It’s Only Idolatry if You Worship It

The word idolatry gets thrown around way too easily these days.  Mike Bird just said:

I confess that I have always been perplexed why Americans have flags in their places of worship. It is borderline idolatry, it confuses the kingdom of God with a worldly government, and it (deliberately?) creates the view that America somehow has a special relationship with God that other nations don’t have.”

Now whether or not you agree on the placement of flags in churches (I don’t have a problem with it) I think we should all agree that it’s only borderline idolatry if folks come really close to worshiping these flags.  Of course if you don’t agree with that then you’re wrong and I will respect your right to be wrong if that’s what you choose to be. ;-)  But I’ve been in a number of churches with flags (and most of them have had more than just the US flag although I suspect Mike’s experience might be different here) but I’ve not once seen anyone worship any of these flags or come close to it.  In fact I can’t say that I’ve ever seen any reference made to the flags at all.


38 thoughts on “It’s Only Idolatry if You Worship It

  1. I don’t know why it’s so popular and acceptable for Christians in other countries to bash on America(ns). It sure does get old though. Seriously, why not focus on your own issues instead of going out of your way to find something to judge another country about.

  2. I chafe at national flags in a space set aside to worship God, as I think it confuses issues (and for some, borders, or even inhabits, idolatry). This chafing has gotten worse after working at a Christian university with a high number of international students.

    Even worse, for me, are the Memorial Day, Independence Day, etc celebrations that add national USA stuff into the worship service. I can’t even attend these any more, as I become distractingly irritated.

    My stance irritates some and offends others. And, while I try not to be overbearing, I’ve gotten to the point where I must stand where I must stand.

    Even so, the US flag stays in the corner of our worship center: it’s presence is not so offensive as the national(istic) celebrations.

  3. Nick, if it displaces God in any way, then it is idolatry! If you don’t have a problem with flags in your sanctuary, then you have a problem! Even worse, if you take the pledge of allegiance to the flag in a setting where you should pledge allegiance to Christ alone, then you’ve really got an Asherah pole with stars and stripes in the sanctuary. I’m not trying to be fashionably anti-American (I like America and Americans), but it is marrying nationalism to the context of worship which is dangerous theologically and spiritually.

  4. Bryan: I’m with you. Plus I’m proud to be an American. Let me go bow before my flag! :-P

    Laura: The day I see someone worship a flag is the day one in a sanctuary will bother me. The building in which we worship has a number of flags at the back. It’s not our building but if it was I still wouldn’t be bothered. I think they’re all the flags of nations that the church has missionaries in but I might be wrong. Oh, and there’s a Christian flag too.

    Mike: And therein lies our difference of opinion; flags don’t displace God in any way. At least in no way that I’ve ever seen. Flags are no worse than women wearing hats or pastors wearing robes in the sanctuary. And the problem is all yours my friend, all the more since you seem to elevate the sanctuary to an almost idolatrous level (I’m being intentionally hyperbolic to make a point; I don’t think you really do this). The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. There’s no setting in which we’re not supposed to pledge allegiance to Christ alone. I think the real problem is the idea that the “context of worship” is relegated to church buildings.

  5. I agree with Bryan and Mike. I have been completely opposed to saying the national anthem, singing the Star Spangled Banner and having a flag in church.

    At the same time, it’s so common in overseas to have America bashing sessions in church sermons. It gets very, very old. I guess it’s because their the big kid who has all the fun toys and is most successful in school. It helps you feel better to criticize them when in fact you are really jealous.

    With that said, when I lived in China of all places, it wasn’t common.

    It also gets old in NT Wright sermons/books as well.

  6. Kyle: I’ve never heard the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance sung or said in church. I’ve also never attended a church that had Memorial Day Services or anything of the like. The closest I ever came to any of that was in my old church. on MLK Day they had some guest speaker come in to say something about MLK. I wasn’t at that service. So my experience with flags in churches is that they sit there and little else.

  7. I despise civil religion as strongly as the next, but you don’t know what idolatry is until you’ve seen somebody actually bow before an image of stone and worship it, or worse, make their children do it. Stretch the definition too far and it loses its meaning.

    Re: American bashing–a lot of it takes places because Americans themselves do it so freely. Americans are brutally open about their flaws, even to the point of gross exaggeration. If you point of that India has a lot of idolatry, an American might typically respond “Oh yes, we have lots of that too.” The some short-term (i.e., tourist) missionaries talk, you would think America is the most wicked place on earth. A lot of the bashing is imitative behavior. It drives me nuts. I like to explain that it’s neither heaven nor hell, just a country…

  8. I agree with Mike. And as John Cleese said, ‘God doesn’t bless nation states’. Nothing to do with anti americanism. More that I’m anti flagistic. Get over the obsession with patriotism. :-) What has nationalism got to do with religion? As a humanist, I’m more interested in worldism. OK, globalism. Ism. ;-)

  9. Folks, I think I have a broader definition of idolatry than some of you. It ain’t just bowing down to bricks and stone. Consider Colossians which talks says “greed which is idolatry”. It’s displacement of God. Putting flags in churches makes the USA to be most favoured nation before God. Even worse, pledging allegiance to the flag in a church service (not in the Armed Forces, not in School) is grossly inappropriate. I got no beef with flags and pledges in their proper place, but in church? It’s mixing things that can lead to a very dangerous cocktail. And let me add, according to some posts on blog, this is not a unique America problem. I’ve been informed of Australian examples as well. It is more prominent in the USA but not restricted to the USA.

  10. Sean,
    I agree with much of what you said. The other day I had to wait while my eye doctor spent a few minutes giving an offering and praying at his altar. Next door an auto mechanic was burning paper money for the afterlife. I understand the realities of idolatry and how Americans have “cheapened” it due to not having actual idolatry in view much. We tend to do the same thing with fasting. Since none of us are willing to really fast, we cheapen a traditional fast by substituting necessities (like food) for pleasures (like going to Starbucks). Thus, we are “fasting” from Starbucks.

    As for the children thing, I don’t blame other faiths for having their children participate in their idolatry. I understand the mindset behind the action even if the action is leading their children into dangerous territory. After all, my five year old recites his catechism before our family Bible study time each night and we all pray together before bed. Of course, we worship a living God not made by human hands, but still…

    I also agree about Americans being very open about our flaws, but I think this is to our shame because many other cultures see it for what it is, which is actually self-centeredness. The stereotypical American flaunts their good traits and the stereotypical American Christian flaunts their flaws. Same mindset at work…pride.

  11. I lean towards the side of M.Bird on this one… While I would not say that the placement of the flag is idolatrous, I would say that it certainly communicates something that can end up being nationalistically dissonant with the Gospel. Then again, I’d also say the pomp and circumstance of some of the more extravagant places of worship (whether the Vatican, the Crystal Cathedral or Westminster Abby) may (to some) communicate something that is economically dissonant with the Gospel.

  12. “Putting flags in churches makes the USA to be most favoured nation before God.”

    Who says? Is there some official document we’ve all agreed to that says if you put your flag in a church then you as a church are saying your nation is the most favored nation before God? You act as if your interpretation of a flag being present in a church is the only one. Maybe churches that do so are just asking God to bless, and guide the people of that nation and to help keep them from evil. It could be all kinds of reasons. Heck there might be no real reason a church puts a flag in the sanctuary. They may have just done it out of tradition without much thought behind it.

  13. I have a broader definition as to what constitutes idolatry (like Mike Bird apparently does).

    I don’t think that having flags in your church is wrong in and of itself, but I have found that a lot of church folk do have a tendency to see the flag of America as equaling the flag of Christ! That is what makes me dislike seeing flags in churches.

    Regarding America church bashing. It does happen a lot but I do not think it is primarily due to non-America Christians being jealous (as G.K. Essary said above), but rather more because Christians outside America see American Christianity as impotent. I think a predominant way that people outside of American view American Christianity is of a church that has merged the gospel together with the fight for the American dream of liberty, health, wealth, and success.

  14. Steph: I think folks over-think flags. They’re symbols of the places that people live. Big deal.

    Mike: Indeed, idolatry is more than just bowing down to bricks and stone, it’s putting things before God. Simply having (a) flag(s) in churches simply doesn’t equate to this. The best case anyone can make is for the attitudes of individuals towards these flags and I’ve yet to see even a single instance of anything that comes even remotely close to idolatry.

    Jim: And that’s pretty much where my head is at one this: simply having a flag in a church does not necessitate nationalism, idolatry, or any of the other nasty things folks want to read into it. Can it entail this stuff? Sure, anything’s possible, but on average I’d have to say that it doesn’t; at least based on my experience.

    Bryan: Those are all possibilities. And it might just be a way to say, “hey, this is where we’re from.” Like I said, almost all the churches I’ve seen flags in have had multiples flags from various countries. Faith Fellowship in Sayreville, NJ has members from over 30 nations in its congregation and it has flags from all those nations (and probably more) hanging around the church. I think for them it’s a way to show God’s global reach and the way he’s able to draw people to Christ from anywhere in the world. For other churches it might not be so well thought out.

    Diglot: I’d agree; it’s not wrong in and of itself; but I’d take it a step further in saying that I think in most cases it’s not wrong in the attitudes most folks have toward these flags. Your experience with American Christians is completely foreign (no pun intended) to my own. Perhaps it’s the circles I travel in.

    Ari: And they’d be wrong. ;-)

  15. yup big deal – so why the effort to put it in a ‘religious sanctuary’? Do people like to be reminded which country they live in before they go in to worship? Seems a bit silly to me.

  16. I am very suspicious of arguments that appear in the form of “It’s only [something undesirable] if . . . ”

    For example,

    “It’s only cheating if . . .”
    “It’s only stealing if . . .”
    “It’s only lying if . . .”
    “It’s only dishonest if . . .”
    “It’s only selfish if . . .”
    “It’s only racist if . . .”

  17. Seeing that the “latry” in “idolatry” comes from the Greek “latreia,” worship, yeah, worship is pretty essential to the definition of idolatry. “It’s only idol worship if you worship it…” is perfectly correct. Of course, idolatry can be used metaphorically too, as it is sometimes in Scripture, but the definition shouldn’t be stretched so far that it loses all meaning, which I think happens commonly in American-church usage of the term. Many people do make a virtual idol out of money; very few make a virtual idol out of, say, their TV or even an American Idol, regardless of how much time they waste on it. Civil religion is pretty close to an idolatrous worship of the nation/Volk, but I don’t think the mere presence of a flag in a church constitutes such.

    “Idolatry” is not a synonym for “sin.” One can sin with something in other ways than idol worship; again, the word doesn’t have to be stretched to include all possible sins. Adultery is sinful, but it is not idol worship. Flags can be used as instruments in sins other than idol worship–pride, hatred, violence, greed, sloth, etc. Bowing down before a Shiva lingam or a statue of Krishna–oh yeah, that’s idolatry.

  18. Sean brings up a good point. “Idolatry” is often stretched so much by Christians that anything that is sin can conceivably be considered idolatry.

  19. Reminds me of arriving in Houston where all the airport staff wore cowboy hats and plastered all over the walls were big american flags with ‘God Bless America’. Which always brings me back to John Cleese…

  20. Steph: Silly, maybe; idolatrous, not at all. And I disagree with John Cleese; I think God blesses every nation state because he has people in all of them.

    Vinny: How about stating it negatively: “It’s not [fill in the blank] unless…”? Idolatry is something and it’s not other things; that’s my basic point.

    Sean: I’m with you again! I forgot how much we agree on stuff (except Barth of course). ;-)

    Bryan: Very true. I think we rob the word and its underlying concept of its significance when using it like that. Same thing with “backsliding.” I’ve heard it preached that unless we do better everyday and grow closer to God everyday then we’re backsliding. Nonsense!

  21. Nick you’re just trying to excuse your backsliding. It won’t work. ; )

    BTW people in the more rural/small town parts of Texas might wear cowboy hats but not really in the bigger cities. Although, the cowboy look is popular among certain groups of Mexicans even in the bigger cities, although I’m not too sure why It may be depending on where they’re from. We also don’t ride around on horses (another common misconception). Just thought I’d mention that. : )

    Steph, did you stay in Houston or were you just catching another flight?

  22. It’s “idolatry” in the same sense as the Israelites when they set up a golden calf and thought they were worshipping the LORD (Ex 32:5). Idolatry isn’t just making “something” into God — it is also making God into “something”.

    The domestication of God is one of the most subtle and pervasive forms of idolatry I know of.

  23. Bryan,
    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain that those are misconceptions to people overseas. As soon as I mention I’m from Texas they ask if I rode horses to school, or why I don’t wear boots, or if I have an oil derrick in my backyard. I grew up in Garland, Midland and Plano. Not exactly ranching areas, ya know? Unfortunately, the stereotype partially works with me since my dad does live on a ranch now, and my stepdad does work for an oil company, haha.

  24. “I’ve never heard the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance sung or said in church. I’ve also never attended a church that had Memorial Day Services or anything of the like.”
    Nick, you have an open invitation to worship with us on a Sunday before or after or remotely near any patriotic holiday, including Flag Day. Two Sundays before Memorial Day our piano player broke out into a medley of patriotic numbers during the offering, which in our congregation immediately follows the Lord’s Supper. With the body and blood of Christ still lingering on our palates, we rose to our feet and clapped along with such sacred chestnuts as “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” Maybe this doesn’t rise to the level of “worshipping” the flag in your book. But it’s hardly a case of the flag just “sitting there” and doing nothing else.
    And I can tell you from my own experience among conservative Midwestern churches that such nationalistic displays are far from exceptional. The choir at one of our sister congregations puts on a “Living Flag”–a variation of the immensely popular “Living Christmas Tree”–each year on the first Sunday in July. Perhaps I’m just being anti-American, but I struggle to imagine the earliest Christians turning the Lord’s Day assembly into a “Living Standard” in honor of the foundation of Rome. But the Roman Empire, as we all know, wasn’t a “Christian Nation.” At least not yet.

  25. T. C.: I think there’s a difference. Mainly one is idolatry and the other isn’t. ;-) Patriotism (or even nationalism), good or bad, is not idolatry.

    David: If anyone actually worshiped the flag or what it represented then I’d agree 100% with you; in fact that’s my point. The Israelites made a statue and literally worshiped it in place of God. I’ve yet to see this with flags in churches.

    Darren: Sounds strange, and it may even be in poor taste, just not idolatrous. I see the kind of complaints about flags as applicable to a whole host of things but most of those things don’t bother me either and I can’t see any of them as idolatrous.

  26. With all due respect, Nick, singing hymns (or show tunes?) to America as part of a Lord’s Day assembly does more than violate the limits of poor taste. At what point is it permissible for church leaders to warn that a particular practice is potentially idolatrous or, worse, symptomatic of an idolatrous mindset? Must we wait until the golden earrings are in the fire? Some of Jesus’ contemporaries cried “idolatry” when Pilate brought Roman standards into the holy city under the cover of night. Last I checked Pilate wasn’t forcing anyone to worship them, just tolerate their presence. Or what about disciples like Polycarp who chose a martyr’s death rather than swear fealty to “Lord Caesar”? I guess turning the worship assembly into a patriotic rally isn’t remotely idolatrous unless statues of eaglets adorn the flagpoles and the words of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” are hymned to Uncle Sam as to a god.

  27. Darren: I have no problem with warning against potential idolatry. My issue is with the idea that placing flags in churches is idolatrous. Whatever issues you have with the practices in the churches you attend should be taken up with the leaders of those churches, not me. Do you still attend these services, and if so, why?

    Oh, and Jesus’ contemporaries were wrong too, and Polycarp was right to die rather than serve a master other than Jesus.

  28. Nick,
    Just for the record, placing flags in a church building doesn’t automatically rise to the level of idolatry in my book either. I’m more concerned by the accompanying attitudes and behaviors, some of which I’ve tried to illustrate. Perhaps the kind of practices I’ve described aren’t common among churches in New Jersey, but they are here in the Midwest. Oh, and I have voiced my concerns on multiple occasions to the church leadership. But when half of the eldership is packing the American Patriot’s Bible as their study Bible of choice, well, good luck. That’s all I’m saying. I’ll let you have the final word. Peace.

  29. Darren: You’re in a better position to judge the situation in the churches you frequent than I am. I will say that I don’t think it’s any more idolatrous to sing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in a sanctuary than out of it. But I suppose the issue concerns the heart more than the singing.

    Have you considered leaving your church? This seems to be something that you strongly disagree with and something that you clearly think is wrong. If there doesn’t seem to be any chance of fixing the problem then I don’t know how you can stand it. I nearly left my church over my pastor’s reluctance to consider Oneness Pentecostal theology to be heretical and his willingness to fellowship in the context of worship with Oneness Pentecostals. After some prayer and fasting he changed his position but if he hadn’t I’d have been out of there because it’s something I felt strongly about.

  30. Kyle:
    Yeah it’s funny how many people think that about Texas and are surprised when it’s different when you get here. Like I said, it’s here but mainly in the more rural parts and where ranch life is more prevelant. Honestly though it wouldn’t be bad for me to live on a ranch and where that stuff. The life seems somewhat romantic from what I’ve seen on tv : )

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