Should We Have Flags in the Church? The Christian Flag and the American Flag
The following response to a request for help with the issues of placement of the American flag and the Christian flag in the sanctuary was written by Hoyt Hickman when he was a staff member of the Discipleship Ministries. We post it here as a resource for your church.
Thank you for your inquiry concerning the use of American and Christian flags in church sanctuaries.
Common as this practice is, there seems to be no way to display both flags together that does not dishonor one flag or the other.
The Christian Flag gives the background of the Christian flag and the reasons why it should always have the place of highest honor when it is displayed. It is not a denominational flag or a church flag, but a symbol of our allegiance to Jesus Christ, who is above all others. It is a cardinal tenet of our faith that our loyalty to Christ comes above all earthly loyalties.
On the other hand, The Flag Code (United States Statutes at Large, Seventy-seventh Congress, Second Session 1942, Volume 56 — Part I, Public Laws) states in Section 3 (k): "When displayed from a staff in a church or public auditorium, the [American] flag should occupy the position of honor and be placed at the clergyman's or speaker's right as he faces the congregation or audience. Any other flag so displayed in the chancel or on the platform should be placed to the clergyman's or speaker's left as he faces the congregation or audience. But when the flag is displayed from a staff in a church or public auditorium elsewhere than in the chancel or on the platform, it shall be placed in the position of honor at the right of the congregation or audience as they face the chancel or platform. Any other flag so displayed should be placed on the left of the congregation or audience as they face the chancel or platform."
Both in The Flag Code and in the Bible, it is assumed that placement on the right signifies higher honor than — and priority over — placement on the left and that higher placement signifies higher honor than and priority over lower placement.
One might reason that the Christian flag could be placed in the chancel on the clergy's right, with the American flag on the floor level of the congregation on the congregation's right, or vice versa; but this inevitably means that the flag in the chancel is higher than the other and thus has the higher place of honor.
A further difficulty arises from the fact that in many church chancels the clergy presides from various places during different parts of the service — pulpit, lectern, Lord's Table and baptismal font. The way many chancels are designed, placing a flag to the right of all the points from which the clergy presides would mean placing a flag so far to the side that it is obviously not being accorded the place of highest honor but is shunted off toward or into a corner.
It is important to remember that the Christian flag originated almost a hundred years ago in churches that usually did not display a cross in the sanctuary other than the white cross on the blue field of the Christian flag. Today, of course, most United Methodist churches have a cross in the sanctuary in what is obviously intended as the place of highest honor, on or above the Lord's Table. Since this cross serves the same function as the Christian flag, it renders the Christian flag unnecessary. It also places any American flag present in a position of relatively lower honor. Given the provisions in the U.S. Flag Code and the fact that a cross serves as a symbol of allegiance just as a flag does, I do not see how we can properly display the American flag in the chancel if there is a cross there. Because of its central and higher location, the cross plainly has a place of higher honor than the American flag.
The same difficulty arises when the American flag is carried in a processional at the opening of a service and the processional cross goes first, as Christians agree it must.
There is still another difficulty in displaying the American flag in the place of highest honor during worship. It is one of the oldest and most universal Christian understandings of worship that when we gather around the Lord's Table for worship, the gathering consists not only of God and the visible congregation, but also includes (even though invisibly) the whole universal church of all times and all places, in heaven and on earth. Even if everyone visibly present is an American citizen, most of those invisibly present are not.
To sum it up, we in American wisely separate church and state. As American Christians, we honor the cross and we honor the flag; but we keep them separate. An American flag used in the worship of the universal church is no more appropriate than hanging a cross in a civil courtroom used by Americans of all religions.
Editor's Note You might also want to read "The American Flag in Methodist Worship: A Historical Look at Practice" by Karen B. Westerfield Tucker.