The American Flag in the Church

The American Flag in the Church September 1, 2015

From Roger Olson:

The American flag is an important symbol for me as for many American church goers. I still always get choked up when I hear the American national anthem and see the “stars and stripes” waving in the wind—at a sports event or Independence Day celebration or whatever. My wife and I always put out our American flag on national holidays. I consider myself very patriotic.

However, what many Christians who insist on having the American flag in their churches’ worship spaces don’t realize is—it’s unpatriotic. Unless, of course, theyintend to say it is symbolizes their highest loyalty—even above Jesus Christ. Of course, I fear that is indeed the case on some churches although they would probably deny it. To the extend they deny it, they are contradicting themselves by having the flag in the worship space.

Here’s why….

A good friend of mine who is a former Marine and expert on the etiquette of the U.S. flag recently informed me that the U.S. flag ought never to be flown “in submission.” I engaged him in conversation about this and learned that, according to American flag etiquette (yes, there are people who specialize in that), it is okay to fly the U.S. flag upside down (as a signal of distress), at half mast (mourning) and alongside other national flags in certain spaces such as at the United Nations headquarters in New York. But it is never okay to fly it “in submission” to something else—for example lower than another flag in the same space. According to my friend who is also a scholar of Christian worship and has taught graduate level course in Christian worship for many years, having the U.S. flag in any worship space is wrong because it is “being flown in submission”—to God.

A very interesting conundrum to consider.

The point is that the worship space, the sanctuary (whatever it is called), is dedicated to sole worship of God above all else. The people gathered are ostensibly worshiping God alone and expressing their supreme loyalty to God, Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God. Having the national flag in the same space violates flag etiquette because it is flying it “in submission.” It should only be flown where nothing else is being placed above it in terms of importance.

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  • And, so why place special importance upon a man made room? Doesn’t that only further the same dichotomy of idolatry that the flag symbolizes and excuse the elevation of nationalism in the rest of a Christian’s life? Either it is idolatrous or it isn’t.

  • Rafael Duerksen

    What struck me is that the Church building is the place of sole dominion of God and hence it is only her that the flag is possibly flown “in submission” The argument that a flag ought not to be flown in Church because there it “submits” is an argument that the Flag commands greater loyalty, trust and power then Christ. Would we not argue that any flag of any nation ought always be flown “under submission” to Christ?

  • Bonehead

    I found this post to be amusing and ironic; Those who overlook the obvious idolatry of prominently displaying a national flag in the worship space will not likely be persuaded by the technicalities of flag protocol.

  • Phil Miller

    But it is never okay to fly it “in submission” to something else—for example lower than another flag in the same space. According to my friend who is also a scholar of Christian worship and has taught graduate level course in Christian worship for many years, having the U.S. flag in any worship space is wrong because it is “being flown in submission”—to God.

    Very ironic considering that many people who would insist that we have an American flag in a sanctuary also get up in arms about having the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance… This whole thing kind of reminds me of 1 Samuel 5 when the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant.

  • Very interesting post! Another possible point would be the fact that the church is global and not just meant for one nation.

  • I have had some harsh things to say about American Christianity, not least about the idolatrous nation-worship evidenced by the flag in a place of worship.

    But having made those comments, even on the blog you’re quoting from, I’ve had an intensified realization that it is very easy to see someone else’s blind spot. I’m not American. That gives me a different perspective. I’ve read & listened to a lot of Boyd, Brueggemann, Hauerwas, Yoder, Zahnd, and others whose critique of American exceptionalism rings very true as I watch from the other side of the pacific.

    Nagging me more and more is the question: how have I abdicated my citizenship in heaven to my Kiwi identity. In what idolatrous ways are Christians & Churches in New Zealand blinded by their commitment to nation?

    I’d like to know.

  • Jason Price

    If this is true…then when/where would a Christian ever fly an American flag?

    My whole life is to be “in submission” to Jesus Christ. There is no where I go where my loyalties are are not first and foremost to the Kingdom of God. If I fly it in my home…it would be in submission. If I fly it on my car…it would be in submission. If I fly it at my business it would be in submission.

    If, as the article states, “It should only be flown where nothing else is being placed above it in terms of importance.”…then tell me, where would a christian ever fly the flag?

  • mwkruse

    Google “Should We Have Flags in the Church? The Christian flag and the American Flag” by Hoyt Hickman. He offers some good background on this topic including the reasons for the emergence of the Christian flag, identification of “The Flag Code” in the U.S. legal code, and how it is impossible to display the American flag in a worship space without either disrespecting the flag or symbolizing the state is over the church. Olson nails it on this one.

  • mwkruse

    The issue is that WHEN the flag is displayed it must always have the place of honor relative to other symbols. If up on the platform with the pastor, it must be to his right in the place of honor. If on the floor with the congregation, it is to be to the right of the congregation. If the Christian flag is present, it must not be placed higher than the American flag and must not be on the right in the place of honor. It is not appropriate to have the flag displayed off to the right and away from the proceedings. It should be in a prominent place symbolizing it supremacy and honor. The sanctuary is a place of worship, often replete with a variety of worship symbols. Introducing a competition for supremacy. In other venues, the American flag is not competing with symbols of worship for supremacy. It presents no challenge for me there.

  • Andrew McDonald

    Well our particular idolatry may be revealed once New Zealand chooses a new flag…will it look like a sports team branding logo?

  • Paul

    Perhaps you hit on an unintentional yet important point: that when Christians display the American flag in a worship center that they are reminding others that the Lord is sovereign over all things, including the United States.

  • mwkruse

    I don’t doubt that intent in many instances. It is the execution I’m worried about. It is the very point Olson raises. In our patriotic desire to display the flag we either A) signal Caesar is Lord in Jesus is not, or B) act unpatriotic by violating flag etiquette.

    Curiously, I heard someone argue that our service members died in part to keep separation of church and state so we should display the flag in church in honor of their sacrifice. Yet the very display of the flag undoes the separation of church state signifying the church is under the state.

    I know one pastor at a church that does a patriotic celebration at church each year. The flag is brought in. However, all patriotic behavior is done either before the call to worship or after the benediction. The flag is not in the worship space during worship.

    I just think we need to be very intentional about the messages we send on issues like this.

  • Paul

    We didn’t have a flag in our worship center for years. That was not so much due to conviction, but as a church plant we didn’t think of it. When we built our own facility, a former Marine donated a very nice flag and stand. He did his research about protocol. I have yet to have a complaint about dishonoring the flag from anyone in attendance. And we have several retired military personnel who have stated their appreciation. Is Olson correct or are the retired service personnel who attend our church correct?

    I also grew up in a Baptist church full of WW2 vets who never saw any problem with acknowledging both love for country and the complete sovereignty of God. Most Baptists consider separation of church and state one of their distinctives. But they were OK with the flag. If we worshiped the flag, or made the Pledge of Allegiance part of our worship pattern, that would seem out of place.

    Great discussion, but I still think there’s a place for the flag at church.