Sunday, May 25, 2014

Flags in the Church Sanctuary? Why We Do What We Do, and Don't Do What We Don't Do

Some time ago,
the elders and I were asked to consider placing the American flag in the sanctuary of Faith Church. It was explained to me that in prior years Faith Church had used the flag as a decoration and symbol of national pride in the sanctuary, but that in more recent years it was removed. The question is, Why? Some members come from religious traditions where the flag is prominently placed next to the cross. For others, the flag and cross must never be confused.

As I reflected on this question, I realized that I was potentially stepping on a theological landmine. On one hand, if we place the flag in the same context as the cross, we risk making a statement that the two symbols are of equal weight in our Christian faith. On the other hand, to neglect the flag altogether could be seen as almost treasonous in the eyes of some.

In this brief article, I will argue for placing the flag next to the doors of the sanctuary but not inside of it. Let me explain my reasoning.

I come from a long line of military veterans in my family and for this reason, I highly value the religious freedom for which my own family has fought. My father was a Marine in the Vietnam War, and both of my grandfathers fought in World War II. My paternal grandfather was an MP and my maternal grandfather was an anti-aircraft artillery gunman—present at both the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. Now in my thirties, I can hardly restrain the tears that well up in my eyes when I sing the National Anthem or attend a parade honoring our veterans. Nevertheless, as important as these factors are in my heart, my reasoning needs to be deeper than mere sentimentality; it must be biblical.

When Moses received the Law from God in Exodus 20 the first two commandments were given to prevent the covenant people of God from valuing anything, ANYTHING, in higher esteem than the God of the Universe. For this reason, God warned the people against the treasuring of anything composed of mere matter (an idol) over against their Lord and Savior. While the Old Testament allows for the usage of sacred objects in worship (i.e. the Ark of the Covenant, the beautifully crafted Tabernacle, ephods, staffs etc.) the express intent of all sacred objects is to point to God alone who accomplishes our salvation and reigns over all history.

In the New Testament, religious symbols are relegated almost completely to the past. The sacrificial system with its pomp and circumstance having been abrogated, the former symbols of religious devotion have found their completion in Jesus Christ alone. (See the book of Hebrews for a greater discussion on these matters). In other words, the objects of religious devotion such as the lamp stand, the table, altar of incense and other things exclusively pointed forward to Jesus Christ and His sacrifice. This having been fulfilled at Calvary, their purpose has now been completed; we no longer need these sacred objects. By means of the New Covenant, God still allows for the usage of some symbols (primarily the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Table) but by and large, objects themselves are no longer of use unless they directly point to the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Hence, the primary decorative symbol that we use at Faith Church is the cross.

Historically, Presbyterians and our immediate forefathers in the faith, the Puritans, were very hesitant to use ANY outward pictographic symbols or artwork. The puritan meetinghouses of early New England were sparsely decorated and were essentially white-walled rooms with a pulpit in the center indicating the authority of Biblical preaching—and of course, furnished with pews. Had one of the puritans walked into our sanctuary, he might have thought that we were avant-garde for even having stained-glass windows! While we may not go quite that far in the scarcity of our decorum, nevertheless, our theological heritage is one of caution as regards outward symbols in order that the first and second commandments not be broken either explicitly or implicitly. 

While Romans 13:1 and other passages tell us that we are to “submit ourselves to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established,” the obvious exception is that we must not honor these authorities OVER God Himself. Jesus Christ said to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). What is due to Caesar is respect, submission, and honor, but what is due to God alone is respect, submission, honor AND worship. The last of these, worship, is the primary expression of our praise and thanksgiving to God. This cannot be shared with any other person, place, or thing for God Himself says, “I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols” (Isaiah 42:8).

The danger of idolatry in our age is not that many of us will go out and find a piece of wood or stone, carve an idol out of it, and call it “god.” The danger is that we will take what is already “good” and make it “great” yielding to it an honor higher than it deserves. For this reason, I suggest that we keep the flags near the doors in the narthex in order to remind us of our freedom to enter the sanctuary in the first place, but to be separated from the divine worship of God. As we exit after the service is over, we are again reminded by the flags at the door of the special blessing that God has conferred on this country as a place of freedom, culminating in our unique gospel witness to the world.

There is no doubt that the flag reminds us of those men and women who valiantly died to gain and protect our freedom to worship; but in the Sanctuary itself, there is but one death that commands our praise—the death of Jesus Christ.

 -Matthew Everhard is the pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida. 

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