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Patriotism or Idolatry?

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Can I be honest? I really dread patriotic Sundays. You know the big three – Memorial Day, Labor Day, and the Fourth of July. Don’t get me wrong, I feel so blessed to be an American with the freedoms I enjoy every day. I am thankful for those who are serving in our military and the countless others who have fallen for our freedom. I am proud of my two cousins, both reservists with the Air Force, one of which saw action in Afghanistan. Our veterans deserve honor, respect, and mention when we congregate.
My problem is not with the holidays themselves or what we celebrate. My problem is with what happens in our churches on those weekends. If you’ve ever led worship at a church, you know how frustrating it is when you’re leading the congregation in a powerful anthem but no one seems to emotionally connect with the message behind it. You’re singing “O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?” and the congregation stoically stares right through you, apathetic and ambivalent towards the hope you’re proclaiming.

Then on those fateful patriotic weekends, the worship leader transitions into “America, the Beautiful” and the entire crowd comes alive. Hands are lifted. Eyes are getting misty. People are passionate. When we’re singing about Christ’s victory over sin there isn’t an emotional connection but when we sing something patriotic, everyone is moved.

To be honest, it’s gotten to the point that I cringe when a patriotic hymn begins playing in a worship service. I’m embarrassed. Why? Because in a time that is deliberately set aside for the worship of our King, we are breaking to sing praises to a temporary kingdom. We are literally worshiping something else in the place and time deliberately set aside to worship Christ. It’s only made worse when we reserve our greatest passion and joy for those particular moments in the service. There’s nothing subtle about it. It’s flagrant, unabashed idolatry and for some reason we don’t even flinch when it happens.

I was recently talking with a close friend of mine who is currently raising financial support while he and his family prepare to be missionaries in a very dangerous part of the world. While visiting a church several hours away to talk about their plans and the need for Christians to mobilize, they were met with polite applause and a fairly dismissive attitude from the congregation. However, at the end of the service the pastor called up a young man who would be leaving the next day for basic training. As he made his way to the stage, he was met with a standing ovation and irrepressible applause. The man putting his life in danger for his country was given a much greater honor than the missionary putting his entire family in danger for the Gospel.

When it comes between God and country, our visceral responses would suggest that we love our country more. As Christians, that should set off alarm bells and red flags. Yet, it doesn’t. As we approach the Fourth of July next week, we must remember three things.

1. America is not God’s Chosen Nation.

This is a big one. Every time I see an image with II Chronicles 7:14 (“If my people, who are called by my name….”) superimposed over an American flag, I want to scream. That promise was to the Israelites. In modern times, it applies to the Church. It never applies to a particular government or political ideology. It’s a gross misinterpretation of the text to suggest otherwise.

We have to remember that while America has undoubtedly been blessed, many other nations have been as well. Britain was the superpower that came before us. There was also the Chinese Empire before it. You also can’t forget the Romans, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians to name a few others. They were all wealthy and prosperous but it wasn’t because they were God-fearing people with God-fearing politicians. Economic and militaristic blessing does not necessarily result from faithful worship of God.

2. It’s a sin to worship blessings from God.

Just for kicks, let’s say America was God’s chosen country. To worship our country would be to ignore the God who blessed it. The Israelites, who really were set apart by God, were commanded over and over again to remember God’s faithfulness and worship him for it. When they failed to do so and began worshiping themselves and their culture, they paid for it dearly. In fact, it eventually cost them their land and their independence.

Hymns dedicated to worshiping the blessings of living in America would still be a sin because they ignore the God who provided them. It’s no different than me worshiping my new house because it’s a blessing from God.

I thank God for it. I tell others the story of how he provided us our home. I take care of it but I don’t worship it. When I think about my home, I’m moved to tears by the demonstration of God’s faithfulness and provision through the buying process. I’m not moved to tears by its lack of popcorn ceilings, large backyard, or front-entry garage.

Our love for country, or love for any blessing, should ultimately point us back to the God who provided it and move us towards greater worship of him. Anything that fails to do that is an idol.

3. Idols don’t belong in the Temple.

When we read the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” its historical context is often lost on us. In the Old Testament, when the Israelites worshiped God they had to go to the Tabernacle or the Temple. This is where God lived. This was before Pentecost when the Holy Spirit rushed into the lives of the believers. There was a fixed place where people went to fellowship with him.

This first of the Ten Commandments literally meant that they were not to worship any other gods in his presence. In other words, God is saying, “Don’t you dare bring an idol into my house.”

While the gift of the Holy Spirit means that God now resides inside of us, making us his temple and making worshiping him possible anywhere, there is still something particularly heinous and flagrantly offensive about bringing our idols into a place and time that is set aside for Christ’s worship. It’s hardly different than me bringing another woman into a date with Holly.

In the end, I believe that our veterans deserve special mention in our services on these weekends. They deserve our respect, our honor, our gratefulness, and our applause. The start of our worship services isn’t a bad place to do that either. I also believe we should pray for our politicians and the health of our nation. But there is a big difference between reflecting on the sacrifices of our servicemen and setting aside time to worship our country.

In the end, I pledge my allegiance to Christ, the victorious and risen King. His Kingdom is not established by an eloquently written document but through the eradication of death itself by his own death on the cross and his resurrection. He heals the sick, provides for the poor, and forgives the sinner. He has conquered hell and my heart. He is my Lord and I am his follower. When my failure has known no limits, his faithfulness has overcome it. He is the object of my worship and my freedom in him is far greater than any freedom my country can give me.

Wouldn’t you agree that he tops any allegiance we should have the United States of America?

Posted in: Worship

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  • zeta416

    I couldn’t agree with this more. This is something I’ve thought about for many years and something that needs to be addressed. Though, I think some people will see this post as a slap in the face. But it couldn’t be more true. If more Christians acted like they do about Christ, than they do about the country, I think the church would be radically different. Thanks for sharing Matt!

    • http://www.mattmorrison.org/ Matt Morrison

      Thanks man!

  • Rob Hewell

    Well done, Matt.

    • http://www.mattmorrison.org/ Matt Morrison

      Thanks Dr. Hewell!

  • Alex Beasley

    Excellent post! One of the most frustrating things as a pastor is to see Nationalism and Patriotism overcome the love for Christ. Excellent exposition on 2 Chron. 7:14 – most Christians read this and think of America, but it wasn’t even in existence in that day. Furthermore, I agree, it is written to the church. The US is no different than any other nation today!

    • http://www.mattmorrison.org/ Matt Morrison

      Thanks Alex! And ya know? I think II Chronicles 7:14 has amazing application to the church.