At the Methodist church where I began my ministry as a pastor, there’s a heated discussion going on about not having the American flag in the sanctuary. I'm sending this pastor a lot of love and prayer. Not support necessarily, but prayer. He needs it. He wrote a 2-page article in the church newsletter explaining to these nice whitebread suburban conservative East Texas Methodists why it’s the right thing to do. Here’s the weird part: he’s right. Theologically, the idea of having no idols or graven images is clear. Huge, actually – the idea of God’s people never bowing to any earthly nation – scripture seems pretty clear about not having any other allegiances than to God. The prophets struggle with the people of Israel to get them to quit worshiping Baal and Astarte; the early Christians proclaimed “Jesus is Lord” as a direct refutation of the Roman greeting “Caesar is Lord.” So, yeah, theologically, the American flag doesn’t belong in the sanctuary of God.
And here’s why I don’t think he went nearly far enough. If you're going to make huge shifts like that based on a theological principle, then don’t pick and choose. Go all the way. Commit. (This is me calling the last bet put on the table. I’m figuring that last bet is a bluff, or at least ill-advised. So, I’ll call.)
If you're going to take all the idols out of the sanctuary of the church, then get with it. In fact, purge the church itself. Not the campus, but the whole thing. Step up, balls out. Get rid of:
There are these kinds of idols in every denomination and church system. Bible churches – what’s the idol? The Bible. Baptist churches – what’s the idol? Baptism and salvation. Catholic churches – what’s the idol? Eucharist. Episcopal churches - what's the idol? Liturgy. What’s an idol and what’s not? Anything I think is as important as God is an idol. “As important as God” means, This is the right way to experience God and really no other understanding but ours is the right one. I can hear Jesus now: "Didn't I say to get rid of all that shit?"
Oh, and, here’s why this is a bad idea on a completely practical level. Don’t take the American flag away from East Texans. That’s like pissing on their mother’s grave. They also don’t like questioning America or President Bush. There’s no “Keep East Texas Weird” bumper stickers.
So, I don’t know how that pastor will live through this one. It may be the hill he has chosen to die on. One seminary professor told us, “You’ll have only so many opportunities to be crucified in ministry, so choose them wisely.” The pastor's two-page letter may work in convincing his parishioners that it’s the right thing to do, or it may not. If this were important to him and he wanted to be involved in meaningful community, he might’ve done better just to sit around and talk to people and listen to people and pray with anybody who wanted to be part of a discernment process. There's no hurry. Sometimes it takes a long time for us to get our own shit out of the way. There's nothing that has to be decided in a hurry - unless someone's starving, or naked, or sick, or in prison. But then, if the hundreds of millions of Christians really were about only following Jesus, then those problems wouldn't exist.