I spy something with my little eye…
Picture yourself sitting in your favorite church pew.
Do you see it?
It’s right there…
It’s a staple.
It’s not as if you are actively aware of its presence, but you’d probably notice it’s absence.
It’s usually in the front, left hand side of the sanctuary in most US churches.
It’s a colorful symbol of American pride.
We call it The Grand Old Flag. Our Stars and Stripes. The Star Spangled Banner.
As far as my memory goes back, I can remember an American flag prominently displayed in the front of every church I have ever attended. Methodist, Non-Denominational, Nazarene, C&MA or LCMS, it didn’t matter, all had Old Glory in the drivers seat with that anomaly we call the “Christian Flag” riding shotgun. I never really thought about this until recently when I began studying Luther’s Two Kingdom Theology.
That’s when it happened…
In the midst of singing “We praise you and acknowledge you” one Sunday morning, it’s presence caught my eye. I had always known it was there because my 3 year old is a flag junkie and always wants to go see it up close after service. Even so, this time it stuck out like a sore thumb. My mind skipped from stanza 3 of the staple hymn to Sesame Streets “One of these things is not like the other…” As my mind charted back to reality, the question remained…What is the American Flag doing in the front of the sanctuary at our Confessional Lutheran Church? I can certainly understand it’s prominent presence on stages in reconstructionist churches, but certainly not in front of a Confessional Lutheran Church.
So I began a quest to figure out why?
It didn’t take long to piece the history together. The brief sum of my research pointed to the fact Lutheran Churches, by nature, were very German. Even in the beginning of the 20th century the LCMS still clung to its rich German heritage. This was all well and good until the onset of the first world war. The US joined forces with the Allies (UK, France & Russia. Italy and Japan joined with the US) against Germany who was a charter member of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and eventually The Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria). German speaking immigrants during this time were feared to be spies and thus LCMS churches with services in German found themselves in the cross hairs of speculative treason. In an effort prove their American patriotism and seek shelter from persecution, many LCMS churches began displaying the the stars and stripes at the front of their sanctuaries. It was done as an attempt to prove their solidarity with the US in the fight against the Central Powers. The tradition stuck and carried forth in many present day LCMS churches.
Before anyone jumps to any ill conceived notions, I am an American through and through. I love my country and still tear up at the national anthem. I support and appreciate our troops and the freedoms they help secure. I have friends and family members, both past and present, who have served and I am thankful for their sacrifice. I get angry at those who burn or desecrate the flag while bad mouthing this great nation. I love and appreciate the USA as a whole; the good, the bad and everything in between. That being said, I am sure many non-Lutherans (and maybe some Lutherans too) are curious as to my reluctance to support the display of the American Flag in our sanctuaries. The answers is found in Luther’s Two Kingdom Theology. This view states that there are 2 kingdoms through which God rules and reigns in the world. The left kingdom, that of the state and the right kingdom which is spiritual and ruled through the church (This idea can be found in the Augsburg Confession Article XVI). God, through laws, the state rules and maintains peace and justice which is a display of grace to both believer and unbeliever alike. In like form, God, through the church offers rest for sinners in need of saving grace and builds them up through word and sacrament. Neither kingdom should impede on the other. Each should strive to maintain their proper distinction. The state should never interfere with matters of the church and the church, as H.E. Jacobs says, “cannot be legitimately used as a political machinery to effect a change. In efforts to correct abuses in the State, Christians must not act as members of the Church, but as citizens with consciences enlightened and stimulated by all the influences derived from the Church’s instruction.”
The problem isn’t that the flag is in the building, but that it is given prominent position within the divine service. I do not have an issue with an American flag in the Narthex per se; only it’s prominent display in the front of the sanctuary. The american flag has zero to do with spiritual matters and makes no theological sense as a symbol within the context of the worship service. It is not only a distraction but a co-mingling of the two kingdoms.
And the flag isn’t the only thing trespassing on the divine service.
It’s apparently a forgone conclusion to sing patriotic songs in divine service on national military holidays like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. The Battle Hymn of the Republic, The Star Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful and the like resound from the steeples of our Lutheran Churches. Once again these songs trespass on the sole purpose of the service. I am fully supportive of praying for our government and its leaders in divine service, but I am adamantly against singing worships songs to our country. Worship and praise in church should be limited to God. I’m cool with singing patriotic songs at the local parade, military banquet or baseball game because they are appropriate and purposed for those particular events. Let’s consider the fact that just because the word “God” appears in the song doesn’t make the song about the one true “God.” To make matters worse, “God” merely plays a supporting role in these songs. The mantra presented is for God to bless our nation…the USA. That is all well and good, but the church is catholic, meaning one body of believers. The church is present in the USA, China, Russia and even Iran and it doesn’t stop there. To sing songs in church that exclude and segregate all other believers does not make sense in the context of what the service is intended for.
As Christians, our citizenship is found in Christ’s heavenly kingdom. That citizenship was granted at our baptism. This makes each church an “embassy” if you will. A small taste of our homeland present on foreign soil. We share this commonality internationally with our Christian brothers and sisters. Church’s in France, Iraq, China, Australia and everywhere else are individual embassy’s of the corporate Kingdom of Christ. We respect and serve the foreign land in which our church’s exists through our various earthly vocations. Our mere citizenship in these countries is part of our vocational call as we serve our neighbors in thought, word and deed. Our church’s, not unlike an embassy, are our safe haven. They are where we go to find shelter and seek asylum. Singing songs to our country while prominently displaying it’s symbols takes away from this distinction and blurs the lines between the purpose and function of both the left and right kingdoms.
I’m not sure how debated this topic is in the halls of our local congregations, or if there is even a debate at all. There are certainly more important issues at hand, however, I still think the question should be raised, considered and discussed in light of our confessional embrace of Two Kingdom theology.