Around this time of year, you often see people talk about celebrating “God & Country.” It is meant to celebrate one’s devotion to God and one’s gratitude towards living in the United States.
I have chosen to title this post, “Country & God” instead of “God & Country” because that is where it often leads.
In the devotion to God and Country, some people forget which deserves the greatest allegiance.
- This post is not intended to bash the United States of America.
- This post is not intended to belittle patriotism.
- This post is not meant to bash churches who use patriotic elements.
- This post does not mean I am not grateful to be a United States citizen.
- This post is for honoring those who have served this country.
- This post is intended to make the church think about idolatry.
I have previously posted on my conviction concerning patriotic music in church. While that post seemed to spark quite the conversation, it revealed to me the need of such conversations.
When Patriotism Becomes Idolatry
Idolatry is the worship of idols. An idol is an image or representation of a god used as an object of worship.
For a Christian, idolatry is not worshiping a god other than Jesus. Idolatry is worshiping a version of Jesus that we have created.
That is why the first two commandments are separate. Don’t worship another god (Ex. 20:3) and don’t make an idol to worship the one true God (Ex. 20:4-6). When we blur the line between healthy patriotism and idolatrous patriotism, we are breaking the 2nd commandment.
Idolatry happens when it becomes country and God rather than God and country.
It can be seen in many different ways:
- What does it say when the American flag is saluted before the Christian flag or the Bible to your VBS kids? It shows a priority.
- What does it say when your church is more passionate about the national anthem than Amazing Grace? It shows a passion.
- What does it say when sermons take biblical passages out of context for a political cause? It shows an agenda.
Subtlety in this area is very dangerous. Sin can be flying below the radar if you are not careful.
Here are some questions to evaluate if your patriotism or your church’s patriotism has become idolatrous:
- Would your emphasis in worship cause confusion for an international observer? We must realize that the nations are coming to us and watching how our churches follow Jesus. In many nations, to be a citizen of a certain country implies that you are also a believer of a certain religion. We must fight hard against the incorrect notion that to be an American means to be a Christian (Phil. 3:20; Heb. 11:13-14). That belief is false grace that will damn someone’s soul to hell.
- Would you identify more as an American citizen or as God’s kingdom citizen? Our citizenship is heaven (Phil. 3:20). That means that our identity and hope is not found in a passing, temporal citizenship of any country. Our kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). Is my hope American or heaven? Can my theology be shared in another country or is it American-centric (really consider what this means concerning prosperity and the end times)?
- Does your celebration pridefully belittle people from other nations? It is one thing to thank God for the benefits we have in America. It is another thing to criticize or ridicule other countries and peoples. There is no difference in God’s eyes concerning nationality (Gal. 3:28; Rom. 3:22, 29) and there shouldn’t be any in ours either. You may believe that your country is better than another but that does not mean that you are better than another.
- Do you have more in common with an American non-Christian or an international Christian? If it is Christ who lives in me (Gal. 2:20), then I should have more in common with someone else who has Christ in him or her. I have more in common with an Africa or Asian Christian than I do an American atheist. If I don’t, I better test myself to see if I am actually in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5). One day, we will live forever not with merely Americans in heaven, but a people from every tribe, nation, and tongue (Rev. 7:9) and it will be more unified than any country in the history of civilization.
- Would you be able to follow Jesus if you were exiled to another nation? Old Testament heroes like Joseph, Daniel, Shadrach, Esther, and Ezra had to learn how to follow God in a land who did not. Jesus and every New Testament Jew lived in a country where the Romans owned their own land. A majority of the Bible’s history reveals a people who had to learn how to live for God when the culture around them did not. Enslaved and exiled, their citizenship was heaven and not a nation, because that was taken from them repeatedly. How can we sing the song of the LORD in a foreign land (Ps. 137:4)? We better figure that out, because even if Americans never are exiled into another country, Christians are already exiles in this American nation whether we like it or not.
- Is your trust in God shaken when the national politics don’t go your way? I speak my mind on political issues. I vote responsibly. I am concerned about the direction of our country. In spite of all these issues, my hope is in the God of heaven and not any president of the USA. God establishes a nation’s authority (Rom. 13:2) and he puts every ruler in place (Dan. 2:21; Ps. 75:7). So I will seek for a national direction but I will not lose sleep if it doesn’t go my way. My hope is in a leader that we can’t elect or impeach.
- Are you more passionate about our nation’s freedom or your Christian freedom? I am thankful for all the benefits I receive as an American. I am overwhelmed when I think about what men and women have done to obtain what we so richly possess. I can never thank them enough. It should arouse passion in us. We should be thankful for freedom. But am I as passionate about my freedom from sin that Christ provided on the cross (Gal. 5:1; John 8:36)? Am I more grateful for national freedom or spiritual freedom? Do I get overwhelmed by what Christ has done to set me free?
Please hear my heart in this matter: I am not against patriotism. I am against idolatry.
If your patriotism is not idolatrous, then you have nothing to worry about.
But I pray that each of us can consider our heart and our church’s focus and make sure that if we are going to be about God and Country, that we never lose the order.
May Christians never make anything a priority before Jesus.
Travis Agnew serves as the Lead Pastor of Rocky Creek Church in Greenville, SC. His most recent book is Distinctive Discipleship. He is married to Amanda and the father of two sons and one daughter. Travis graduated from North Greenville University with a B.A. in Christian Studies and earned his M.Div. and D.Min. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, with his doctoral focus on family discipleship.