I believe I am a patriotic American citizen. I pay my taxes, love my country, and my family has paid a costly price to preserve the freedom we all enjoy. I have a posthumous Bronze Star with a Combat “V” and a Purple Heart that hang in my home—a small memorial to my namesake, a family member who was killed in action. That being said, a few members of my congregation over the years noticed a peculiar habit of mine. Not many in the church noticed this, but long before our worship service started, I walked up on stage (we met in a Middle School auditorium), and I moved the American flag behind the curtains out of sight. Once the service was over and we were cleaning up, I moved the American flag back into its prominent place. Over the years I had a few people ask me why I hid the flag.
I certainly didn’t hide the flag because I was unpatriotic or ashamed of my country. Rather, I didn’t want the congregation to be confused. Our church, though it met in the United States of America, wasn’t an American church. Every church of Jesus Christ belongs to him, it is his body. Hence, no one country or people group can lay claim to his people. Far too many American Christians forget this. They have American flags in their sanctuaries, they celebrate American holidays, such as Independence Day, with special worship services, or they even have a military honor guard present on the Sunday before Veterans Day. Yet, if we were to enter into the embassy of another country, we would never find the ceremonies, flags, or trappings of its host nation. Walk into a Mexican embassy and you will find all of the symbols and trappings of Mexico. The same should apply to churches.
Churches are embassies, if you will, of the Lord Jesus Christ and his gospel. They are not the property of any one country. Even the former wall of division between Jew and Gentile has been torn down by Christ through his satisfaction and obedience. The only symbols that should be present are those that belong to Christ—word, sacrament, and prayer. I used to hide the American flag, therefore, so that my congregation knew that as a congregation we belong to Christ and no one else.
I’m sure that the idea of removing the American flag from the sanctuary might ruffle a few feathers. But think of this from another perspective. What if you were visiting a legitimate church in another country, say Russia. How would you feel to see the Russian flag unfurled in the sanctuary? How would you feel if the congregation, in celebration of a national Russian holiday, began to sing their national anthem? Would you feel out of place? As a red-blooded American, might you even feel offended? No Christian should ever feel out of place in Christ’s church. Rather than be greeted by national flags and anthems, Christians should encounter psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to our triune God, his word, and the emblems of his gospel, water, wine, and bread.
Be cautious, therefore, about what things appear in your sanctuary. Don’t be too quick to put that American flag in the sanctuary. And if you have one, be kind, gentle, and patient when you remove it. Teach your congregation why it should not appear in the sanctuary, don’t just go in an tear it down. In the end, remember that the sanctuary is ultimately Christ’s embassy of peace, not that of any other country.