Cross and flag do not mix

I’ve heard of people getting upset when clergy point out that for Christians, especially in church, the cross is our predominant symbol, not the American flag. This story takes things to a new level:

A local church pastor who removed the U.S. flag from the church sanctuary has taken a leave of absence after receiving harassing and threatening notes — including one left in his hymnbook in the church, police and church officials said. …

“Sean [Allen, pastor] was of the belief that because we are a church, we are a people of Christ, we should be focusing on the cross of Christ,” Long said. “So he removed the flags from the sanctuary.”

This kind of thing tells me that it’s important to be clear and firm on this one. I’m grateful to live in this country, and I like our flag. Of course, the Episcopal Church flag makes a nice visual companion to the US flag. We fly one set outside our church, and we have another set displayed from the gallery. But I took down the third set, which was near the sanctuary. My reasoning was that one set inside was plenty, and that our primary visual symbols should be the cross and the Holy Table. As far as I know, no one seemed upset by this. I do not know what it would have been like if there wasn’t also a set in the rear of the church.

Anyway, this seems like exactly the kind of thing that’s worth some good conversation. Why are Christians so incredibly invested in having a US flag in the front of our worship spaces? What should our primary symbol be? Are we American Christians, or Christian Americans? Then there’s the ever-popular question: what would Jesus do?

I don’t think we can have it both ways. You can’t be supremely loyal to the flag and to the cross. I seem to recall something about how we can’t serve two masters. Hint, it’s in this week’s Gospel reading.

In any case, I hope Pastor Allen has a long life, and that he’s free to go back to preaching the Gospel soon. Death threats! There’s another topic for a sermon series…

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6 Responses

  1. I think Pastor Allen has earned some stars for his crown. Seems to me someone in his congregation hasn’t quite heard the Gospel message. Hummh.

  2. Phil Groom says:

    I’m kinda baffled by this: I thought that the separation of church and state in the USA was a constitutional requirement — so what are churches doing with flags in the sanctuary anyway??

    Here in the UK we have a state church, the good old C of E, so you probably expect us to have the Union Jack on display… but we don’t.

    Talk about getting things upside down!

  3. Melody says:

    This is something that I have certainly seen first hand. Our church PROCESSES the American and Episcopal flags directly behind the cross into and out of the sanctuary for every service. I think that’s wildly inappropriate, and I have suggested (rather strongly) that we use torches instead of flags. The suggestion is almost universally met with outrage on the part of parishioners and the unwillingness of the rector to draw their ire. I don’t really understand where all of this is coming from for people, but I think at least in part they need to feel reassured that their Christianity is not at odds with their nationality. They have heard words like “God bless America” again and again from the White House, and it has underscored their belief that Christianity and America are specially linked in some way. Unfortunately, many people are unwilling to admit that there is a tension, and sometimes even a direct conflict between the two loyalties. And sadly for many American Christians today, their identity as Americans is more integral to their day to day lives than their identity as Christians. I am with you, though, Scott– the cross and the table need to be our central, and preferably sole, symbols of allegiance inside the church. They proclaim the heart of who we are as Christians, and that should be honored in our spaces of worship. My heart goes out to Pastor Allen!

  4. BillyDinPVD says:

    Sorry, but I think you’re off base. While your church seems to have gone a little overboard (two sets of flags in the church?) surely no one mistakes a single US flag in the chancel as the predominant symbol.

    And for the gentleman from the UK: the separation of Church and State means that (quoting the Constitution) “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…: It has absolutely nothing to do with this topic. And since it’s not the Church of the United Kingdom, no, I wouldn’t expect to see the Union Jack displayed. England’s flag, St George’s Cross, is another thing. And here’s a photo of the Guards’ Chapel, Wellington Barracks – it’s just chock-full of flags, including the Union Jack. I’m willing to bet it’s not the only one.

  5. Scott Gunn says:


    If no one is confused about the flag’s relative importance, then tell me why people sometimes get so upset at the mere mention of removing flags from churches.

    Can you offer biblical support or examples from tradition in support of this practice? Generally, throughout history, erastianism has been deadly. Based on this history, and on Jesus’ clear rejection of close alliance with state power, I believe that flags should not be displayed near altars, where their importance can become distorted.


  6. BillyDinPVD says:

    While no adequately instructed Christian believes that the flag is the primary symbol, that’s not to say that it’s not an important symbol to some. I think people get upset for different reasons. Some probably think clergy who are adamant to get flags out of churches of being unpatriotic or anti-American. Maybe others are tired of constant change. Let’s face it – the past few decades have seen serious change in TEC; maybe taking the flags out is the last straw for some.

    By “examples from tradition,” – which tradition are you talking about? Big T Tradition? Anglican tradition? The tradition of TEC? The practice of other churches in the past? I don’t know if Big T Tradition has anything to say about it, but the others certainly do. Flags have long been displayed in Anglican churches.

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