayers for our country.

Carl Vehse said...

The choice of where to display the American flag in the building of an LCMS church becomes more problematic when LCMS leadership supports (and is on the board of directors of) an organization such as LIaRS that contributes toward the destruction of the country represented by the flag.

John Joseph Flanagan said...

It does not reflect poorly on the congregation's patriotism to refrain from having a US flag on the church premises. The church represents the higher kingdom, the Kingdom of God, where our first loyalty must lie. Would it have been proper for early Christian churches in Rome to set up a statue of Constantine or a replica of the Roman Eagles in the church foyer or behind the altar? Was it right that some churches in Germany hung a portrait of the Fuhrer and flew a Nazi flag outside the church entrance? Governments come and go, as nations rise and fall. If we are Christians, we must refrain from making our churches symbols of any earthly government. Having said this, no one should question the willingness of Christians to be good citizens and serve and protect the nation of which they are part. However, this service is not unconditional should their country engage in practices or hold values contrary to our faith, beliefs, and convictions.

Kirk Skeptic said...

The Red Cinese government has recently mandated that all churches display the national flag in their sanctuaries. ISTM the communists have a better understanding of this matter than too many Lutherans.

Ken said...

I don't have a big problem with the flag being in the sanctuary. I don't believe, however, that it should be in the chancel, up by the altar. The flag is the symbol of the people, and the people are there. But the chancel, where the altar is, is full of symbols of God himself, and while it is true, as we recite in the Pledge of Allegiance, that we are one nation UNDER God, the nation must not be identified WITH God. The chancel, and within it the altar, are where the elements of the Sacrament of Communion, the Lord's Supper, are consecrated, and at the chancel's rail the Sacrament is given to the people. To have the flag in the chancel is like having it in the pulpit, from which God's Word is proclaimed. The flag is no part of the means of grace.

Paul said...

A piece from a few years ago that is always worth returning to...


On Flags in the Sanctuary