On flags in the sanctuary

Ignoring good advice and my own better judgment, I set fingers to keyboard to write on flags in the sanctuary. Too often what we have to say on this subject has more to do with deeply held emotional attachments than with reasoned reflections on scripture and tradition. I want to admit up front that my own opinions are no less emotional and unreflective than those of anyone else.

One way to approach this subject, it seems to me, is to remember the purpose of symbols in the sanctuary or worship space. Our worship is directed toward God; its intent is to offer our sense of gratitude, awe, and purpose to the one who created us. Sacred space–the worship sanctuary–exists to focus our hearts and minds on the worship of God. Whether it’s a medieval cathedral whose architecture, stained glass, and statuary immerse our senses in the Christian story, or a plain New England congregational meeting house whose stark simplicity inspires a quiet reverence, every symbol in that space should point us toward the worship of God.

And here is where the problem with flags arise. A country’s flag (ours or anyone else’s) exists as a symbol of that nation’s sovereignty and identity. Its purpose as a symbol is to draw the mind toward the allegiance one owes to one’s country. Its presence in the worship sanctuary introduces a second, and competing, object toward which one’s loyalty and devotion are directed.

All human beings struggle with balancing the different things that compete for their attention and loyalty. Work, family, hobbies, political parties, even sports teams–all these and so many other things want us to devote more of our time and attention to them. As Christians we seek to subsume all of these competing loyalties under our loyalty to God, to love all of these good things as part of our love of God who is the greatest good.

But worship is different. Here we seek to set aside all other thoughts, all other loyalties and attachments, and lift up our hearts to God alone. As Scripture tells us, God is a jealous God, which is simply another way of saying that the one to whom we owe everything deserves our full attention. Throughout the week we engage in the struggle to place all our competing objects of devotion under the sovereignty of God. During worship we set that struggle aside and attend only to God, offering our whole selves to our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

To introduce the symbol of one of our secondary loyalties into the worship space is to enter right back into that struggle, and hence to compromise our worship. Outside worship, devotion to country can be an expression of our devotion to God (it can be other things, too, but that’s another story). When worship is taking place, however, reminders of our devotion to anything other than God, no matter how important, are objects of idolatry. Bring that flag into the sanctuary and that’s what you’ve made it.

So my advice to pastors and other church leaders is to feature the flag of their country, but do so somewhere other than the worship space. Whether it’s the fellowship hall or the pastor’s office, place it where it can be seen and appreciated–just don’t put it where worship will happen.

If you love that flag, don’t make people choose between it and God.

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