It’s not uncommon to see it in sanctuaries, outside churches, or in classrooms at Christian schools. It’s so common place that it’s easy to just look past it as something harmless or even meaningless, but I think the Christian flag symbolically reflects a lot of the common misunderstandings people have about what it means to be a Christian in America.
What’s the Big Deal?
But, it is just a flag, right?
When the flag was originally created in the early twentieth century (see history here), it was intended to be an ecumenical move. Which makes sense, since there’s one flag for all Christian denominations. Yet despite this original intention, the act of making a flag for Christianity seems to put Christianity into the same category of other entities that have flags: countries and their provinces. The Christian flag feeds into the mentality that our identity as Christians is comparable to our identity as Americans, as well as feeding into the tendency of many Christians who want to mix the two, whether that’s demanding Christian artifacts at courthouses, prayer in public schools, or hyper patriotism in the church, so-called God and Country services, etc.
Now, I’m not against patriotism. We can and should be thankful to live in the country we live in. I’m a big fan of Western civilization and the United States in particular, but I’m not going to insinuate for even a second that my allegiance to this country is anywhere close to my unity with the rest of the church and her bridegroom, Christ.
You can see this sort of thing play out on both the right and the left. On the right there are places like Liberty University where conservative, Republican politics is preached more than actual Christianity, thanks to the leadership of Jerry Falwell Jr. Then on the left there are many progressive Christians who don’t seem to have much to say about sin, forgiveness, the death and resurrection and Christ, but are extremely vocal about whatever the secular left is into at the moment and whatever scandalous thing Trump has most recently said or done.
These more extreme approaches to living out being Christian and American mix the two and inevitably it’s the Christian part that normally gets the short end of the stick. You can see how this mentality plays out in the way that the Christian flag is often displayed. If in a sanctuary, the American flag is often on one side and the Christian flag is on the other. And if it’s on a flag pole, the American flag is on top and the Christian flag is on the bottom.
What does this remind you of? It’s the same way we display national and state flags. The display of the flag suggests that being a Christian is like being an Iowan or a Californian. It’s secondary to and under your status as an American. But being a Christian is not a subset of an American identity. Christianity transcends all national and cultural boundaries. It’s the most diverse religion in the world and yet we tend to equate Christian culture with American culture sometimes in ridiculous ways.
A Thought Experiment
Imagine for a second that flagpole with the American and Christian flags. Imagine the message it would send if those two flags were switched. What if the Christian flag were displayed above the American flag. I imagine it would upset a whole bunch of people even within our churches, but if we’re honest, that would be a far more accurate representation of how we should view ourselves. We are Christians first and Americans second.
Now, we don’t have to deny our identity as Americans or anything like that. There’s nothing wrong with supporting the state we find ourselves in. Just look at how God instructs his people to live in the Babylonian Empire when they are exiled there or how many of the church fathers, such as Origen encouraged Christians to pray for the Roman emperor and for the empire as a whole. We don’t need to make the same mistakes of the Anabaptists during the Reformation or modern-day Jehovah’s Witnesses by refusing to swear any kind of allegiance to the nation-state we find ourselves in.
A Voice in the Wilderness
I say all this not because I’m mad about the Christian flag necessarily. That’s not really what it’s about, but I think that if we reflect on our use of the flag, it invites us to have a lot of really good conversations about what it means to be a Christian in America and the proper relationship between being Christian and being American. This is especially important in times such as ours when being a Christian is becoming less and less mainstream, especially in certain areas.
We live in a time that’s extremely politically inflamed. Granted, it’s been worse (the Civil War, por ejemplo) but this is a time where people get so invested in politics and political issues, no matter what side they’re on. And too often we in the church get wrapped up in the same kind of nonsense. Most churches could be identified as either a politically conservative church or a politically liberal church. That’s absurd. The church should be a voice in our cultural and political wilderness that provides something different, something that is outside of all the fighting and posturing. Outside of all the petty outrage and hot takes. Outside of all the futile attempts to build a utopia here on earth, in this world, in this life.
We preach Christ, the crucified and risen king. The king above all kings. The king whose name is above all other names. The king before whose feet all the kings of the earth cast their crowns. While the world around us seeks after power, control, and authority, we are free to find strength in weakness. We find our life by losing it. We live in the death of Christ.
And this kind of attitude removes the need for us in the church to try and gain standing and influence through politics. This doesn’t mean we need to become quietist, not doing or saying anything at all. But it does mean that we need to find a way to be Christ’s church first and foremost. Everything else, all our engagement in the world flows out of that central and foundational identity.