I was serving as a worship pastor in a church in one of New York City’s suburbs when the attacks of September 11, 2001 were launched. Soon after the attacks, a small contingent of vocal church members began to demand that we start to sing American patriotic songs during our worship services. That suggestion didn’t sit well with me so I began trying to work through some of the relevant theological and practical questions one by one. I wrote these questions and answers on September 29, 2001, only 18 days after the attack on the World Trade Towers in New York City. The following is by no means the final word on the question, but it might provide categories you can use to think through this subject for yourself.
- Is there any biblical command that patriotic songs should be sung?
- Are there any biblical examples of patriotic songs being sung?
Answer: None that I know of, though some of the Psalms and other Old Testament songs could be construed as nationalistic songs for the nation of Israel. But since it is folly to try to argue that America is the modern replacement for Old Testament Israel, it is fruitless to follow this line of reasoning.
- What is the biblical model for the types of music that can be sung in worship services?
- Ephesians 5:18-19, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.”
- Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you; with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
- 1 Corinthians 14:15, “What is the outcome then? I shall pray with the spirit and I shall pray with the mind also; I shall sing with the spirit and I shall sing with the mind also.”
- 1 Corinthians 14:26, “What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.”
- The Psalms were used extensively in the early church. As we know, the Psalms found in the Old Testament Psalter are primarily prayer or praise of some kind to God, though there are teaching Psalms as well (e.g. wisdom and remembrance Psalms).
- Is there any evidence—biblical or otherwise—that the early church ever sang anything that either wasn’t worship of some kind or teaching of biblical/theological truth in some form?
Answer: Not that I know of.
- Does this question fall into the category commonly referred to as “gray areas” and thus regulated by principles found in places that discuss “gray areas” like Romans 14?
Answer: Yes and No. Since there is no explicit prohibition of patriotic songs, nor explicit encouragement to sing them in the Bible, the question will have to be decided by general biblical themes. But the general biblical themes which can be applied to this situation are not limited to the kind of ideas found in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 and 10. Since, then, there are other biblical themes that can be applied to this question, it will end up being either a “darker gray” or a “lighter gray” question.
- What possible messages could patriotic songs sung in the setting of a church service communicate to various groups, both positive and negative? (This is a sociological question.)
First, what would the singing of patriotic songs in a service communicate to an at-least-somewhat-patriotic non-Christian American?
- Thankfulness to be born in America (positive).
- A call to commitment to our country and the freedoms for which it stands (positive).
- A call to support our leaders (positive).
- Pride that we are the greatest nation on earth (viewed as positive by the singer but in fact negative from a biblical standpoint).
- A preference for Americans over other nationalities (again, viewed as positive by the singer but negative from a biblical standpoint).
- A thankfulness that the church being visited by the unbeliever cares about the country (could be positive).
- The sense that the church he/she is visiting as a whole agrees with whatever military action is being taken by the government (this is negative, since churches are made up of Christians who have various viewpoints on military action, some affirming a just-war theory, and some a more pacifistic approach).
Second, what would the singing of patriotic songs in a service communicate to a patriotic American Christian?
- All of the above (except the last) are possible responses to patriotic songs that could be displayed by an American Christian, both the positive and negatives.
- In addition, a Christian who loves his/her country might be drawn to greater prayer for the country and the leaders of the country, including prayer that God would again visit us with a spiritual revival (positive).
- A Christian might be encouraged to become more active in communicating a Christian message in the political forum (positive).
At this point it is necessary to point out that all Americans and American Christians are not quite so patriotic, sometimes because of disillusionment with the government because of past lies and involvement in immoral activities by governmental leaders. Actually, there are various sociological and theological reasons for a Christian who approaches questions of patriotism more cautiously. But the fact remains that our churches include American Christians who would not want to see patriotic songs sung during a worship service.
Third, what might the singing of patriotic songs in a service communicate to a foreigner (Christian or not) sitting in the services?
- A greater feeling of foreignness than they have felt before (negative).
- The sense that the church holds national issues as more important than international (e.g., missions) issues (negative).
- Fear (negative).
- Theological confusion (negative).
- I cannot think of anything positive for the foreigner who is in our services.
- How important is it that we consider foreigners who may be in our services?
Answer: One goal of a worship service, at least as it relates to unbelievers who visit, is that through the worship service an unbeliever will be drawn to worship God and see God among us. “… the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you” (1 Cor 14:25). Does an unbelieving foreigner who is in our services while we sing a patriotic song experience this?
Throughout the Bible we are encouraged to look out for the foreigner (e.g. Leviticus 23:22; 2 Chronicles 6:32-33). Verses such as Deuteronomy 10:19 are common, “And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.”
- Are there any principles of cross-cultural communication found in the Bible that might relate to this question?
Answer: Probably the most relevant is found in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.”
- Are there any biblical statements that help define our relationship to Christians who are of nationalities other than our own?
Answer: Yes. The New Testament is full of statements that indicate that a Christian is to maintain a deep allegiance to other Christians, no matter what their nationality or ethnicity. There are no such statements concerning allegiance to one’s country of birth or citizenship in the Bible.
- Galatians 3:28 is the magna carta of the New Testament. It says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
- Ephesians has more discussion of this question than can be written here. Representative is Ephesians 2:14-19: “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints …”
- And lest one think that these verses only pertain to the Jewish/Gentile relations, observe Romans 1:14: “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to Barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (and note the following context).
- “For our citizenship is in heaven …” (Philippians 3:20).
- So, since these scriptural ideas listed above move us in a particular direction already, does this mean that the principles found in passages like Romans 14 that deal with “gray areas” aren’t applicable?
Answer: No. They are still applicable, but it is right to affirm that this is not a typical “gray area.” Still, there are a few guidelines that appear in these passages that, should they be applied, point us in the direction of how we should handle this issue.
- “But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God.” (Romans 14:10)
- “Therefore let us not judge one another any more, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way” (Romans 14:13). “It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles” (Romans 14:21). Could our singing of patriotic songs in church cause our foreign brothers and sisters to stumble? Could it cause some American brothers and sisters in our services to be encouraged toward a pride that is less than godly?
- “So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Romans 14:19).
- What sorts of songs and themes, then, should be employed in a worship service during a time of military crisis?
- Songs that speak of the sovereignty of God.
- Songs that emphasize God’s care.
- Songs that call believers to trust in God.
- Songs that call our nation to repentance.
- Songs that draw attention to the needs of the world to receive the gospel.
- Songs that explicitly glorify God.