Denominational vexillology

Canada’s red and white flag with its stylized 11-point maple leaf is simple yet elegant. Like most flags, it derives meaning and power from its colours and symbols that represent historical and cultural events. The study of flags, called vexillology, looks both at a flag’s appearance and usage. A flag makes a statement about identity.

People also raise flags metaphorically, promoting a certain brand or values “above” others. Several years ago, a consultant advised the Mennonite Brethren in Canada to “lower the flag of the Mennonite Brethren denomination” and raise “the flag of Jesus Christ alone.” Something about this advice resonated with many, while creating consternation for others.

It’s fair to say that denominational vexillology is no longer in vogue: these identities are often associated with divisiveness, arrogance and elitism. Sadly, that has often been true. Instead, it’s now cool in a post-denominational era to talk about how we advance the Kingdom and are gospel-only – and who among us doesn’t want to be associated with the gospel of Jesus and the Kingdom of God?

But is it possible that this Jesus flag metaphor and disregard for denominational identity have obscured some important insights?

Kingdom come?

First, consider the phrase “Kingdom of God,” which is often used as a general description of either a collaborative ecumenism or theological agreement within the worldwide Christian church. “Kingdom activity” or “Kingdom ideas” are unimpeded by denominational or cultural barriers. The word “kingdom” serves as a verbal shorthand for the unity and common purpose that ought to characterize disciples of Jesus.

But, in Scripture, “Kingdom” is not a synonym for ecumenism or generic Christianity – it is something closer to God’s victorious reign. Although we like talking about building or expanding the Kingdom, Jesus taught his disciples to pray that it would come to earth the way it already is in heaven.

Jesus said enter it, receive it, pray for it to come (Matthew 5:20; Mark 10:15; Matthew 6:10), all the while recognizing that it does not come to us only (Matthew 23:13). We don’t need to leave our culture or denomination behind to get in on the Kingdom. God does the work of reconciliation and transformation within local settings, within denominational particularities. 

Good news in my language

Second, God loves diversity; he enjoys detail, and works in and through the details that characterize human life. The good news came through a first-century Jewish family, not a heavenly megaphone.

As a male Jew who worshipped God in the Jerusalem temple and the synagogues of Palestine, Jesus was the furthest thing from generic. He read the Hebrew Scriptures, preached in Aramaic, spoke in Greek.

God’s good news is always expressed in a specific language, understood and lived out within a given culture. God’s good news does not diminish our personal stories or Mennonite Brethren theology; it pervades them to ensure that allegiance to Jesus becomes the central concern. The apostle John’s vision of the end of time includes people from every nation, tribe, people and language gathering to declare God’s glory (Revelation 7:9). The celebration of diversity continues into eternity.

If you could see with my eyes?

Third, carelessly saying that we must fly a Jesus flag only – without recognizing the reality of cultural and theological differences – can, ironically, be understood as another dogmatic and arrogant assertion that the way we see Jesus is the way everyone should see Jesus.

If the metaphor is used to ignore the story, convictions and values that shape our denominational family, we limit our understanding of the particular times and places in which people have experienced the transforming power of the Holy Spirit through the good news of Jesus Christ.

Let’s be honest, even when allegiance to Jesus is the common central concern (as it ought to be), living with cultural and denominational (or theological) diversity is always hard work. Such differences do not give us licence to condemn other Christians as false or as apostate. Rather, they call for humility, patience, careful listening, flexibility and love.

Differences force us to recognize our biases, the limitations of our own understanding, and should serve as an incentive to continue seeking illumination from the Holy Spirit as a community. If the point of “lowering the MB flag” is not to let denominational particularities get in the way of our witness to fellow Canadians, then let’s name those issues that are problematic so that the ambiguity of the metaphor doesn’t accidentally send the wrong message.

We cannot embody our faith outside of a cultural setting or communicate it without expressing a theological bias. Simply put, our Jesus flag will say as much about our story as it will about Jesus.

Postmodern interest in the way meaning emerges out of cultural settings creates an opportunity for denominations such as the Mennonite Brethren. We can tell our story of God’s redemptive work among us, without any elitism about our history and ways, and invite people to become a part of a community that is participating in God’s ongoing redemptive work. And their Jesus flag will look good next to ours.

This article was co-authored by Jeff Peters, director of advancement for MBBS Canada, and Bruce Guenther, president of MBBS Canada and professor of church history and Mennonite studies. Jeff prefers raising soccer football scarves instead of flags and Bruce likes Massey Ferguson hats much better than John Deere hats.

3 Comments on “Denominational vexillology

  1. You missed stroking out the word soccer (it is correct in print), now it looks like I think there is something called “soccer football scarves” – LOL

      • That’s ok, what’s really important is that, including this one, we already have three comments for this article!

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