Religious liberty is celebrated as one of the historic and foundational Baptist distinctives.
In “Four Fragile Freedoms,” Walter Shurden wrote, “Religious freedom is the historic Baptist affirmation of freedom OF religion, freedom FOR religion and freedom FROM religion, insisting that Caesar is not Christ and Christ is not Caesar.”
For many faithful years, the Baptist Joint Committee has helped Baptists (and non-Baptists!) understand how to apply religious liberty to all people.
But I must admit, that the part of Shurden’s statement about religious liberty that gets tricky in my opinion is the phrase about Christ and Caesar.
I often find myself asking the question, “How much, if ever, should Caesar (the nation) appear in the worship of Christ?”
Since taking a Baptist heritage class as an undergraduate ministry student, I have frequently been troubled anytime we say the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag in a house of worship.
I am happy to pledge allegiance to my nation as a celebration of the freedoms it provides when I am in other locations. When I am in church, however, I feel as though the focus of my allegiance should be to Christ, not Caesar.
This has bothered me to the point of which I, personally, would prefer no symbol of any government, flag or otherwise, to appear in a house of worship.
The place of Caesar in the worship of God particularly comes to a head especially around the time of national holidays such as Memorial Day, Independence Day and the holiday observed this week, Veterans Day.
Should an acknowledgement, even celebration, of these holidays happen in our houses of worship?
And for this week, should our churches include honoring veterans as a part of our worship services, especially since, for some people, honoring veterans in corporate worship not only brings Caesar into the worship of Christ, but also glorifies the violence of warfare?
In consideration of this matter, I believe our first concern should be the purpose of corporate worship.
Corporate worship in the church takes place so that a group of Christ followers can collectively and holistically experience God through praise, songs, prayers, sermons and so on as well as partake of the rituals of the Christian tradition.
Participation in corporate worship should encourage the formation of the whole person into the image of Christ.
Others may define worship in a slightly different manner. But the central concern when considering if certain elements should be included in our worship is whether or not those elements are consistent with the definition of worship we have decided upon as a congregation.
For some, honoring the ways in which individuals have lived their lives in service of God is an acceptable part of worship, which encourages others to be formed into the image of Christ.
Because Christ models to us that the way of discipleship includes sacrifice, this may include honoring people who have served and sacrificed in a variety of ways, including but not limited to those who committed to military service.
If a congregation chooses to honor veterans during its worship in this way, worship leaders can carefully choose their words and Scripture so that the focus remains on the center of our worship – Jesus Christ.
Instead of introducing veterans by giving count of the number of “enemy soldiers” they killed, focus can be placed on the sacrifices they have made as we quote Jesus’ teaching and example found in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Instead of venerating a veteran’s war days or tours of duty, we can emphasize the service of those who have worked for peace as we quote Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
Instead of placing the focus on an exaltation of serving Caesar, we can honor veterans for the ways in which they have followed Christ.
When done in this way, perhaps honoring veterans might serve as an example for us to include celebrating others who have lived lives of service into our corporate worship as well. Jesus blessed the peacemakers, but so many others too.
May our worship be an encouragement to us that we might find the incarnation of the sacrificing Christ in the lives of the beloved saints.
Meredith Stone is instructor of Christian ministry and Scripture and director of ministry guidance at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. She serves on the Baptist World Alliance’s Commission for Christian Ethics.
Editor’s note: This is the second article in a three-part series for Veterans’ Day 2017. The previous article is:
10 Suggestions to Help Your Church Honor Veterans by Barry Howard
Executive Director of Baptist Women in Ministry.