Many times, I am asked the question about flags in a worship service. I am asked “Should they even be in the sanctuary?” “If they are in the sanctuary, should they be near the altar, on the stage or in the back?” I believe I get asked this question a lot because I am a 21-year Navy veteran as well as an ordained Pastor. In many ways I often find myself straddling the divide between church and state, specifically when there are places of overlap like a national flag being in a sanctuary. I think it is important to state that having a flag in the sanctuary is not a sin. In the same vein, choosing not to have a flag in the sanctuary is not a sin. So why the big fuss? Who cares? Does it really matter?
Intent Has Meaning
Like every issue in the Christian faith, intent has meaning. I am drawn to Matthew 5:27-32:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.
So how does adultery apply to flag in church? What we must understand is that adultery is used as the offense, but the concept applies to other situations. The example Jesus is making is that one does not have to physically commit an offense to be guilty. Jesus is saying that our intent has just as much to do with sinning as our actions.
Adultery and Flags?
This example applies when we apply intent to the question about a national flag in the sanctuary. What is the intent of having the flag in the sanctuary, altar or stage? If the intent is to declare a country equal to God, that is idolatry and violates the Commandments. Jesus made clear that no nation on earth was God’s chosen nation after Ancient Israel (not the current state). Jesus Himself declares this before Pilate stating “My Kingdom is not of this World.”
Is the intent to show reverence for the nation? So long as the focus of service isn’t the nation but God, this might be acceptable. The big test for me would be to remove it one Sunday and see the reaction. If the presence or absence of a flag can alter the service then the service really wasn’t about God, but the church members and what they desire. So is it wrong to have the national flag in the sanctuary? No, but the reasons you decide to put it in there can be very wrong.
Citizen’s of Heaven and Earth
As Christians we must understand that we are citizens of Heaven just as much as we are citizens of the nations we live in. If we are truly believers in God, we must also understand our citizenship to the Kingdom of God must take priority over any loyalty to our birth nation.
So I would argue for what scripture tells us. If something is causing us to stumble or focus on something other than God, that soemthing needs to be removed. If having a flag in your sanctuary is causing some to stumble or creating argument, it should be plucked out. The flag is not a sin, how we use it or how we idolize it is. Maybe if we focused less on where the national flag should be and more on the healing and feeding of the people of the nation, we could fufill the great commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself.