Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Stake Repost: Confusing Allegiance

I have been noticeably absent from posting here because I've been involved in a post I did for another blog journal. I'm reposting it here to see what kind of response it gets.






A few weeks ago a couple of concerned church members approached a minister on staff about the “shameful” state of the tattered American flag that flies near the entrance to the church building. They were kind enough to purchase a replacement, though they were not happy to see the flag in such disrepair.
Typically I would be oblivious to the whole situation, but the Senior Adults Minister asked me to help him change the flag. I am more than willing to help with chores here and there around the church, but this raised a theological dilemma. I have serious doubts that an American flag, or any nation’s flag for that matter, should be flown by a church.
The flag was going to go up anyway and the other pastor needed my help, so I consented. As we went about our work I was instructed that the flag cannot touch the ground lest it be defiled. I was also informed that the worn out flag would be given to some veterans to be “properly disposed of” – whatever that means. As we pulled down the old flag, carefully wrapping it up, I felt like I was doing something wrong.
I’ve been lambasted for opposing nationalism at a previous church so I was hesitant to say anything. With much trepidation, I casually began to talk about my issue with the flag flown by a church. It’s not that I’m anti-American. I cheer for America in the Olympics, eat apple pie and enjoy a good football game. I just don’t think the American flag has any place in the church. I would feel the same about an English, Chinese, Australian, or South African flag.
The problem is not separating Church and State. The idea of separating Church and State is an invention of the modern world. It assumes that the church does not have much to do with everyday life—a foreign concept to Jesus. My problem with flying an American flag is that it is a symbol of allegiance to a nation. The allegiance of believers belongs to God. St. John described the Roman Empire as a “beast” that blasphemes God and arrogantly demands allegiance that belongs to the Almighty (Rev 13:1-9). John reminds us that often nations compete for allegiance that belongs to God.
To my surprise the Senior’s Minister responded gracefully, “Well, I can certainly understand what you mean. I served a church that was near a military base once. They had difficulty distinguishing between God’s work and America.”
I was thankful for his response, but my dilemma is more significant. The Senior’s Minister reminded me that none of these concerned members would say that she actually worships America or that he would place his national allegiance before loyalty to God. Of course not, but sin is deceptive. I fear that we have already begun to worship America when we think the flag ought to be in a church. Why else place a symbol of allegiance in a place of worship?
Compare, for example, how we treat the American flag to the elements of the Eucharist – both symbols of allegiance to political entities. The flag cannot touch the ground and must be disposed of appropriately by its guardians. The bread of the body of Christ is thrown into the trash can in the kitchen along with dirty paper towels and rotten leftovers. The juice of his blood is poured down the drain along with soap suds and crumby remnants rinsed off plates and greasy pans. What does that say about our allegiance?
Yes, I have read Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ loaded question about taxation (Mt 22:15-22 || Mk 12:13-17 || Lk 20.20-26). The crux of his response is the pithy statement, “Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and the things of God to God” (Mt 22:21). However this passage might be interpreted, it is abundantly clear that Jesus is not suggesting that Caesar needs to be represented in worship. If anything, Jesus’ response prompts reflection about the limits of what ought to be given to Caesar in a world that belongs to God.

I recommend that you read the ensuing comment thread at stake.

4 comments:

dannyyencich said...

Hey Tyler,

This is Danny (from the Stake article). I've been trying to find an email or contact link for you that isn't public but this is the best I can find. I wanted to apologize for my own incendiary tact in the Confusing Allegiance thread. I, too, am a current seminary student (at Emmanuel -- are you at Lincoln?) and read your article a little too harshly, through the lens of the impotent and schismatic "radicalism" I see around me. Which, above all things, was unfair. So please forgive me; I am not really that big of an ass. I genuinely share your care for the church and desire that the gospel message be heard. I do have my questions about how much good articles do, but I also recognize your own ministry(ies) elsewhere as embodiments of attempting to preach this gospel. I am also a (youth/associate) minister at a small rural church in east TN; our allegiance is deeply confused and when the question was posed, a few families left. That proved to me that the question, "Is your primary allegiance to Jesus?" doesn't even make sense, can't even be received, when a theology of lordship isn't even in place. And I wonder if my church's unexamined theology of allegiance (it may not be the right theology, but a theology nonetheless) might not be a theology like most folks who read Christian Standard/Stake. If they are anything alike, I think they would be at least dismissive -- angry or "pissed off", to the point of disfellowship (as reads our church's history). And that scares me deeply.

Again, I apologize for the tone of my initial comment. I really have less of a problem with you or your article (the article was, in fact, great), but I have a lot of deep questions about using the medium of articles to probe these deep questions as I believe they can only be wrestled with through a long process of deeply contextualized discipleship ministry.

Thanks for taking the time to respond. I hope this finds you well. The resurrected Lord keep you.

Grace and peace,
Danny Yencich

Tyler Stewart said...

Danny,

No worries man. I was perhaps a bit harsh in my reply. Believe me, I feel you pain. I am thankful, however, that there are some really healthy churches out there. In a lot of places this isn't much of an issue. Honestly, where I'm at in Champaign, for the most part people have not conflated their national allegiance with their allegiance to Jesus. Thanks for the apology. Fight the good fight!

Nate said...

Tyler,

Your blog address was included in some e-mails you sent me, so I decided to check it out. I enjoy and profit from your writing.

The issue which you address in this article is one that I am deeply concerned with as well, and I deal with it in my ministry context.

I am the pastor of a small church in Illinois. It is an older congregation, and many of the members are U.S. military veterans. Often prayers in the worship service are offered for "our troops," and until I suggested that we have a "Mission of the Month" prayer focus I almost never heard Christian missionaries prayed for in Sunday morning service. I have also observed on more than one occassion that folks stand more willingly for and sing louder for patriotic songs than they do for hymns of worship.

Now, most of these folks are godly people who love the Lord and his church, but I feel that their allegiance to Christ and his Kingdom is definitely compromised by their uncritical nationalism.

The practical question is how to address this as a serious discipleship issue without getting fired for it. Last year just before September 11th I preached a sermon about how Christians should treat Muslim people. This message was very critical of the kinds of things many American Christians were saying about Muslims and ways they were acting toward Muslims. I called for Christians to treat Muslims in accord with the teachings of Jesus. Some people received this message well and others were upset by it. In other sermons I have addressed the issue of primary allegiance to the Kingdom of God, but I have not gotten specific about things like prayers for soldiers and the singing of patriotic songs within Christian worship.

I certainly don't have any answers, but I appreciate your thoughts - especially the observation about the reverence with which the American flag is treated and the disregard with which the elements of the Lord's Supper are treated.

-Nate B

Tyler Stewart said...

Nate,

While my ministry context does not struggle in the same way yours is, I can certainly understand where your coming from in light of previous experiences. I know that your desire is not to be unjustly critical of America, bur rather to recognize that Christian commitment is to Christ.

I wish I knew more "answers" about how to do this in a more unifying way. Like you, I am convinced that most people who are nationalistic are not trying to put their national commitments before God. In fact, they would deplore the very idea. Yet, as your experience observes there are many ways in which we have been deceived.

In my ministry context, materialism is probably a more significant issue. It sounds like where you are this might have to be a battle you fight. I'm not suggesting you tear down the flag next Sunday, but that you faithfully preach our allegiance is to the kingdom of God. Be bold, be faithful to scripture and be patient.

Recently, I have been struck by the example of John Chrysostom. He was a celebrated preacher who was exiled for preaching Christ. I would rather stand in his company than in the many well-intentioned pastors who capitulated to their cultural deceptions in efforts to more gently shepherd the flock.