Flags and Crosses

(Note: This is a reuse of material from another blog of mine. I still find it timely.)

The period around July 4th is a time when America demonstrates just how different it is from most other First World countries. Lots of flag-waving, copious amounts of fireworks, people trying their hand at grilling large quantities of ground up meat and put back together in various forms, and churches holding patriotic celebrations in their sanctuaries.

This last is, to my admittedly limited knowledge, unique among First World nations, mostly for its relative ubiquity and its relative blatant tendencies towards nationalism. I’m not sure what churches in Norway, France, Germany, or Britain do to commemorate their equivalents to our Independence Day, but to the best of my knowledge one will not find the Union Jack hung in the chapel of Westminster Abbey, or the Tricolour hung in Notre Dame de Paris.

Now, let me make something clear here. I have no particular objection to churches commemorating things like the Fourth of July here in America, or its equivalents elsewhere. That is part of how the culture manifests loyalty towards the nation, and there is nothing in Scripture that condemns remembering those who began the nation, nor is there anything condemning remembering those who died that a nation might live. However, there are times when the form of commemorating such things, while not necessarily blatantly unscriptural, is distinctly problematic, and demonstrates a possibly skewed view of the proper relationship between the Church (I speak not here of the Roman Catholic Church, but of the body of Christ as a whole) and the state.

I’ll explain.

Just to provide some background, my church used to have a Fourth of July celebration every year, and it was a quite a production. I remember one year that some of the local SWAT guys fast roped out of the ceiling for one song. It should be borne in mind that my home church has something like six thousand members. Looking back on it, it was somewhat problematic just in terms of expense and scale, but not as much in terms of the celebration, mostly because it was not held on Sunday mornings or Wednesday nights—in other words, it was not held during the normal worship times. It might be that I am misremembering, but I do not think so.

So, anyway, I was out of town last Sunday, and therefore ended up going to a different church. I’m not going to say the name, only that it is also a rather large church. The sermon was good, and I had little quarrel with it, although I might end up mentioning it in another blog post concerning the lack of severity of what little persecution Christians deal with in America.

Anyway, the church had chosen to have their patriotic celebration on Sunday morning. I don’t know for what reasons they chose to hold it on Sunday morning, but I found it to be distinctly problematic because that time is one of the traditional worship times of the Church due to the fact (held to be so among Christians, anyway) that Christ arose on a Sunday morning, thereby rendering the timing of the usual worship service a commemoration of the death and resurrection of Christ, and it seems wrong to have a celebration of the nation during that time, for numerous reasons. First and foremost, it seems wrong because in doing so, a troubling conflation of the relative importance of the nation and the Savior is introduced, and while I am sure it is entirely unintentional, I do think that doing anything that even approaches this sort of thing is harmful to the Church, because it can inspire an uncritical view of the nation as a whole and a tendency to think of the nation as intrinsically good, a view which is dangerously naïve at best and willfully ignorant at worst, due to the fact that nations, being made up of sinful people, cannot be but sinful themselves. This is not to say that nations cannot, on the whole, do more good than harm, either to themselves or others, but it does mean that one should look upon the actions of the nation carefully. To not do so is to not do one’s duty as a Christian to love thy neighbor. I’ll get to that after a brief detour.

Yes, one might be inclined to say, but those churches which are loudest in their patriotism are those most likely to rail against abortion, homosexual marriage, and Obamacare. Perhaps, but if one looks at the content of those diatribes, the general tenor is that the nation has been misled, not that the nation has willingly chosen the path it is treading.

The second difficulty was with the sheer number of American flags up at the front of the sanctuary. Perhaps I am being oversensitive, but that disturbed me, because it seemed as if this particular church was getting a little too close to wrapping the cross in the flag, a position that is bad for both the cross and the flag.

The reason for this is simple. The Church, rightly or wrongly, is perceived to have power in matters spiritual, and the state is perceived to have power in matters temporal. The state, due to its self-aggrandizing nature and greater temporal power, such as the ability to tax, which is the power to destroy, as John Marshall pointed out, and the power of coercion upon which that power rests, must not be permitted to meddle in the affairs of the Church beyond punishing outright criminal behavior—i.e., fraud, murder, abuse, etc, because, if it does not, it will end up overrunning everything else, which will, in the end, lead to ruin. The Church, in the meantime, must not meddle in the affairs of the state beyond calling it out for not fulfilling its biblical role (I will not go into what that means here—that will require another blogpost) and calling upon its people to fulfill their duties to the state—pay taxes, obey those laws that do not go against God’s law, (note: not agreeing with and going against are two different things—more on that in another blog post), pray for those in authority, and to be as involved in the political process as they can be.

The reason for this goes back to the concept a few paragraphs ago that to not look carefully at the actions of the nation is to fail at one’s Christian duty to love one’s neighbor. The reason for this is that the actions of the nation and the state affect everyone within the nation and under the state, and that to love one’s neighbor means to act in that person’s best interests. See the parable of the Good Samaritan for an example. The point is that, therefore, it is the Christian’s duty to move the nation in the direction most likely to be conducive to people’s best interests (the form this takes varies, and will take another blog post to explain, but suffice it to say for now that I do not believe that moral codes should always be made law), and this cannot be done if the relationship between the Church and the state is too close, because the state will sometimes do the wrong thing—not just in terms of whether a policy will work or not, although to not go against a policy one believes will not work to achieve its desired objective is not right, but in terms of the objective of the policy or the means being used to achieve the objective being morally wrong. The Church must oppose this sort of thing—not necessarily as the body of Christ, but it must do so all the same, and opposing those with which one has a close relationship is quite difficult.

I’m not going to go into what the Church should oppose or the form that opposition should take—that will require a whole series of blog posts. However, I will say that there are times when the Church should question the state, and there are other times when the Church should outright oppose the state, and that a nationalistic church does not do either of those things particularly well.

‘Till next time,

Lowell Van Ness


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