A Plea to Take the American Flag Out of Corporate Worship

The presence of the American flag in the church sanctuary confuses, rather than clarifies, that God is the focus of corporate worship.

The flag communicates many things to many people, but it does not communicate the one thing needed:  Jesus Christ and him crucified.  Because the flag is a sign without an agreed upon ‘thing signified’ it obscures, distracts and may in fact be hindering people’s receptivity to the glorious good news of Christ. 

 

The presence of the American flag in worship is unhelpful at best and harmful at worst as it relates to the goal of worship, the identity of the church and the need of the lost.

The Goal of Worship

The picture of heavenly worship in Revelation 5 is clear: God’s people are gathered around the throne where the risen ‘lamb who was slain’ sits, and they worship Him.  In corporate worship God’s people dip their toes into this ocean of heavenly glory as they gather with one another to sing God’s praise with Christ as the focal point.  Our triune God, with the risen lamb on the throne, is, and should be, the exclusive goal, focus, alpha and the omega, of corporate worship.

The presence of the American flag confuses, rather than clarifies, that God is the focus of corporate worship.  It tempts us to shift our focus from honoring and showing gratitude to God alone to honoring and showing gratitude towards man.  It tempts us to shift our hope from ‘…the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God (Heb. 11:10),’ where we will one day be gathered round the throne, to a misplaced hope in the ephemeral kings and kingdoms of men.

The Identity of the Church

The identity of the church is ‘in Christ.’  You and I are in union with Christ first and every other title or calling, or way of conceiving of our identity, must be a distant second.  Being united to Christ and to his people does not obliterate distinctions (the glory of the earthly and heavenly church is not seen in one tongue, but many, not one nation, but every nation, not one ethnicity, but every ethnicity), but it makes them all secondary. I am thankful to be many things, an American, a husband, a father, a pastor, but my primary identity is ‘in Christ.’ When any of these identity markers or callings moves from secondary to primary position in my heart they move from being ‘good’ to being ‘God’ which makes them idols.

While the flag in worship may be to some a reminder of our missional context, for many it is an encouragement and a needless temptation to find our identity in our country, in some patriotic narrative, or in some mythos of manifest destiny or American exceptionalism, with ‘in Christ’ being relegated to a distant second.  This is a special temptation for those who have served in our country underneath that flag or for those who grew up with a blurred distinction between God and country.  While many are concerned ‘for the veterans’ by removing the flag, I would argue that the last thing our veterans need spiritually is to be tempted, in corporate worship of all places, to find their identity in their service to God rather than to find their identity in how God has served and saved them in Christ.

The identity of the church is also ‘under his Word.’  You and I, and the worship we are called to give to God are to be governed by God’s Word.  What God says he wants, we should labor to give.  This is as true for personal as it is for corporate worship.  As I search the New Testament Scriptures I can only find only two visible signs prescribed for the Church of Christ in corporate worship: bread given with a cup poured (the Lord’s Supper) and water baptism.  You could make an argument for the wisdom of having a cross as another ‘symbol’ that is publicly portrayed in the proclamation of the gospel, but Scripture prescribes no other symbols to be present in corporate worship.  I, for one, would rather have the Lord’s Supper and Baptism be the visible symbols our church associates with corporate worship than the symbols of an American flag or even the supposed ‘Christian flag,’ both of which were introduced in corporate worship in the late 19th and early 20th century (see Thomas Kidd’s article for more on the American flag in worship) and neither of which are commended nor commanded by Scripture for corporate worship.

The Need of the Lost

The lost need Christ.  The good news of Jesus Christ and him crucified is confused, conflated and at times contradicted by the presence of the American flag.  The reason this is the case is because the flag is a sign with no agreed upon ‘thing signified.’  For a vet with PTSD the flag is a painful reminder of lives lost or the moral compromise he felt he made in service to his country.  For an oppressed minority, a painful reminder of state-sanctioned racism.  For a Democrat, the ideals of Bernie or Hilary.  For a Republican, the ideals of Trump or some third party.  For another the flag represents the Christian (what they mean is ‘well-behaved’) nation of their youth.  For ‘joe neighbor,’ confirmation of their worst fear that ‘here’s another church with a political agenda.’  For our intentional students that come professing faith, instead of feeling ‘at home’ with us because we’re part of the church universal, the flag reminds them they are most definitely not at home.  For our international students and scholars (and we have many) who have not professed faith, when they see the flag they immediately assume we are under state ownership and control.  After all, in most countries without our freedoms, churches are required to fly their country flag as a demonstration of state regulation and control.

The flag communicates many things to many people, but it does not communicate the one thing needed:  Jesus Christ and him crucified.  Because the flag is a sign without an agreed upon ‘thing signified’ it obscures, distracts and may in fact be hindering people’s receptivity to the glorious good news of Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul describes Christian freedom as the freedom to give up our freedoms for the sake of the gospel.  It was not for the sake of political correctness that Paul ‘to the Jews became like a Jew to win the Jews,’ or ‘to those under the law as one not under the law,’ but for the sake of removing obstacles in the way of lost sinners hearing Christ preached.  The American flag in corporate worship is such an obstacle.  You are free to fly it in corporate worship but I would plead with you to give up that freedom so that the lost might have one less obstacle in their way, that the church might remember her primary identity as ‘in Christ’ and ‘under his Word,’ and that corporate worship would have God alone as it’s aim.

Joshua M. Knott is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Associate Pastor of Evangelical PCA in Newark, Del.