You are here:

Lutherans/American flag in the sanctuary


I am a life time member of the ELCA. Recently an interim pastor came to our parish to fill in as we go through the process of finding a new pastor to replace our former pastor who retired. Since his arrival, he has made several changes in our church, all of which are relatively benign -- except for one change that I find extremely troubling. We always had the American Flag and the Lutheran Flag in the sanctuary. He removed the American flag from the sanctuary with a vague explanation of "separation of church and state". I am more than a little offended that he would make such a move the American flag from it's position of many, many years in the sanctuary and then offer such a flimsy excuse. I totally understand separation of church and state, but the onus of separation of church and state has to do with the state not intruding on church doctrine. Is there a new movement with the ECLA of removing American flags out of the sanctuary?  If in fact this is am emerging doctrine, then it's time for me to change my church affiliation. Please give me your opinion on this issue.


Thanks for your question.  The issue of the American flag and Lutheran church buildings has a bit of a complex history.  For people in the Missouri Synod and other Lutherans with a German heritage, having flags in the front of the church was a very recent development, only occurring 70 years ago, during World War 2.  I'm not sure about the ELCA or non-Lutheran churches, but I would not be surprised if the same was true for many of them as well.  The reason the German Lutherans began to bring in the U.S. flag was because they were facing a great deal of scrutiny from both the government and their neighbors who suspected them of being Nazi sympathizers.  Because part of this arose from the fact that most of them still conducted services in German, they hastened their transition to English in the service, and they also began displaying the flag as a way of demonstrating that they were not Nazi sympathizers.  

Unfortunately, most people in our churches do not know this history and assume that the flag has always been there, certainly in the American experience of Lutheranism, but some would assume in all nations since the Reformation.  However, that is not the case as you can see, and it is in fact a very recent innovation of the past 75 years, even though nearly all of those who remember life prior to it are now deceased.  This continued without examination for a couple of generations, until within the past 30 years.  

The pastors who were in training from that point until the present did not live during World War 2, and this made them capable of examining the display of the flag from a more objective vantage point.  In doing so, they recognized that, theologically speaking, it probably never should have happened.  To say it is simply "because of separation of church and state" would be both over-simplified and lacking nuance, though.  Those who were reexamining the display of the flag were not opposed to it because it violated the First Amendment or Thomas Jefferson's ideals (where the "separation" language is found), but rather because it gave the appearance that the flag was an object of worship, especially if it was placed on the highest level of the chancel in proximity to the altar.  They also observed that it communicated a mixed message about the relative importance of Christian faith and patriotism (making them appear equal) rather than communicating the superiority of loyalty to Christ over the state or its rulers (Acts 5:29).  Because it only served to distract attention away from the preaching of the Word and the Administration of the Sacraments (what the service is all about) and not to direct attention toward them, they saw the display of the flag as a regrettable mistake of a past generation.  

It's not so much that it is an emerging doctrine, but rather that it is a return to what Lutherans had believed and done during their first 4 centuries rather than what was new only to the most recent half-century.  Where the rubber meets the road on this one is how a pastor and congregation approach the present circumstances where the church is populated by two to three generations of people who have always known a flag in their church and are unfamiliar with how this could raise concerns about divided loyalty or theological compromise.  Even the most conservative of Lutherans typically recognize that making an immediate change without long and thorough explanation beforehand is probably ill-advised, and most are approaching change in this matter very patiently.  

Ultimately, your pastor is probably not running contrary to 5 centuries of Lutheran practice. Rather he is probably returning to greater consistency with that heritage, but his approach to implementing it - at least the portion you have been able to observe - appears not to have been as cautious or sensitive as you would be comfortable with.  


All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


Rev. Jason P. Peterson


I welcome the opportunity to answer questions regarding the beliefs and practices Lutheran Christians, especially questions comparing Lutherans with other Christian denominations or questions which contrast between various kinds of Lutherans. I am especially familiar with the more conservative Lutheran denominations (LCMS, ELS, WELS, etc.). I also take a great interest in examining new Christian movements and popular trends in Christianity from a Lutheran perspective. In addition, I can answer most questions about the original Greek text of the New Testament and its meaning, as well as questions regarding liturgy, evangelism, and preaching. A special area of interest in my ministry is race track chaplaincy/ministry, and I would love to provide information and guidance for anyone interested in this area.


I have been a pastor in the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod for the past six years at St. John's Lutheran Church in Burt, IA. I currently serve as chairman of the Commission on Ministerial Growth & Support of the Missouri Synod's Iowa District West and as Track Chaplain at Algona Raceway in Algona, IA. I also write as a religion columnist for two local newspapers.

Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod

Algona Upper Des Moines (newspaper) Bancroft Register (newspaper)

B.A. Concordia University - Ann Arbor, MI (Biblical Languages) M.Div. Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN (Exegetical Theology, Pastoral Ministry & Missions)

Past/Present Clients
Zion Lutheran Church (Columbia City, IN) Zion Lutheran Church (Altamont, IL) St. John's Lutheran Church (Burt, IA) Zion Lutheran Church (Lu Verne, IA) Algona Raceway (IA) Fairmont Raceway (MN) Hancock County Speedway (Britt, IA) Clay County Fairgrounds Raceway (Spencer, IA)

©2017 All rights reserved.