This coming Sunday is July 3rd. It is a weekend where millions of good folks around our great country will be celebrating freedom and thanking the men and women in our military who have made endless sacrifices over the course of our nation’s history. It is a time of hardcore cookouts and a bunch of hot dogs being consumed. I love it. I am a proud American and, I suppose, a pretty patriotic guy. I willingly offer, with no conflict in Scripture, my allegiance to the United States of America and understand her to be the greatest country in the world. I am thankful to have been born in the USA. I see zero conflict when Christians embrace an ultimate allegiance to Jesus Christ but also love, support, and are thankful for their own country, whether that be America, Canada, or San Marino. Some may push back by citing Galatians 3:28 and the first few chapters of Romans to describe a lack of national identity once we are in Christ Jesus; “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” These verses were not intended to dissolve any sense of ongoing identity among Christians, but rather remind us of our common spiritual condition before Christ and our common spiritual condition after Christ. We are all dead before faith in Christ Jesus, and we are all clothed in His righteousness after faith in Christ Jesus, regardless of our national identity, sex, or occupation There is no exegetical ground to believe these verses, which are salvation oriented, teach a retraction of identity. Rather, they teach an addition of identity, that we now most belong to Christ Jesus and in that relationship, we find common ground now and forever (by the way, most egalitarians will use these verses to show why roles for men and women should be the same. That argument fails for the same reason). As a matter of fact, the Bible is filled with examples of how we should be praying for our own national leaders, our country, and be thankful for what God has ordained with our leadership and our government. Thus, the notion of honoring or “having allegiance” to both God and country is a biblical principle, made most famous by Jesus’ shocking words to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesars.” Our priorities might get out of whack. We run the possibility of turning country into an idol. But that is true of anything. So, in short, to be a dedicated follower of Christ does not mean we must expunge our patriotic tendencies.
Where things become a bit more tricky is when Christians gather together for worship as the Church. In doing so, we join with the “innumerable angles” and the “assembly of the first born” in heaven, so that our worship is a gathering together in the heavenly places to join what is already happening. That theological marvel must be at the forefront of our minds when we engage in worship activities as the church. Although worship happens every second of every day in the lives of all Christians (Romans 12:1), Scripture makes clear that the gathering of the church for worship is the highest expression of praise and the most important thing we do as Christians, which is why the author of Hebrews warns us from neglecting to meet together. This seems to be one of those clear areas where we should not exceed what is required and laid out in Scripture for our worship. I feel at peace praying for our leaders in worship. I feel at peace thanking God for our military. I feel at peace asking God to allow the good to overcome the evil. Those things are presented in Scripture as reasonable and right for the church to participate in. But it is when we slip into the motto of the great Muppet Sam Eagle that we end up on thin ice (Sam Eagle delivers one the funniest lines in Muppet history at the “Muppet Vision 3-D” show at Disney World in Florida). He says:
“This is a salute to all nations. . . .but mostly America.”
As a unified body of believers in Christ Jesus, the church does not gather with a national identity but rather with a Christiological identity. To say the Pledge of Allegiance or sing overly patriotic songs in a church service, as great as both those things are, is to surpass the guidelines of Scriptural worship and place expectations on folks that probably ought not to be there. To put it simply, there is no way the innumerable angles and the assembly of the firstborn in heaven are singing “My Country Tis of Thee.” Pastor and author Kevin DeYoung in writing about the Church and Memorial Day put it like this: “While there are many Americans singing glorious songs to Jesus in heaven, they are not singing songs about the glories of America.”
So how can we make this work? If Christians can and should be patriotic, in the sense of honoring and being thankful for their country, do they just ignore that when at church? I think there can be a balance. We have acknowledged that certain aspects of country are reasonable for worship. But for the “we love America” sentiments, there are better places suited for that kind of expression, even within the context of the church. A wonderful idea is to get a group of Christians together, those who are interested from a congregation, and attend the local 4th of July parade, perhaps wearing church t-shirts. That is a setting where Christians can be together in as much patriotic fervor imaginable and not cross a worship boundary. There are even possible special church get-togethers that could serve that purpose.
So, if your church sings “My Country Tis of Thee” on Sunday, should you walk out? Of course not. All churches will lead worship on Sunday with the very best heart and desire to do what is honoring and worthwhile. This is one of those topics where we would do well to slowly start educating and engaging in conversation. There are many who feel very, very strongly about God and country in the local church. We must honor those beliefs and never cause a riff to come between folks in an attempt to unify us even more. Love, as always, still wins the day here. This is an important issue. But not one to jump into without any regard for the folks who feel differently.
And with that, God Bless America!