My current church does not have an American flag in the sanctuary. It is the first church I served that does not have one.
I like that.
I have a firm and abiding conviction that the Church, every church, is an outpost of the Kingdom of God. Our first priority is to that Kingdom, and we are servants of that realm. Whatever country we happen to live in is an more often than not, an accident of birth, and while we should honor our countries, our love is for the Kingdom. So, the flags of a particular nation do not belong in the space where we worship the God who is above all nations. I did visit one church that had the flags of many nations in their worship space, and that seemed appropriate. But to display one flag, the flag of one’s own nation, confuses the issue, especially since the spirit of patriotism can run deep in many people.
It is already too easy to believe that God just confirms our own likes and dislikes, and just because I like my country, which I do, does not automatically mean that God holds us in a special place.
Over the years I have many colleagues and parishioners who agree and disagree with me on this. I know of at one person who left a congregation because the minister refused to have an American flag in the sanctuary. (Ironically he ended up in a congregation where there is no flag, and from what I have heard, he seems to be OK with their lack of patriotic reverence.)
The sad fact is, when most people say “God and Country,” they have often reversed the order of the two.
On the other hand, I don’t think it is a big deal. One of my colleagues alienated a family because he refused to allow a flag over the coffin of the father, who was retired military. “That’s just a line I cannot cross,” he said, and I thought to myself, “You have at least one too many lines.” What kind of pastoral statement was he making in his refusal, other than being obstinate? While I believe the appearance of our sanctuaries do affect how we worship in them, I also believe that is not where we should place our focus.
So, I did vote once to put a flag in the sanctuary of a church I served. We were building a new sanctuary. The old one had no flag, and an elder in the church wanted to donate a flag for the new worship space (along with a Christian flag). Although I have a vote when I meet with my elders, I normally don’t exercise that privilege. But this time I had to. The vote on the donated flag was a tie. Everyone looked at me to cast the deciding vote. I voted to accept the gift.
Why, if I were opposed to flag in our house of worship? It just was not a hill big enough to die on.
Every day I walk into my office I am faced with a wide variety of issues, most concerning either the state of our 80-year old sanctuary, or our complicated finances. Some are important in terms of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Most are not. They may be important in the administration of the organization we call our church, but they are not matters of faith and practice.
As to those, what gets decided is not as important as how they get decided.
If having a flag, or not having a flag becomes a central issue for worship, then we are focusing on the wrong things. I can preach just as well in front of a flag as I can without one. I can pray just as devoutly standing in front of a flag as I can with no flag in sight. If the flag affects how I do those things, then I am focusing on all the wrong things.
Question: How can we best make sure we are focusing on the right things when it comes to our worship space?