When the members of North Point Church gather this Sunday, our time together will look and sound similar to every other gathering on every other week throughout the year. We will sing, pray, read, and hear God’s Word together. What you won’t see or hear are the stars and stripes, or a recitation of our allegiance to them. We won’t have our military veterans stand and be honored. And you wouldn’t join your voice with others in singing “God Bless America” or other popular, patriotic hymns (even if they do talk about ‘god’).
I realize that our church is in the heart of North Texas, or the “buckle of the Bible Belt” as some have claimed, which means that “God and Country” often go together like apple pie and semi-automatic assault rifles. Before you deem me an unpatriotic, flag-burning hippie and seek my expulsion from our great Republic (of Texas), read on.
I love my country. I’m thankful for our freedoms and am especially humbled by those who have willingly sacrificed their lives to protect and preserve that freedom. Such sacrifice deserves, I think, a degree of humble deference. In fact, the Christian should be the first to offer such deference, since she knows that such men and women have served, in a sense, as “ministers of God (Rom. 15:1-7).” And yes, we believe that God has providentially superintended the formation, flourishing and even floundering of our nation for his glory (just as he has every nation that’s ever existed or expired throughout history–Job 12:23; Ps. 33:10; 47:8; Daniel 4:17).
If that’s true, why don’t we use our gathering on July 4th weekend to celebrate and honor these things? Here are at least two reasons:
CHRISTIANS ARE, FIRST AND FOREMOST, CITIZENS OF GOD’S KINGDOM.
Simply put, there is no such thing, strictly speaking, as an “American church.” Or a Brazilian church or Italian church or Chinese church and so forth. Certainly, the church can be or will be one day found (hopefully, flourishing) in every nation. And each of these local congregations will speak a particular language that is unique to their particular context and seek to make disciples in a way that is contextually faithful. Thus, we see “the church”…in the U.S., Brazil, Italy, and China. But language and contextual particulars do not form the fundamental identity of local churches. That prerogative belongs to Jesus alone, the “King of the Nations (Jer. 10:7).”
This means that every Christian is an ambassador of the King (2 Cor. 5:20; Eph 6:20) and each local church is an embassy for God’s Kingdom.
When you and I walk into a local church gathering, we are, spiritually speaking, stepping onto foreign soil. Upon repenting of sin and believing in the gospel, a Christian becomes a “fellow citizen with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph. 2:19). They’ve been “transferred out of the domain of darkness into the kingdom of [God’s] Beloved Son (Col. 1:15).” By virtue of their new citizenship in what Peter calls a “holy nation,” he or she are now counted among those described as “sojourners and exiles (1 Pet. 2:9-11).”
What’s more, this “holy nation” is comprised of men and women from all nations (Rev. 5:9; 7:9), and is the fulfillment of the promise that God gave to Abraham shortly after Babel had toppled and all people were scattered throughout the earth (Genesis 12:1-3). No one flag or anthem or government can be hailed over another, because we proclaim together, “The LORD is My Banner (Ex. 17:15). As John saw in Revelation 5 and 7, we will pledge our allegiance to Christ alone–the “Lamb who was slain” and who “ransomed people for God from every tribe, people, language and nation.”
What sin had scattered at Babel in Genesis 11, God is gathering again into His Church through Christ.
Therefore, our allegiances have changed. We’re outsiders. Foreigners. Exiles. The local church is our embassy–our “home away from home”–where the gospel is our pledge of allegiance, and baptism our passport. Together, we aim to love, encourage, and guard one another as we fulfill our commission to declare the Word of our King in a foreign land.
God willing, our gatherings will be filled with foreign-exchange students, and international contract workers and migrants, or political exiles, who love Jesus and His people, but have no particular affection for or allegiance to the great U.S. of A. The centrality of the gospel should reinforce in a church’s gathering the spiritual reality that, through the gospel, we have more in common with the Christian from Afghanistan than we do with the American non-Christian living next door.
THE BIBLE DOESN’T COMMAND IT.
There are two kinds of idolatry in the Bible: worshipping the wrong god (Exodus 20:3; 32:1-28) and worshipping the right God the wrong way (Lev. 10:1; cf. Num. 3:4).
God has always been gracious to reveal to his people the appropriate means by which they should corporately approach him in worship. This implies that God cares how we worship Him, not just that we worship Him.
In the Old Testament, God demanded Israel to offer their worship through an elaborate system of sacrifices, ceremonies, and festivals. All of these were but “shadows” of Christ. They were merely pointing to the One through whom all “true worshippers” will worship God “in spirit and truth (John 4).” We no longer worship God through a religious system, we worship God through the One who fulfilled the requirements of that system perfectly. We don’t worship on this mountain or that mountain, as the Samaritan woman thought. True worship of God is through Christ alone, who is Truth and through whom we receive the Holy Spirit.
How then, is the church to corporately approach God in Holy Spirit-led worship through Christ alone? Does the Bible tell us how or does anything go? The New Testament gives us at least (but perhaps not limited to) five ways: Preach the Bible (2 Tim. 4:2; Rom. 10:14-17), pray the Bible (1 Tim. 2:1; Matt. 21:13), read the Bible (1 Tim 4:13), sing the Bible (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), and see the Bible (through the right administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper–Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11;). We worship God through His Son, according to the truth of His Word, by His Spirit.
Lest we end up like Nadab and Abihu, offering “strange” or (as some translations say) “unauthorized fire” to God, a local church (and especially it’s leaders) should have a healthy appreciation for the reality of sin and Satan and for our propensity toward self-deception (to think we’re right when we my be wrong). Because of this, we should be all the more dependent upon God’s revelation to guide us and extremely cautious to venture too far into the realm of “creativity” and “innovation” when incorporating novel practices (assuming they aren’t prohibited by Scripture) into the gathered life of the church–even in the name of “honoring God and country.”¹ God cares about how we worship Him together, not just that we worship Him. Or as one pastor has said, “Worship is regulated by revelation.”²
So while we should regularly pray together in our gatherings for our nation and its leaders as the Bible has instructed (1 Tim 2:1-3), and seek to admonish and encourage one another to be faithful witnesses in our given context, we must be wary of singing about our nation, preaching sermons on it, or reciting pledges to it in a way that fails to worship God as he’s prescribed: through God’s Son, according to God’s Word, by God’s Spirit. In so doing, we may find ourselves attempting to worship the right God the wrong way. We might be offering “strange fire.”
Therefore, God willing, you’ll find us each Sunday, praying, reading, singing, and preaching the gospel of God’s Son according to God’s Word by God’s Spirit together, as millions of Christians in local churches all over the world will be doing this Lord’s Day.
¹My statement is not disregarding the necessity for culturally sensitive and contextually faithful language, musical arrangements, architecture, etc., in the preaching, singing, praying, and reading (i.e. what translation will you use?) of God’s Word. Rather, I am speaking about practices themselves that seem to find no warrant in Scripture, unless one is making an argument from silence. We should be very humble and fearful when attempting to argue for the legitimacy of a novel corporate practice by appealing to the Bible’s silence on the matter. The Bible’s silence on a matter might not make that matter wrong or sinful, but it should give us enough pause to consider the consequences of venturing outside of God’s Word when approaching him in worship (see Nadab and Abihu). One should understand this not as legalism, or “biblicism,” but as the practical implication of the conviction that the Bible is sufficient to tell us all that we need to know to do all that God would have us do.
²This quote is attributed to Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. I don’t know whether he spoke it or wrote it, or both, but I know he said it and that it stuck with me.