Earlier in the week, while visiting Baptist21 to watch an interview with Nathan Akin, another post in the top masthead — with American flag in the background — caught my eye. Titled, “Letter from a Minister about Patriotism in Corporate Worship,” I was curious and clicked on the link to read the post. Written by Carl “Chip” Stam, the contributors at B21 introduced their guest blogger:
Note about the Guest Blog: B21 has produced in full a letter sent from the Music Minister at Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky to thousands of other church musicians on why this minster’s congregation has chosen not to emphasize patriotism in their corporate worship. B21 believes there is much wisdom in this minister’s words and we hope that this letter will be helpful for us and our readers as we all consider patriotism in corporate worship.
Perhaps my curiosity comes because I serve as the Senior Pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist church located in the military town of Alamogordo, NM. Just outside of our community lies Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range. America’s first atomic bomb was detonated near Alamogordo, at the north end of White Sands.
Literally thousands of active-duty and retired military personnel and their families call Alamogordo home. Bethel is blessed and honored to have many of these same families as part of our church and worship services. I have had the honor to serve these military families, some in very difficult circumstances.
Since my arrival almost four years ago, two families in our church have experienced the tragedy of losing loved ones who were fighting for our freedom on the front lines in Afghanistan. The most recent death, that of 22 year-old Garrett Misener, the son of our interim Music Pastor, occurred on December 27, 2010. A funeral service for Marine Sgt. Misener was held at Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, TN and a memorial service was held at Bethel Baptist Church in Alamogordo, NM, both with full military honors.
It is with that background that I read Mr. Stam’s guest post at B21. If Mr. Stam’s ministry was limited solely to his local church, I would have still taken the time to read the post. But, I would most likely have done nothing further. But, as this is now my second post dealing with Mr. Stam’s letter, the question becomes, “Why write about this at all?”
As I shared on Wednesday, Mr. Stam is not only a mister and a minister. He is also Professor Stam, the Director of the Institute for Christian Worship at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In writing his letter to “thousands of other church musicians” and, by Baptist21 posting his letter on March 31 — three months before this summer’s “patriotic season,” one could reasonably conclude that Professor Stam and the folks at B21 are hoping to influence a large number of senior pastors and music ministers regarding expressions of patriotism in corporate worship.
After laying the groundwork in Part 1 (here), I now move forward to a rebuttal of Professor Stam’s three main arguments in favor of eliminating expressions of patriotism in corporate worship. Before I do, let me say that I have no problem with individuals or churches who have been convicted that such expressions are not consonant with their beliefs. Although I may come to a different conclusion, I will respect their right to worship in the way that God has led them. However, I take issue with those, like one who commented on my earlier post, who say:
“I don’t want to mingle the worship of our God with the honoring of men, women, children, or nations. Worship should be about Him; not us. When we mingle the worship of our God with the honoring of nations and servicemen, we commit the sin of idolatry.”
That is not part of Professor Stam’s rationale for eliminating patriotic worship. I would certainly hope that he and others who have concluded that patriotic worship is somehow out-of-bounds do not believe that honoring or showing respect to others (Romans 12:10; Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:17) — military personnel, veterans, mothers, fathers, children –is automatically idolatrous, even if it is part of a corporate worship service that seeks to worship Jesus Christ.
Professor Stam’s first reason for eliminating patriotic expression in corporate worship is because it is:
“just too easy to confuse what it means to follow Christ with what it means to be a loyal U.S. citizen.
I agree that some churches and pastors blur the line between loyalty to country and loyalty to Christ. However, I have never met one single person who has confused what it means to be a follower of Christ and what it means to be a loyal citizen of the United States. I’m sure that these people exist, but this doesn’t describe mature Christians in the churches that I have pastored.
Just because something can be easily confused in a worship setting does not mean that we automatically discard it. I’m quite sure that for many, the cross can be confusing. We could teach and preach in such a way that expressions of patriotism and the honoring of men and women of our armed forces on Memorial Day or our freedoms on Independence Day would not confuse most people, but instead bring glory and honor to God for the freedoms we enjoy as Americans.
Does this concern about confusion also extend to the display of the American flag in a church? I would say that most Southern Baptist churches display both the American flag and the Christian flag? Would this be appropriate for regular worship services? What about funerals conducted in a church’s sanctuary where full military honors are presented? Are these wrong or unwise expressions of patriotism?
Professor Stam’s second reason for banning expressions of patriotism in corporate worship services has to do with displaying sensitivity to the large group of internationals who attend Clifton Baptist Church:
“We do not want to have the bold gospel of the Cross somehow confused in their minds with Uncle Sam and a particular form of government or foreign policy.”
I think it is admirable to be sensitive to “outsiders.” However, I think it is a leap to say that patriotic worship will somehow confuse the Cross and Uncle Sam. If people are confused because they lack a basic knowledge of our customs and culture, shouldn’t we help teach them so that they will not be confused in the future as opposed to just doing away with expressions of patriotism altogether?
If a church does not have a large contingent of internationals, but instead has a large group of Airmen and their families, would expressions of patriotism in worship be normative and acceptable? Is Professor Stam’s second reason context-driven or would the possibility of confusion of the Cross and Uncle Sam be applicable no matter what church you were worshipping in?
Perhaps most disturbing of all is Professor Stam’s third reason for eliminating expressions of patriotism in corporate worship:
“When a mood of patriotic celebration is present, it seems to be about two clicks away from partisan politics. While we strongly encourage citizens to vote, we are amazingly silent concerning how exactly Christians should vote. If anything, we want believers who are committed to different views on social programs and public policies to be ONE IN CHRIST. There are some fine Scriptures that support this position.”
This is almost so nonsensical that I do not even know where to begin. How far is “two clicks away from partisan politics?” What does this even mean? Is it that some people seem to be uncomfortable with expressions of patriotism in corporate worship, not because of a Biblical conviction, but rather because the freedoms and liberties that the U.S. flag represents makes them uncomfortable? Is it that the pastor is getting ready to sign people up to vote in the next Republican primary? Surely it’s not that there would be any reference to America being founded as a Christian nation?
Perhaps the next line actually answers some of these questions. Did Professor Stam mean to say his church is “amazingly silent concerning exactly WHO Christians should vote for?” With that, I would wholeheartedly agree. I have never told members of my congregation — whether in the conservative Republican area of NM where I currently serve nor in the conservative/moderate Democrat county in Virginia where I previously served — who to vote for.
However, I have never been “amazingly silent” about how Christians should vote. I have been vocal that they should vote according to Biblical principles. I have been vocal that they should study the records and positions of the candidates and vote for those who they believe share their Biblical values. I am not vocal on these moral/political issues very often, but there are times when pastors and churches should be amazingly vocal.
But, this brings me to the last part of reason three and the most egregious rationale given in all of Professor Stam’s letter. There are indeed some fine Scriptures to support being ONE IN CHRIST. In fact, I’m preaching on one of those passages this Sunday from Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in John 17. BUT, to say this Oneness in Christ allows for “believers who are committed to different views on social programs and public policies” is perplexing because it is not defined. Are we talking about different views on Obamacare, the War on Terror, or the environment? Or, are we talking about differing views on abortion and end-of-life issues? Definitions matter.
If what Professor Stam is saying is that we don’t want the partisan politics of Democrats, Republicans, and Tea Partiers to overshadow the Gospel message, I get it. But, if he is arguing for a unity that brings together folks who have divergent moral/Biblical values on pressing social and public policy issues, then I’m afraid that’s a bridge too far.
Professor Stam concludes his letter by couching his language in descriptive terms meant only to apply to his local church:
“My intent here is to share with colleagues in ministry how we have worked through some of these issues in a way that seems consonant with our understanding of the Lord’s will for our congregation.” (emphasis added)
If Professor Stam’s intent was to argue only on behalf of a single congregation of which he is the Music Minister, then why did he sign at all (much less first) as the “Director of the Institute for Christian Worship, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary?” I believe that the implied intent of the letter — as originally sent and as posted last week at B21 — is to argue for a prescriptive ban on expressions of patriotism in worship for all Southern Baptist churches (and perhaps elsewhere).
If that is not the intent, then I would respectfully request that the letter be amended so as to only reflect Professor Stam’s status as a local Music Minister. However, if that does not happen (and I do not believe it will), then Southern Baptists have a right to know that the Director for Christian Worship at the School for Church Ministries at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary believes that expressions of patriotism in worship are wrong and unwise. That was news to me. I’m sure it will be news to the majority of the Pastors and Music Ministers within the Convention as well!