By Jeremy Bell
I write this post as both a pastor and a patriot. As a pastor, I have served in two local churches prior to coming on staff at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and as a patriot, I served for over 6 years as a Marine Corps Officer protecting and defending this country from foreign and domestic enemies.
Each year around the 4th of July, I feel a tension in my heart when I step into a Sunday worship service. On one hand, I am there to worship my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and on the other, I am thankful for this country that the Lord allows me to live in during this season of life. Therefore, my theological convictions wrestle with my patriotism when it comes to singing patriotic music during church services.
Over the years, my theology has continued to shape my understanding of patriotic music during the corporate worship gatherings. My purpose in this article is neither to condemn nor condone patriotic music during worship services, but rather to ask us to consider the theological implications of such practices.
I am proud to have served my country, but I am even more grateful that Jesus saved me from my sin.
To Sing or Not to Sing?
Here are 3 questions I ask myself when it comes to singing patriotic pieces during corporate worship:
- Does patriotic music unintentionally undermine the global scope of the gospel?
The gospel is for all the nations. God called out Abram with these words, “And I will make you a great nation . . . and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2–3). Jesus’s genealogy is traced back to Abraham, indicating that Jesus is the only way all people can be reconciled to God (Matthew 1:2). Moreover, Matthew closes his gospel with Jesus’ final words, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19a).
Jesus came to save not one nation, but all the nations. The emphasis throughout Scripture is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for all nations, all peoples, every tribe, and every language. Therefore, when we sing songs like “God Bless America,” are we unintentionally undermining the truth that the gospel for all nations?
- Does patriotic music shift the focus away from Jesus?
Why do we corporately gather each week? To worship Jesus Christ, who saved us from our sin and restored our relationship to God the Father. Jesus taught the woman at the well, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:23).
This verse should characterize our corporate worship experiences. We should all come to corporate worship with the disposition to worship the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit. When I pastored, I was wary of doing anything during the worship gathering that either intentionally or unintentionally took the focus away from worshiping God. Therefore, all aspects of the worship gathering should be designed to exalt Christ — and nothing else.
- Does patriotism during worship detract from the beauty of the gospel?
I am proud to have served my country, but I am even more grateful that Jesus saved me from my sin. To be honest, I would rather sing in corporate worship about the beauty of the gospel than the country I served.
When we (the universal church) gather around the throne of grace one day, this is what we will sing, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seal, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom of priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 7:9–10).
I am convinced that singing about being bought with the blood of the Lamb supersedes anything else we could ever sing about in our corporate gatherings. My prayer is that throughout the worship experience — from welcome to benediction — believers would be reminded of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross and his glorious resurrection. Additionally, those who are lost will be further convinced by the power of the Holy Spirit when they observe how we believe this truth so much that it’s all we pray, sing, and talk about in our gatherings.
Just because we may not sing patriotic songs during a worship gathering does not mean we should not go out and join in on patriotic festivities.
The Proper Place of Patriotism
You may be thinking I am suggesting that the church should have no form of patriotism, but that’s not the case. While I would think twice about singing patriotic songs during worship gatherings, I would gladly push a congregation towards alternatives to show their appreciation for this country.
First, we should pray for our country, leaders, and brothers and sisters in other parts of the world (1 Timothy 2:1–4). Churches should take time on the 4th of July—or any Sunday—to thank God we live in a country with freedom to gather and worship without fear of persecution or tyranny. We should thank God we live in a country with democratic principles and pray for those in positions of authority over us. We should pray for other believers in other parts of the world who do not share these same freedoms. Pray they would remain faithful during times of persecution, and that God would free them from government oppression for their belief in Jesus Christ.
Second, encourage the people of God to celebrate national holidays in the community. Just because we may not sing patriotic songs during a worship gathering does not mean we should not go out and join in on patriotic festivities. In fact, I was often asked to speak at certain community events during patriotic celebrations like Veteran’s Day, and I did this with much joy.
To conclude, I still stand at the position of attention with pride when I hear the National Anthem being played. I put my hand over my heart and get goosebumps because I am reminded of the privilege it was to serve in the United States Marine Corps. However, when I gather with the people of God each week, and I sing about the faithfulness of God, and how he sent Jesus Christ to bring me from death to life, from sin to salvation, from brokenness to redemption, I am overcome with emotions of gratitude, grace, and joy — because believing in Jesus transcends anything else in this world. So when I gather with the people of God, I desire to focus on Christ, be reminded of the beauty of the gospel, and be obedient to the Great Commission to take the good news to the entire world.