I ache for the Church. My heart pounds within my chest, bouncing off my ribs in a thudding rhythm that fills my ears. I am distraught over the mess that she has gotten herself into. The Bride of Christ is dressed in dingy clothes. She is distracted. She hasn’t brought along enough oil to light her lamp through the long, dark night (Matthew 25:1-13). She does not watch. She sleeps, complacent.
The Church is my people. Much as I’d like to shake free at times, I can’t. I know that. You want Jesus, you get the Church. That’s how it works. I own my part in this. I admit to my flaws, imperfections, and straight up rebelliousness. But I believe that the time for shrugging shoulders and saying, “What can you do?” is over. It never should have been in the first place. The Holy Spirit’s hand of conviction is heavy upon His people everywhere you turn.
I wonder if we will respond.
“Where is this coming from and where is it going?,” you ask.
On June 29, I posted this paragraph on my personal Facebook page:
I often get into trouble for saying this, but patriotic displays have no place in worship. None. Zero. When we gather corporately, or when we engage privately in the spiritual disciplines, the focus is to be God and God alone. There are plenty of other times and places to talk or sing about our appreciation for whatever country we live in.
Most of what I post receives little attention (often none), so I was not expecting the controversy that followed. Because the above is not a controversial statement. I did not say that a patriotic person cannot be a Christian. I did not say that a Christian can’t be patriotic. I did not say that I hate anyone and everyone in the military. I did not say that I hate anyone and everyone on the police force. All I said was…well, what I said.
I have gotten into trouble for sharing this thought (or a variation thereof) before, which I guess should have given me some clue, but, again, I really expected this to go unnoticed. It didn’t.
Before you join those I angered and unsubscribe, let me give you just the newest in a long list of a reasons why I hold fast to this opinion, unpopular as it is: Robert Jeffress, the “pastor” of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, hosted a “Freedom Sunday” campaign rally (definitely not a church service) on June 24. This is the second year he has done so. Last year, the choir sang a brand-new composition: “Make America Great Again.” The “sanctuary” was draped in red, white and blue. The audience waved little flags in the air. Jeffress talked about how amazing America is and how wonderful President Trump is. I refuse to provide you links to the church or the song because you have Google and I won’t funnel traffic to either.
Because it’s disgusting.
I am the LORD, that is My name;
And My glory I will not give to another,
Nor My praise to carved images.
– Isaiah 42:8 (NKJV)
…I will not give My glory to another.
– Isaiah 48:11c (NKJV)
Do you suppose that God was joking around? Do you think His views have changed?
That rally was nothing less than an exercise in foul idolatry. On a Sunday, in a church, instead of preaching the Gospel, instead of digging into Scripture, instead of singing praise to God, this man led the people in the singing of praises to the country and the president. That is wrong. At least it was all very blatant and in-your-face, though. Have to give Jeffress credit for that. Congregations around the country routinely mix politics and patriotism with faith, engaging in the syncretism, largely out of ignorance, that ancient Israel was destroyed by. Many drape the Cross in the flag, literally and figuratively, assuming, perhaps unconsciously, that they belong together.
Do you think that God is pleased by this?
I wish that you could hear me speaking this aloud. I wish that you could hear the passion in my voice. This isn’t about anger or making people feel bad. I don’t think I’m better than you. What I am is desperate for Christians to understand this: The United States of America is not special. This is a country, like any other a country. A geographic location. A piece of earth. No American citizen is amazing or wonderful or exceptional by virtue of being an American citizen. Those of us who live here are the same as everyone else on the planet. Our history is just as checkered.
Additionally, Republican does not equal Christian nor is Donald Trump the second coming of Christ. So many behave as if both those things are true. They are willing to defend and justify anything this party or this man does because…I genuinely have no idea at this point. No Supreme Court justice appointment is worth the wrangling and compromise (nor should the court be politicized the way it has been, but honestly that’s always been an issue, to greater and lesser extents depending on who was president at the time, from the beginning). I guess people think they can get something out of it? That the GOP will make them rich through the not-miracle of trickle down economics? It’s a mystery to me.
Please, don’t object via soundbites such as “What about the Democrats?!” or “Her emails!” That’s not good argumentation. Believe me, I clearly see the corruption in politics as a whole (which has existed since the Continental Congress), and I am aware of the issues within the Democratic Party, but, objectively, neither the party nor Hillary Clinton is (or would have been) any worse than what we have now. If the Democrats were in power, there would be problems, no doubt, albeit different ones. (And I’d be writing about that if the Church had shackled herself to those leaders). But stubbornly folding your arms and declaring, “They did it, too,” wasn’t a good excuse for your parents and it’s not a good excuse now. Evil on one side does not give anyone license to promote or protect evil on the other side. I don’t know why this is difficult for anyone to grasp. Wrong is wrong no matter who does it.
We Protestants like to get on the Catholics for elevating Mary to a salvific position (which, for the record, they deny and really depends on the individual Catholic’s grasp of doctrine), but what about our own elevation of country? What about our own beliefs of exceptionalism and superiority? We can be thankful for the good in this country (and others can be thankful for the good in the countries in which they live) but that thankfulness is not blind, uncritical or unquestioning. Even the most casual, cursory reading of history reveals the rot that has always existed in the United States. And that thankfulness most certainly is not to be blended with theology to create some bizarre civic religion. This conflation goes directly against truths revealed in Scripture, truths about idolatry, about the make-up of the Kingdom of God, about the universality of the Gospel.
We have got to let go of this idea that we live in a “Christian nation.” We don’t. We never did. Yes, Christians were involved in the founding of this country, but they didn’t establish a theocracy. (Except the Puritans, who sort of tried that in Massachusetts, but they really aren’t the best example because they liked to burn, hang and otherwise harass people who didn’t agree with them, i.e. Quakers and a bunch of people in Salem). We have no hemeneutical leg to stand on in believing that we have replaced Israel, that we live in the “promised land,” and can therefore apply promises made to that nation to ourselves, here and now. We have no reason to think that we occupy a unique place in God’s plan beyond that of any other nation that He has allowed to rise and fall.
God says He won’t give His glory to another. He’s super blunt about it. Thus patriotic displays and songs don’t belong in our worship services. The “Star-Spangled Banner” and other songs that celebrate the nation should be expunged from hymnals. The flag doesn’t belong in the sanctuary. Pastors should not use the pulpit for anything other than preaching the Word. There are plenty of times and places for us to discuss and celebrate what we appreciate about this country. Corporate gathering for worship is not one of those times or places. How is this controversial? How is this offensive?
We need to check ourselves at all times, though. Beyond Sunday morning. As I said above, idolatry isn’t often so blatant as that at First Baptist. What are our priorities? Upon what are we focusing? Do we find ourselves arrogantly thinking, “Oh, thank God I’m not from an African country”? (Note that I said “arrogantly thinking,” as if we are better than those elsewhere, as if we are entitled to the prosperity and privilege in which we live, because reasons. It’s okay to be thankful that you don’t live in a country decimated by civil war and extreme poverty, though that thankfulness should lead to compassionate action toward those who do suffer in those conditions, including those who are impoverished here). Do we think that we have the right to traipse through the world, demanding special treatment?
Just as Christianity should not be tied to man-made plans or means, so it is not spread through societal dominance or political institutions. The world will not be saved by our allegiance to the temporal. People will not come to Christ by our smearing a thin veneer of ultimately false morality over the culture. The “city on a hill” from which the light shines (Matthew 5:14) is not this specific place, but all places, among all those who know the Lord. Our job is not to force a fake post-millennial utopia that will last approximately one minute until all hell breaks loose. Instead, our job is to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly (Micah 6:8). It is to care for the poor, oppressed and marginalized (1 John 3:17-18). It is to preach the Gospel of grace and restoration, mercifully supplied by the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ (John 21:15-17).
That’s the thing about following Jesus, though – it means you’re rarely going to have a cultural army on your side. Jesus Himself was born into a world rocked by culture war, and he never really embraced the cause of the conservatives (Sadducees), or the liberals (Pharisees), or the radicals (Zealots), or even the…Benedict-option-types (Essenes). Instead He called them all to the same thing: “Repent and follow Me.”
We can do better. We can be better. I know we can. The Holy Spirit will enable and empower us. It will take humility and repentance from us, which is extremely painful, but that pain is worth it. Because being American ultimately doesn’t matter. National distinctions disappear in the Kingdom, as our adoption by God through Christ makes us one global family. Our thankfulness and celebrations must always be tempered by this greater reality. Our brothers and sisters, our literal brothers and sisters, all of whom we will not meet until the culmination of this state of existence, are beautiful and entirely equal to us.
As for those who do not know and love the Lord: How can we go out into the world and preach the Gospel to them if we are not their servants, as the Savior modeled?
Dear God, help us to choose. Help us to release the white-knuckled grip we have on wrong notions and treasured positions that run contrary to Your will and way for us. We have been stupid and selfish. We have swallowed flattery and falsity because it makes us feel good. We have remained babies, refusing to grow, refusing to cooperate in Your work of sanctification. Help us to bend our stiff knees and necks to You. The hour is late. The harvest is great. It is time for us to get up and do the work that You commissioned us to do. In the glorious, saving, mighty Name of Jesus, Amen.
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