Next Tuesday we celebrate July 4th, Independence Day as it’s known for us in the States. And the day itself raises questions about national loyalty for those of us who are strangers, exiles, aliens, and pilgrims on this earth. “Pilgrims and Patriots” — that was our topic back in a past year, in episode 378. But this year we will take a closer look at patriotism in the local church, and the time seems right to pick up an important email from a pastor named Scott, who writes, “Pastor John, are there any acceptable displays of patriotism in a church service? I was brought up in a very conservative and patriotic background in which every patriotic holiday was celebrated in a Sunday church service, including Fourth of July, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, the anniversary of 9/11, etc. Elements like pledging the flag and singing patriotic songs were heavily used. Is this okay? I pastor a church that has a history of this, but it makes me uncomfortable.”
Scott, I have been in several churches recently where on the Fourth of July the focus on the branches of the armed forces seemed to me uninformed, unshaped by the radical nature of the gospel, and out of proportion to the relationship between America and the kingdom of Christ.
I share your discomfort. Indeed, it is more than discomfort, I think. There are real biblical principles at stake, and so it will be helpful, I think, to face those principles, and then we will see if there is time to deal with practical transition issues in a church. So, let me say a word about principles.
United with Christ
When we are born again, we are united to Christ, our King, and we are delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of the Son of God so that now it can be said with glorious and profound reality, “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Therefore, wherever we live on earth — whatever country, whatever tribe, whatever family or clan — we are pilgrims, sojourners, refugees, exiles in all of those. Our first identity is with the King of the universe, not with any country or nationality or political party or governmental regime.
America is emphatically not our primary home or primary identity. That should be spoken. It should be felt and it should be precious. We should never be ashamed of identifying, first and foremost, as citizens of the kingdom of Christ, the kingdom of heaven.
“Our first identity is with the King of the universe, not with any country or nationality or political party.”
Jesus Christ, therefore, is our absolute Lord. We swear absolute allegiance to him and to no one and nothing else. All other commitments are relativized. To be sure, citizens should submit to the laws of their government. Employees should submit to the rules of the employer. Wives should submit to husbands. Children should submit to parents. Church members should submit to the elders of the church.
But none of these commitments of submission is absolute. All of those authorities are subordinate and secondary to the authority of Christ and, therefore, all submission is qualified. Written over every commitment for the Christian is this: “unless Jesus commands otherwise.” Therefore, there is no unqualified allegiance to any political party, any nationality, any ethnicity, any tribal identity, or any branch of the armed service. It is all qualified. It is all secondary. It is all relative to the will of Christ. We should not say anything or do anything that looks as if that were not true.
Therefore, the question of what to do when the people of God are gathered to worship Jesus Christ on the Lord’s Day is not merely a question of whether a particular act is permissible in general with all of those qualifications that I just mentioned, but whether it belongs in a worship service, where the focus is on the absolute lordship of Jesus and worshiping and praising and honoring him. My own opinion is that any pledge of allegiance — like the one to the American flag — does not belong in a worship service that is called to highlight the absolute allegiance that we have to Jesus.
Even though the pledge says that the nation is “under God,” nevertheless, what is being highlighted and foregrounded is an earthly allegiance. And the recitation of a pledge to a human authority in the setting of the worship of divine authority does not provide for the kind of Christian qualifications and nuances that are so necessary, precisely in our day.
“When we are born again, we are transferred into a new kingdom with a new citizenship.”
Whenever Christians pay tribute to earthly blessings like American freedoms, which are wonderful, and the sacrifices made to have them and the people who made those sacrifices, the emphasis should be on humble thankfulness to God, who is great, and in his great mercy has given us what we don’t deserve.
When he gave them, we didn’t deserve them. We don’t deserve them at this moment that we are enjoying them. Therefore, words and songs should have no triumphalist or assertive tone — especially not for any military expression — but, rather, should have a feel of humility and lowliness and dependence and thankfulness along a suitable call to repentance and the need for ongoing mercy.
Champion the Gospel
And the last thing I would say is that in and over everything we do and say in our worship services, especially the ones that give thanks for American blessings and privileges, there should be the dominant expression of the work of Jesus Christ — the gospel — to forgive American sins and American sinners like us, and there should be a call to make Jesus supreme in this particular service we are in, and over the hearts of the people, and over the land.
Now, those are some of the biblical principles that I think should shape our expressions of thankfulness for America in worship. And I realize I am out of time and I haven’t even touched on what is probably this pastor’s most painful situation — “I have inherited a church where things don’t seem to be in proper proportion, and I would like some practical help.” And so I am going to do that in another Ask Pastor John episode.