The Flag in the Church – an Issue of Doctrine

We have to recognize that the first Europeans who came to America were Reformed, and that they gave to this country their impression and their philosophy. They gave to America the feeling that America completes the redemption of the World which Christ hasn’t finished yet. This redemption exists in the development to the Millennium that will start in America. This can be proven on Reformed sources. So we read in the church paper Presbyterian from the year 18621: Now, although God’s covenant with his ancient people was in some point peculiar, we have no doubt that God has impliedly entered into a covenant with our American nation, whose main features are similar.

Before the Civil War a clergyman preached in a Thanksgiving sermon2 in 1860: The Union is too sacred a trust to be sacrificed except upon the most imperative grounds. It has cost too much blood and treasure: it is freighted with too much happiness for this great nation: it is too closely linked with the cause of human liberty, and with the salvation of the world.

And in the American Battle Hymn we find the words: As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.

Those words value the martyr death of the American soldier in holy war above the death of Christ.

This false gospel isn’t only preached from Reformed pulpits and in Reformed church papers, but it comes out of the mouth of politicians, too. President  Wilson said that the world accepted the American soliders as crusaders, and their transcendent achievement has made all the world believe in America as it believes in no other nation organized in the modern world.3

And he also said: America had the infinite privilege of fulfilling her destiny and saving the world.4

If politicians act as false preachers – I think, for example, of President Reagan – then the false doctrine reaches WELS members, too. Who normally don’t attend Reformed worship-services. Our preaching has to deal with the false doctrine preached by politicians because these politicians are doing damage in the kingdom of God while acting as false preachers.

The symbol of the false doctrine that connects America with the redemption of the world is the Star Spangled Banner. In a sermon preached in a Presbyterian church and published in 1862 we can read that the American flag is the emblem of a „first class nation.“5 And in 1866 a Bishop said: We must take the world in our arms, and convert all other nations to our true form of government … The day is coming when the matrons of liberty shall hide this flag, as the loyal mothers of the South did it; and the mothers of Europe will teach their boys the name of Washington, and learn them to love our t lag, till it shall be respected and honored to the earth’s remotest bounds.6

It’s a deep feeiing that Amenca leads the world to the Millennium. That’s why the wars America fought often were viewed as the final Armageddon Battle which will lead into the Millennial peace era. This was the case during the Civil War, this was the case during the First World War, this was the case during the Second World War when Roosevelt, while speaking of „Divine help and guidance„,7 viewed Hitler not only äs the military enemy but also as the enemyof all law, all liberty, all morality, all religion“ (emphasis added).8 In the event of Hitler’s victory he predicted religious persecution.9 In the propaganda the impression was given that once the western world was „freed of the evil forces10 of Hitlerismwe shall help to establish a new peace which will give to decent people everywhere a better chance to live and prosper in security and in freedom and in faith “ (emphasis added).11 This kind of Propaganda expresses the Reformed feeling that, if the army of the United States, considered as God’s own country, has once won the final battle against the military power of Satan, then the final Millennial peace era is very near.

The Armageddon thinking isn’t only history but it is still alive, for example, in President Reagan. As a Millennial preacher he preaches: The years ahead are great ones for this country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West won’t contain communism, it will transcend communism. It won’t bother to dismiss or denounce it, it will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.12

No question that Satan himself invented Marxism. In Opposition to what Reagan says between the lines, the Bible states that the fall happened in the garden of Eden and not in the rise of communism, and that mankind became not only heavily but totally depraved, so that the world will never become a paradise again. The main evil is in mankind and not in the Marxist System. If communism will be dismissed, then Satan will invent a new evil and the Millennium will not come just äs it didn’t come after the Civil War, just as it didn’t come after the First World War, just as it didn’t come after the Second World War.

During Worid War II the Christians were confronted with the Propaganda of a religious war. At this time it was the duty of the pastors and professors and the church papers to reject the Reformed mixture of the two kingdoms and to stress again and again that we Christians fight our holy wars only and alone with the „sword of the Spirit“ and that the Second World War wasn’t a religious war at all. That Roosevelt spoke pious words doesn’t prove the opposite either. Hitler spoke pious words, too. Even the communists and Satan himself quote the Bible. Instead of educating the Christians about the biblical distinction of the two kingdoms, the Northwestern Lutheran itself mixed the two kingdoms by speaking of „our good United States“ and by criticizing the fact that the Star Spangled Banner wasn’t „properly displayed in many churches.”13 On a wave of unrejected unbiblical emotions of a holy war, a final Armageddon Battle, the „good United States“ fights to protect religious freedom and to bring everlasting peace on earth the dirty flag entered more and more churches.

„The dirty flag“ — what a blasphemy, even WELS members feel. But the great number of undeniable facts is a very strong witness. The American flag is dirty from the blood of Indians, dirty from the blood of Negro slaves, dirty from the blood of the victims of several robberywars, dirty from the blood of the Hiroshima victims, dirty from the blood of Soviet soldiers fighting against Stalin and delivered to the Communists who received them with machinegun fire which was foreseeable, dirty from the blood of millions of Christian martyrs in China and in North Korea murdered by the Communists America allowed to gain office by a political position which favored communism, dirty from the blood of Vietnamese refugees that the US government and West European goverments agreed to let down, dirty from the blood of today’s Chinese and Rumanian Christians the „good United States“ could help by demanding from their governments certain kinds of returns for the granted economic privileges, dirty from the blood of abortion victims.

Why don’t the Americans see how dirty their flag is? This question leads to another topic, leads to the problem of how to evaluate the world we Christians are living in. The Bible says that there are only a few on the narrow road (Matt. 7:14). And Christ says: Peace I leave you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid (Jn. 14:27). And again Jesus says: I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (Jn. 16:33). And again: If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‚No servant is greater than his master.‘ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (Jn. 15:18-20). And in l John 2:19 is written: We know … that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. And 1 John 2:15 warns: Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

The question remains: Is America a part of the world thus corrupted through the fall, or does it exist somewhere outside this world the Bible speaks about? If America is located in this world, then saying that America is a criminal country from its very beginning till today is saying nothing else then the Bible says too.

But here another problem comes in: Of course — it may be said — the Bible is always right, even if it says how bad the whole world is. This is the pure biblical faith, this is the right theological theory, but the reality we are living in is different. This is the way people at least feel even if they don’t express it so clearly with words. This distinction between two different kinds of truth can be

seen in the historical-critical method. These false teachers give the false impression of having the biblical faith by maintaining creation, virgin birth, resurrection as geschichtliche Fakten, but they don’t value the same facts as historische Fakten, too. Just as we reject the historical-criticial method, so we also have to take care that our picture about the real facts in America doesn’t become a different kind of truth than our biblical faithjti about this fallen world.

A lot of education still has to be done in our congregations and Christian schools concerning this issue. Once, while I was looking into a book about American history, one young fellow who has had his whole education in WELS schools warned me, ironically, that I should be careful that I don’t make my hands dirty with the dirty American history. This incident raises the question as to what picture of history is given in WELS schools. As justification for the high expense of the WELS school system, it is usually mentioned that the secular subjects are taught from a Christian viewpoint. But exactly this viewpoint often is very weak. The Christian view of world history is that the main events are the fall and Christ’s victory over the serpent of Gen. 3. The Christian’s view is that he sees that the fall caused the deep depravity of

the whole world, including America. Just as the Bible shows a lot of dirt in the history of Israel, so we, too, shouldn’t overlook the dirt in America’s history. Not to recognize it means to promote a split between biblical doctrine and real historical facts. Teaching history from a Christian viewpoint also means to inform about the historical facts of the persecution of Christians, because the Bible says: „If one part suffers, every part suffers with it“ (l Cor. 12:26) and „mourn with those who mourn“ (Rom. 12:15). Information about persecution should also be given in religious classes, because it is not only history; it still happens today. There are books written about the evil deeds of the enemies of Christ. Such kind of books from Solzhenitsyn and other writers should be subjects of literature classes. Geography taught from a Christian viewpoint should include information about which areas have more and which areas have less persecution of Christians, how many slaves (and among them Christians) died while building this city, this railroad, this water channel, where the labor camps are located today. So it should be.

But the modern reality is completely different. While I was sitting in a Christian day school the teacher explained that there are two rich countries in the world, the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet citizens sometimes don’t even have enough bread to eat, but they live in a rich country — according to a teacher of a WELS Christian day school. It isn’t the Christian viewpoint at all if it is taught that the Soviel Union, whose economy is built on an unbiblical picture of men, is a rich country. I also found, that even among WELS teachers, little or nothing is known about the present sufferings of our Christian brothers and sisters — poor students. What sense does it make that a lot of more or less useless facts are taugt about what ancient kings did and the real important facts, both in history and in present time, remain unknown?

Or is it possibly a nationalistic feeling that stops us from caring about our brothers and sisters in the communist world? The reason that Wurmbrand’s books don’t have the publicity due their importance may possibly be that he has suffered also has its cause in the bad politics of America which, according to Wurmbrand, made Marxist dictatorship in Rumania possible.

Where does our heart beat? Is it the deep feeling of our heart that heaven and not America is our home? Is it also the deep feeling of our heart that we, as citizens of the kingdom of God, are living as foreigners in a worid which hates God? Do we really recognize that the world — including America — hates us and, if possible, persecutes us because we, as Christ said, don’t belong to the world?

But the animosity of the world can be avoided if we, contrary to Rom. 12:2, conform ourselves to the pattern of this world. This may be done, for example, if we, as a letter printed in the Northwestern Lutheran from Sept. l, 1984, suggests. obey the latest regulations of the House of Representative dealing with the flag in the church. Unbelievers always have had false idols. Unchristian Americans believe in the „great nation” the rest of the world should bow before. We can avoid the animosity of the world if we look apon the speck of sawdust (Matt. 7:3) in the eye of America’s enemies as much bigger than the plank in the eye of America. We can avoid the animosity of the world if we continue to misuse the Synodical schools for glorifying the robbery-wars America fought only for economical reasons, if we propagate the nonsense that America’s involvement in World War I on the side of the very undemocratic Czarist Russian regime was a fight for democracy; if we spread the lies that while America supported the colonial powers France and England, America’s war against Japan was a war against colonialism; or if we propagate the biggest nonsense that the war together with Stalin was a war for religious freedom and for democracy.

All Americans are taught that Hitler in 12 years murdered six million Jews and some millions of others. This is much less than the number of people who are murdered in American abortion clinics, this is much less than the number of people murdered by Stalin. Why does the sawdust in the eye of Hitler look much larger than the plank in the eye of Stalin? Because America has had a war against Hitler but not against Stalin. All this raises the question again: What are we at first, Americans, or citizens of the kingdom of heaven? Are we citizens in the kingdom of heaven and foreigners in America or are we citizens of America and foreigners of the kingdom of heaven? Where does our heart beat more strongly, with our persecuted brothers and sisters of the past and of the present, or with America? Where is our homeland, in America, or in heaven where we will be united with Christ and with all the martyrs, including the martyrs of the Soviet Union?

Neither the martyrs of the early church nor the martyrs of the Reformation time nor the martyrs of the Soviet Union today were so much persecuted because they believed in salvation through Christ alone but they were and are much much more persecuted because they rejected and reject the false religions (heathen Gods, papacy, Marxism) surrounding them. Freedom of faith is guaranteed even in the Soviet Union because there is no x-ray equipment available which can read the thoughts of the brain. But persecution come in if faith affects something. We, and the Christians of the whole worid, may at least partially avoid persecution if we widen the narrow road. But if we don’t, if we totally reject the heathen religion of our Unchristian environment then we will see who’s right. Then we will see if the countless voices are right who praise America as a fortress of tolerance and religious freedom or if Christ is right who said: If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the worid hated you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‚No servant is greater than this master.‘ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (Jn. 15:18-20).

The flag came into many churches in connection with an animosity against Germans. Especially WELS-Christians have had a reason to prove that they weren’t Germans but Americans. To prove this through a flag in the church is

mixing the two kingdoms, because in the kingdom of God there are „neither Jew nor Greek,“ German nor American, “slave nor free, male nor female,“ for all are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).

Neither in the time when the flag entered the church was the Star Spangled Banner an adiaphoron, nor is it an adiaphoron today. The last is proven by the already mentioned letter in the Northwestern Lutheran. If it causes difficulties to remove the flag, this proves again that the flag isn’t an adiaphoron today, either.

A lot of pastors agree that the flag should be removed. But how to do this? Some think the veterans would get angry if the flag would be removed. This argument accuses the veterans of having a false theology.

This kind of argument, and the origin of the flag in WELS churches, lead to the question of whether it’s right to yield to the enemies of the pure Word in regard to so-called adiaphora in time of pressure or persecution. In the time after Luther’s death this was a much weightier problerm than in our days. In South Germany, Lutherans were persecuted. It seemed that they would be persecuted in Saxony, too, and the Lutheran church in the whole world would be put out of existence.

But a way was opened to prevent persecution, a way made possible by agreeing with the papacy in so-called adiaphora, like the wearing of Catholic robes, etc. Wittenberg’s theologians, including Melanchthon, were ready to agree with this compromise. The Luther student Flacius was the only Wittenberg professor who opposed. He argued that agreeing in the so-called adiaphora means to give the false impression that the doctrinal differences are settled. Flacius pointed again and again to the fact that the church is protected only and alone through the Word of Christ and not through human prudence. Flacius illustrated this by a biblical example: Just as Peter, trusting Christ alone, jumped out of the ship into the stormy sea and securely walked on the waves, so Luther, while having a faith-sincere heart and a joyfui trust, jumped into the dangers surrounding him. And, while he looked at the Word of Christ alone, he securely moved across the wild sea to Christ. Today. fearful like Peter, they look at the sea, wind and waves and don’t trust Christ; that’s why, like Peter, they sink up to the neck in the water. „Oh that we similar to Peter in bis third shape and hurry from unbelief to faith and to prayer for, like Peter being rescued from danger human prudence throw us in.“ Those thoughts shouldn’t only be used as material for pious sermons, but they also should be our way of making decisions.

The problems of Flacius‘ time are the same today. Through pressure the flag entered the churches, through pressure it remains. Just as in Flacius‘ time, so today human prudence teaches us that an agreement in so-called adiaphora does good for spending the Gospel. We only — as in Flacius‘ time — need to change the meaning of Symbols. So it is said the flag in a church preaches that we should obey our God given government. Why not a red flag with hammer and sickle? It isn’t wrong to preach that we are saved through the blood of Christ symbolized by the red flag. It isn’t wrong either that because of this we are allowed to be workers in God’s kingdom and harvesters in Christ’s harvest, symbolized by hammer and sickle. But, as the red flag with hammer and sickle is the political symbol of the enemies of Christ so the Star Spangled Banner is the political symbol of a first-class nation from which the redemption of the whole world comes. The redemption through America is completely different from the redemption through Christ, it’s a redemption through democracy — a word the Bible doesn’tuse at all.

Human prudence or the Word of God — that’s the problem behind the whole flag issue. Does man or the Word of God make the final decisions in the church? Heresies concerning this issue are much, much worse than a lot of heresies the Symbolic Books reject. The WELS teaches that the whole Bible is infallible. The WELS doesn’t have church fellowship with church bodies who don’t agree in the doctrine of Scripture or who have a false practice of church fellowship. Is it right to tolerate a practice which places human decisions above God’s Word? Is it right to continue church fellowship with those who do?

 

Endnotes

1 quoted in: James H. Moorhead, American Apocalypse. Yankee Protestants and the Civil War 1860-1869, New Haven and London 1978, p. 45.

2 bid. p. 24v.

3 quoted in: Ernest Lee Tuverson, Redeemer nation. The Idea of America’s Millennial Role, Chicago and London 1968, p. 212.

4 Ibid. p. 212.

5 quoted in: Moorhead, p. 75.

6 quoted in: Moorhead, p. 198.

7 Roosevelt in: The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt Compiled with Special Material and Explanatory Notes by Samuel I. Rosenman, 1941 Volume, New York 1950, p. 391.

8 Ibid. p. 389.

9 Ibid. p. 440.

10 Truman in: Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States. Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President, April 12 to December 31, 1945, Washington 1961, p. 49.

11 Roosevelt in: Ibid. p. 441.

12 Reagan, Address at Commencement Exercises at the University of Notre Dame May 17,1981 in: Public Papers of the President of the United States. Ronald Reagan 1981. January 20 to December 31. 1981. Washington 1982, p. 432.

13 Northwestern Lutheran, December 24, 1944. p. 276.

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