I grew up in the Church. And as the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, when I say I grew up in the Church, I mean literally IN the Church. As in, during the summer months when school was out and my brother and I wanted a coke, we bought them from the soda machines inside the Church where our Dad was pastor. One year while our Church was building a new building, when we tired of our almost daily routine of playing baseball, we would spend hours on end playing on the scaffolding that had been erected by the construction company handling the project. I went to every revival, every Wednesday night service; including business meetings. Every Sunday morning, every Sunday night and every Bible School; I was there. I mean I grew up in the Church.
Every day of Vacation Bible School, we said the pledge of allegiance to the American flag, the pledge of allegiance to the Christian flag and the pledge of allegiance to the Bible. I can remember getting to carry the American flag a few mornings during the opening assembly and taking enormous pride in it. Being the kid that I was, I must confess, my pride wasn’t so much the result of some sense of patriotism as it was in just getting to be the one that got to carry the flag.
I also remember some of the patriotic hymns like “America the Beautiful” being sung during Sunday morning worship services on the Sundays that fell closest to July fourth. In fact, I can even recall thinking how cool it was that those songs I first learned at school were actually in the Baptist Hymnal.
What I do not remember is exactly when it was that our Churches came to devote entire worship services to a nationalistic theme on a designated “Independence Day” Sunday.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see anything amiss with singing the occasional patriotic hymn around July fourth. I don’t even have a problem with Bible Schoolers saying the pledge of allegiance to the American flag as long as it is done so alongside and in addition to, the Christian flag, but I have a huge problem with the concept that the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is somehow synonymous with the United States. There should never be a time when this country or its flag is made the centerpiece or the theme of a worship service inside the House of the Sovereign God.
Interestingly, Americans are not the first group of Christians to assign undue importance to citizenship. The Christians in Philippi struggled with the same misunderstanding.
Philippi is unique when compared to the other churches of the New Testament. It got its name when an original colony was taken over and renamed in 356 BCE by Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. In 168 BCE Philippi, along with all of Macedonia came under Roman control. In 42 BCE, two major battles were fought in the plain west of the city between Cassius and Brutus, the killers of Julius Caesar and Octavian (later Caesar Augustus) and Mark Antony. Following Octavian and Mark Antony’s victory, Philippi was honored by Octavian and established as a Roman military colony. The honor, among other meaningful privileges, granted Roman citizenship to every citizen of Philippi and to anyone born in Philippi subsequent to 42 BCE.
The designation of Roman colony had the effect of placing Philippi as the equivalent of Rome. Philippi was literally considered Italian soil.
When the Romans established military colonies they gave veteran Roman soldiers parcels of land in the colony. Doing so, not only alleviated population problems within Rome, it also ensured loyalty to the Emperor and a strong sense of identity with Rome on the part of the citizens of the colony itself.
The Cult of the Emperors, the worship of the Roman Emperor as God, was more prominent in the eastern Roman provinces than it was in the west and by the time Paul wrote Philippians (circa 62AD), the cult had a substantial presence in Philippi.
The titles given to Caesar in the Cult of the Emperors were “lord” and “savior” and when a Roman citizen pledged allegiance to Rome as he was expected to do, he did so by proclaiming “”Caesar is lord”. In a Roman colony like Philippi, every public event, gatherings at the theater, athletic games; wherever large groups of people formed, was an opportunity to pledge allegiance to Rome by saying “Caesar is lord”; a ritual not unlike our singing the national anthem before athletic contests and the like.*
The tension this represented for Christians in Philippi is self evident. For obvious reasons, Christians could not and would not proclaim Caesar as Lord, yet they highly valued their status as Roman citizens. We cannot be certain of the exact nature of the difficulty this conflict brought about for the Church at Philippi, but it is clear from Paul’s letter to them, it brought about hostility (Phil. 1:28). It is also apparent that the response of at least some of the members at Philippi was such that Paul felt it necessary to admonish them to “walk in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27).
Near the close of his letter to the Philippians, Paul, himself a Roman citizen, as he often did, used marvelous word play to make his point in such a way that the Philippians could not misunderstand to even the slightest degree. The NASB, the English translation I most often use, has the verse, “For our citizenship is in Heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). The Philippians however, would have understood that what Paul was saying is that “we are a colony of Heaven” or put another way, you may live in a Roman colony, but your allegiance is to Heaven; a direct and deliberate reference to Philippi’s status within the Empire. And his reference does not stop there. Paul deliberately uses the two divine titles of Caesar, “Savior” and “Lord” in reference to Jesus; eliminating any confusion as to the Lord’s expectation where the Philippians were concerned regarding the subject of pledging allegiance to Rome.
What Paul said to the Philippians applies also to us as Americans. We live in the United States, but our allegiance is to the Lord and our citizenship is in Heaven. We have a dual citizenship, but that dual citizenship does not equate into a dual allegiance.
The Lord commanded us to abide by the law (to the extent they do not contradict Him) and to respect authority, but that is true for Christians in every country. North Korea, the Sudan, China, the nations of Islam; wherever there are Christians.
The Lord does not have a list of “favored” nations. It is the height of arrogance and ignorance for American Christians to think that somehow we have been set aside by God and given a special blessing not given to people in other countries.
The Lord is NOT an American. He does not owe allegiance to the flag of the United States nor does He pledge it. “The Most High God is ruler over the realm of (ALL) mankind” and it comes dangerously close to blasphemy for anyone to pledge allegiance to anything other than Him inside the confines of His House.
Most churches will observe Independence Day on Sunday, July 5th. Not every Church will devote the entire service to a nationalistic theme and not every Church will have its members say the pledge of allegiance. A lot of them will though and if yours does as mine will, I encourage you to join me and remain silent. Refuse to pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States inside of the Lord’s Church. It’s the right thing to do.
*NOTE: Some comments on the Cult of the Emperors came from my notes taken from various commentaries over a lengthy time horizon, among them Gordon Fee’s Philippians (IVP). I make no effort to claim any of the work of Dr. Fee as my own.