SBC’s New Calvinism & Patriotic Worship: Part 2

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!

9 comments for “SBC’s New Calvinism & Patriotic Worship: Part 2

  1. TRB
    April 9, 2011 at 4:33 PM

    , worship | 17 Comments |.

    Not sure what’s wrong, but the above link just loops back to your bio? Can’t actually read any of the 17 comments. Be interested to see if this one bumps the number up by one.

    TRB

    • April 9, 2011 at 8:31 PM

      TRB,

      I have no idea why that is doing that. It may be a glitch with the WordPress site because I have never had that happen before. I suppose people will at least get a chance to read about my background. Thanks and God bless,

      Howell

  2. April 11, 2011 at 3:21 PM

    Howell:

    Click over to my blog and also see the post I left at Baptist History and Heritage of http://www.baptistlife.com/forums

    The Miller book on Billy Graham is a must read for you and any who find your Baptist political bent of interest. I have emailed Adrian Rogers son David about this book and Harry Dent’s daughter Ginny.

    As you see at bl.com, hoping to bring it to the attention of Mercer Prez Underwood and President Carter if they haven’t read it with some deliberation to date.
    Must read for you. Looking forward to your blog review of the book soon.

    Miller’s site:

    http://sites.google.com/site/stevenpmillersite/

  3. Candice
    September 12, 2012 at 12:13 PM

    Just in case you were wanting to be sensitive – Dr. Stam died shortly before you posted these articles. Also – you should probably first and foremost declare yourself a follwer of Christ (Christian), not a Southern Baptist (in response to your first article). Secondly, there’s a large difference between recognizing those who serve our country (in whatever capacity they serve) and serving your military-heavy congregation (for you peresonally) and making your service devoted to the USA just as much as it is devoted to worshiping God. I believe Dr. Stam is trying to defend against the latter. There’s nothing wrong with saying the pledge of allegiance on the 4th of July or Memorial Day or September 11th. There is nothing wrong with honoring those who have served our country with a moment of silence or having them stand up and be recognized. There is something wrong, however, with having your entire choir look like the american flag – the glory is going to America and all glory should be going to God. Let’s not forget the reason we are even able to worhsip God in the manner we do is because Jesus came to tear the veil between God and man. We should praise God that he has allowed America to be a country where we worship freely, but again, ALL glory be to God – thanks and gratitude should be shown to the soldiers who were so selfless. God is the only person who should be receiving glory, especially by his corporately gathered church.

    • September 12, 2012 at 3:22 PM

      Candice,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and to comment. We probably are much closer in our thoughts on this than my article might lead you to believe. While you may not see anything wrong with saying the pledge of allegiance on the 4th of July or September 11, there are many Christians who would not only find that objectionable for their own congregations, but would also object to any congregation engaging in any type of “patriotic” worship. It was to that dogmatic position that I was responding initially. I would agree that having your choir look like the American flag or giving over the majority of a worship service to patriotic expression would be wrong. I do not see anything wrong with honoring veterans, active military personnel and/or our country (or moms on Mother’s Day) as somehow idolatrous behavior (which was an argument used against my posts which I tried to answer). God is the only person who should receive glory, but I believe that we can give “honor to whom honor is due,” all within the context of worshipping and thanking God for the blessings that He has bestowed on us. That’s the issue that I had with Dr. Stam and the folks at Baptist 21, who published Dr. Stam’s letter. Thanks again for stopping by. God bless,

      Howell

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