The Fourth of July is just around the corner. Even now American churches are planning their Sunday service around it. Maybe they’ll include a patriotic hymn like “God Bless America” or the national anthem. Maybe men and women in uniform will parade the American flag down the center aisle. Maybe a congressman or mayor will offer a “special word.”
I love patriotic music, fireworks on the National Mall, and the country they’re honoring. But I confess I’m not a fan of celebrating America inside Sunday’s sanctuary.
It just might work against Jesus’s Great Commission.
Celebrating Our Nations
Civil religion is an old companion to American churches. Revolutionary-era pulpits pushed the cause of national identity. The Civil War divided one church from another over the same. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations mobilized churches in their fight against godless communism.
This companionship is gray-haired and venerable. It feels natural and neighborly, which means I might be challenging something deeply intuitive for you. Of course we should celebrate America! Hasn’t God blessed our nation?
Yes. He certainly has.
Suppose you were visiting Great Britain this coming November and walked into a British church on the second Sunday, the Sunday closest to Armistice Day. There’s a decent chance you’ll be asked to join their patriotic praise in hymns like “I Vow to Thee, My Country” or “O Valiant Hearts” or the British national anthem. You’ll observe two minutes of silence for remembering British and Commonwealth servicemen who gave their lives in the World Wars. And you might witness a parade of flags together with a rash of red poppies lapeled around the room. All this they call Remembrance Sunday.
No, wait, pretend it was the 1780s, and then place yourself in that English service (it didn’t exist then, but just go with the point). As an American, might you feel a bit out of place? Even estranged from your fellow Christians? Or pretend it’s not Britain, but Germany, or Malaysia, or Uzbekistan, or Venezuela. I hope you would be happy to pray for the prosperity of those countries. But at that moment you would also know you were an outsider—not one of them.
And that right there, my fellow American Christian, is the heart of what I want you to think about. When we walk into the weekly gathering of Christians anywhere on the planet, who should be the them and who should be the us? Should churches divide between nations, or between those who identify with Christ and those who don’t?
Celebrating Our Heavenly Citizenship
I remember attending an evening Bible study inside a backroom of Britain’s House of Commons in 1993. I was the strange American interning for a member of Parliament. Yet I remember experiencing an immediate sense of kinship with these fellow British staffers. Somehow, we shared a common language. I don’t mean English, but a deeper heart language of worship and allegiance. Our national differences remained, as apparent as our different accents, but their significance faded. More profound was common love and loyalty to a common King, whose name isn’t Charles, William, or Bill. And if that’s true for a weeknight Bible study, how much more for the service in which we gather around the Lord’s Table, where we declare ourselves “one body” (1 Cor. 10:17). The same has been true of my experience with saints in Germany, Malaysia, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, and beyond.
Church gatherings represent nothing if not a celebration of our heavenly, not earthly, citizenship (Phil. 3:20). The Lord’s Table is by definition a multinational one.
Church gatherings represent nothing if not a celebration of our heavenly, not earthly, citizenship. The Lord’s Table is by definition a multinational one.
Certainly, Christians should thank God for any good that he has given through one’s nation. Paul argued in the Athenian Areopagus that God himself marked the times and boundaries of the nations (Acts 17:26). He exhorts churches to intercede for our rulers, to give thanks for them, to honor them (Rom. 13:7; 1 Tim. 2:1–2).
So let’s pray and give thanks. Maybe even spend a few extra minutes on the Sunday closest to a national holiday doing so. My own church thanks God for the ability to worship freely and prays for political leaders nearly every Sunday. We pray for America’s prosperity on every front: in our schools, our businesses, our military, our entertainment industry, our homes. Christians have a vested interest in promoting just, fair, happy, and healthy nations, because free and peaceful nations provide an opportunity for people to get saved (1 Tim. 2:3). They provide a platform for God’s work of redemption.
Messages We Send
Yet when you add that patriotic song, display that flag, or invite that politician to offer a special word to your church gathering, you risk working against the Great Commission. Jesus commissioned us, “Go into all nations.” That means he was establishing a people not bound or defined or constrained by this world’s national borders. He was building something multinational. The Soviet Union tried to stop this commission with machine-gun-guarded fences. China sends out secret police to spy out Christian assemblies. To each, Jesus has replied, “Try and stop me.”
Americans saints need to beware an alternative strategy of working against Jesus—not the strategy of keeping Christianity out, but of bringing the national in, thereby blurring the line between our Christian identity and our national one. You can know that’s happening whenever we begin declaring America—not the church—as “the city on the hill,” as Presidents Kennedy and Reagan both did. Of course, they learned it from the Puritan John Winthrop, who preached that the Massachusetts Bay Colony should be that city on the hill in 1630. Again, the companionship is old, our intuitions deep.
So thank God for our nation on the Sunday nearest July 4. And if your church does celebrate with patriotic songs and flags, don’t grumble in your heart. Praise God for his country-sized blessings. But remember what we’re communicating about the us and the them. We want Christian Brits and Venezuelans showing up that Sunday and discovering they are us. And we don’t want to tempt their non-Christian counterparts to believe they must become Americans to be Christians.
And, perhaps most crucially of all, we don’t want non-Christian Americans to believe they are us simply because they love the flag. No, they must love the cross, and we love them most by pointing not to the flag, but to the cross.