george_hancockstefanIn a discussion with a friend about civil religion and mixture of religion and politics, he told me how he regards the removing of the American flag as one of his great accomplishments in the last church that he served.  Being familiar with the many arguments about the subject I listened intently. One of the arguments is that USA is one of the few countries in which both flags are exhibited in the sanctuary. The other one is that at times the Christian flag has become secondary to the American flag. Or that patriotism at times has been defended even when it ran diametrically opposed to the tenets of the Bible. 

Our friendship started over three decades ago and we can discuss any subject. His family came to this country about two centuries ago and mine arrived here in the mid-sixties.  Both of us are committed Christians and have been pastoring for over 30 years. He has helped me a lot professionally and I am greatly indebted to him.

After this conversation, I took my clothes to a nearby cleaner owned by a Korean family. When I opened the door I was greeted by one of the largest flags that I have seen.  This family has enough knowledge of English to greet the customers, and they want to show to everyone their patriotism by displaying this flag so prominently.

I was thinking of my two discussions.  One in which the flag has been removed and one in which the flag has been displayed.  This flag gives us opportunity to do both.  We have the liberty not to display it and we have the liberty to honor it and we choke with tears when we salute it because of the liberty that it gives us.

I was told by some of my closest friends that I, as former refugee and a naturalized citizen of this country, am many times more patriotic than some of the people that have been born here because they never experienced the absence of all those political and religious liberties that this flag gives us. Growing up in the Communist country of Yugoslavia, there were certain things that we knew for sure.  We knew that every four years President Tito would run for the presidency of the country and he will always receive 100% because no one was running against him.  We had the liberty to vote, but there was only one candidate.  We had religious liberty, but the government could close our churches, could force pastors and lay leaders on Mondays to come and report what happened in their churches on Sundays and could reject young people’s application for college education if they attended church and were not members of the Young People’s Communist Party.

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Jackson Pines and Cranston Dean in residency at Langosta Lounge in Asbury Park
Jackson Pines and Cranston Dean at Langosta

In the DNA of the Baptist theological development is the concept of the separation of the church and state.  Our founders, John Smyth in Europe and Roger Williams in Rhode Island did not want the state to interfere at all in any of the activities of the church. This concept has often been misunderstood and misinterpreted. In the simplest ways it means that the government does not interfere with the church, but it also creates an environment for the full expression of the church.

Thus as a pastor I do not see any problem with having both of the flags, the Christian flag and the American flag, in the sanctuary.  One flag identifies that I am a Christian and that we are in a Christian church. The other flag demonstrates that in this country, under our flag I have full liberty to meet whenever and wherever I want to worship, unhindered and uncoerced.


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George Hancock-Stefan

Pastor George Hancock-Stefan completed 30 years as the pastor of the great congregation at Central Baptist Church in Atlantic Highlands in 2020. Those 30 years have been a blessed time for him, his wife...