Worship and National Holidays

Worship and National Holidays

A decade or so ago I wrote the piece below for the magazine Reformed Worship, in response to a request that I reflect on patriotic themes and practices in worship. They reprinted it recently. I am pasting it here, in anticipation of July 4 celebrations. It can also be accessed at: http://www.reformedworship.org/magazine/article.cfm?article_id=1689

The Danger of Alien Loyalties

As any liturgist knows, we have to take more than one “church year” into account as we plan our worship services. The last time I counted, I came up with six distinguishable “years.”

First is the Lectionary year, used by congregations from many denominations to organize their worship planning. Next, and familiar especially to churches within the Reformed tradition, is the Catechism year, patterned after the “Lord’s Days” of the Heidelberg Catechism. Third is the Hallmark year—Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day—a list of special occasions that many churches recognize in one fashion or another. Fourth and fifth are the Denominational Programs year (Missions Sunday, World Hunger Sunday, and the like) and a Local Congregation Activities year (Stewardship Sunday, Boys’ or Girls’ Club Sunday, the service for

commissioning of church school teachers). And, last but not least, is the Civic Holiday year.

Most of these “years” are not very problematic on a theological level. They are, to be sure, often difficult to juggle—what do you do, for example, when Mother’s Day and Pentecost occur on the same Sunday? But a creative mind and a willingness to do some compromising are often adequate for dealing with such challenges.

The Civic Holiday year, though, presents some special theological problems. And it also raises some emotionally laden issues. In the World War I era, for example, a well-known Reformed pastor in the Midwest refused to allow the American flag to be displayed in his sanctuary. This caused such an uproar in his Dutch Calvinist community that he was physically attacked one night as he walked home from church.

Is it appropriate to integrate civic themes and symbols into our Christian worshiping life? As worship planners, how do we deal with the fact of a Dominion Day or an Independence Day?

The Relevance of Context

One possible solution is simply to ignore our civic life altogether. Some Christians have argued for this option. They believe that a Christian worship service should in no way reflect the national setting in which it takes place. If a Christian family from Ireland should happen to attend a service in Minneapolis, they insist, the Irish visitors should be able to identify with everything that is going on in the worship event.

But this requirement is defective for both practical and theological reasons. On the practical level it is simply unreasonable to expect that foreign visitors will feel completely at home in our services. Our language and accents and modes of cultural expression will inevitably reflect our specific surroundings.

Furthermore, from a theological point of view it is good that this is so. God has placed us in specific cultural and national contexts. We shouldn’t ask black worshipers in South Africa or a peasant congregation in El Salvador to make no mention of their particular political circumstances as they worship the divine Ruler. Nor should we ask it of ourselves. Applying the gospel to our actual circumstances is one of the exciting challenges of the Christian life.

Remembering Our Loyalties

It is one thing, though, to incorporate our national context into our worship. It is another to foster non-Christian loyalties as we worship. And there can be no question that the danger of alien loyalties is a real one in dealing with the relationship between Christian worship and civic symbols.

Take the flag question. Strictly speaking, there is nothing wrong with having a national flag in a place of worship. As a reminder of our national “place” and as a stimulus to reflect seriously on what it means to be Christian citizens, a flag can be a rather innocent symbol.

But it is difficult to assess this issue properly without also reckoning with the constant danger of nationalistic pride. We are often asked to offer to our nations the kind of allegiance that we should direct only to God. A national flag seldom serves as a mere reminder of the fact that we are citizens of a specific nation. It is a powerful symbol—even a seductive one—that can evoke feelings of loyalty and pride that are not proper for Christians. And when a national flag stands alongside the so-called Christian flag, we can easily be led to think that God and Caesar have equal importance in our lives.

When we come together for Christian worship, we are acknowledging our identity as members of “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9). And we need to be reminded that other racial and priestly and national loyalties are constantly competing for our allegiance. Our worship services are gatherings in the divine throne-room, where we acknowledge that our true loyalties belong to God alone. Nothing in our liturgical content or setting should detract from this expression of fidelity.

Political Heresy

The relationship between Christian commitment and political citizenship is subject to considerable confusion. Much preaching on this subject is downright silly, full of shallow sentimentality and naive interpretations of such passages as the “render unto Caesar” saying and Romans 13. This is certainly inexcusable in the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition, where John Calvin and John Knox and Abraham Kuyper and Allan Boesak and other Calvinists have provided us with such a rich store of Christian reflection on the basic issues of civic life.

Reformed theological wisdom is desperately needed on such matters today, given the heresies that are so prominent in popular political piety. How, for example, can Christians who believe that only Christ’s sacrifice can truly atone for sin refer to deaths of soldiers who have died in the service of their country—however courageous their actions—as “the supreme sacrifice”?

Patriotic songs also contain many dangerous teachings. Take, for example, the “eschatological” verse of “America the Beautiful.” Themes that in the book of Revelation are used to describe the Holy City are here applied to the United States: “alabaster cities,” “undimmed by human tears,” the “shining sea.” As if the United States will become the promised New Jerusalem! And yet Reformed Christians—even the kind who sometimes boast of their commitment to “sound theology”—often sing these words without a thought to the heresies they are mouthing.

This is not mere nit-picking. Given the sinfulness of the human condition, idolatry is a very real threat. Political life has certainly not been immune to the general dangers of forming idolatrous allegiances. And when nations and governments have exceeded their God-ordained boundaries by asking citizens for their ultimate loyalties, they have often borrowed the language of religion.

The Roman emperors demanded that they be addressed as “Lord.” And Hitler deceived the German people into thinking that they were a “holy nation,” and a “chosen race.” We must be very diligent in warning the people of God against applying the themes of Zion to the nations in whose midst we are called to serve our only true and righteous Sovereign.

A Multinational People

It is one thing, though, to acknowledge the dangers that we must guard against; it is another to put these concerns into practice. How can we sensitize God’s people to these important concerns, knowing full well that we are dealing with issues that carry much emotional freight?

We can promote a general awareness in our worship of the multinational character of the body of Jesus Christ. Our worship here below is a preparation for the worship of the Lamb, who has ransomed us “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation”: (Rev. 5:9), thereby giving us a new kind of communal identity. “No other blood will do”—not Canadian blood, or Scottish blood, or Dutch blood, or Brazilian blood.

We can regularly give expression to this new sense of identity in our worship by praying for Christians in other national settings, by reminding ourselves of the dangers of national pride, by remembering the ways in which Christians have had to oppose existing political regimes in order to be faithful to the gospel.

Healthy Paradigm

There is a legitimate place for patriotic sentiments in the Christian life. Some Christians deny this, but they are usually focusing on patriotic excesses when they issue their condemnations.

To be a “patriot” is to have affection for the “fatherland.” The explicit analogy to the parent-child relationship is a helpful one. It is a good and natural thing to love our parents. But our love has gotten out of bounds if we think our parents are literally the best parents in the whole world—so wonderful that everyone else also ought to value them as the world’s greatest parents.

That’s the kind of out-of-bounds thinking that takes hold when nationalistic feelings get to be excessive. People start to think that their country—which they quite naturally have very affirmative feelings toward—is the best country in the world.

Christians need to work hard at keeping patriotic feelings within proper bounds. There is nothing wrong with my loving my country simply because it my country—just as I love my parents simply because they are my parents. But this does not put my country beyond criticism.

To honor our nation in a godly manner is to want it to contribute to the cause of Christ’s kingdom. To love our country with a Christian love is to want our nation to do justice and love mercy and walk in humility before the face of the Lord.

Citizens in Church

We don’t leave our citizen roles and our patriotic affections at the door when we enter the church building for worship. It is not reasonable or good to expect that we will do so. God has given to each of us a national setting in which to live. Christian citizenship is a good and important calling.

Our worship services provide us with opportunities to become more aware of who we are as the elect people of God. Worship must speak to the actual dilemmas and trials and joys and challenges that we experience as we attempt to serve the Lord in the broad and complex patterns of our lives. Liturgy and citizenship, then, must intersect.

But seductive patriotic symbols and nationalistic boastings have no proper place in Christian worship. Nor is the church a place where superficial sentimentality and dangerous political heresies can be tolerated. Our worship services are opportunities to come, as the blood-bought people of the Lamb—a people who are presently scattered among the nations—into the presence of the one Ruler whose authority knows no rivals.


  1. Your observations about Christian faith and the civil state bring to mind what I experienced while living, traveling and studying in Europe. The merger of Christian religion and national sentiments is evident in one European cathedral after another where the soldiers who died in service of their country, whether Germany or France or Britain, are represented as being carried directly to Heaven because of their sacrifice. This is true in both Roman Catholic and Protestant cathedrals, and it conduces to the idea that sacrifice for one’s country, irrespective of that country’s role in war, entitles the fallen soldier to an eternity with God. This is idolatry of the crassest sort. Christian faith and loyalty must be distinguished from every patriotism of any country.

    Comment by David H. Wallace — June 30, 2007 @ 10:17 am

  2. Richard,

    As a former Assemblies of God D.Min. student of yours, thank you so much for this post.

    I’m not exactly sure where the line is, but I am sure that we American evangelicals are *way* over it.

    Even Richard Land has suggested so in a recent blog post of his own.

    There is hope!

    Comment by Paul from PA — June 30, 2007 @ 10:34 am

  3. I am recent graduate of Fuller and am about to accept my first call to a small urban church in Los Angeles. My goal is to revitalize this church by making it multicultural thus reflect the glory of heaven where people of every tongue approaches the throne of grace shoulder to shoulder.
    I love the American flag and the singing of patriotic songs in church. But in a multinational area like Los Angeles I thing that this is inappropriate. An international student coming to church would not understand the patriotic symbolism. And they might mistake American nationalism for genuine Christianity.

    Comment by Jeff — July 3, 2007 @ 4:33 pm

  4. This is a very helpful post/article. As a professor in a Seminary which has a multi-cultural, multi-national constituency I have struggled with the glaring inconsistencies visible when some well-meaning American minister (often a guest speaker) preaches to the students as if they are all US Citizens. And this seems to have escalated in the last five or six years. As the wife of a recently “retired” pastor (now a Fuller D.Miss student) I have dreaded the civic holidays (as well as the Hallmark ones) for years because of the idolatry which is nearly always exhibited. We always dreaded (and feared) the inevitable confrontation. Perhaps we are at a much-needed turning point as even Americans are becoming wary of the nationalistic impulses found in Evangelical Christianity.

    Kimberly Ervin Alexander
    Assistant Professor of Historical Theology
    Church of God Theological Seminary
    Cleveland, Tennessee

    Comment by Kimberly Ervin Alexander — July 4, 2007 @ 8:26 pm

  5. Thank you for a helpful article. I am proud that the president of the seminary I am attending could speak so helpfully on such a controversial topic. My wife and I over 26 years of pastoral ministry have often discussed this issue. I was one that wanted to totally ignore the civic year but didn’t in order to keep peace.

    Comment by Corky Alexander — July 5, 2007 @ 5:42 am

  6. Always dreamed of going to Fuller for the D.Min. Love ministry and life.


    Comment by Matthew — July 6, 2007 @ 8:37 am

  7. I appreciate President Mouw’s thoughtful blog. One watershed point for me was my American Church History class at Fuller Northwest. It was Roger Williams who exposed the great Puritan heresy of claiming God’s promises to Israel for the colonial experiment in Massachusetts Bay, instead of uniquely for the people of God. This heresy is with us to this day, it seems, being expressed both by the religious right and by the evangelical left. Both sides make demands on the State, even though the ethics or the justice demanded is not often embodied by God’s people in this country.

    Thus, it seems that discerning the difference between our “mother country” and the people of God–while embracing our national heritage–is a huge task for all American Christians.

    Comment by Robert Griffing — July 6, 2007 @ 1:33 pm

  8. Dear Dr. Mouw:

    To me, “America, the Beautiful” seems more like a prayer, a prayer in humility for our people to see beyond patriotism to return to God’s love as the motivation for life. It implores us to “love mercy more than life”; to “refine” our cankered gold; to let God mend “our every flaw”; to seek brotherhood – to work for social justice (”undimmed by human tears”) in our inner cities. Yes, it celebrates the beauties of our nation, as do all anthems; but to toss it on the heap with the triumphalist heresies seems to go a bit far. Dr. Mouw, I’ve read much about you in Christianity Today, and I admire your boldness in going after theological skunks, or skunkisms – perhaps I am out of order to challenge you on this, but what I have written is how I view it.

    God bless you and keep you and shine on and through you! Yours in Him, Greg Moore

    Comment by Greg Moore — July 6, 2007 @ 4:13 pm

  9. Jesus himself said “Greater love has no one than this: that one lay down one’s life for one’s friend.” When a soldier dies in a just war, he is not just “fighting for his country” in some abstract sense; he is laying down his life to protect civilians–men, women and children–people whom he has never even met, but for whom he performs this act of love and sacrifice. I don’t think it’s inappropriate to call it “the supreme sacrifice” when Jesus himself that one can show no greater love than that.

    I probably have a different perspective than Dr. Mouw because of my background with more “liberal” churches and people. I have seen much more cynicism and despair over our nation than I have seen over zealous patriotism.

    Comment by Virgie — July 10, 2007 @ 9:34 am

  10. As an immigrant pastor to the United States I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. Leslie Newbigin says we need to listen to the voice of other cultures and I agree. Thank you.

    Comment by Neil — July 20, 2007 @ 1:25 pm

  11. Interesting responses to your blog Dr. Mouw, I don’t know whether to respond to them or you. I am a Navy Chaplain and have to deal with the balance of being an Officer and a man-of-God all the time. I find nothing inconsistent in serving my country, and serving the living God. Where there is conflict between the two, my faith must take priority regardless of the consequences. I appreciate the warnings of national idolatry.

    I do have a couple of observations though, as one who believes that the cultural identity of our Nation is important. Too many people, like a couple examples above, bemoan the culture of some churches because they are too American. That confuses me altogether?!? I can see being critical of a church for being stuck on a particular decade or century in their style or delivery of the message, but the last time I checked all the people who responded to this blog lived in America. I wish I had more time to discuss this here, but I believe that many critics of “American culture” in the church are just wanting to exchange one idol for another–to use the vocabulary of your blog. I am not against other cultures, but believe that too many people have no idea what being an American even is. The very same critics of being “American” on theological grounds will turn around and try to define it from a theological perspective, never realizing what they have done. You can’t use eschatological terms to describe the U.S. in song, but you can say that we need to turn our swords into plows.

    I agree with the discussion about songs that speak of America in eschatalogical terms, which states that it is more a prayer than a statement of fact. “God bless America” is not the arrogant statement of a people who believe they are “better” than the rest per se; but, the heartfelt prayers of a people who know from where the greatness of our country comes. It could be said jsut as well, “God, do not withhold your blessings from this land.”

    Finally, I think it would be helpful to examine our religious traditions, which like it or not are a reflection of the culture. Do they not have some unbiblical symbols that may or may not jive with the Bible and what is sound doctrine?

    Comment by Chaplain Cook — July 25, 2007 @ 8:28 am

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