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June 30, 2017

Patriotic Worship?

Several critics have denounced the “idolatry” of “Freedom Sunday” worship June 25 at First Baptist Church in Dallas, pastored by Robert Jeffress, who prominently campaigned for Donald Trump during last year’s election.

The critics include Messiah College historian John Fea, a United Methodist pastor, and a Presbyterian church music minister.  Click their respective links to read their perspectives, each of which is unique, but all are agreed in accusing First Baptist of “idolatry” for venerating America on “Freedom Sunday” a week before July 4.

Watching the video of this service, I confess I cringed when fireworks were literally ignited on the church stage while the choir sang patriotic medleys. As a Methodist traditionalist, I am discomfited by movie screens in sanctuaries, much less the Broadway/Hollywood style of entertainment that seems to influence many megachurches. Personally I prefer liturgy, creeds, venerable hymns sung from hymnals, organ music, robed preachers behind pulpits, reverence and solemnity.

My own worship preferences likely place me in a minority among today’s active Protestants in America. And my worship preferences admittedly are mostly subjective, shaped by my upbringing. But I also think there’s a theological case for a form of worship that is in some continuity with the universal church across time and culture. Yet the megachurches whose flashy style is not my preference no doubt also proclaim the Gospel to millions who would not heed traditional worship.

Worship style for Protestants is debatable. The seriousness of idolatry is not. This allegation against First Baptist by several critics cited literal American flag waving by worshippers, patriotic music, including military service songs and the National Anthem’s first stanza, that don’t mention God, an armed military honor guard presenting the colors, and asking military veterans to stand during their respective service songs.

Per the singing of “God Bless America,” the Presbyterian music director sarcastically blogged: “What better anthem to begin patriotic worship than Jewish/agnostic American composer Irving Berlin’s tribute to that good ol’ unnamed, generic American pseudo-deity?” Julia Ward Howe was a Unitarian, but her “Battle Hymn of the Republic” about Christ’s return appears in the United Methodist Hymnal, among many others, and deservedly so. No doubt other hymn writers are less than personally orthodox, yet their hymns point to God with language in sync with Christian orthodoxy.

More dubious than “God Bless America” in worship are songs that were featured at First Baptist like “It’s a Grand Old Flag” and “This Is My Country,” which are stirring music for civic pageants but don’t point to God. On Sundays close to national holidays, hymns like “America (My Country Tis of Thee)” and “America the Beautiful,” which appear in several denominational hymnals, seem more appropriate thanks to their divine references. “I Vow to Thee My Country” is a beautiful English hymn describing duel loyalties to earthly kingdoms and God’s Kingdom that deserves more American usage,

Per the armed honor guard that presented the colors at First Baptist, it seems in my view likely inappropriate for worship, since it has no traditional role in Christian liturgy, although fine for military funerals or civic events held in churches. Pacifists of course object to any presence of weapons or military regalia in a sanctuary. But mainstream Christianity affirms the military, wielding the sword for legitimate government, and rightly deployed, as God-ordained.

As to recognizing veterans during worship, they are surely no less worthy than graduating students or many many others who are marking life passages, like birthdays, who often receive acknowledgement and applause in less formal Protestant worship.

And the flag waving by worshippers at First Baptist? It’s not my own preference for worship, but was it idolatrous? If so, the thousands of Egyptian Catholics who with their priests and bishops recently greeted Pope Francis at an outdoor mass by waving Egyptian flags must have been idolaters.

There are some on the Christian Left, especially Neo-Anabaptists, who reject any acknowledgement of nation in church, denouncing even the quiet presence of a flag against the wall as idolatrous. But if July 4 is taboo in church, then so too should be citations of Mother’s Day, scouting, Labor Day, Earth Day, college and high school graduations, retirements, homecomings or MLK Day. All of these celebrations are potentially distracting from the Gospel and therefore possibly idolatrous.

But churches around the world are rooted in local cultures. Usually and rightly they acknowledge and celebrate important moments in their communities as events meriting thanks to God. Celebrations in worship only become potentially idolatrous if they are made sacred apart from divine grace.

Nonsacred music and other non-Gospel focused celebrations by churches are best hosted outside of worship. Years ago on a Sunday afternoon before July 4 I attended a wonderful church concert after worship with Baptist and Episcopal choirs jointly performing Randall Thompson’s The Testament of Freedom, which are Thomas Jefferson’s words set to music, along with Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. It was moving and uplifting for the season, and it rightly didn’t belong in worship.

Some of the patriotic hoopla at First Baptist in Dallas last Sunday gave the appearance of celebrating America without reference to God, which surely was not the intent. A more generous critique might fault the aesthetic without automatically assuming idolatry.

More constructively, such critiques might describe how better in church to thank God for the gift of nation, emphasizing that He is the source of all goodness and greatness, on July 4, and all the time.


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33 Responses to Patriotic Worship?

  1. Gregg says:

    Mark,
    While I mostly agree with the analysis in this article, your reduction of anything, no matter how secular or profane, as permissible so long as it ultimately points to God, “who is the source of all goodness and greatness,” seems to be a license to do anything.

    After all, doesn’t the criticism of Catholic and Orthodox worship and piety by (most) Protestants focus on the “idolatry” of statues, icons, and other sensory, but symbolic manifestations of the faith?

    To criticize that in one place, and excuse it in the other, seems, well…..

  2. Matthew says:

    I think you would find that many of the more “orthodox” Protestants, myself included, would find anything outside the regulated principle of worship to be taboo.

    I don’t believe that celebrating graduates, MLK, scouting, etc, has a place in a worship service.

    In addition, most of the aforementioned folks would find Coptic Christians and Roman Catholics to be idolaters.

  3. Mark,

    While it isn’t a worship style I would support or find comfort in, nor do I think my ears could hear the Spirit over the noise, I have journeyed through many places to be directed to a place where liturgical worship best enables the Holy Spirit to direct and guide me, as I am truly a spiritual knot head. I pray that God will lead all disciples to the regiments where they can best do His work. Sometimes this will be in very noisy fellowships.

    God calls me to be an outstanding citizen wherever I am in whatever nation I am in as long as I don’t trade king for King. As a disciple, I will always have to be on guard to make sure I don’t allow nationalism to cloud or distort my relationship with my Lord.

    I suspect that idolatry in the modern corrupting sense is far more subtle and internal. It is frequently entangled in Christianity, Inc. Rarely can it be quickly and easily recognized by flags or icons. What a member of a fellowship trusts in is very difficult for another to casually discern. I must daily make sure I am trusting in my Lord and encourage those around me to do the same. Most assuredly my Catholic and Orthodox friends do not worship their icons as I do not worship the windows around me which tell the story of my Lord. They provide me with points of reflection, admonishment, and sometimes rebuke.

    And when I caught my Nigerian brother polishing the tri-star on his car, he looked up, smiled, and assured me he wasn’t worshiping it. Nor does he worship the Nigerian flag emblem on the rear bumper.

  4. Linda Jones says:

    “But if July 4 is taboo in church, then so too should be citations of Mother’s Day, scouting, Labor Day, Earth Day, college and high school graduations, retirements, homecomings or MLK Day.”

    Yes, they should be taboo. Regulative Principle, and proper administration of means of grace lead the Christian right to the Holy of Holies. Why in the world would we want to make any detours along the way? Why substitute the temporal for the heavenly in worship?

  5. Richard Hyde says:

    Thoughtful and well-balanced. The mix of Christ and culture is always delicate and often volatile. Since July 2 is first Sunday and therefore communion Sunday up here at the First Congregational Church in Gray, Maine, our worship will focus on that – the Lord’s Supper. The hymns will be traditional. This being Maine, however, I will give most honorable mention during my sermon to what the 20th Maine Regiment did at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863.

  6. Pam Buckroyd says:

    Wow! At first I thought that might be satire. But no, several people are actually whining about an enthusiastic show of appreciation for our country and the military members who serve at great price. Pathetic. Really.

    • Cheryl M. says:

      People are “whining” about patriotism where worship is supposed to be. It’s like showing up at your grandmother’s 80th birthday and finding that one of your cousins has pulled everyone into a corner to host a baby shower while the guest of honor sits at the table alone. A baby shower is fine, but not when it’s a distraction from the scheduled event. How much more appalling is it when we gather to worship the risen Lord and instead focus on the most mundane earthly events (a celebration that doesn’t include any believers of other nations who might happen to be there)?

  7. Michael Bullock says:

    I miss some of the UMC ideas such as hymns. However as a SBC member I do not have to put up with support for abortion and gay bishops. Those that are not gay are liberals. All in all I will put up with bad music. I did not stay with UMC as I do not believe it can be reformed.

  8. Terril D. Littrell says:

    Mark, I agree with you totally. Thanks for being bold enough to smash one of the contemporary idols that so many people are worshiping.

  9. Allan says:

    ‘God’ once used to an Englishman, but no, clearly He’s an American!

  10. Ron says:

    While the patriotic service at First Baptist appears rather excessive, I would be more interested in the message that was presented. The church I attend also has an annual Memorial Day service and recognizes the achievements of the church youth but I don’t think members look at it as a distraction and the messages presented are always straight expository preaching. Such occasional special programs have been very effective in reaching out to the community.

  11. Wilda Mc says:

    Well, I love my God as well as my country. I was taught to be patriotic as a way of being thankful to My God for the opportunity of being born in the best country in this world. The Lord has greatly blessed the United States of America and we should be thankful. Also I see no reason no to be thankful to the great men and women who has sacrificed to keep us free. Christ died to free our souls and our service men and women sacrificed to keep us free. I see no reason not to celebrate both.

  12. Janice says:

    More and more Protestant churches are less about worhip and more about entertainment. I am looking for real worship. As yet I hwve not found it.

    • Joan Oliver says:

      Have you tried an ACNA Anglican Church ? Prayer Book liturgy for regular service with some “secular” (High School grads, Anniversaries, etc) during announcement times.

      • Joan,

        Always good to help someone looking for more than a speech and a concert. Every visitor I have ever taken with me to traditional Anglican worship has been astounded to find it is always about Jesus.

        In order to assist my Anglican and non-Anglican friends in their daily readings on smart phones, I have started posting an abbreviated Morning and Evening Prayer at 5:00 AM and 5:00 PM EST. Please pass it along if you find it useful. You can find it at http://www.foodingodsplace.com. I like having it myself when I don’t have my BCP with me.

        God be with You,

        Randall

  13. Ryan says:

    I assume Matthew means the “regulative” principle of worship, not “regulated.”

    In any event, perhaps this is one of those times when a Lutheran (or Methodist or Anglican) needs to issue a reminder that Calvinist and Protestant are not synonyms. I believe Mark T writes from such a perspective.

    Nonetheless Mark’s critique seems remarkably soft considering the PURELY secular nature of much of what was done in that so-called worship service in Dallas. We rightly criticize the Chinese Communist Party when it attempts to subvert Christianity in China and define support for the Party as an element of the faith. Why would we shirk from such criticism when similar intermingling of secular patriotism and the faith occurs here?

  14. Russ Neal says:

    Beyond criticism of taste, the real issue is the proper attitude of Christians toward American patriotism. My own feeling is that God indeed did a wonderful work in bringing about America and its system of government which alone reserves ultimate sovereignty to God, that I recognize and appreciate this fact and feel an obligation to preserve and extend this marvelous work, the work of bringing human government more in line with Biblical law, and that I am appalled at the ingratitude and holier than thou attitude of those who sniff at what God has given us here.

  15. lyn says:

    True patriotism!

    Dear friend,
    Allow me to say, that it excites both my wonder and concern, that a Christian minister such as yourself, should think it worth his while to attempt political reforms. When I look around upon the present state of the nation, such an attempt appears to me, to be no less vain and foolish, than it would be to paint the cabin—while the ship is sinking! Or to decorate the parlor—while the house is on fire!

    When our Lord Jesus was upon earth, He refused to get involved in disputes or politics, “Friend, who appointed Me a judge or arbitrator over you?” Luke 12:14. “My kingdom is not of this world! If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight!” John 18:36. God’s children belong to a kingdom which is not of this world; they are strangers and pilgrims upon earth, and a part of their Scriptural character is, that they are the “quiet in the land.” Psalm 35:19.

    Satan has many contrivances to amuse people, and to divert their thoughts from their real danger!

    My dear sir, my prayer to God for you is—that He may induce you to employ the talents He has given you, in pointing out sin as the great cause and source of every existing evil; and to engage those who love and fear Him, (instead of wasting time in political speculations, for which very few of them are competent,) to sigh and cry for our abounding abominations, and to stand in the breach, by prayer, that God’s wrath may yet be averted, and our national mercies prolonged! This, I think, is true patriotism—the best way in which people in private life may serve their country.

    I consider the ungodly as saws and hammers in the hand of the Lord. So far as they are His instruments, they will succeed—but not an inch further! Their wrath shall praise Him, and be subservient to His designs!

    If our lot is so cast that we can exercise our ministry free from stripes, fines, imprisonments, and death—it is more than the gospel has promised to us! If Christians were quiet when under the cruel governments of Nero and other wicked persecutors, when they were hunted down like wild beasts—then we ought to be not only quiet but very thankful now! It was then accounted an honor to suffer for Christ and the ‘offence of the cross’!

    Those are to be greatly pitied, who boast of their ‘liberty’—and yet they do not consider that they are in the most deplorable bondage as the slaves of sin and Satan, under the curse of God’s law and His eternal wrath! Oh! for a voice to reach their hearts, that they may know their true and dreadful state—and seek deliverance from their horrific thraldom! May you and I labor to direct them to the one thing, which is absolutely needful, and abundantly sufficient.

    If I had the wisdom or influence to soothe the angry passions of mankind—I would gladly employ them! But I am a stranger and a pilgrim here in this world. My charter, my rights and my treasures, are all in heaven—and there my heart ought to be. In a very short time, I may be removed (and perhaps suddenly) into the unseen and eternal world—where all that now causes so much bustle upon earth—will be of no more importance to me—than the events which took place among the antediluvians!

    In the hour, when death shall open the door into eternity—many things which now assume an ‘air of importance’, will be found as light and unsubstantial as a child’s dream!

    How crucial then, is it for me—to be found watching, with my lamp burning, diligently engaged in my proper calling! For the Lord has not called me to set governments right—but to preach the gospel, to proclaim the glory of His name, and to endeavor to win souls! “Let the dead bury their own dead—but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God!” Luke 9:60. Happy is that servant, whom his Master finds so doing, when He returns!

    As you have forced me to respond—both duty and love have obliged me to be faithful and free in giving you my thoughts.

    I recommend you to the care and blessing of the great Shepherd and Savior; and remain for His sake, your affectionate friend and brother,
    John Newton

  16. Mike says:

    We are flesh and we are spirit, we are Americans and we are Christians. None are bad unless were talking about sin in the case of some flesh activities.

    And flesh and spirit are present in any human endeavor including a church worship service. We pretend too much to be something more than we are. Heresy and sin are our only boundaries for a church service- and I’m not seeing any idolatry here any more than the idolatry of comfy church and traditional church service.

  17. Greg says:

    I think you mean “dual loyalties,” unless you intend for them to fight each other.

  18. howard rogillio says:

    Thanks for your comments. “It’s not my own preference for worship” is what it is all about “preference”. It is my belief that we are celebrating our American Heritage of one great nation with the freedom of religion. At leased I am not worshiping the flag or America.
    We should respect all views & not judge each others ways of worship.
    We are all striving for perfection and maybe on a different path that leads to GOD through Jesus!

    Matthew 7:3
    English Standard Version
    Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

    • Cheryl M. says:

      Howard, respectfully, there is proper worship and improper. This is from Hebrews 12:

      25 See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, [i]much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven. 26 And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heaven.” 27 This expression, “Yet once more,” denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, so that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us [j]show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; 29 for our God is a consuming fire.

  19. Ch Hoffman says:

    melania: ” when someone hits donald he punches back 10 times harder” – and she has the bruises and welts to prove it

  20. Paul Zesewitz says:

    I’m not giving the Dallas Baptists any excuse for this service, but it may be worth noting that the author of ‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’, Samuel Francis Smith, was an Andover-trained, ordained Baptist minister. Being raised Baptist myself, I can attest to the fact, then, that most, though not all, Baptists, are all over the patriotic thing in worship.

  21. John H says:

    Mark,

    It was with much dismay that I learned of your worship preferences. May I remind you that WE are to be the temple of the Holy Spirit, NOT the brick and mortar building.

    You say you prefer the robed preacher behind the podium. I say that is another example of a dead traditional church service. I am very involved in ministry to the “down and out” within my Methodist church neighborhood. I become grieved (and sometimes angry) at our pure in heart members who take their time to lecture some of these folks on not dressing better. Just this past week a man said he would like to attend but had no better clothes than the shorts he was wearing, and knew he could not come.
    What did Jesus say about dead traditions? What traditions did Wesley break? Paul?
    Did Jesus worship our current dead traditions? I think not. Methodism seems to be sinking.Can we be open to the Holy Spirit to change us regarding our traditions? Open the doors to the lost and those many who need various healings !

    • Betsy says:

      I am currently reading “Radical Wesley” by Howard Snyder, It a very practical and enlightening take on John Wesley. John Wesley very much believed in the sacramental nature of the church while maintaining a belief in the importance of individual inward and outward holiness. It was one of many apparently contradictory concepts he held in tension with each other–something the American branch of the Methodist/United Methodist Church lost the ability to do a very long time ago when it bought into theological plurality.

  22. Scott Amos says:

    What you described at First Baptist Church in Dallas is part of the main cancerous issue that plagues the leadership of that church. I’ll get right to the point: Robert Jeffress has slandered every Christian who refused, for whatever reason, to vote for Donald Trump. He has called me and other NeverTrumpers a bunch of fools, hypocrites, holier-than-thou people and “namby-pamby, panty-waisted, weak-kneed Christians”. Well, those statements are lies, pure and simple. The next time I am in Dallas, I may walk up to first Baptist Church and then shake the dust off my feet and walk away. (Matthew 10:14 – or as Trump would probably say, Matt-ten-two-dots-one-four.)

  23. Jane says:

    this attitude is one of the major reasons churches are dying: “Personally I prefer liturgy, creeds, venerable hymns sung from hymnals, organ music, robed preachers behind pulpits, reverence and solemnity..” read Thom Rainer’s “Autopsy of a Deceased Church”…a good read for all of fath

  24. RustbeltRick says:

    This same church, one week later, sang a new hymn entitled Make America Great Again. Do you still stand by your defense that this is all a bunch of nothing? It’s pretty obvious this congregation is politicized beyond anything that’s healthy.

  25. Scott says:

    First Dallas Baptist has another problem. Their pastor, Robetrt Jeffress, has called NeverTrump Americans a bunch of fools, hypocrites, holier-than-thou people and “namby-pamby, panty-waisted, weak-kneed Christians”. Churches need to stop demonizing believers who have different political viewpoints. Congregations need to have diverse beliefs in order to truly thrive and grow.

  26. Please glorify Jesus Christ as the center and final purpose of any and all gatherings of the saints.

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