A Flag in the Church? - Dr. J. Faber

Taken with permission from the Clarion (1997) Vol. 46, No 9

It was mentioned in one of the last issues of Clarion that the Council of a Canadian Reformed Church had decided as follows:

A Canadian flag (and stand) will be placed in (the lobby of) the church building in recognition of our status as a Canadian church and as sign of allegiance as citizens of this land. To keep the discussion about this decision as brotherly and businesslike as possible I do not mention the name of the church. Every curious reader can find this out for him - or herself. I write this article simply to make my opinion known and to suggest in a modest manner that this Council should reconsider its decision.

Three preliminary remarks

In order to prevent misunderstanding, let me first make three qualifications by way of preliminary remarks.

First, let me immediately declare that we may rejoice in the fact that in our land the Canadian flag is displayed more prominently now than it had been in the past. In this respect we could certainly learn something from our neighbours in the United States. On a personal note I may disclose that even before the Hon. Sheila Copps decided to use taxpayer's money in order to distribute Canadian flags, our house displayed the Maple Leaf.

Second, let me state that I think it proper that the Canadian flag and the portrait of the Queen of Canada is displayed not only in government buildings but also in our Canadian Reformed schools. A school is an institute to educate the pupils to serve God and the neighbour in public life. Show and tell! We should not only tell the students the history of our and their country, province and region, but show and display federal and provincial symbols. The fact that at least the Ontario government does injustice to Christian parents who maintain so-called private schools should not determine our curriculum or the appearance of our school buildings. But does this mean that we should have a Canadian flag in a church?

Third, let me also add that my reservations with respect to this matter do not flow from a false nature-grace dilemma or from hidden Anabaptist feelings. My previous remarks should make this clear.

We heartily subscribe to Article 36 of our Confession. Everyone- no matter of what quality, condition, or rank - ought to be subject to the civil officers, pay taxes, hold them in honour and respect, and obey them in all things which do not disagree with the Word of God (Mt. 17:27; Mt. 22:21; Tit. 3:1; Rom. 13:7; Tit. 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:17).

It is a remarkable thing that we even have an article about civil authorities in our church order. Article 28 speaks of civil authorities (in the state) and office bearers (in the church). As far as the last are concerned, they are duty bound to impress diligently and sincerely upon the whole congregation the obedience, love, and respect which are due to the civil authorities; they shall set a good example to the whole congregation in this matter, and endeavour by due respect and communication to secure and retain the favour of the authorities towards the Church, so that the church of Christ may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.

It is completely clear from the Scriptures that we should give due attention in the congregational prayer to the supplications for federal, provincial and municipal authorities. In our world that becomes a global village the ministers (I include myself) should be more aware of the political situation on the entire earth and feel themselves compelled in certain situations to pray even for the work of the United Nations and their peacekeeping forces. There is the apostolic admonition that speaks of intercessions for kings and all who are in high positions (1 Tim. 2:1-2). And the proclamation of the Word of God concerns the totality of life. Why not during a sermon in March or April a reminder of the Christian way of filling out our tax form?


But does this mean that a flag of Canada or the United States or the United Nations should remind the members of the Canadian and American Reformed Churches of their civil duties? Do we not have the Scriptures?

A church building is the place of worship of God. Everything points there to Him. Reformed people have been very sober in the structure of their church buildings, even when it came to a baptismal font or a permanent Lord's Supper table. Is a stand with a national flag in (the lobby of) a church building in conformity with the soberness of the Reformed liturgy? And what about the character of the church of God?

In a church building comes together the congregation of Him who first made the good confession before Pontious Pilate when He said, "My kingship is not of this world . . ." (John 18:36) and Who now is the Ruler of kings on earth (Rev. 1:5).

In a church building gather christians who confess that their commonwealth politeuma- is in heaven. The NIV translates very clearly: But our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:21). The Jerusalem above is our mother (Gal. 4:28).

Here on earth we are strangers and exiles and we are seeking a homeland. The homeland we seek is not the old country - for that matter, we never had a Dutch flag in a Reformed church building - but we seek a better, that is a heavenly country (Heb. 13:1316).

Our homeland is the new earth where there will be the great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language (Rev. 7:9).

Do I have to quote extensively from the first letter of Peter, addressed to the exiles of the Dispersion, the holy nation, God's own people? Let me only mention 1 Peter 1:1; 1:17, 2:11 and remind you of the word "aliens" both in the RSV and the N IV.

Should we have in our one federation a Canadian flag in the church of Chatham and an American in Grand Rapids? In the church of Lynden an American and in the church of Abbotsford a Canadian? Is this a good symbol of our common christian confession of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church?

Let us also not forget the struggle of Christian Reformed brothers and sisters during the first World War, when e.g. the Rev. Herman Hoeksema and the Rev. J.J. Weersing refused to allow the flag in the church. "Soon after, Wersing and the teacher of the local Christian school were forced to leave town, pursued by a band of several hundred patriots. Some of these, dissatisfied with both official and vigilante measures, took the final step of burning both the church and the school." [1]

What are the present feelings in our Reformed brotherhood, e.g. in the United Reformed Churches and the Free Reformed Churches? Are they still aware of the danger of false nationalism in the catholic church of God? And if this is the case, should we not forgo all sorts of novelties that may hinder the badly needed union of Reformed confessors?

Two concluding observations

In conclusion I make two other observations.

The name of the Free Reformed Churches is the name also of our sister churches in Australia and South Africa and I like it even better than Canadian Reformed. The beautiful name of Free Reformed reminds us of the struggle of our forefathers and foremothers in the Secession of 1834 in the Netherlands. It was the struggle against hierarchicalism and caesarism. There was not only the domination of the so-called higher ecclesiastical assemblies - hierarchicalism - but also the lordship of the state over the church which we call caesarism.

If we come to think of it, has this struggle against hierarchicalism and caesarism not always been the struggle of the church of God in history? There was the struggle against hierarchicalism - think of the church of Rome in the Middle Ages and even today within Vatican City - and against caesarism since the empire of Constantine the Great?

In my lifetime we experienced caesarism e.g. in the slavish attitude of the Orthodox Church in communist Russia and of the Deutsche Reichs Kirche in national-socialist Germany. I vividly remember the picture of bishop Ludwig Muller who in uniform brought the salute: "Heil Hitler!" Should we not be afraid of false nationalism in the church of God, especially in these last days, when the beast out of the earthtries to make us worship the image of the beast that rises out of the sea of nations (Rev. 13)?

Our brothers Luther and Calvin were deadly afraid of confusion regnorum, a confusion of the reign of Christ over the church and his reign over the rulers on earth. They discerned in Roman Catholicism and in Anabaptism such a confusion of the realms under Christ's authority or His twofold manner of reign. May I refer to Calvin's exposition in his Institutes 3.19.15 about the two kingdoms, the spiritual and the political? "There are in man, so to speak, two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority."

My second observation concerns our Church Order. I mentioned Art. 28 but I should not be silent about Art. 30: The ecclesiastical assemblies "shall deal with no other than ecclesiastical matters and that in an ecclesiastical manner."

If I am not mistaken, this article was formulated precisely against a confusio regnorum in the young Reformed churches of the Netherlands. Recently there have been very interesting publications about- the Reformation in Antwerp and about the minutes of the consistory of the church of Dutch refugees in London. In my opinion they also make clear what the background is of Art. 30 C.O.: Consistories should stay away from false nationalist actions . [2]

The question now arises: Was the decision concerning a flag in (the lobby of) a Reformed church building in - not of - Canada an ecclesiastical matter? My answer is obvious: No.


[1] J.D. Bratt, Dutch Calvinism in modern America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1984) pp. 88ff.

[2] Joh. Jansen, Korte verklaring van de kerkenordening (Kampen: Kok, 2nd ed. 1937) pp. 134f. The recent publications are e.g. Guido Marnef, Antwerp in the age of Refor mation: Underground Protestantism in a commercial metropolis, 1550-1577 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996); A.J. Jelsma and O. Boersma, eds., Acta van het consistorie van de Nederlandse gemeente to London, 1569-1585 (The Hague: Rijks Geschiedkundige Publicatien, Kleine serie, deel 76, 1993); O. Boersma, Vluchtig voorbeeld, De nederlandse, franse en italiaanse vluchtelingenkerken in London, 1568-1585 (Kampen: Kok, 1994). These are excellent additions to A.A. van Schelven, Kerkeraads-pro tocollen der Nederduitsche vluchtelingenkerk to Londen 15601569 (Amsterdam: J. Muller, 1921).