The 4th of July is near, and it’s time for cookouts, barbecue, fireworks, and – so it seems – patriotic worship services. At least in my neck of the woods, these are often called “God and country” services. A typical patriotic service might include a presentation of the American flag, singing of patriotic hymns, and a message centered around the Christian roots of the United States and a call to return to them. Are these services God-honoring? Are they wise? These questions strike close to home for me. My sons have been asked more than once to present the flag with their Boy Scout troop during the patriotic service at a local Baptist church. I’ve been in services like this myself while visiting family over the 4th of July. As an elder in a local church, I must provide guidance for our own flock as well. This whole issue calls for wisdom and charity.
The first question we should be asking is what God wants. God has gone to great lengths to tell us how he wants to be worshiped. Therefore, He may not be worshiped in ways that we invent. Isn’t that the problem with idolatry – attempting to worship the true God under a form that he hasn’t revealed? Worshiping according to his revelation focuses our energies on those activities we know that God has called us to. Think what confidence this gives us in approaching God when we know he has called us to do the very thing we’re doing!
Most importantly, in worship we focus on God. “My glory I will not give to another.” (Isaiah 48:11) We do not honor God when we seek to honor anything else alongside him. The name “God and country” itself raises a concern. It seems to put country on the same level as God. Of course, we should give thanks to God for all kinds of things, including his blessings on our country. And I think this is what most churches intend to do. But the form and content of these services often seems to communicate that country has been elevated more than is intended. A quick look at “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” will show that it is a very nice hymn to express patriotic feelings toward our country. However, it is only incidentally about God. It may be a perfectly fine song to sing at an Independence Day rally. But it has no more place in a worship service than a love song that thanks God at the end for providing the lover. Patriotism and worship are two different things; we don’t want to confuse them in our hearts or our lips.
We know that God has called us to preaching, singing, prayer and thanksgiving, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But as we search the Scriptures, we find no other ceremonies instituted for the gathered new covenant community. If not, then extra-biblical ceremonies like a flag presentation or reciting the pledge of allegiance have no place in gathered worship. God has not said that he is pleased by such things.
Patriotic services create another problem. The body of Christ is a united body – neither Jew nor Greek nor barbarian nor Cythian (Col. 3:11). We are told that heavenly worship is conducted by those “ransomed people…from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Rev. 5:9) Why would we focus an entire worship service on a theme that only a very small part of the body of Christ in a very specific time in history could appreciate? Could those who are not U.S. citizens enter into such worship, particularly those who may have different political views or whose ancestors have suffered at the hands of ungodly policies in our nation’s history? These themes raise great difficulties for enacting the unity in life and worship to which we are called as God’s people.
In some respects, patriotic services reflect solid biblical instincts. We are to pray and give thanks for kings and authorities, “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Tim. 2:1-2) There is a place-an important one-for praying for and giving thanks for our government that allows us such freedoms. Praise God for these blessings! We ought to be lifting up our country, our political leaders, and our soldiers for both prayer and thanksgiving on a regular basis. But these blessings are lower than the blessing of God himself. The glory of Christ is the gospel of Christ, and this ought to be our focus:
Your mercy, my God, is the theme of my song,
The joy of my heart, and the boast of my tongue.
Why are we tempted to put our country on a pedestal where only God belongs? I believe there are at least two reasons. The first is probably natural; the second is theological. Naturally, we want to believe that God accepts and blesses our country and our family. But this natural desire often causes us to forget that we live in a fallen world. Every institution and every individual is corrupted by sin. Only the grace of God can redeem us. While God may and does work through nations and families, his redemptive work happens as each individual is born again and is transformed by the gospel. We can find encouragement that God is and has been at work in our nation. However, our standing with God doesn’t depend on this. Our national citizenship does not make us any more or less acceptable to God.
Theologically, many evangelicals have bought into a doctrine one might call “Christian America.” This view seems to hold that God has uniquely owned this country and is singularly at work here; furthermore, it is held as a matter of high principle that the Founding Fathers were largely influenced by Christian principles. But note that these are historical questions, not theological ones. Since the Bible says nothing about America in particular (unless you believe some of today’s prophecy “experts”), we can’t treat this question as though a biblical principle is at stake. The growth of the kingdom is not tied to the recovery of an earlier Christianized culture in the United States. The kingdom of God is primarily manifested in the church across all nations in the present age. The church embraces the rule of Christ now (Col. 1:13); the church exercises the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:19); the church is entrusted with the proclamation of the message of the kingdom and is the instrument of the kingdom (Luke 8:1). The hope of the gospel is not tied to the fortunes – past or present – of America.
Is it a sin to have a patriotic worship service? I suppose there are ways of handling such a service that would meet the biblical requirements of being God-centered and of focusing on prayer and thanksgiving. At the same time, our hearts so easily turn good things into idols. We can so easily elevate our country above its true significance. And we so easily think small thoughts of God. Putting God and country together in a worship service may very well feed on both these tendencies. So let’s do our barbecue, our fireworks, and our patriotic songs with friends and family to celebrate the history and the place where God has put us. But when we worship on the Lord’s Day, “together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus,” let us worship the one who will be exalted among all nations.Stan Reeves, Elder Grace Heritage Church Auburn, AL