Darrel Harrison writes the following about idolatry:
By definition, idolatry is the worship of a false god. But this begs the question: what is a “false god”?
Simply put, a false god is any person or thing that redirects our affections away from the one true God in terms of the devotion, worship, and adoration that is due only to Him. Most Christians would concur with that description of idolatry. The problem, however, is we Christians generally understand such misplaced adoration solely in terms of venerating statues and other physical images that represent other religions or deities.
In my earlier post, Should Patriotism Have a Place in Worship? I looked at whether or not we should sing patriotic songs in worship. My point was simply to show that we are only to sing what God has directed us to sing: psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Colossians 3:16). This excludes patriotic songs.
Let us assume that I am right concerning the songs we are to sing and not sing in worship, then what about simple patriotism? Is patriotism idolatry? Harrison’s definition is really helpful:
Simply put, a false god is any person or thing that redirects our affections away from the one true God in terms of the devotion, worship, and adoration that is due only to Him.
Therefore when we take something as simple as patriotism, do we run the risk of turning an affection or admiration for our country into idolatry? There is nothing wrong with admiration for the country we have been given. The problem arises when we exalt that admiration to unhealthy levels. How can we test our affections? Here are three questions to ask ourselves to determine if we have crossed the line from simple appreciation for our country to idolatry.
The Church is Not a Civic Organization
Should we allow the American flag in the sanctuary? This answer to this question is probably a pretty good barometer of whether or not we have allowed patriotism to become idolatrous. If the suggestion to remove the flag from the sanctuary brings out ire, wrath, and indignation, then we have become idolatrous.
I saw this reaction with an elder in a previous church. He became enraged because several of us moved the American flag out of the sanctuary and into the narthex for vacation Bible school and didn’t put it back afterwards. He was truly angered, telling me at one point, “My brother gave his life for that flag.”
I get the emotion. The man lost his brother in World War II. But giving his life for that flag, while a noble sacrifice, was not an act of salvation. It’s not something we are called to do as believers. We may do so, but that should never be hailed as who we are in Christ. The elder was ascribing holy status to his brother that the Bible doesn’t warrant. He elevated him to sainthood in the midst of the worshiping saints. He was telling us that the flag was holy because of the shed blood of his brother.
I know the elder was trying to find meaning in his brother’s death. But that is not the meaning we are to ascribe, especially if we are Christians. The only factor that ultimately mattered in the brother’s death is whether or not he was a Christian, trusting in Christ for salvation. If so, the LORD chose to take him home via war and, while we rejoice that he is home with our LORD, we don’t sanctify the event that God used to bring him home. If the man was not a Christian, God used the war to bring judgment on him. But either way, the man was not earning any righteousness by dying for a patriotic piece of cloth or the country that it represented. Even if he died for the Kingdom of God, he earned no righteousness or sainthood.
What this elder did, and many others do as well, was add significance concerning this nation to the worship of God’s people. God’s people are to worship God alone. This is the emphasis of the First Commandment: You shall have no other gods before Me. This includes the flag, our country, or any other entity of man. God alone is to have our devotion and worship.
Remember, we are not meeting with God in worship as American-Christians, but as Christians. We hail from every tribe and nation, but those identities that we once had no longer apply. The only identity that matters is whether or not we are a new man in Christ, remembering that in having put on Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
Far too many people think of the church as a civic organization, like the Rotary or Kiwanis clubs. This happens because the church building is often at the center of the community so it has a civic feel to it. But the church is not a civic organization. To think that it is, is to misunderstand the spiritual nature of the church.
Herein lies the real problem. When we consider the true church, we are really talking about something that only God brings about through the preaching of God’s word. It comes about through the gospel yet we too often fall into thinking that it comes about by membership drives or man-centered evangelism schemes. Since we think we grow the church through membership drives, just as we do with the Rotary Club, then the church is something we establish and grow.
The church is not the work of human hands. The true church belongs to Christ alone because it comes about by His shed blood alone. If we disagree with that, then does the church we attend really belong to Christ?
What If We Don’t Sing?
Can someone really be a Christian if they are not patriotic to America? In other words, if someone chooses not to stand for the Star Spangled Banner at a sporting event, can we question their Christianity? I know we can question their patriotism. But being a patriot should never be a standard for righteousness. This is the greatest danger of patriotism. Far too many make it a standard for righteousness’ sake, when it is not a standard at all. The Bible requires that we submit to governing authorities. It says nothing about devoting ourselves to the nation.
To ask this a different way, is patriotism required to be saved? Must we give our hearts, souls, and lives to our country in order to earn salvation? Absolutely not. To even suggest this shows just how idolatrous patriotism can become. We may lose our lives defending our country, but we are never called upon to do so in order to earn some level of righteousness before God.
The Pledge of Allegiance?
What about those who refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance? There are Christians who consider taking a pledge to anything other than Christ to be contradictory to who they really are in Christ, as being double-minded, something Christ warned about in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
We are called to follow Christ with complete devotion. He is not looking for disciples who are divided in their allegiance. Those who are will end up following mammon in the end, instead of Christ. We either follow Christ alone, or we follow the world.
The Pledge of Allegiance is making a statement of devotion. It is not harmless. By taking the pledge we are saying we identify with the man-made entity of the United States and the flag that represents that nation. By taking the pledge, we are giving our allegiance to something other than God. By taking the pledge, our loyalties are divided and thus guilty of idolatry.
Are we going to follow Christ or our nation? Is our devotion to this country contrary to devotion to Christ? If we follow the apostolic example, we don’t ignore our citizenship, but only use it for the purposes of the Kingdom of God, as Paul did when he appealed to Rome. Yet, in doing so, he was not advocating loyalty to, or devotion to Rome. His loyalty and devotion were completely reserved for Christ alone. Rome had no place in his heart, nor in the hearts of any of the believers of that day. They saw Rome for what it was: Babylon, which is how John referred to Rome in the book of Revelation. (Babylon is any city or country that represents man. The United States clearly falls into this category).
So let us recognize the truth about our country as well. It’s not Christian. It’s not the Kingdom of God. It’s not a recreation of Israel. The United States is merely one more nation in a long line of nations.
As Christians, let us follow our King. Let us work to advance His Kingdom, and let us not confuse His Kingdom with the kingdom of man. That is idolatry.