Civic Holidays and the Church

This weekend is Memorial Day weekend. Churches all over the country are asking what they should do to honor veterans who have served in the U.S. military. Should we build the whole service around it? Should we give them a standing ovation? Should we say nothing? Let me share my perspective on how the gathered church should handle Memorial Day weekend and other civic holidays.

I’m an old Millennial (born in 1984), so I probably have different thoughts on this than pastors and Christians in the Boomer and perhaps even Gen X generations. Much of my perspective is born out of this generational influence—my generation sees the need for the church to be the church, not a political machine. (We are still recovering from the Religious Right movement in the 80s and 90s.) Also, much of my perspective is a balancing correction to my upbringing. This is not simply about my family life. The bigger picture is that I grew up in a politically conservative, Midwestern, dispensational evangelical environment which was just as staunchly “American” as it was “Christian.” I’m learning to unlearn this.

So take this post for what it’s worth (it’s free, by the way).

First things first: I think it would be wonderful and necessary for our churches to verbally thank those who have served in the military and affirm that it is a God-honoring calling (as is being an engineer, a teacher, a mom, a cop, etc.). Romans 13 gives us this perspective. Work is a good thing, and the government bearing the sword is good and right (Rom. 13:3-4). We could argue all day about what is just or unjust for a government to do, but we can all agree that simply serving as a solider (or other government official) is not an immoral or unethical thing in itself.

But churches often go further than this and that is where I get conflicted. For example, many churches will show a video or have special music as a tribute to soldiers or have them stand then give them a standing ovation. Let me briefly share two thoughts on why I think extended attention to America’s government or military during corporate worship gatherings is not a healthy thing for a church:

  • Our allegiance to Jesus, not country, is primary. As God’s new community, our first allegiance is to Jesus (Phil. 3:20; 1 Pet. 2:9-10). I always want that to be the focus of a corporate worship gathering. The temptation that comes with showing a tribute video, like the one above, for example, is that the focus and allegiance of the gathering can easily shift from God to country (even if just for a few moments). Don’t get me wrong, I am very thankful I’m an American (and in a sense I will always be one, cf. Rev. 5:9). But belonging to Jesus is infinitely more important because other nationalities belong to Jesus’ community as well (again, Rev. 5:9). Saying “God Bless America” sounds spiritual, but it isn’t the most biblically faithful thing to say, nor is it a loving expression for non-Americans to hear from a Christian’s lips.
  • Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice, not soldiers. The video I linked above, quotes a very popular phrase: “We remember that they [soldiers] paid the ultimate price for our freedom.” While the death of U.S. soldiers did give me political freedom and continues to keep me physically safe, it did not ultimately set me free from God’s wrath, my flesh, the devil, and eternity in hell. Only Jesus’ death did that. North Korea is not my enemy. I was my own worst enemy and Jesus died for me (Rom. 5:8). Satan is my enemy and Jesus crushed him (Gen. 3:15; Heb. 2:14; 1 John 3:8). He made the ultimate sacrifice: he was a righteous man dying for his enemies (Rom. 5:6-7), which is a a very non-American and non-human thing to do. Later on, that same video quotes Jesus’ words in John 15:13 about him laying his life down for his friends and then calling his disciples to do the same for others (“love others as I have loved you”). The context is Jesus’ death for the church and the church’s response to Jesus. But the video applies it to U.S. soldiers. Obviously, that is a significant misapplication of Scripture. Very often, on civic holiday weekends, churches can perpetuate soldier idolatry, which is a real struggle for many Americans. We should give honor to whom honor is due, but in the context of the corporate worship of the church, using religious language in relation to soldiers will distract people from the point of a worship gathering: honoring Jesus because of his substitionary sacrifice.

I realize you might think I’m being nit-picky, maybe even anti-American—and I’m okay with that. You might think this is a little thing and I just wasted 900 words on it. But it’s typically the little things, the slippery slope, that distract people from God and his gospel in favor of other gospels, in this case an “American gospel.”

This question of what we do in a worship service on a civic holiday is part of a bigger conversation which needs to answer the question, “What does it mean to be a peculiar and holy people who reside in this earthly country, yet are citizens of a heavenly one (Heb. 11:16)?” Other saints have had to answer it in their time, and it’s not going to be an easy question for my generation to answer. I don’t know the answer yet. Whatever our answer, I think it’s going to be much different than how American Christians answered in the past.