Is it time to remove the flag from the church sanctuary?

Sep 17, 2014 by

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If one were to walk into a church in the United States, it’s far more likely than not that somewhere on the stage in the sanctuary, there will be a U.S. flag. This tradition is one that spans across a wide variety of faith traditions, from Catholic to Evangelical, mainline, etc., and is not limited to a certain group of people.

The practice of displaying an American flag in church sanctuaries seems to be widespread and for the most part, completely unchallenged by the average church member. As one who studies the intersection of faith and culture, I have found over time that culture has a way of creeping into our faith slowly and undetected. As a result, we often don’t question it because we’re not even aware that such a blending is taking place. Given enough time unnoticed, such practices become firm traditions where questioning such traditions is no longer permitted without being ostracized by the group at large.

Displaying the American flag in the church sanctuary is one of those issues I see which has slowly crept in over time, and has now become a firm tradition for many churches. For those of us on the journey to follow a more counter-cultural Jesus, I think it’s time we start asking our churches: “is it time for us to remove the flag from the church sanctuary?”

My answer is an overwhelming “yes, it is,” and I hope that others will begin questioning this practice as well. Here are a few reasons why it is time:
The American flag stands for something other than God’s Kingdom Jesus came to build.

As Jesus followers, we’re supposed to be 100 percent all in on building God’s radical Kingdom that Jesus spoke so often about. Church should be a place where we come and worship the one who invited us to build this Kingdom and we should not be polluting our worship by mixing symbols from violent, earthly empires. Church should be a place where we focus on God’s kingdom as we worship the one who is Lord over all of it.

It doesn’t exactly capture scripture’s call for us to live as “immigrants” and “exiles.”

We’re called to live as immigrants and exiles, people who have their citizenship not in the empires of this world, but only in God’s Kingdom. The American flag is a distraction from our identities as exiles with citizenship elsewhere, and sends the message that one can be a loyal citizen of both kingdom and empire all at the same time, when such a shared loyalty to complete opposites is impossible. Church should be a place where we remind people that Jesus wants all of our devotion and loyalty, and we should refrain from sending the message that such a loyalty can be shared with anything else — including country.

The place where we worship God should be holy and sacred.

When I look at the historic narrative in scripture and how our spiritual ancestors viewed God’s holiness, I see two opposite approaches to spaces of worship. In the Old Testament, we find a space of worship that was considered such a holy place that priests tied a rope around their ankle or waist before entering. It was believed that God was so holy, a priest whose sins had not been properly atoned for would drop dead in God’s presence — and would need to be pulled out by the rope. In the time of Jesus, we see the Savior himself chase out the money changers because a holy place was being polluted by other activities. The place where God was worshiped, according to our ancestors and Jesus himself, was to be kept holy.

We often forget what the word holy really means, always thinking in terms of “perfection,” when perhaps a better understanding is “set apart.” God himself is holy — set apart from anything else in the universe. As followers of Christ, the revealed image of God, we are called to be holy as well — set apart from the culture around us. As such, our spaces of worship should be set apart as well — reserved for God, and God only.

When we place the U.S. flag on the stage in the church sanctuary, we declare that our spaces of worship — and the people within them — aren’t really “set apart” (holy) at all. Instead, it sends the message that the space is set aside for God and something else. Intended or not, we give to others what should be set apart for God alone, and this is anything but “holy.”

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.

Ben Corey, a speaker and minister from Auburn, Maine, is the author of Undiluted. This first appeared on his blog, Formerly Fundie, where he discusses the intersection of faith and culture from a progressive/emergent/neo-anabaptist vantage point.

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