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With Memorial Day on Monday (in the U.S.) and, no doubt, a number of patriotic services scheduled for this Sunday, I want to offer a few theses on patriotism and the church. Each of these points could be substantially expanded and beg more detailed defense and explanation, but since this is an article and not a term paper, I’ll try to keep this under 1500 words.

1. Being a Christian does not remove ethnic and national identities.

In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free (Gal. 3:28), but this does not mean men cease to be male or Jews cease to be Jewish. The worshiping throng gathered around the throne is not a bland mess of Esperanto Christians in matching khaki pants and white polos. God makes us one in Christ, but that oneness does not mean we can no longer recognize tribes, tongues, nations and peoples in heaven. If you don’t have to renounce being an American in heaven, you shouldn’t have to pretend you aren’t one now.

2. Patriotism, like other earthly “prides,” can be a virtue or vice.

Most people love their families. Many people love their schools, their home and their sports teams. All of these loves can be appropriate. In making us for himself, God didn’t mean to eradicate all other loves. Instead he wants those loves to be purer and in right proportion to our ultimate Love. Adam and Eve should have loved the Garden. God didn’t intend for them to be so “spiritual” that they were blind to the goodness around them. In the same way, where there is good in our country or family it is right to have affection and display affection for those good things.

Of course, we can turn patriotism into an idol, just like family can be an idol. But being proud of your country (or proud to be an American or a Canadian or a Russian or whatever) is not inherently worse than being proud of your kids or proud to be a Smith or a Jones or a Dostoevsky. I find it strange that while it is fashionable to love your city, be proud of your city and talk about transforming your city, it is, for some of the same people, quite gauche to love your country, be proud of your country and talk about transforming your country.

3. Allegiance to God and allegiance to your country are not inherently incompatible.

Sometimes Christians talk like you should have no loyalty for your country, as if love for your country was always a bad thing. To be sure, this must never be ultimate loyalty. We must always obey God rather than men. But most Christians have understood the fifth commandment to be about honoring not only your parents but all those in authority over you.

Moreover, Jesus shows it's possible to honor God and honor Caesar. This is especially clear if you know some of the Jewish history. The tax in question in Mark 12 is about the poll tax or census tax. It was first instituted in AD 6, not too many years before Jesus’ ministry. When it was established, a man by the name of Judas of Galilee led a revolt. According to Josephus, “He called his fellow countrymen cowards for being willing to pay tribute to the Romans and for putting up with mortal masters in place of God.” Like the Zealots, he believed allegiance to God and allegiance to any earthly government were fundamentally incompatible. As far as they were concerned, if God was your king, you couldn’t have an earthly king.

But Jesus completely disagreed. By telling the people to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” he was saying there are duties to government that do not infringe on your ultimate duty to God. It’s possible to honor lesser authorities in good conscience because they have been instituted by a greater authority.

If you read all that the New Testament says about governing authorities in places like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, you see that the normal situation is one of compatible loyalties. The church is not the state and the state is not God, but this does not mean the church must always be against the state. In general, then, it’s possible to be a good Christian and a good American, or a good Ghanaian or a good Korean. Patriotism is not bad. Singing your national anthem and getting choked up is not bad. Allegiance to God and allegiance to your country do not have to be at odds.

4. God’s people are not tied to any one nation.

When Jesus says “go ahead and give to Caesar what belongs to him” he is effectively saying “you can support nations that do not formally worship the one true God.” Or to put it a different way, true religion is not bound with only one country. This means—as we see in Revelation 7 and Isaiah 49 and Psalm 87 and Matthew 28 and Acts 1 and a hundred other places—the Church will be transcultural and transnational.

While American churches are in America, they must never be only American churches. We must keep in mind (and when applicable, explicitly state) that our congregations are filled with brothers and sisters from all over the world. Likewise, we must work hard to help people see that Christianity is not just a Western religion or American religion. Christianity started in the Middle East and quickly spread to North Africa and parts of Asia and Europe. The Church was always meant to be international. Today there are more Anglicans in church in Nigeria than in England, more Presbyterians in South Korea than in the United States. The promise to Abraham way back in Genesis is that through his family God would bless the whole world. Christianity is not tied to just one certain nation. Following Christ is not an ethnic thing. You can be from any country and worship Jesus.

5. All this leads to one final point: While patriotism can be good, the church is not a good place for patriotism.

We should pray for service men and women in our congregations. We should pray for the president. We should pray for the just cause to triumph over the evil one. We are not moral relativists. We do not believe just because all people are sinners and all nations are sinful that no person or no nation can be more righteous or more wicked than another. God may be on America’s side in some (not all) her endeavors.

But please think twice before putting on a Star Spangled gala in church this Sunday. I love to hear the national anthem and “God Bless America” and “My Country, Tis of Thee,” but not in church where the nations gather to worship the King of all peoples. I love to see the presentation of colors and salute our veterans, but these would be better at the Memorial Day parade or during a time of remembrance at the cemetery. Earthly worship should reflect the ongoing worship in heaven. And while there are many Americans singing glorious songs to Jesus there, they are not singing songs about the glories of America. We must hold to the traditions of the Apostles in our worship, not the traditions of American history. The church should not ask of her people what is not required in Scripture. So how can we ask the Koreans and Chinese and Mexicans and South Africans in our churches to pledge allegiance to a flag that is not theirs? Are we gathered under the banner of Christ or another banner? Is the church of Jesus Christ—our Jewish Lord and Savior—for those draped in the red, white and blue or for those washed in the blood of the Lamb?

In some parts of the church, every hint of patriotism makes you a jingoistic idolater. You are allowed to love every country except your own. But in other parts of the church, true religion blends too comfortably into civil religion. You are allowed to worship in our services as long as you love America as much as we do. I don’t claim to have arrived at the golden mean, but I imagine many churches could stand to think more carefully about their theology of God and country. Churches should be glad to have their members celebrate Memorial Day with gusto this Monday. We should be less sanguine about celebrating it with pomp and circumstance on Sunday.

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Christopher Sweeney

commented on May 22, 2015

good thought and there is nothing scriptural about abandoning your loyalty to your country or heritage. But it is sad to see that some put that loyalty to their country or nation or race above Christ.

Dr. Shirley Lynn

commented on May 22, 2015

I agree but we put many things so far less important above Christ at least we usually put God and country when we come to worship on days like Memorial Day to worship God and country,

Craig Van Hill

commented on May 22, 2015

I'm hoping that I read the last part of your statement incorrectly but you said that we "worship God and country". Hopefully we never come to worship our country. We give thanks to God for it but don't worship it.

Dr. Shirley Lynn

commented on May 22, 2015

I do not agree maybe you need to think more about what God is really saying and we will celebrate with God and country. This is where we serve God and this is where we appreciate those who serve God and country. Maybe you need to rethink your theology.

Jason Smith

commented on May 22, 2015

Can you give a Biblical command or example to show us it is acceptable to God to celebrate American holidays during our worship of God? Calling someone to rethink their theology, especially when God does not tell us to celebrate national holidays during our worship services, seems backwards.

Patrick May

commented on May 22, 2015

I think your point number 5 nails it. On another note, this Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, where we the Church for centuries have celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Church so she could be the new people of God in worship and on mission. I do think it is sad that the Hallmark calendar will trump the Church calendar in many churches this Sunday.

Dr. Shirley Lynn

commented on May 22, 2015

I disagree with point five because we should thank God for His blessing and part of that blessing is God and country. Those who served have blessed us with security and God has blessed us. But we are losing our blessings not because of our singing songs about God and country but because we have forgotten Him Monday thru Saturday and maybe we remember Him an hour on Sunday!!

Jason Smith

commented on May 22, 2015

I agree that we should always be thanking God for the blessing that we have in this country. Every Christian should do this. But why add to the worship something that God has not given His approval of? Should honoring soldiers of our country take place during a worship service?

Krissy Mcgill

commented on May 23, 2015

Are you kidding me I can't believe your asking this question?

David Shannon

commented on May 22, 2015

Point 5 is on the mark for another reason beyond the topic of patriotism. The Lord clearly tells us the type of songs to sing as a church; psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (eph 5:19). The reason is obvious, worship is about praising and adoring God and no one else. There will be many other good things in our life to esteem and hold up (giving honor to whom honor is due), but worship isn't the time nor place. We need to be wise and faithful to worship in spirit and truth. Our wonderful country of America must not become our idol in worship.

Jd Hine

commented on May 22, 2015

Kevin. Thank you for the article. Good thoughts. I do not see anything in Scripture which forbids a church from observing Memeorial Day, part of our American experience, in a worship service. Also see nothing wrong with singing, America, the Beautiful...God shed His grace on thee, followed by prayer for our nation. A memorial is a remembrance. Our church is honoring those who sacrificed for our nation, then honoring the One who gave the ultimate sacrifice on the cross. We then will observe the ultimate memorial...the Lord's Supper. I do understand that patriotism is not synonymous with Christianity, however, to diminish our heritage as a nation is to diminish the God who gave it to us via those who sacrificed. Our grandparents understood this. We need to be careful not to think ourselves the wiser.

Jason Smith

commented on May 22, 2015

Jd, where would you draw the line when it comes to accepting what scripture does not forbid? Would you celebrate presidents birthdays? Valentines Day? The list could be endless... Why not just do in worship what we know is pleasing to God; Worship that is focused on honoring God and Christ for their work in redemption? We should only do what is authorized by God if it is truly Him we want to please. In my honest opinion, making the sacrifices of men a focus takes away from what is commanded by God to be the focus, Jesus and His sacrifice that transcends all national boundaries. As disciples, even though we may live in America, America is not our home. Our citizenship is not here.

Krissy Mcgill

commented on May 23, 2015

Jason obviously you have never served, if those men and women your talking about didn't sacrifice their life's you wouldn't have a pulpit to preach from you don't seem to know your history to well.

John Sears

commented on May 22, 2015

The problem I see is that too many church goers equate being "American" with being "Christian" as if the terms are synonyms. They are not. I appreciate your article that wrestles with where to find the balance. Thanks for the insight.

Chris Moore

commented on May 22, 2015

Kevin, you are a brilliant thinker and theologian to the Millennials. I heartily agree with all in your article, with the exception of #5, but not for the other reasons expressed here. I find error in that it seems to propagate the age-old error that there is something 'sacred' about the place where believers gather. If life in it's entirety is to be an act of worship (and surely if actions as mundane as eating and drinking are considered such, then all of life must be!), then we shouldn't single out Sunday Morning as something exceptional, aside from the fact that it is a gathering of people to worship together. If it's okay for a gathering of believers to sing the Star Spangled Banner at a baseball game together, then there is no inherent reason to not have the freedom to do the same in a building called a 'church'. Otherwise we risk getting back to the misaligned theology of sacred vs. secular. Regardless, if a body DOES choose to put together some sort of patriotic reminder, they would equally be wise to remind their people that our ultimate citizenship isn't here, but in heaven, and our final allegiance and loyalty can be placed there alone.

David Shannon

commented on May 22, 2015

Chris, All we do in life isn't acceptable in God's eyes in worship according to I Cor 11. They had perverted the Lord Supper and Paul concluded "if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home" (vr 34). Bringing a full meal to table at home or a fellowship meal at the building is right, but not in worship. We could make other obvious examples of things designed by God, that the assembled church would not do in worship together; sexual relationship of spouses, or governmental affairs or paying taxes, etc. In other words, the all of life is worship -- isn't apples to apples with what the church does when it assembles in worship. Most things in life we will never and should never do when the church assembles to worship. I know I don't have all the answers, but I ask you to consider this.

Chris Moore

commented on May 23, 2015

I appreciate your thoughts on this, David, but I'm not sure I see the parallel. The problem with how the Lord's Supper was being handled in Corinth was an issue of sin. Greed, gluttony and neglect were causing some to flaunt and others to go without when it came to the meal, so Paul's solution was to not eat in the fellowship. By the rationale you presented, it would also make sense to never honor mothers on Mother's Day, fathers on Father's Day, or anyone else on any other occasion because someone may be left out. I think a much more pertinent scriptural connecting point would Romans 12, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep." Also, "Show honor to those to whom honor is due." I head an organization that runs a children's home in Central America. I worship in churches outside my own country 15 times/year. When I am there, I don't expect them to focus on America because I'm not in America. But as an American, I can appreciate the festivities that go along with their own national identity. I don't for a second feel like somehow I'm being slighted because American isn't recognized in another culture. Again, it all comes down to the nature of the Church for me. The Church is simply followers of Jesus gathered for His glory and purpose. I don't think we lose that identity or purpose if we are celebrating the 4th of July or Memorial Day or Mother's Day.

Elizabeth Jones

commented on May 22, 2015

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Kevin. I agree with the majority of what you say. However--I serve a small congregation of mostly seniors. Most of them are either veterans or widows/relatives of veterans. Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Veterans Day are all extremely important to this congregation and to the memory of those who have faithfully served our country. This Sunday also happens to be Pentecost. You better believe I am celebrating Pentecost! The paraments of the church are all red--as will be my stole on Sunday. However, I am going to be observing the Memorial Day holiday during the Prayers of the People, with a special litany for those in service of our country as well as those who have died in the service of our country. I am also mentioning all those who are in danger and in harm's way in places of conflict around the world, no matter which "side" they are on, civilian or military. God is everyone's Heavenly Parent.

Don Duvall

commented on May 22, 2015

I totally disagree with you. Too soon we forget what this country has gone thru and the people who gave their live for our freedom. I do believe as one of our greatest presidents said "We don't need say God is on our side we need to say we are on God's side."

Patrick May

commented on May 22, 2015

The Kingdom of God transcends nation states Don. Our Lord Jesus Christ was not crucified and risen for democracy or for any nation-state.

Stephen Linamen

commented on May 22, 2015

I don't see the reason for some of the arguments presented as being the ONLY way to look at Pentecost Sunday vs. Memorial Day. I believe either topic can be used to bring glory to God and either is appropriate for worship. Each pastor should seek the leading of the Holy Spirit for direction, also taking the needs and background of his congregation into consideration. Pentecost is a central idea to the beginning of the New Testament Church and should be taught. However, Jesus often used secular items and situations to solidify spiritual truths in the minds of His listeners. For example, when asked if it was lawful to pay taxes to the government (tribute to Caesar), Jesus said, "Show me a coin!" He then went on to explain a Christian's secular duty to be a good citizen AND his spiritual duty to worship God - while using a secular piece of money as a bridge to teach a spiritual truth. When talking about faith, Jesus said, "Hey, do you see that tiny mustard seed? Miraculous things could happen if you had faith even as small as this tiniest of seeds." The themes of extreme sacrifice and remembrance that we celebrate on Memorial Day may be used to remind our congregations to consider the great sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This may also be an excellent time to close the service by celebrating the Lord's Supper, which is a visual way of remembering the Lord's sacrifice (in remembrance of Me). The bottom line is that either topic, Pentecost or Memorial Day, can be used to the glory of God. With respect to Memorial Day not being in the Bible, this sounds like the Regulative Principle of Worship - if it's not explicitly mentioned in the Bible then we shouldn't do it. Please, I'm not trying to be difficult, but think about this: hymnals - not in the Bible (they sang psalms), Sunday School - a relatively recent development not specifically mentioned in the Bible, use of PowerPoint presentations or other visual aids - not mentioned in the Bible nor used in the early church. However, all are used to edify the church and are integral parts of our worship. We must be careful when applying this principle. Let's stop arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Preach what God lays on your heart - Memorial Day, Pentecost, or Noah and the Ark - and let's spend our energies glorifying God rather than spending time trying to prove that we are more liturgically correct or more holy than our brother. Pentecost or Memorial Day - use either TO BRING GLORY TO GOD.

Jd Hine

commented on May 23, 2015

Excellent response. totally agree.

R B

commented on May 23, 2015

May God continue to bless you for your wise council brother Stephen

David Kennedy

commented on May 23, 2015

I totally agree with Kevin. I try to separate the actual purpose of each of our national holidays. On Memorial Day we remember those who have died but we don't do a lot of flag waving. On July 4th we thank God for the country we live in and pray for its future. On Veterans' Day we thank vets but don't get particularly patriotic. One parting shot: if you're singing God Bless America as someone mentioned, you very likely don't have permission to print or project the words.

Larry Neal

commented on May 23, 2015

Is it okay to sing "God Bless America" from memory?

David Kennedy

commented on May 23, 2015

You bet!

Douglas Hallman

commented on May 23, 2015

I guess the Revolution era would have had to count Kevin out of the "Black Robe Brigade". We have our freedom not only because men and women died to earn it, but because preachers proclaimed the virtues of liberty and stirred the hearts of patriots to stand for the Nation.

Jd Hine

commented on May 23, 2015

Right on, Douglas. American church history is too easily forgotten. We're those guys doctrinally off base! If so, we should be speaking with an English accent ol' chap!

Krissy Mcgill

commented on May 23, 2015

Jason have you ever heard of sacrificial love, you know laying down you life for someone else (John 15:13)?

Krissy Mcgill

commented on May 23, 2015

Jason chaplains serve our military and bring the message of God to our service members. Our nation was founded upon Christian and Jewish heritage. I hope none of your members see what that served see your comments because their offensive and disrespectful to the services members and their families by the way I have served as a Army Chaplain.

Krissy Mcgill

commented on May 23, 2015

Jason did God tell you to write your tomfoolery.

Kenneth Mandley

commented on May 24, 2015

All good until your point 5. The church is an excellent place for patriotism. In fact, it is the best place to breed an appropriate patriotism. Not the 'my country right or wrong form', but "thank you God for giving us the free country we live in'. Further, Memorial Day provides an excellent opportunity for preachers to move from honoring the sacrifices of those who gave their lives for freedom to encouraging their listeners to remember the great sacrifice of Jesus that gave us freedom from sin and life eternal. As to the Koreans et al, that you mention who are worshipping in our churches today, I would encourage any foreign nationals who might be in this country to give thanks for those Americans who fought and died for freedom so that others in the world might be blessed.

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