January 27, 2021

What About the Flag in the Sanctuary? (Or How To Get Fired Really Fast.)

jesus_in_front_of_flags.jpgSometime when I was in seminary, I first heard the term “civil religion” and started to understand that some people had a problem with the American flag in a church sanctuary. The flag- and its companion, the “Christian” flag- have been in every church sanctuary I’ve ever been in, and both flags are in the chapel where I lead worship today.

Where I live today, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if there are churches with the Confederate flag in the sanctuary.

In the culture where I live, a pastor of a typical church who removed the flag would be fired. A pastor who started a process aimed at removing the flag would be starting a process to find another job. Removing the flag would be seen as something like a declaration of atheism or endorsing Al-Queda. Or both. Multiplied. By 10.

One of the reasons I like Shakespeare is that he had the ability to see all points of view with some kind of sympathy. I think I’m a bit like that, for better or worse, and if applied to the flag-in-church issue, it comes out something like this in the minds of those who want the flag displayed in church sanctuaries.

1) We’re grateful for the right to worship freely in this country, so we display the flag as a way to say we’re appreciative of that right.

2) We don’t worship the flag, and it’s rare that you would see any reference to our salute/pledge at all. You could come to 99% of the worship services in any church and the flag would receive absolutely no attention.

3) If the government is wrong on an issue like abortion or if it attempted to restrict our ability to speak out against homosexuality, we would quickly say the state is wrong and the Kingdom of God is right. In other words, the presence of the flag doesn’t assume that the state holds a higher authority for us than the Bible.

4) Nor does the flag’s presence assume we all support the policies of the government. There are many churches that display the flag, but many of the members believe the war in Iraq is wrong.

5) Don’t assume that the flag means we see ourselves as citizens of the nation rather than as citizens of the Kingdom. This may be confusing to someone from another culture, but it wouldn’t be if they asked for an explanation. We are clear on this.

6) The Bible tells us to be good citizens and to show proper respect to government, and that is all the presence of the flag does. Tha’s good, especially for children.

Because this is the usual approach to the flag issue among the Christians I know, I don’t suffer under a great need to see the flag removed. It could be a lot worse, and it probably is in some minds, but of all the hills a pastor has to die on, I wouldn’t recommend this one.

But there are times that I have problems.

For example, at some public ceremonies in church or the chapel, the flags lead in a procession. This would include things like graduations and Vacation Bible School If you don’t know what that is, I don’t think I can help you.

When the American flag is brought in leading that procession, with the Christian flag behind it, there is a problem. At a church I recently spoke at,the flagpole in front of the church had both flags flying, with the American flag on top. Problem, at least in terms of what the symbols are saying.

Flag etiquette is clear that this is proper, but for Christians, it is symbolically blasphemous. In fact, when the flag is used in any way other than as a passive part of sanctuary decoration, symbolic contradictions almost always emerge. Pledges, salutes and so forth are close to acts of “veneration.” (Those who criticize Catholics for bowing, etc. to statues might want to take pause and thing about the parallels.)

Another problem arises with the fact that, even when simply passively present, the flag identifies the congregation with the nation of America in a way that, at least visually, takes clear precedence over other loyalties. My Chinese friends, who understand patriotic symbolism very well from their culture, would never look at the flag and assume that its presence means Jesus is Lord and America is not. It will appear to them that the claims made in the church all happen under the permission and watchful eye of the state.

That’s the wrong message.

In actual fact, there are so many abuses of the flag by “God and Country” zealots, that ordinary Christians who don’t share those fanatical sympathies look as if they agree with all the inflamed rhetoric of the flag wavers.

In good conscience, leaders of churches should at least move the flags out of the main worship space. They can be respectfully be displayed in other places in a church facility if members of the congregation feel it is important to show proper respect and gratitude. The use of the flag in symbolic superiority to the “Christian” flag and the Bible should never happen. (In fact, what is the “Christian flag” anyway?” Get rid of it as well.)

As I said, in most rural American cultures, this is a deep generational issues that goes all kinds of emotional and sub-rational places no one really wants to visit. But it is an adventure in evangelical symbolism, and it can provide an important moment to say that symbols convey a message. Our message should always be Jesus Christ: King and Lord, with no competition from any other loyalty.


  1. chrisstiles says

    Don’t assume that the flag means we see ourselves as citizens of the nation rather than as citizens of the Kingdom. This may be confusing to someone from another culture, but it wouldn’t be if they asked for an explanation. We are clear on this.

    Actually, I thought your previous post just pointed out that ‘we’ are definitely not clear on this.

  2. Right on, Michael, exactly the kind of balanced approach that is needed in this type of situation. We had the flag in our sanctuary for many years until I began thinking through this very thing, and then for several more years before I got around to doing anything about it. What I finally did something, maybe a year or two ago, it was simply to remove both the American and the Christian flags and place them in the lobby. No question that there was still a place for them, but that place was not the worship space.

    And nobody said a word.

    Or, for that matter, likely noticed.

  3. It’s funny but the american flag in a church doesn’t bother me near as much as the whole “christian flag” concept. I remember going to to VBS when I was young and we did the whole “march into the sanctuary” as we congregated outside first. We said a pledge to the American Flag, Christian Flag and Bible. I always viewed the Christian flag to be a cheesy rip-off of the American Flag and the whole pledging to the Bible seemed to border on idolatry.

    When I was young I was involved in Boy Scouts and the whole AWANA program also seemed like a rip-off of Boy and Girl Scouts. Of course I think the YMCA was just a guilty with their “Indian Guides” program.

    Don’t get me started on those cookie cutter round headed puppets you see in a lot of children’s ministries.

    As a web designer it’s like spotting a “Frontpage” theme from a mile away.

    I do sumbit to my governmental authorities as long as they are in line with my Christian beliefs but often I do find many conflicts between politics and my faith. It irks me that in certain circles I almost expected to follow one party over the other or if I did vote and lean toward one political camp I am supposed to blindly accept what my congressmen or president does.

    I have no problem with a flag in the church as long as it’s recognized that God has placed me under that authority but when the church becomes a venue for patriotism I start to have a problem with that. I remember a big fad that started in the 80’s (mainly revolving around the “Reagan Revolution” and the Moral Majority) where they had whole church services that were nothing more than patriotic rallies. Those always bothered me. I don’t feel church is a right place for that. Neither am I comfortable with those flyers they pass out that basically tell you who to vote for if the admit it or not.

    I am conservative but never vote a strait ticket out of principle.

  4. christiles: Two different points of view. The first article is my view. The second article contains a list of how flag advocates see the use of the flag, not me.

  5. I’ve been reading your posts for a little while now, but this is my first time posting.

    I’ve never actually gone to a church that did this regularly … But when I was involved in youth ministry several of my kids graduated from the local Christian school, so I attended their graduation ceremony which was held in the sanctuary of the church that the school was attached to. I was absolutely horrified to find a pledge to the Christian flag and a pledge to the Bible as part of the ceremony. I stood with everyone else, but refused to participate, because I felt it to be idolatrous and … well … just wrong. Our youth pastor that I worked with was just about howling with laughter because he knew why I was so worked up (this became a source of much silliness between us). I could barely bring myself to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the US flag in SANCTUARY … for heaven’s sake … doesn’t anyone else see the irony and horror in that?

  6. A flag of whatever nationality does not belong in the sanctuary. The point on “watchful eye of the state” refers. Lobby or elsewhere – debatable.

    However, my beef is with the “Christian Flag”. Whence??
    At what ecumenical council was it adopted?

    A specific denomination could possibly adopt a flag – ok, but summarily claim jurisdiction over all Christendom by calling it ‘our’ flag – that is horrendously arrogant. Not even Benedict XVI makes such a claim – his flag is the recognised symbol of an independant country, the Vatican.

    Interesting point to add is that how would the inventors of the “Christian Flag” feel if it was replaced by say an Icon? And we pledged allegiance to the icon?

    Some things are just to silly AND wrong to contemplate….

  7. I personally live in a country (NZ) that is without the great influence of patriotism that seems evident in the US. In fact here, it is rather rare to even see a New Zealand flag on any building besides a State Owned one.

    The few times I have seen a flag in a Church meeting house, it has been represented among many other national symbols from all over the world – as a representation of diversity.

    I would certainly find it odd, and rather amusing, to walk into a church building and see a sole US flag, even if I were in the USA. . . But I guess that’s becasue we tend to find most US practices/ behaviors just a little bit amusing !!! 🙂

  8. On a bit of a browse a while back, I discovered that the LCMS have a whole question in their FAQ on this one; it was the first time (being British) that this issue had occurred to me. I had already come across sections of the US flag code, and as I read the article, it occurred to me that the insistence on the priority of the US flag would be a problem for churches with any sort of banner representing the faith.

    I can’t speak for other traditions, but over here, evangelical churches rarely use Union Jacks in the main sanctuary. We have, though, had the occasional problem with churches flying flags outside. The classic example, of course, is Northern Ireland: a church flying a Union Jack (or, heaven forfend, an Irish tricolour) there would be making an extremely divisive political statement.

  9. I’ve had mixed feelings about this my whole life. My stance at this point is that it’s ok to have them or not. The point is to be really, really clear from the pulpit about where our real citizenship is.

    We still sing, “This World is Not My Home” in church.

    Then again, our men’s choir sang “America, the Beautiful” yesterday.

  10. Technically, that white thing with the blue union blazoned with a red Latin cross is the flag of the Sunday School movement. It came into being roughly around the same time as the Pledge — the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago — and quickly got its own pledge, which is misleadingly generic as to being the flag of “the church.”

    Episcopalians have a challenge with their own “church flag,” a banner version of the shield folks are more familiar with. But either way, the US flag is “by law” supposed to be highest and/or to its own right (i.e., the audience left). I noticed at the United Nations that they had pins with the US and UN flags crossed, and if you dug through the bin, about half were one way, half the other — the point being, US flag to the right affirmed national precedence, UN flag to the right affirming . . . something.

    But the so-called Christian flag is a flag that has caused church fights of its own, as some denominations (i think of my own estranged cousins in the Restoration Movement, the Sumnerite Churches of Christ, among others) rejected “Sunday schools” as being a non-Biblical innovation like shared missions or instrumental music.

    And while those congregations will tend verrrry conservative, politically, they won’t have the red cross-blue union-white banner flag.

    Happy Pentecost to y’all,

  11. Now, you want an ugly “Christian” flag?

    Ladies and gentlemen, i give you:


  12. Yes, take the flags out. Our priority is to Jesus Christ. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God. I think the removal of the flags would send a clear message across Christendom – that we are strangers in a strange land and only here for the spreading of the Gospel and the building up of Christ’s church. Good essay, I appreciated it.

  13. I’ve always been of the opinion that national flags are too closely associated with the institution of the state to be adopted as symbols of Christianity. We now what a poor history (in global public opinion at least) governments have who appeal to Christian authority in order to carry out certain actions. . . .

  14. J. K. Terberg says

    Here in Canada, we rarely have flags in churches. the church I attend is typical that way as it doesn’t have one. -Nobody has ever said anything about having one either. I think that people would be surprised if one day they came to church and there was a flag up by the podium. Probably some would think we are getting church and state a bit confused. Funny how things are different on the other side of the red dotted line.

  15. Patrick Kyle says

    I have been told that in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod,the practice of putting a flag in the sanctuary came about during WW1. Many LCMS congregations worshipped in the German language, and apparently it was seen as a way to assuage fears that these Christians might have divided loyalties during a time of war with Germany. Once introduced it never went away.
    My Pastor taught a series of Bible classes on the doctrine of the two Kingdoms and got the congregation to move the flags from the front to the back of the sanctuary. Sometime later when we had a special service,
    (Good Friday or Ascension Day, I don’t remember.) the flags were moved out of the sanctuary temporarily to make additonal room, and never came back.

  16. Jeff – thanks for the link. I was a bit confused as to what a Christian flag was. We have banners in church – but they are illustrative of Christian truths and concepts – quite different from flags and in some older cathedrals you will see antique banners representing either the family crests of major donors or organisations connected to the church – Boys’ Brigade and the like. I would find it very strange to see flags in Church – we just don’t have that in Scotland.

  17. Interesting post. We do have flags in our “sanctuary”, but they also include the flags of Senegal, Indonesia and the Philippines. Members of our congregation are missionaries to each of those countries, just as we are on God’s mission here in the USA, and the flags are a visible reminder of the fact that God’s Church is universal. We have new brothers and sisters in the Moi tribe in Papua, just as we do down the road in Oostburg, WI. We look forward to seeing the Bainouk people of Senegal join God’s family, too, and are praying for God’s truth to transform people in the Philippines. I guess the whole point of flags is that they are symbolic and that we determine the meaning of the symbol.

  18. The post reminds me of this past Ash Wednesday when my husband and I visited a Lutheran church (MS) down the road from our apartment. Jeff had never been to a Lenten service and I had only experienced Anglican versions. We were in for a surprise!

    The sanctuary had the two flags on opposite sides of the altar. Okay, nothing suspicious there. This is an Army base town so to be patriotic in church is common. What happened next took the wind out of our sails completely. Before a prayer was said or a hymn sung, the pastor announced we would pledge allegiance to the flag!! Everyone snapped up to attention like it was no big deal. Jeff and I stood slowly but didn’t recite or put our hands on our hearts. We were there for Christ, not the Country.

    We didn’t go back for anymore Ash Wednesday services at that church.

  19. Jeff,

  20. Tom Huguenot says

    the last time I attended a 4th of July service, the pastor said America had a call from God to spread the Gospel in the world. My, and I thought it was the Church who had to do that.

    Please note that I do not have anything specifically against American civil religion. I have something against civil religion in general. it’s just that, to my knowledge, the USA are the only country where the problem exists to that extent, and where the churches refuse to deal with it.

  21. There was an element of civil religion in the old Apartheid South Africa as well – I grew up in that context. In the way I would define it, “civil religion” is an element of nationalism, as opposed to patriotism.

  22. Maybe it’s me, but that “U.S. Christian Flag” looked vaguely Confederate.

    In any event: At the school where I once taught, we were expected to pledge allegiance to the U.S. Flag, then the Christian flag, then the bible. I had never learned the Christian flag and bible pledges (I went to public school) and thought they were derivative mockeries anyway. So I taught the kids the Apostles Creed; and I had them recite it first, before the flag pledge, to show priority.

    The Creed created some great discussions. Some kids objected to the word “catholic” in it, which was a great teaching moment. “Descended into hell” and “communion of saints” triggered others. Non-Christian kids suddenly realized that the Creed meant something, whereas the pledge really didn’t. There’s a huge difference between “I believe” and “I pledge allegiance.”

  23. What is the “Christian flag”?

    I read recently of a sociological study that coused a profound disturbance because it showed that a high proportion of Muslims put loyalty to God above loyalty to their country. A much lower proportion of Christians did so, so perhaps those flags are not empty symbolism, but full of symbolism.

    Also, I gather that in America “separation of church and state” is an important principle, so if you have to get the Ten Commandments out of courthouses, get the flags out of the churches.

    Having said that, I come from a church that often displays the Greek flag (even in South Africa), though at least outside the temple, not inside.

  24. Wow…we are so protected from the Christian/ patriotic culture out her in Churchless/ Christianless Seattle.

    Since we are non-denominational and live very far from the Bible betl, we were able to build our church, doctrine, ecclesiology, worship (including sanctuary asthetics – flags, etc..) based on conviction from the Bible about preaching the Gospel, being the body of Christ, and relating to the culture around us (1 Cor 9).

    In Seattle I can’t think of anything less udnerstanding of the culture or more alienating to those who might be wander in our doors then to put an american and/ or christian flag in our church (except maybe a Nascar flag).

    A Starbucks Flag? Now that might fly!

  25. There was MAJOR upheaval in our church a few years back when our then-new senior pastor moved the flags to just outside the sanctuary. There were people who wanted to force a congregational vote to overrule the pastor and elder board. There was talk of how the pastor and elders had made an unwarranted power-grab by making such Sweeping Changes without congregational approval. It got ugly.

    Thankfully, the pastor was backed by the elders, and they refused to rise to the accusations of power-grabbing, ruining congregationalism, etc. that were thrown around. The issue is probably still simmering along for a few, but it has faded to the background.

    Thanks for your good post, Michael!


  26. The only point I would like to bring up,

    I am a Christian 100%, I am also American 100%

    If we would not have fought the Revolutionary War, and most wars thereafter, would we even be having our “Freedom of Religion” in this country, would we be hiding is some small dark cave or hidden room with a candle reading our Bibles or Praying to our Heavenly Father???

    Having/flying the American Flag in the Church, regardless of your beliefs would only signify one thing,
    “It took a lot of pre-Americans, and a whole lot more True Blooded American dying in wars to keep our great Nation FREE, so would could enjoy our, “Freedom of Religion.

  27. God gave us those freedoms. The Christian can honor the sacrifice of his countryman, if appropriate, but in a worship center, we honor God as the giver of all good gifts. Not America.

  28. Nathanael says

    I know this is an old post, but I just stumbled across it. I am extremely “proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free…”
    But our Lord is changing a lot of my perspectives of what that should and shouldn’t look like as a member of His kingdom.
    I’m finishing up Gregory Boyd’s “The Myth of a Christian Nation.” WOW! You’ve probably already read it, but if you haven’t, check it out. Good stuff!

  29. Eva Haddick says

    Sometimes, like today when I read the many comments endorsing the removal of flags from the church sanctuary, I’m ashamed of the supposedly intellectual in the christian community. Don’t you know the flag display doesn’t mean we (as christians and military folks) don’t consider it an idol to be worshipped? We who DO want flags to remain simply want to acknowledge that we appreciate those who served our country, (some giving their lives)as well as those continuing to serve and maintain freedom’s course. Mark me as a believer who is a proud, even a FLAG-WAVING American who loves my God and my country. And, no, I don’t think America is perfect, but she is MY country! When the flags are taken from my church sanctuary, I’ll know it’s time to find another place of worship!

  30. I think Eva expresses the sentimental reason people want flags in church–they connect it with service to the country. Putting a flag in church is for some like putting a flag on a veteran’s casket. (I don’t assume veterans who prefer a church pall with its cross are not proud of their service. But funerals are a whole other can of worms.)

    The flag, Eva says, is a reminder of service and sacrifice. But why in the sanctuary—and as a permanent fixture? Why is it essential to a church?

    When I was a child there was an emotional debate about whether to put a Christmas tree in the sanctuary rather than to keep it in the fellowship hall where it had been at Christmas. The argument against a sanctuary tree, which I did not follow as a child, was that the tree was not particularly Christian, which it isn’t. (I’ve wondered if the Chrismon tree movement isn’t a response to the truth of the allegation). But I now at least understand the purity of their intention not to confuse the worship of God with secular symbols of pagan origin.

    Don’t get me wrong. I am not against Chrismon trees. But now that I think about it I would even today be against a tree with silly, fuuny decorations– or a Frosty in the creche.

    We may have all sorts of mental justifications and qualifications and limits on the significance of a symbol in the worship space.(For instance we may think to ourselves “We are not saying that our nation is more important than the Kingdom of God.”) But symbolic objects have a way of generating their own significance over time. Architecture speaks. The memory of symbols gets charged by things that have nothing to do with God, and then a generation later they can turn on the theological priorities we had in our generation. Be careful what you put up in a church.

    Remember the snake on a pole in the temple?

    The flag is not an icon of God but of the nation. In itself it reminds us only of our citizenship on earth and says nothing of our citizenship in heaven. We cannot justify anything more than a temporary, passing presence of a national flag in the house of God, perhaps on days we thank God for our country or pray corporately to confess its sins.

  31. I have thought about this before and have been on staff in churches that had flags as well as a church that didn’t have flags. I just have to say that most of you need to relax. My grandfather would have called this “building a mountain out of a mole hill.” I don’t really think anyone feels that being a patriot means putting America before Christ. I also don’t think that if the flags are removed that it means that your church doesn’t support the freedoms our forefathers died to keep. Just relax and don’t take yourselves (and others) so seriously. I mean, just because the one church didn’t have a US flag didn’t mean that everyone in that church was Democrat.

  32. Not to resurrect a long-dead post, but I’m going to resurrect a long dead post. 😉 I found it very thoughtful and, honestly, I’m glad I’m not the only person thinking about it.

    My thought on the matter comes from experience. In the past, I was a die-hard flag-waver. Then I met Christ, who led me out of that.

    About a year or so ago I expressed to the congregation (with whom I had been meeting for several years) how incongruous it was for the members of the kingdom of God to fly the flag of a worldly kingdom. This happened during a part of the service where people could ask for prayer requests and optionally say whatever else they felt needed to be said. Though I stated it strongly, it was spoken off-hand in the context of asking for prayer not to be critical of my brothers and sisters for their support of war, soldiers, and country). At any rate, a few minutes later the pastor started his opening prayer and a woman in the congregation of about 30 people interrupted, verbally attacked me (saying many of the things the latest responses have said), and stormed out of the sanctuary.

    Here’s the point: For something to elicit that kind of response, it is obviously much more than what people claim it to be. They say, “It isn’t idolatry, just appreciation, etc.” But the truth of their heart is revealed by their actions when you tamper with their idol (“Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks”). If a person becomes angry over the removal of something they claim not to be devoted to, are they really so disattached?

    On a side note, let’s dispense with the half-truth of the “people who died for us/our freedom/etc.” euphemism. Inasmuch as they died in the process, they were actually trying to kill for you and your freedom (“I don’t want to die for my country. I want to make the other guy die for his.”). Either way, don’t include me in that number because I’d much rather they had died bringing the gospel to their enemies. Read Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer” if you haven’t already. At least be honest about what you are saying.

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