Flag waving in worship became an issue while I was on staff at a church a few years ago. I wrote the following tract. It has recently been brought up in a discussion at the CETA-L (Canadian Evangelical Theological Association yahoo group list). Please note that I am a supporter of Israel and Canada politically, and I disagree with people who are offended by the flags of these two countries. But in worship, we must remember that our goal is to make a place where people can come to know Christ and him crucified.
On the waving of National Flags in Christian Worship
Peter W. Dunn (c) 2001, rev. 2009
The waving of national flags has become vogue in our church and others. There have apparently been recent prophecies which have guided various individuals into the practice of waving the Canadian and Israeli flags in worship. I personally would appreciate being able to see the prophetic words. The highly idiosyncratic practice of waving the political flags of Israel and Canada should have prophetic confirmation and approval from leaders, especially other pastors, prophets and theologians. Such a practice, after all, is unprecedented in any other church in my experience (including churches of various denominations in Africa, Europe, England, Canada and the United States).
Prophetic words must not stand over against biblical teaching, but should illumine, highlight and confirm the Scriptures. They can also address issues not clearly spoken of in the Bible. Nevertheless, the Scriptures stand above the prophetic word, because the Bible is one of criteria for the judgment of prophecy. This is why there is a need for both teachers and prophets in the church. Neither is sufficient without the other. Prophets need the correction of teachers who derive their authority from the Bible, and teachers need the correction of the prophets who derive their authority from the Spirit. The two, Spirit and Scripture, should be presenting a united message or something is askew.
The Bible, however, seems silent about whether flags should be used in Christian worship. Passages which do mention the raising of a standard (Isa. 11.12; 62.10; Jer. 51.27) do not at all justify the practice of flag waving in Christian worship. It is important to ask of these passages, whose flag is to be lifted up: certainly not the national flags of Canada and modern Israel which have another connotation than the banner of the Lord God. One might err on the side of forbidding what is not explicitly permitted, but I am not of that point of view. To find out if it is appropriate to wave flags during worship, it is necessary to appeal to biblical principle. And here I think the teaching is actually quite clear.
Let me cite Romans 14, which deals with disputable matters. The original context has to do with Jews and Gentiles in the same church. A Jew must not condemn Gentiles for the eating of non-kosher meat, but a Gentile must not flaunt his freedom in Christ and create a stumbling block for the weaker brother who cannot eat everything. The goal is mutual edification in the church-that it might be a place where both Jew and Gentile can worship. Suppose I just change the words, “eating meat” to “waving flags” and see what we come up with (NIV):
1 Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 2 One man’s faith allows him to wave flags, but another man, whose faith is weak, cannot wave flags. 3 The man who waves everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not wave must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
5 One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who waves flags, waves to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who does not, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:
“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will confess to God.'”
12 So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.
13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. 14 As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no flag is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. 15 If your brother is distressed because you wave flags, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your flag waving destroy your brother for whom Christ died. 16 Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of flag waving or not flag waving, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.
19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of flags. Every flag is clean, but it is wrong for a man to wave anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21 It is better not to wave flags or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.
22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But the man who has doubts is condemned if he waves, because his waving is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.
Thus, we can see easily see the analogy between flag waving and eating of non-kosher foods. Flag waving is morally neutral, as is the eating of foods. Flags are not in themselves unclean, just as foods are not. Some people consider it perfectly acceptable to wave the banners of certain countries in Christian worship, while others are deeply offended by it. In the time of Paul, Gentiles could eat all manner of food, while the Jews would be offended by the eating of non-Kosher meat in their presence.
Paul’s answer: Keep it to yourself. Do nothing in the presence of a fellow Christian that would be offensive to him, for if you do so, you are no longer acting out of love. Paul says bluntly that it is wrong to do anything (knowingly) that causes a brother to stumble.
Who are the people that could stumble? I think flag waving is offensive to the following groups of people: (1) Anyone who has a political bone of contention with the country whose flags are being waved. Most Muslims, especially Arabs, hate the state of Israel. If we wave the Israeli flag in our church, we will offend them. Quebec separatists and perhaps some First Nations people have no love of Canada and could be offended by the Canada’s flag. Consider this question: Can you invite your next door neighbor to our church? Well, I can’t. They are Algerians and they hate Israel. Why make Israel a stumbling block. Paul says in 1 Cor 1.23: ” … but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, … “). Jesus crucified should be the only stumbling block in our church; if we allow seekers to stumble over political flags, I don’t think God will be pleased with us. Jesus also died not just for Jews and Canadians, but also for Separatists and Muslims. Why do we put up stumbling blocks keeping them from knowing Christ?
Consider the following excerpt from the internet (http://www.religioustolerance.org/news_01apr.htm; italics theirs):
The city of Gahanna, OH, (a suburb of Columbus) flew the Israeli flag from the city flagpole as part of the “Days of Remembrance,” a national commemoration of the during World War II. Representatives of five Muslim groups met with Mayor Jim McGregor, and asked him to remove the flag. Ahmad Al- Akhras, president of CAIR-OHIO said: “We want to thank Mayor McGregor for understanding that the desire to honor and remember all those who died at the hands of the Nazis is a completely separate issue from flying the Israeli flag. For the Islamic and Arab communities in Ohio, that flag is a symbol of the ongoing oppression suffered by Palestinian Christians and Muslims.” The mayor agreed; the flag was removed.
But one does not have to be Muslim or Arab to be offended by the Israeli flag. Two students at the University of Western Ontario, presumably of non-Muslim background, were offended by an Israeli flag posed upon the table of the Western Debating Society (WDS) which they presumed to be open to people of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds. They wrote to the Gazette, the student newspaper of the University (letter of April 4, 2000):
Just this year, as we were considering joining the WDS, we happened to notice a large Israeli flag draped across their table. Now, we may be wrong, but we were under the impression that the WDS teaches people to be open minded and unbiased in their arguments and so we pose the question: What was the Israeli flag doing hanging across the WDS table? This was certainly enough to make us feel unwelcome.
As can be seen from these two excerpts, the Israeli flag is a stumbling block to many kinds of people.
(2) Anyone who thinks it is inappropriate to wave a country’s flag in church. Such people usually believe that flag waving confuses devotion to God with patriotism. This has become a point of debate in the United States recently, as Americans rally to fight the unseen enemy of terrorism. Many churches have turned to flag waving. I have a friend who was in a church where there was a debate between the music leader and the pastoral staff over whether it was appropriate to sing “That grand ol’ flag” a song praising the American flag but apparently devoid of any worship content. Why do we need to add another item to a list of things that churches do that keep people from being able to enter their fellowship? If Christians are offended by something, let them be offended by the gifts of the Spirit active in our midst, by our love for one another and for God, or by our preaching of the truth. Why let a disputable matter become an issue which divides us?
(3) Some loyal Canadians and loyal Israelis who may feel that their flags are being mishandled by flag wavers. Christians waving the Israeli flag or a star of David in a Christian service would probably at best perplex Jewish visitors; but it could at worst be a source of great irritation. Thus, the very people to whom these flag-waving Christians are trying to reach out could be offended by the practice. According to international custom, there are protocols for the handling of flags which these flag-waving Christians ignore. E.g., an American flag must never be allowed to touch the ground.
If Christians wave national flags in worship services, it would be an affront to God, for we would be choosing to disobey what is a clear teaching of Scripture regarding disputable matters in favor of prophetic words which should rather be judged according to sound principles. Love should prevent us from creating stumbling blocks.