Many times I am asked about the 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 at the back? I believe I am asked this question often because I am a 21 year old Navy veteran as well as an ordained pastor. In many ways, I often find myself straddling the divide between church and state, especially when there are points of overlap like a national flag in a shrine. I think it’s important to say that having a flag in the shrine is not a sin. Similarly, choosing not to have a flag in the sanctuary is not a sin. So why so many fuss? We do not care? Does it really matter?
Intention has meaning
Like any question in the Christian faith, intention has meaning. I am drawn to Matthew 5: 27-32:
“You heard it was said to those of yesteryear, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that whoever looking at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in her heart. If your right eye makes you peach, tear it off and throw it away from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish, than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand makes you sin, cut it off and cast it away from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish, than that your whole body be thrown into hell.
So how does adultery apply to the flag in church? What we need to understand is that adultery is used as a crime, but the concept applies to other situations. The example Jesus gives is that it is not necessary to physically commit an offense to be guilty. Jesus said that our intention has as much to do with sin as our actions.
Adultery and flags?
This example applies when we apply intent to the issue of a national flag in the sanctuary. What is the intention of having the flag in the sanctuary, altar or stage? If the intention is to declare a country equal to God, that is idolatry and violates the Commandments. Jesus made it clear that no nation on earth was the nation chosen by God after ancient Israel (not the current state). Jesus himself declares it before Pilate by declaring “My kingdom is not of this world”.
Is the intention to show respect for the nation? As long as the center of service is not the nation but God, it might be acceptable. The big test for me would be to take it off on a Sunday and see the reaction. If the presence or absence of a flag can alter service, then the service was not really about God, but about the members of the church and what they desire. So, is it wrong to have the national flag in the shrine? No, but the reasons why you decide to put it in there can be very bad.
Citizen of Heaven and Earth
As Christians we need to understand that we are citizens of heaven just as much as we are citizens of the nations in which we live. If we truly believe in God, we must also understand that our citizenship in the Kingdom of God must take priority over loyalty. to our native nation.
Then I would argue for what the Scripture tells us. If something causes us to trip over or focus on something other than God, that something has to be removed. If having a flag in your sanctuary trips some people up or creates arguments, it should be ripped off. The flag is not a sin, how we use it or how we idolize it. Maybe if we focused less on where the national flag should be and more on healing and nourishing the people of the nation, we could fulfill the great commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself.