Re-reading this piece fifteen years after I first wrote it, I am struck how timely it still is. I regularly get comments from graduates of Fuller Seminary about the awkwardness they experience at moments in the worshiping life of their congregations when people expect visible—and audible!—expressions of national loyalty. Nor is this an issue only for those of us in the United States and Canada. My friends in the so-called “registered” churches in mainland China operate with an agreement with their government that, interestingly, has the official title “The Three-Self Patriotic Movement.” And many of my African students have told me about the ways in which their home churches, planted by missionaries who instructed them not to get into criticizing governmental practices and policies, are so quick to give overt signs of their loyalties to the political status quo.
I am pleased that this piece is getting a new life, on this occasion of honoring Emily Brink’s pioneering efforts to encourage all of us to think creatively about our worshiping life. When I wrote it a decade-and-a-half ago I was convinced that I was addressing a crucial topic for the church’s life and mission. I am still convinced of that, and I hope that the reappearance of my brief thoughts on the subject will inspire others to keep at the issues.
As any liturgist knows, we have to take more than one “church year” into account as we plan our worship services. The last time I counted, I came up with six distinguishable “years.”
First is the Lectionary year, used by congregations from many denominations to organize their worship planning. Next, and familiar especially to churches within the Reformed tradition, is the Catechism year, patterned after the “Lord’s Days” of the Heidelberg Catechism. Third is the Hallmark year—Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day—a list of special occasions that many churches recognize in one fashion or another. Fourth and fifth are the Denominational Programs year (Missions Sunday, World Hunger Sunday, and the like) and a Local Congregation Activities year (Stewardship Sunday, Boys’ or Girls’ Club Sunday, the service for
commissioning of church school teachers). And, last but not least, is the Civic Holiday year.
Most of these “years” are not very problematic on a theological level. They are, to be sure, often difficult to juggle—what do you do, for example, when Mother’s Day and Pentecost occur on the same Sunday? But a creative mind and a willingness to do some compromising are often adequate for dealing with such challenges.
The Civic Holiday year, though, presents some special theological problems. And it also raises some emotionally laden issues. In the World War I era, for example, a well-known Reformed pastor in the Midwest refused to allow the American flag to be displayed in his sanctuary. This caused such an uproar in his Dutch Calvinist community that he was physically attacked one night as he walked home from church.
Is it appropriate to integrate civic themes and symbols into our Christian worshiping life? As worship planners, how do we deal with the fact of a Dominion Day or an Independence Day?
The Relevance of Context
One possible solution is simply to ignore our civic life altogether. Some Christians have argued for this option. They believe that a Christian worship service should in no way reflect the national setting in which it takes place. If a Christian family from Ireland should happen to attend a service in Minneapolis, they insist, the Irish visitors should be able to identify with everything that is going on in the worship event.
But this requirement is defective for both practical and theological reasons. On the practical level it is simply unreasonable to expect that foreign visitors will feel completely at home in our services. Our language and accents and modes of cultural expression will inevitably reflect our specific surroundings.
Furthermore, from a theological point of view it is good that this is so. God has placed us in specific cultural and national contexts. We shouldn’t ask black worshipers in South Africa or a peasant congregation in El Salvador to make no mention of their particular political circumstances as they worship the divine Ruler. Nor should we ask it of ourselves. Applying the gospel to our actual circumstances is one of the exciting challenges of the Christian life.
Remembering Our Loyalties
It is one thing, though, to incorporate our national context into our worship. It is another to foster non-Christian loyalties as we worship. And there can be no question that the danger of alien loyalties is a real one in dealing with the relationship between Christian worship and civic symbols.
Take the flag question. Strictly speaking, there is nothing wrong with having a national flag in a place of worship. As a reminder of our national “place” and as a stimulus to reflect seriously on what it means to be Christian citizens, a flag can be a rather innocent symbol.
But it is difficult to assess this issue properly without also reckoning with the constant danger of nationalistic pride. We are often asked to offer to our nations the kind of allegiance that we should direct only to God. A national flag seldom serves as a mere reminder of the fact that we are citizens of a specific nation. It is a powerful symbol—even a seductive one—that can evoke feelings of loyalty and pride that are not proper for Christians. And when a national flag stands alongside the so-called Christian flag, we can easily be led to think that God and Caesar have equal importance in our lives.
When we come together for Christian worship, we are acknowledging our identity as members of “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9). And we need to be reminded that other racial and priestly and national loyalties are constantly competing for our allegiance. Our worship services are gatherings in the divine throne-room, where we acknowledge that our true loyalties belong to God alone. Nothing in our liturgical content or setting should detract from this expression of fidelity.
The relationship between Christian commitment and political citizenship is subject to considerable confusion. Much preaching on this subject is downright silly, full of shallow sentimentality and naive interpretations of such passages as the “render unto Caesar” saying and Romans 13. This is certainly inexcusable in the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition, where John Calvin and John Knox and Abraham Kuyper and Allan Boesak and other Calvinists have provided us with such a rich store of Christian reflection on the basic issues of civic life.
Reformed theological wisdom is desperately needed on such matters today, given the heresies that are so prominent in popular political piety. How, for example, can Christians who believe that only Christ’s sacrifice can truly atone for sin refer to deaths of soldiers who have died in the service of their country—however courageous their actions—as “the supreme sacrifice”?
Patriotic songs also contain many dangerous teachings. Take, for example, the “eschatological” verse of “America the Beautiful.” Themes that in the book of Revelation are used to describe the Holy City are here applied to the United States: “alabaster cities,” “undimmed by human tears,” the “shining sea.” As if the United States will become the promised New Jerusalem! And yet Reformed Christians—even the kind who sometimes boast of their commitment to “sound theology”—often sing these words without a thought to the heresies they are mouthing.
This is not mere nit-picking. Given the sinfulness of the human condition, idolatry is a very real threat. Political life has certainly not been immune to the general dangers of forming idolatrous allegiances. And when nations and governments have exceeded their God-ordained boundaries by asking citizens for their ultimate loyalties, they have often borrowed the language of religion.
The Roman emperors demanded that they be addressed as “Lord.” And Hitler deceived the German people into thinking that they were a “holy nation,” and a “chosen race.” We must be very diligent in warning the people of God against applying the themes of Zion to the nations in whose midst we are called to serve our only true and righteous Sovereign.
A Multinational People
It is one thing, though, to acknowledge the dangers that we must guard against; it is another to put these concerns into practice. How can we sensitize God’s people to these important concerns, knowing full well that we are dealing with issues that carry much emotional freight?
We can promote a general awareness in our worship of the multinational character of the body of Jesus Christ. Our worship here below is a preparation for the worship of the Lamb, who has ransomed us “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation”: (Rev. 5:9), thereby giving us a new kind of communal identity. “No other blood will do”—not Canadian blood, or Scottish blood, or Dutch blood, or Brazilian blood.
We can regularly give expression to this new sense of identity in our worship by praying for Christians in other national settings, by reminding ourselves of the dangers of national pride, by remembering the ways in which Christians have had to oppose existing political regimes in order to be faithful to the gospel.
There is a legitimate place for patriotic sentiments in the Christian life. Some Christians deny this, but they are usually focusing on patriotic excesses when they issue their condemnations.
To be a “patriot” is to have affection for the “fatherland.” The explicit analogy to the parent-child relationship is a helpful one. It is a good and natural thing to love our parents. But our love has gotten out of bounds if we think our parents are literally the best parents in the whole world—so wonderful that everyone else also ought to value them as the world’s greatest parents.
That’s the kind of out-of-bounds thinking that takes hold when nationalistic feelings get to be excessive. People start to think that their country—which they quite naturally have very affirmative feelings toward—is the best country in the world.
Christians need to work hard at keeping patriotic feelings within proper bounds. There is nothing wrong with my loving my country simply because it my country—just as I love my parents simply because they are my parents. But this does not put my country beyond criticism.
To honor our nation in a godly manner is to want it to contribute to the cause of Christ’s kingdom. To love our country with a Christian love is to want our nation to do justice and love mercy and walk in humility before the face of the Lord.
Citizens in Church
We don’t leave our citizen roles and our patriotic affections at the door when we enter the church building for worship. It is not reasonable or good to expect that we will do so. God has given to each of us a national setting in which to live. Christian citizenship is a good and important calling.
Our worship services provide us with opportunities to become more aware of who we are as the elect people of God. Worship must speak to the actual dilemmas and trials and joys and challenges that we experience as we attempt to serve the Lord in the broad and complex patterns of our lives. Liturgy and citizenship, then, must intersect.
But seductive patriotic symbols and nationalistic boastings have no proper place in Christian worship. Nor is the church a place where superficial sentimentality and dangerous political heresies can be tolerated. Our worship services are opportunities to come, as the blood-bought people of the Lamb—a people who are presently scattered among the nations—into the presence of the one Ruler whose authority knows no rivals.
Prayers for the Nation
O God, sovereign of the universe,
without you nothing is true, nothing is just.
In your Word you reveal the way of love.
By our Spirit you make it possible.
From greed and selfishness,
from a society in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,
compassionate God, deliver us.
From racial prejudice and religious intolerance,
from a society which makes its weakest
and most recent members into scapegoats,
compassionate God, deliver us.
From indifference to the needs of other countries,
from the delusion that you love any other nation less
than you love us,
compassionate God, deliver us.
From self-indulgence and indifference,
from a society in which fidelity and responsibility have little place,
compassionate God, deliver us.
Author of life, give us hearts set on the coming of your reign; give us wise, just, and humble leaders; give all who live in this land a will to live in peace, through Jesus Christ, the One who is above all powers and dominions. Amen.
—John D. Rempel, 1991, Hymnal: A Worship Book, 803. Used with permission.
Lord God Almighty, you made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.