Should Patriotism Have a Place in Worship?

Every Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day, churches all across the country bring out the flag and patriotic tunes in a show of solidarity for God and country. But should they?

To many, it seems harmless to sing such tunes and wave the flag. After all, what could be wrong with showing pride in our country and in recognition of all those who have died in the preservation of this great nation? But when we worship, we enter into the presence of a holy God who is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29).  This requires that we enter with reverence and awe, and with holy fear.

In dealing with this subject, we have to immediately ask: what should be our guiding principle in answering the overall question? What should we use to determine whether or not it is permissible to sing patriotic tunes, and wave the flag (metaphorically, or even actually) in the presence of a holy God? In fact, we might wonder: is it okay to even ask the question? Do we tread on sacred cows that are so untouchable that even posing the question might bring condemnation, persecution, and burning at the stake?

Anyone who has spent any time at all ministering in the church in America knows just how dangerous this question is. I recently learned of a Methodist minister in Tennessee who simply asked the question: should we display the American flag inside the sanctuary? He quickly found himself unemployed.

We know that this is a sacred subject to some. To even ask the question is to tread on the holy ground of those who are more concerned with country, than they are with God. We have two sources we can turn to in answering the question. The first source, sadly the most popular, is the use of man’s tradition, endorsed by our feelings. The other source, which I find to be more convincing, is the Bible. In essence, it boils down to this: do we let tradition dictate our actions, or the word of God?

Traditions are formed out of our culture and we follow them because of how they make us feel about the past and who we are. We are emotionally invested in our traditions. For many, traditions are transcendent and go beyond religious beliefs. After all, the Mason, the Mormon, and the Christian can all join hands and sing Lee Greenwood’s Proud to Be An American. We can all stand up at a major sporting event and sing the National Anthem together.

The problem arises when we take such feelings, emotions, and traditions into worship with us before a holy and just God. This cannot be what drives us in worship. God’s word and decrees for worship have to be our guide for how we approach a holy and just God.

Here we begin to see the problem when it comes to worship. We need to be asking: how would God have us worship Him? As I’ve wrestled with the issue of what is appropriate for worship in the church, the church that was bought and paid for with the blood of Christ, this is the question that no one ever asks. So many think that the verse in John 4 stating that we are to worship in spirit and truth is all the word of God actually has to say about worship. But it is not.

We see both proper and improper worship throughout Scripture, and a good example of both is found in Leviticus 9-10. In proper worship, believers are obedient to God’s instructions on how we are to approach and worship Him. The Israelites followed the instructions to the smallest detail in Leviticus 9, and we see that God revealed His glory to them. Then the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people (Leviticus 9:23). 

The reason I’m pointing this out is to help us see that we are not free to worship as we please, to sing as we please, to add elements of worship, as we please. God is specific. He has been clear. Adding something that God has not called for us to do, is to introduce strange fire. This I what we find in Leviticus 10 with Nadab and Abihu.

Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron and Levitical priests, offered up profane fire before the LORD. This so angered the LORD, He used the fire to consume them. More plainly, God killed them for their creative expression of worship. He said,  “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people, I must be glorified” (Leviticus 10:3). God is not being mean, but showing us that HE is indeed holy. God is not some jolly figure we can toy with. He is our Creator and He has every right to set the parameters of how we worship Him. According to His words, we need to do so with reverence and awe.

Given the principle that we are only to worship God as He has instructed us, what about patriotic songs? Is there room for God Bless America? God has indeed given us instructions on the matter.

Through the Apostle Paul, we learn what we are to be singing. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the LORD (Colossians 4:16). The goal of singing is to help us learn the word of God, so that it dwells richly in us. Paul tells us how this is to be, through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. The Psalms are the 150 Psalms of the Old Testament. This is what the Apostles and Jesus sang when they gathered for worship. Songs that were steeped in the truth of scripture were later added.

But in none of these descriptions of what we are to sing do we have the freedom to add the secular. Singing patriotic tunes, even though they may mention God, is adding the secular because the song’s subject is America, not God. There is no spiritual truth to be found in the National Anthem. There is no lasting value in focusing on a country that will one day perish, along with the rest of the nations.

To make the point, look through the entire New Testament. There is not one example of the Christians there, including the Roman citizen Paul, ever hailing or exalting the Roman Empire. If we really believe in sola scriptura, the Bible alone is our authority for faith and worship, then we must recognize that God sovereignly decreed the focus of our nationality is always on the Kingdom of God, not as U.S. citizens, or any other country.

I realize that many may say that the Roman Empire was wicked, and who falsely believe that somehow the United States is divine. However, by doing so, we have moved from being patriotic, to nationalistic. Being patriotic is simply loving one’s country. Being nationalistic is exalting one’s country to an unhealthy level of idolatry. It is the belief that the country is so special, that it can do no wrong, and should never fall under God’s judgment. But even Israel, when God was working through a specific country, fell under God’s judgment.

Finally, we must also recognize that when we worship God, we do not do so as American-Christians, Japanese-Christians, or any other nationality of Christian. We enter into worship, from our respective tribes and nations, with the identity we receive in Christ. Simply put, in worship, there are only Christians being caught up into His presence. Our nationalities no longer identify us because we enter into the worship through the righteousness of Christ. In Christ, we are given a new identity.

The Apostle Peter tells us we are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). We see God’s purpose in our lives. It is not to praise the nation, but to praise Him. This is the reason we are given the new nationality. It’s not so that we can hold onto that which is passing away, but to praise the One who has brought a Kingdom that will never end.

If we want to hang on to our nationality, then this shows us to be double-minded and having two masters (Matthew 6:24). Jesus makes it clear to us that we cannot have two masters. And if in our master is the state, then we need to be honest with ourselves and quit worshiping the Savior.

When it comes to our worship of the Triune God, we should not introduce those things that He has not given us to do. We are not to sing patriotic tunes in worship. We are not to wave the flag in worship. In worship, our praise is to be to Him, to Him alone.