The Sanctuary and the Flag (The Kingdom of Jesus Christ & the USA)

Flag, Steeplephoto © 2007 Marc Nozell | more info (via: Wylio)

What follows is a special 3 part series by my good friend Dan Martin.  He is one of the original 3 bloggers that I got close to when no one else ever read this blog ;-)  Not only do we have some roots, but we challenge each other regularly and share many views on theology.  You really should read these posts and then read his blog like crazy!

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Every kingdom’s culture has powerful symbols that convey the character and sovereignty of that kingdom.  Let’s take a look at two highly symbolic elements of the kingdom, and how they aren’t commonly practiced in church, although perhaps they should be.

First the element of sanctuary.  We all know the word; until the more-hip “worship center” started taking hold in churches that didn’t want to sound too “churchy,” it was what we called the giant room in most church buildings, where the Sunday morning service was held, and the notion that it was a holy place where people should enter with reverence (and kids should be quiet) is a venerable, if not exactly Biblical, tradition.

But the concept of “sanctuary”–not as restricted space but as refuge–actually has a long and proud history within Judaeo-Christian tradition, and perhaps other faiths as well though I am not familiar with them.  1 Kings 1:50-53 is an example where a man who feared the wrath of the king took refuge in the sanctuary and held onto the horns of the altar for protection.  Medieval churches took the concept quite seriously, and for the most part one who had taken sanctuary within a church compound (sometimes the building itself, sometimes the church property as a whole) was out of reach of the civil law as long as he remained there.  Part of the scandal of St. Thomas More’s murder was that he was slain in the sanctuary while at prayer.  In modern times, some churches in the United States have declared themselves to be sanctuaries for undocumented persons, although I do not know how successful they’ve been with American civil authority.

But whether the civil law honors the concept or not, I think it might be helpful to think of the church facility in the terms of an embassy.  Though embassies are obviously built on the soil of the host country, international law holds that the embassy is the sovereign territory, not of the host country, but of the country it represents.  Recognizing that we are “Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Cor. 5:20), might it not be reasonable to consider our church facilities as embassies of the Kingdom of God?  This concept could take a lot of unpacking, but the notions that the church provides protection even for the “sinner” who seeks it, is not so far from the gospel if you think about it.  Contemplate:  the murderer or robber or rapist who’s taken refuge in a holy Sanctuary (1) is unable to inflict damage on the wider society since he has effectively confined himself; and (2) while there, will inevitably be exposed to the love of God and of Kingdom ambassadors throughout his sojourn. . .what effect might that have?  If we see it in this light, the Sanctuary of the Kingdom of God could be a powerful weapon against injustice AND a powerful tool to reach out to the “least” and “worst” of earth’s citizens.

But a corollary to this idea, and one about which I feel quite viscerally, is that the host country flag has no business being displayed in a sanctuary of the Kingdom of God.  From all I’ve heard and seen, this seems to be a particularly American issue; I don’t recall seeing flags in the churches I’ve visited in most other countries, but in American Evangelical churches it’s almost de rigueur.  And it’s deeply wrong, I believe, primarily because Americans (especially, but not only, conservative Christian Americans) treat the flag rather like an idol (it’s not possible to “desecrate” something that’s not first sacred).

But if the church is an embassy of the Kingdom of God, the place the American flag should fly–if at all–is not on the platform in the sanctuary, but rather at the front door.  Think of it. . .if we recognize our status as citizens of God’s kingdom, resident as ambassadors in the earthly kingdoms of the Powers, then every time we step across the threshold of the Sanctuary (properly taught),we’re stepping into the sovereign territory of our home Kingdom, and that door is a sacred border!  Placing the flag at the threshold between the territory of the two kingdoms could be a helpful reminder to the believers of where our final loyalties must lie.  We certainly need to rediscover that, when we go out “into the world,” we go as ambassadors, not as citizens.

  • Jonathan

    Excellent points, friend.  I especially appreciate the sentiment that it’s “not possible to ‘desecrate’ something that’s not first sacred.”  Unfortunately, it’s so ingrained in many (most) evangelical churches that the flag is a sacred thing worthy of, frankly, more respect that we would ever think of giving the major symbols and tenets of our faith.

    Staggering, isn’t it?

    Thanks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/josh.vestal Josh Vestal

    Dan excellent. Unfortunately I hear more about desecration of the flag than desecration of the Cross. This is par for the course and its beginning to stir up some righteous anger in me. Okay so the righteous anger has been around for a while, but still…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1388514701 Greg Dill

    I wholeheartedly agree with the premise. I am deeply dismayed when I see churches proudly displaying the American flag within their churches. For where does their allegiance lie? The flag of the United States? Jesus? Or, both? Can we then serve two gods; God and country? Sadly, for many American Christians patriotism is not separated from their faith, they are intertwined. And, to separate the two is heresy. “For surely God is for America and no one else”. Gregory Boyd discusses this quite extensively in his book, “The Myth of a Christian Nation”. The disease is called American Exceptionalism and many within the church have bowed at the altar of American patriotism. Both ideologies have permeated the church in America and it is hampering the effect it has on global missions. I hear many American Christians say, “Why do missions overseas when we have plenty of problems to fix here in America!”

    On another note. Does the church have boundaries? Should the church transcend all boundaries, not limited to the confines of the physical church building? The church as I understand it is not a building, but a people. And when someone takes refuge within the church, it should not be confined to a structure, but any group of believers whether they meet in a home, the park, or on the streets of Los Angeles. For where two or more are gathered I am there, says our Lord. When you limit the safety and sanctuary of the church to a literal building I think we are limiting the sovereignty of God and thee work of the people of God who incarnate Christ’s love and grace on earth.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1388514701 Greg Dill

    I wholeheartedly agree with the premise. I am deeply dismayed when I see churches proudly displaying the American flag within their churches. For where does their allegiance lie? The flag of the United States? Jesus? Or, both? Can we then serve two gods; God and country? Sadly, for many American Christians patriotism is not separated from their faith, they are intertwined. And, to separate the two is heresy. “For surely God is for America and no one else”. Gregory Boyd discusses this quite extensively in his book, “The Myth of a Christian Nation”. The disease is called American Exceptionalism and many within the church have bowed at the altar of American patriotism. Both ideologies have permeated the church in America and it is hampering the effect it has on global missions. I hear many American Christians say, “Why do missions overseas when we have plenty of problems to fix here in America!”

    On another note. Does the church have boundaries? Should the church transcend all boundaries, not limited to the confines of the physical church building? The church as I understand it is not a building, but a people. And when someone takes refuge within the church, it should not be confined to a structure, but any group of believers whether they meet in a home, the park, or on the streets of Los Angeles. For where two or more are gathered I am there, says our Lord. When you limit the safety and sanctuary of the church to a literal building I think we are limiting the sovereignty of God and thee work of the people of God who incarnate Christ’s love and grace on earth.

  • http://www.nearemmaus.com Brian LePort

    I agree. One place where nationality should not be put on proud display is the sanctuary. When we gather we do so before Christ, not a flag. 

  • http://benirwin.wordpress.com Ben Irwin

    Wholeheartedly agree. When I lived in the UK, I worshiped at an Anglican church where the British flag was rather prominently displayed. But there you have a situation where the church and state are still technically joined at the hip. We would all do well to remember that we belong to a different kingdom…

  • Melissabezuska

    I love the idea of the church as a sanctuary.  How radical, but most importantly how Christlike and how biblical.  The is the beauty of Christ’s Church, the third way to enact justice and love, by caring for the sinner and the victim.  Both are loved by God and both are hurting.


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