A Bible-based movement began Sun., July 5, 2015, on the front lawn of Elizabeth Baptist Church in Shelby, N.C. The church raised two flags on a single, newly installed flagpole as part of a unique patriotic ceremony after the morning worship service. In a break with tradition, the Christian flag was hoisted above the American flag.
Along with the flag-raising ceremony, the church’s senior pastor, Rit Varriale, launched the “God Before Government” (GBG) movement to call attention to the ultimate priority of the Bible – the glory of God.
West Asheville Baptist Church flies the Christian flag above the American flag at its church.
The national motto of the United States, “In God we trust,” was signed into law in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Varriale said the statement acknowledges that there is a Divine Being to whom we are all accountable.
GBG emphasizes that Christians are accountable to God before they are accountable to any human government.
“If you stop and think about it, [flag etiquette] is inconsistent with what the Bible teaches us,” Varriale said. “We are first and foremost Christians who are called to serve the living God.”
He added, “We certainly want to respect and obey the authorities, but when the authorities start asking you to do things that violate your relationship with God, that’s when the church has to stand up and say respectfully, ‘No. God comes first.’ That’s what we have failed to do as a church.”
In the past year Varriale has learned that the GBG principles are consistent with the pledge of allegiance to the American flag and historic documents. The precedent was set in the U.S. Navy where the Christian pennant was to be flown above the American flag during worship services on the ship.
In World War II President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the distribution of Bibles to all military personnel. The inside cover included his signature and a drawing of the American flag with the Christian pennant above it. “So here you have the president’s endorsement of putting Bibles into the hands of soldiers, sailors and airmen,” Varriale explained.
“In the case of the Navy, he instructed them that the only flag they can honor above the American flag is the flag that represents Christianity. For us as a church, that’s powerful because it speaks to the fact that our whole purpose is about worship. So when we fly the Christian flag above the American flag, we’re following a precedent that was set in our military.”
A Navy Bible ordered to be given to sailors by President Franklin Roosevelt in World War II depicts the Christian flag above the American flag, and the text indicates this is the proper display during church services.
The GBG movement caught the attention of Stan Welch, senior pastor of West Asheville Baptist Church. Varriale and Welch knew aeach other well through their service on the board of directors of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
When Welch learned about Elizabeth Baptist’s flag-raising service, he said it resonated with him.
“It’s not something that is necessarily the popular thing to do,” he said.
“It’s not the politically correct thing to do, but I do believe it’s the biblically correct thing to do. Our nation continues to go down the tubes morally, spiritually, ethically, and in every way. If there’s anything that will jar us back, I think this is the type of movement that could gain some traction.”
He wanted to lead West Asheville church to join the GBG movement. Considering Varriale’s military background, pastoral leadership and knowledge of America’s historic foundations, Welch invited him to be part of a series of services that featured a different speaker each night.
“Rit presented the God Before Government vision and what Elizabeth Baptist Church in Shelby did with their flags,” said Welch. “Our people were very fired up to do this. I talked to my staff about it and they were unanimous. They said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ So I took it to the deacons to see what they think.”
At first a few thought it was “silly and unpatriotic” to put the Christian flag above the American flag, Welch explained. But as the deacons discussed the subject at a retreat and understood the biblical and historical values involved, “the men were unanimous that we should do this. We told the church what the deacons said, and the church applauded it.”
West Asheville Baptist installed a flagpole in front of their building and raised the flags on Sat., Oct. 25, 2015. The next morning Welch announced to the church that the flags were flying. “Again, there was thunderous applause,” he said.
Knowing that some in the community would not understand, Welch gathered some talking points to help the congregation explain the flags to others. “It’s about education,” he said. “Our people need to know where we’re coming from historically and biblically as a nation. We want to put our people’s attention on the cross, Christ and our Christian heritage.”
Welch said the church expected opposition, “especially in Asheville. But it’s been an opportunity to witness, and we’ve been kind to those who disagree. When you do the right thing, you don’t put your finger in the wind to see which way it’s blowing. You bring people’s attention back to the cross and to Christ. We want to continually say that we are one nation under God. When we get to heaven there will not be an American flag there.”
A man who opposed flying the Christian flag above the American flag wrote a letter to the local newspaper, the Asheville Citizen Times, asking if that was against the law. One of the newspaper’s editors explained it is not against the law, and the church has a right to do this. A local television station also produced a feature story that included comments from a veteran who spoke against it.
“We have had about four-to-one positive comments from others,” Welch said. “I can’t go a lot of places without somebody saying ‘thank you for what you’re doing.’”
One day a lady walked into the church office and said, “I don’t know if you know it, but your flags are reversed.”
Welch told her that the order of the flags was intentional. “She was a veteran and after I explained what we were doing, said she understood it. She said, ‘If our nation has a chance it will be because we turned back to God.’”
Welch said most veterans favor the movement. “Our veterans get it. They say, ‘As a Christian veteran, I get this.’ They understand that some will not get it, but they have no problem with it whatsoever.”
He would like to see more pastors stand with them in the movement. “I hope others will join us as we attempt to be unapologetically Christian first and patriots second.
“People do not know our history and they are confused about many things like the meaning of ‘separation of church and state,’” he added.
“They don’t know that the phrase was introduced 13 years after the constitution in a letter to Baptists in Danbury, Conn. They just don’t have a clue. They don’t know that the purpose is to keep the government out of the church, not the church out of government. So it is an education process.”