Are “Patriot Churches” Real Churches?
*Here, in this essay, I am not thinking of or writing about any particular individual, congregation, or organization. I am only addressing the idea and phenomenon of so-called “Patriot Churches” in the United States of America.*
The question I want to address is whether a true “Patriot Church” is really a Christian church.
I have no patience for people who object that no one has the right to say that any congregation that calls itself a church is not a real church. Don’t even bother with that objection. Go talk to the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI (and other RCC leaders) has declared that Protestant churches are not true churches but “ecclesial communities.” So let’s get on with it.
Over the years I have observed numerous groups that call themselves “Christian” that simply aren’t. Part of my “job,” as it were, as a Christian theologian, is to examine groups and individuals who call themselves “Christian” to see if they deserve that (to me) honorable label.
(What I say here is, of course, only my own (hopefully informed) opinion.)
To you who disagree and think nobody should do that, I ask this: Do you think that a “church” that is devoted to White Supremacy and hatred of African-Americans, immigrants, Jews, and other groups is a true Christian church? Oh, of course it is a “church” in the civil sense of filing the proper papers with the state for recognition as a tax-exempt religious organization, but does that make it theologically, authentically, a true Christian church? No, not from my point of view.
Recently a new phenomenon has arisen in America called “Patriot Churches” or “the Patriot Church Movement.” I have no idea how many exist or how large the movement is. There are various organizations that exist to unite so-called Patriot Churches in fellowships.
But my concern here is not a “bean-counting” one; I am not concerned with how many or where or anything like that. I am concerned with the idea and the phenomenon, however small or large it might be.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
I am now going to go out on a limb and say, speaking only for myself and not intending to impugn anyone’s character, that “Patriot Church” is an oxymoron. Apparently, “Patriot Church” means a church devoted to being pro-America. A true Christian church cannot be tied to one nation’s interests or supremacy. “Patriotism” is not a bad thing in and of itself, but nationalism is something else and has no place in Christian worship. “In Christ there is…neither Jew nor Greek” (Galatians 3:28). The Church of Jesus Christ is by definition universal—transcending human differences of race, nationality, gender, language, etc.
Now, of course, I know someone will argue that there are many churches for particular groups of people because of language, nationality, even interests (“cowboy churches!”). That is not what I am talking about. I am speaking out here against any so-called “church” that places country or people or culture alongside God in terms of devotion, worship, dedication, and mission. When a church states publicly (or even privately) that it is “pro-America” it is automatically excluding Christians of other countries as “other” than fully “in Christ” as it is.
Stepping back now to a larger problem we have in America in church life…. Years ago there were many parachurch organizations of Christians dedicated to particular interests. “Church” was normally recognized (theologically if not always in practice) as universal—for all people. A parachurch organization, however, could be primarily for a certain group of people based on age, nationality, interest, gender, etc. Now, in the last few decades, many “churches” are acting like parachurch organizations and in effect excluding people by being for only particular people.
Just as the RCC views Protestant churches as parachurch organizations (what “ecclesial community” means according to a Catholic theologian I know), so I will say that I view churches dedicated to a particular group of people to the exclusion of others as parachurch organizations. When I say “dedicated to a particular group of people,” of course, I do not there (in that sentence) mean excluding people who are not Christians (with regard to membership) or who are not believers in biblical doctrine. But there is nothing in the Bible about America—regardless of what anyone says. America is simply not there and to try to read America into the Bible is wrong.
A “pro-America church,” whatever it is called, is not a true Christian church. A true Christian church can be pro-America in the sense of praying for revival in America and celebrating the freedom to worship that we have in America, but to announce itself as existing to be pro-American is to say “We are not part of the worldwide, universal Church of Jesus Christ” and to exclude non-American Christians.
I ask people who want their churches to be pro-American in terms of symbols, words, messages, focus—How would you feel if you lived for a time in another country and found a church there that announced itself as “pro-“ that country? Would you feel welcome there—even as a Christian who believes the same about everything else as that church? I doubt it.
But there is even a worse fear that haunts me about “pro-America churches.” That is the suspicion that, whatever they may say, they are placing America on the same level as God which is anathema. I cannot help but think of the “German Christians” of the 1930s who knew nothing at all, whatever, about Hitler’s plans to commit genocide or start a war to dominate Europe that would end up causing the deaths of millions of innocent men, women and children. The didn’t know. Maybe they should have known. I think they should have suspected it. But, in any case, I have studied this German Christian movement of the 1930s and am convinced that most of them, perhaps even all of them, did not know what Hitler was planning. What, then? They were simply devoted to Hitler’s messianic image as one who would save Germany from communism and make Germany great again—after the severe loss of World War 1 and its aftermath. They believed that Germany was the greatest country in the world and that it needed a national revival and that Hitler could make that possible. But they stepped over a line into mixing nationalism with Christianity and some of them went so far as to regard Hitler and the Nazi Party and its ideology as a new revelation of God.
We look back on that “German Christian” movement now with disgust and disdain and many will object to any comparison between that and contemporary pro-American “Patriot Churches,” but the underlying similarity is glaring to anyone who sees with open eyes the absolute wrongness of mixing Christianity with nationalism. It’s idolatry. It’s heresy. It deserves to be condemned as non-Christian.
Again, here I am not thinking of or talking about any particular group, congregation or network of congregations or individuals. I’m talking about a phenomenon and the idea behind and within it.
I will not end with my own opinion; I will end here with a call to Christian leaders in America to exclude such churches, whatever they may call themselves, from Christian denominations, networks, associations of churches, etc, if and insofar as they place American nationalism alongside God and Jesus Christ in word or deed.
*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).