“[The Father] seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.” Eph 1:20b – 22
As Christians, we serve Christ, the King. When we (rightly) call Christ “The King”, we are echoing a Biblical theme that holds Christ up, not just as a savior, but as a ruler, His has a Kingdom. The entire theocratic line of Israelite kings points to a final fulfillment of the everlasting king, Jesus. We are subjects of the Kingdom, and called to obey our King. One of the symbols we use to represent a kingdom, is a flag. The topic of flags has received a lot of attention lately, with debates over confederate flags, flying flags half-mast (and many waving rainbow flags as well). Flags are typically used to represent a particular nation, society, order, or other affinity, and flying a flag is way to declare one’s allegiance, loyalty, and submission to that nation or kingdom. Flying a flag is a way to lift up, honor, and exalt that kingdom and its king or ruler or ideology. Recently I had been a part of some discussion of what this means for a church. Should churches be flying flags, and if so what? And while I doubt I will ever see confederate or rainbow flags show up in our church, there is still a flag, and another kingdom (other than Christ’s) that it represents, that often does fly in our churches. What does the Bible say about this?
The Bible’s approach to the Kingdom’s of the world is very exclusive. The Kingdom of God is not a kingdom that we simply add to the other kingdoms of the world. From early in scriptures, God declares his exclusive claims of rule: “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God”. We must not be tempted to compartmentalize “worship” here as merely bowing down or singing worship sings. This commandment isn’t for the sake of keeping our knees clean and our voice boxes well-rested. It is ultimately about who we are giving our submission, our loyalty, and our honor too. And God is jealous, he isn’t just asking that we give him some of our submission, but that He would completely displace our submission to any other kingdoms. But surely we can share and divide up our allegiance to God and country and serve both kingdoms? If we justify ourselves by calling another kingdom “godly” or “Christian”, then can’t we fully obey both masters? As I written before, Jesus echoes these Old Testament passages with an emphatic “no”:
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. – Matt 6:24
Calling another master or kingdom “Christian” only lures us further into the temptation of displacing our true King with an earthly country, just as the Israelites desired when they asked for a king. Serving two masters may work for a while, but ultimately they will come into conflict at some point, and your love for one will need to take precedence.
Now, of course as we consider flags, for many, flying a flag is not intended to declare that we have supplanted God with country. For many flying a flag is simply way of paying tribute to our freedom and the sacrifices made to achieve that freedom. But, the flag is still a symbol, used and defined by cultures. The American flag can mean many different things to many different people. To some it means sacrifice and freedom. To others it might mean violence and exploitation. Regardless of whether you, personally, see it as a great symbol or a detrimental symbol, we must remember that we can not control what it communicates to different audiences. It is symbol that is defined by cultures that interpret it. By using the symbol, we are putting ourselves at the mercy of culture, and different audiences, to define what we are communicating. But, if we believe that it is our duty, as Christians, we must strive to communicate clear Biblical concepts, not just wavering symbols that depend on who and how they are interpreted. Scriptures go to great lengths to carefully define the concepts of grace, forgiveness, love, etc., rather than simply relying on whatever culture defines these to mean. We must diligently seek to communicate absolute truths, and not just relative symbols that are up to the observer to apply in different ways. With this in mind, we must remember that we are called to do whatever it takes to bring people to Christ, willing to remove any and every obstacle. Paul says, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:22) Paul never let any personal preference of symbols or imagery that he liked stand in the way of drawing people to Christ.
The question of how symbols are interpreted can not even be limited to how a flag is interpreted by fellow Americans. Much of the New Testament, from the Great Commission, to the events in Acts, to the strategies of Paul are concerned with making Christ known not just among one nation, but among ALL nations. Christ’s commission to make disciples of all nations is preeminent concern, we must certainly consider the vast diversity of interpretations of our flag, and what it mean to other nations, and how divergent those interpretations may be from what we really want to communicate as the church. But are mere symbols that important? The first commandment, to worship God alone, does stand by itself. It is so important, that it is immediately preceded by the second commandment, which forbids any representation of another God. Of course even the ancients were probably smart enough to recognize that idols were symbols of gods. But even these symbols of other entities desiring submission represented a danger.
So what does this mean to the church? I believe that the church’s purpose is to lead people to obey, follow, submit to, and honor Christ. This is the entire purpose of the church, and the church should be a place where every effort is defined by the pursuit of this aim. The church exists to lift up Christ and only Christ, and as the one true, rightful ruler and only ruler, to teach submission to the one and only one Kingdom, the Kingdom Of God. To fly flags that symbolically place the kingdom of America on equal status as the Kingdom of God, no matter how we might wish this to honor certain principles or people, is ultimately a symbolic statement that says Christ is equal in authority. This unfortunately defies the Father’s declaration that Christ is to be “above all rule and authority and power and dominion”. There is just no way around it, the church must settle for nothing less that exalting and submitting Christ, and Christ alone. The church is not a place of mixing allegiances, but of declaring Christ above all rule.
For a minute, imagine arriving an US Army boot camp, and to discover that they were flying a Chinese flag right along the US flag. You would probably find this quite shocking. Now somebody might offer some explanations of why China is a nice country, they have been lifting many out of poverty, and they have some great accomplishments. But this isn’t the point. Boot camp exists to train soldiers in unswerving loyalty, dedication, and service to their country. The US flag flies above all, because the boot camp exists to train soldiers for serving that country. Likewise, the church exists for the purpose of leading people to follow Christ. It does not matter if we think highly of another country or kingdom. If boot camp points to a single allegiance, how much more so should the church do the same in pointing people to their King.
Another Old Testament story that highlights that conflict between God and countries of the world is found in Daniel, when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are faced with pressure to put their loyalty to their ruler alongside God. Again, we shouldn’t think that this story is about the physical act of bowing, God was not concerned with bruises on their knees. Bowing was a symbolic act of giving full submission and honor to the King and the country he ruled. While this story is often held up as an example of uncompromising loyalty to God, it is important to remember what precisely what they were being asked to do. The pressure was not just about some random physical act, but about the pressure to demonstrate loyalty to a country and its ruler, which is, as always, a replacement of loyalty to God. God’s call for our submission and loyalty is not just because God is hungry for followers, hoping that he can satisfy his hunger for a high follower count. It is because God is truly the best leader we can follow, and His leadership is in our best interest
Again, as Jesus clearly stated in Matt 6:24, eventually our loyalty will be determined when our loyalties come in conflict. When this happens whose direction will we choose? Unquestioned loyalty to country has served to facilitate some of the greatest tragedies of mankind. For many German soldiers in the 1930s, serving God and country were united. The churches had defined Christianity and loyalty to country without distinction. Without clarity that loyalty is to God above all, the actions of the third Reich remained unquestioned by many Christians. The same experience occurred in the Civil war as Christianity became defined by the the loyalism to the national traditions of slavery rather than a God who challenged this notions.
Again, I understand that many individuals fly flags to communicate, honor, and pay tribute to different ideas, sacrifices, and ideals. That is fine. But the church must take the greatest of care in recognizing what it might be communicating, and how that might be understood, and how that might greatly differ from the purpose of the church to draw people to the exclusive rule and reign of Christ. I encourage the church to focus solely on the the glorious calling of lifting Christ and Christ alone. The Father gave Christ “as head over all things to the church”, and may we do all that we can to proclaim that He is indeed “above all rule and authority and power and dominion”! Praise to be to our one true King!