Flags and Church

The United States is not known for its pomp and circumstance. We just haven’t been around long enough to develop a rich tradition of symbolism, uniforms and other symbols of power and prestige. Perhaps the closest thing comparable to a royal-like event is a state funeral. With the death of former president, Gerald Ford, the U.S. will have the opportunity to honor him with a military honor guard, parade and repose in the Capital dome.

Presidential deaths bring the roles of the state and the role of the church together like few other events. The question facing me is whether I would allow national flags to reside in the church? Does the church lose a little of its independence when it allows the state, through its symbols (e.g. soldiers and flags), to have a position of honor within the confines of the Christian assembly?

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers because Scripture does not directly address the question. While some readers will be think these comments to be patently anti-patriotic, I hope they will take a deep breath and consider some reasons why the mixing of state and religious elements in a funeral should be rejected.

First, keeping the elements separate helps to ensure that Christianity is separable from the government. This separation is important as it underscores the church’s prophetical role to critique the government. It also allows us to identify more readily with Christians who live in nations that are enemies of our nation. Second, keeping the state out of the funeral emphasizes that the deceased was a Christian, more than a president or government official. Third, separation reminds Christians that they are first and foremost citizens of heaven; national citizenship is a pale second.
[Please note that I do believe that cultural and national context do and should play a part in what the church decides. It is very possible for a church to find that it needs to change its stance in accordance with the change of culture. For example, in a very young country, it may be important for the church to mingle state and religion in order to demonstrate to the leaders that it is not an anti-government group.]

I don’t contend that these arguments amount to a decisive conclusion against the mingling of state and religious elements. I am confident that there are plenty of arguments in favor of the alternative view. But I have presented these thoughts in the hopes that Christians be more conscious and self-aware of this issue. Hopefully, whatever decision the church makes it will be done with due regard for alternative views. When a scholarly tragedy collides, begin the wealth investigate the service using individual out of those scripting blogs.

© 2006 Stephen Vantassel

  1. Dear Stephen, I have read your blog entry, “Flags and Church” several times, and it brings many thoughts and questions to my mind. Here are some of them, presented in the order which they arise in your article. Bearing in mind that I am an outsider, I shall be grateful for your responses.

    The United States is a republic, is it not? Why would americans want a “royal-like event”? Just a little regret about past actions, perhaps? Maybe if proper deference were shown… . . .

    Actually, I think the ceremony involved in US national events can be pretty impressive and frequently expresses what I see as american values very well. Think of the state of the union address as it is presented today, or the funeral of JFK.

    The funeral of a president of the US is a state event. Secular/state events can take place outside a sacred edifice. Guns can be fired, bands play, soldiers march, flags fly and so on and so forth. This can occur on the street or anywhere else.

    If the religious part of a presidential funeral occurs in a place of worship, is it not the prerogative of the authorities of that place to decide whether military elements may be included?

    Cannot the state/secular aspects of a presidential funeral be separate from its religious aspects? I think they can!

    Does the church lose a little of its independence when it allows the state through its symbols to have a place of honour within the confines of the Christian assembly? I don’t think so. So long as there is freedom of religion, churches will have a legal right to organise worship and religious services as they see fit.

    There is an assumption throughout your blog article, Stephen, that all presidents will be Christians. Is this reasonable?

    “Scripture does not directly address the question” as to whether flags, soldiers and or other symbols may be displayed at religious events. Maybe not, but reasonable deductions can be made from biblical events. For example, the Jesus who drove the money changers from the temple, made it clear that that place should be used for religious purposes and not banking. Does it not follow that it should not be used for the display (and adulation) of secular items also? Then again, the Jesus who preached the Sermon on the Mount would probably have been unhappy with soldiers appearing as soldiers in religious ceremonies. The gods of the heathen, we are told, are idols. Do the gods of Americans include flags and honour guards?

    I am fascinated by your reference to “the church’s prophetical role to critique the government”. I should like to know more of this role and the scriptural basis for the statement.

    Sincerely, Peter

  2. Thank you for your comments. First, not all presidents will be Christians. I would probably argue that most of our presidents were cultural Christians rather than real Christians anyway, but that is a subject for another time.

    Second, yes Church leaders would have the ability to decide the role of the military/government in their church. My problem is that too often Pastors, with the right desire to be deferential, have given up their role as pastors. Funerals in a church should be Christian funerals more than a political love fest.

    I have no problem with state funerals. My problem is when we mix state and Christianity in ways that tend to confuse them. The U.S. is not the Church. The U.S. is not the body of Christ.

    The church’s prophetic role to government is no different than its role to society at large. Ephesians 2. We are to proclaim in our being the manifold witness of God. Prophetic roles can be accomplished in a variety of ways. 1. evangelism. 2. influence through good works. 3. showing the world a better way of living. 4. prayer for our leaders and 5. sometimes martyrdom. (I mean martyrdom in the Christian way not the murder bomber way).

    as for American ideals and guilt. America loves the pagentry of royalty. I for one love my country. But if I was alive during the revolution, I probably would have been a loyalist.

    I hope this helps. For me the issue is how the public views things. I just don’t think people in the U.S.properly distinguish America from Christianity. Funerals is where this confusion can continue.

  3. Thankyou for this, Stephen. It is appreciated. Peter

    PS This is a college blog. Where are all the student responses?

  4. Hello Stephen, I’m back to bother you again. I have studied Ephesians 2 several times since your original reply. I have used the King James, the RC Revised Standard and the Revised English versions. Frankly, I can’t see that this chapter has anything much to do with “the church’s prophetic(al role) to (critique) government”; in my ignorance, I wonder if the church has such a role. I am still fascinated however and I’m sure others must be also, so I suggest that at some time in the future you write a blog article on this subject. I believe it would be very worthwhile. Sincerely, Peter

  5. I guess I would ask you what did Paul mean when he said the Church is to display the manifold wisdom of God? Also when Jesus called Herod a Fox was that prophetic or was it Jesus having a bad day? or something else? I would grant that the church’s prophetical role, as understood as engaging political structures directly, is a secondary role for the church. But we also have to remember that the N.T. church didn’t have the opportunity to influence the political process other than indirectly. They couldn’t vote for an emperor. So I guess, it would help me if you could respond to these recent comments and suggest how I can better explain my view.

  6. Hello Stephen, I’m sorry to have taken so long to reply. Here are my responses to your questions.

    Herod was ambitious, voluptuous, ruthless and sly. When Jesus called him a fox, he was using the metaphor of the “sly fox”. As a result of Jesus’ preaching and working miracles, people were following him around. This would have been disturbing to Herod. In his view, a possible popular leader would have to be stopped. In particular, it is mentioned earlier in the chapter that whilst Jesus offended those in authority at the temple, ordinary folk were pleased with him. Herod could probably have had Jesus arrested and carried off, but in so doing there was danger of creating a disturbance that could get out of control and be troublesome to Rome. The sly “fox” tried to scare Jesus away. Pharisees brought Jesus word that Herod planned to have him killed and warned him to get out the district. Jesus recognised the original source of the message, and told the messengers to tell that “fox”, Herod, he would be working in the neighbourhood for two more days before moving on. In my view, this shows Jesus contempt for an evil man and the government of which he was a part.

    I think you are referring to Ephesians 3:10 when you ask me, “what did Paul mean when he said the Church is to display the manifold wisdom of God?” I have read Chapter 3 many times and other parts of the letter more than once in considering my answer. I actually wonder if I have been reading the correct letter, but having been unsuccessful in finding “the manifold wisdom of God” elsewhere, I have persevered. Here are some versions of the verse:

    To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God. (KJ)

    … that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might be known to the principalities and powers in heavenly places. (RSV Catholic)

    His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (NIV)

    … in order that now, through the church, the wisdom of God in its infinite variety might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms. (NEB)

    In not one of these quotations does Paul tell us “to display the manifold wisdom of God” ¬– at least, not to my mind. (Do I have the wrong selection?) Assuming that I have the right passage, I will try to explain how I understand it.

    In the first two quotations, we find the phrases “principalities and powers in heavenly places”. In religious parlance of times gone by, I think, “principalities and powers” were understood to be unearthly powers, but not necessarily “heavenly” in the way which we understand that word to-day. For example, later in this letter 6:12 Paul says, “… we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness in this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (KJV)

    The second two quotations mention, “rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms”. The equivalent from 6:12 is, “… our struggle is not against human foes, but against cosmic powers, against the authorities and potentates of this dark age, against the super human forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (REB)

    In Ephesians 3, leading to verse 10, Paul tells us that the secret purpose of God was made known to him and he understands the secret purpose of Christ. Former generations did not know of it, but now apostles and prophets know that the Gentiles are equal beneficiaries of Christ’s promises and he, Paul, (1) has the privilege of proclaiming ” the unfathomable riches of Christ” to the Gentiles and (2) knows how the hidden purpose of God is to be put into effect. The extraordinary, the amazing wonderful thing expressed in all the quotations above is that somehow the church on earth will reveal God’s purpose to the cosmic powers above. Any one of the quotations will do, but at this moment I like this one best:

    His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    Well, Stephen, you know what I think is meant by the two incidents with which you challenged me. I don’t think they have anything to do with “the church’s prophetical role to critique the government” and I don’t know how you could explain your view better. Indeed, I remain fascinated but increasingly dubious of the whole concept. I shan’t bother you again, at least not on this subject, but I should like to know what you think of my responses to the questions you asked me.

    Thank you for your kindness and patience. Peter

    PS Where are all the students who should be taking part in this blog?

  7. I would just say, in light of your comments about Herod, how do we disagree here? What Jesus said had political import. Who was the Good shepherd? The shepherd who had to protect the sheep from foxes, was telling the official shepherd that he was a fox. Sounds to me like a prophetic pronouncement.

    As for Ephesians. Read 3:5, which was not made known to the sons of men. ie. it now is. The point being that previously, unity between jew and greek was unknown. Now in Christ it is known both to humanity and spiritual powers however, one interpretes it. How that could not have political implications is again lost of me.
    Even if we assume 3:10 is strictly otherworldly, the point can still be made that political systems can have demonic backing. Just look at how silly the Muslim and athiestic nations are in the way they deal with Christians. What are these governments afraid of? To suggest that saying Jesus is Lord is somehow threatening the viability of these governments is either outrageous or demonstrates my point. So I will repeat, I don’t believe critique of government is a primary role of Christians. But I do believe that our existence and our behavior acts as a critique of government by showing its rule is not absolute and in some ways actually evil (speaking in general terms).

  8. Thank you, Stephen. Peter

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