What Is the Bible’s View?
Is It a Sin to Raise or Lower a Flag?
A FIRE fighter in an Ohio (U.S.A.) city was ordered by his superior officer to raise and lower a flag over the fire station. He respectfully declined. Because of this he was suspended from his duties for one day. On another occasion he again declined, drawing a similar one-day suspension. A third time he was ordered to raise and lower the flag, and, after once more refusing, he was dismissed from the fire department.
The fire fighter interpreted the raising or lowering of a flag as a religious act that violated his conscience. To him it conflicted with Bible commands related to idolatry, such as the injunction to “flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:14) and the prohibition against making or serving images.—Ex. 20:4, 5.
The case was taken to the local Court of Common Pleas, but the court ruled in favor of the city. Then the case was appealed to a higher court, to the Court of Appeals of Ohio. The issue before this appeals court was whether the fire fighter had been deprived of his freedom of religion as guaranteed by the United States Constitution.
The Ohio Court of Appeals reversed the judgment of the lower court. It ordered the Civil Service Commission of the city to restore the man to his position as a fire fighter. In its final opinion, the court said regarding the raising and the lowering of a flag: “We find that such action is a ceremony in that the standards established by Congress to unify patriotic customs require that the flag be raised briskly, and lowered ceremoniously . . . Its raising or lowering must be done with reverence and respect.”
Further, the court stated: “We cannot doubt the sincerity of plaintiff’s belief, nor the reasonableness of that belief, that partaking in that ritual, or ceremony is offensive to God.” The court added: “Freedom of religious conscience, belief, and action is only susceptible of restriction to prevent grave and immediate danger to interests which the state may lawfully protect . . . We have no such showing here.”
In a somewhat similar matter, the California Board of Education approved a ruling that permits students to refuse participation in the flag salute without being censured. They can remain silent during the pledge of allegiance. Of course, this matter was really decided long ago, in 1943, by the United States Supreme Court when it ruled against the compulsory flag salute. The California ruling merely confirms the validity of that decision.
Where the flag salute and the oath are concerned, there is a very definite ceremony or ritual involved, directly relating to Exodus 20:4, 5 and 1 Corinthians 10:14, as well as other Bible texts. That is why Jehovah’s Witnesses do not take part in flag ceremonies.
However, in the Ohio case the fire fighter was not required to participate directly in repeating any oath while raising or lowering the flag. Yet he viewed it as a sin, or a violation of his own conscience. And the court protected his right to decline as long as he did not threaten the life, property or welfare of anyone else.
Others, though, may just as conscientiously feel that they can perform the act of raising or lowering a flag when it does not involve any reverential religious ceremony, ritual, salute or oath. For example, the janitor of a public building may have a number of duties to perform each day, including the raising or lowering of a flag. Although he may be a Bible-based Christian, he may feel that since no ritual of any kind is involved, then he can perform this task.
Another Christian may not perform this duty because his conscience is more sensitive in a matter that is not commented upon directly in the Holy Scriptures. And the mere raising or lowering of a flag is not specifically mentioned in the Scriptures. If a person feels that doing so would go against his conscience since the flag is connected at other times with definite rituals or ceremonies, then it would be wrong for him to violate his conscience in such a matter. But it would not be wrong for another Christian to perform the same act if there is no ritual involved, and it does not offend his conscience, since God’s law does not specifically prohibit it.
This understanding is consistent with the Bible’s view regarding individual conscience. For example, in the first century idolatry was common. As part of some idolatrous ceremonies meat was offered to idols. Persons eating such meat at these ceremonies were sharing in idolatrous worship. Later, some of these persons became Christians and abandoned their idolatry. But remembering their former false worship, they had an aversion to eating such meat from the idol temple when it was sold later in the public meat market.
Yet, there was nothing wrong with the meat. It never really belonged to the idol, since a lifeless idol had no power to receive or possess the meat. In actuality, the meat remained under the ownership of God, who ‘owns the earth and all that is in it.’ (1 Cor. 10:26) Thus, another Christian whose conscience was not bothered by the previous use of the meat could purchase it and eat it without sinning against his conscience, since there was no direct religious act performed when buying or consuming the meat.
So both those who ate such meat and those who refused to eat it were following Christ and serving God. Both were approved by God, since their courses of action were all within the boundaries of his laws and principles.
Of course, if a Christian’s eating meat previously sacrificed to idols would disturb the conscience of a more sensitive person, then he should not eat the meat in the presence of that one.—1 Cor. 10:28.
Similarly, the question as to whether it is a sin to raise or lower a flag must be answered according to the circumstances—whether any reverential ceremony is involved, and in harmony with the conscience of the individual Christian. The conscience of one may impel him to ask his superiors to have someone else perform the task. But another may feel that if there is no actual ritual involved, then he can raise and lower a flag much as he would perform other daily duties such as opening windows or unlocking doors. And each, by preserving a completely clear conscience, will be in a position to say as did the apostle Paul: “I have behaved before God with a perfectly clear conscience down to this day.”—Acts 23:1.