My wife and I recently were guests at a wedding. As we sat down in the church, we both immediately noticed a large American flag hanging on the left side of the front of the sanctuary. On the right side was a large Israeli flag. Both flags were draped boldly in front of worshipers. They weren’t hanging limply from flagpoles. They were unfurled in broad display. Their position in the sanctuary made me a little uncomfortable. It reminded me that I had even walked into a church once and saw a wooden cross with an American flag draped across it. That sight really bugged me.
Nearly every church I’ve ever been to in America has an American flag on display. It’s not limited to a particular denomination or type of church. Baptists, Methodists, Christian, Presbyterians; nearly all display them. It is so common that few of us have probably not even taken notice of them as we walk in the door. Some, who are reading this, will probably have to pause and think if their own church has one. We see them so often that we fail to even notice when they are present.
The fact that American flags are so common in churches may cause many to wonder why I am even raising the question. But, asking questions like this can make us think. And, thinking through an issue should never be a bad thing.
As we look at the question, we should remember that the early church did not fly an American flag; nor did any church prior to the 18th century. Furthermore, there are churches throughout the world that continue to gather regularly and who do not fly American flags. No Apostle ever commanded or even hinted at it. Therefore, we must assume that displaying American flags is not an essential part of Christianity.
On the other hand, it should be noted that the Bible does not forbid displaying an American (or any country’s) flag in a place where Christians gather to worship. Therefore, we may also conclude that flags in a worship setting are not necessarily forbidden.
So, why do we fly American flags in church? Most likely, they are displayed in our churches because Christians of this country love their country and are proud to be citizens. If it were only for that reason, then I don’t think there is anything wrong. However, I sometimes wonder if the reason for displaying our country’s emblem before worshipers doesn’t go beyond.
In the first few centuries of our faith, Christianity was more of an underground movement than anything else. It mostly drew to itself the downcast, poor, and common person. It often met quietly or in secret because it was not always viewed upon favorably by non-Christians. At times, it even became illegal to be a Christian. Gathering to worship during those times became a risky, dangerous thing.
In the early fourth century, Christianity saw a great change. Constantine, the Roman emperor, claimed to convert to Christianity. Not only did he stop persecution of Christians, but paved the way for Christianity to eventually be declared the official religion of Rome. Suddenly, Christianity became en vogue. It started to attract the rich and influential like never before.
The change in religious climate ushered in new attitudes. Not only did many in the church see the government as their friend, but any enemy of the state became an enemy of theirs. In the minds of many, citizenship with the state became mixed with citizenship in the church. Oftentimes, it became difficult to see where one ended and the other began. The church and state began holding hands in what became an odd and often disastrous union.
Fast-forward to the present. I fear that many in our country have adopted the same attitude as our Christian predecessors. We see the United States as the “land of the free.” And, rightly so. No other place allows such freedom of worship and expression. It is hard not to love our liberty. Our U.S. citizenship cost a lot and is sought after by many. Yet, I wonder if some see our national citizenship as mingled with the citizenship that is heavenly and from above (Phil. 3:20, Heb. 13:14 & 1 Peter 2:9).
America was founded by the pursuit of religious freedom, and upon Christian values. It has generally been friendly toward Christians, everywhere. For this reason, I believe, many in our country (and around the world) view America and Christianity as practically synonymous. They see America as our ally. Therefore, Christians feel a special allegiance to this country. America’s friends are our friends, America’s enemies are our enemies. Some see them so closely mingled that they will weave the cross with an American flag.
As much as I love this country and our freedoms, I also realize that the church does not need America in order to exist. It has existed and continues to exist in lands where Christianity is illegal, and where Christians are routinely tortured and killed. It lives in places where there are no religious freedoms. It thrives even in the most inhospitable religious climates.
America may be friendly toward the church, but America is not the church. Yes, the church enjoys the freedoms offered by this great country, however, the true church will gather even if those freedoms are removed. Showing respect for our great country is one thing, but assuming that Christianity and America are bound together is a far, far different thing. Keep in mind that the church is not limited by oceans or other boundaries. It permeates all societies and involves all races and all kinds of people. Its citizens are members of all lands. It has no allegiance to any particular country, and will exist when every land might fall. It is this heavenly country that I am a patriot; a citizen of above.
Maybe we should fly flags of every nation in our churches?