Salute one another with a holy kiss. The churches of Christ salute you.
— Romans 16:16
By now, those who read my Sunday religious posts probably know that I grew up and am a member of the Church of Christ. It is a faith that I adhere to, and I hope that it will someday follow the teachings of the Bible fully and openly accept LGBTQ+ Christians as members. Most Churches of Christ do not at this time, and I believe it is one of their greatest faults along with their prohibition on women in leadership roles. However, this is not the point of this post today. I wanted to talk about growing up in the Church of Christ in rural Alabama. I grew up in a small country church with around a dozen members, half of which were my family.
The Church of Christ is a simple church with a simple set of beliefs based on the New Testament of the Bible. The church teaches that the process of salvation is achieved through the following actions:
- One must be taught appropriately and hear the Word of God.
- How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? As it is written, how beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace and bring glad tidings of good things! But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report? So, then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Romans 10:14-17)
- But without faith, it is impossible to please him: for he that comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)
- He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believes not shall be damned. (Mark 16:16)
- And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commanded all men everywhere to repent. (Acts 17:30)
- And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, “See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?” And Philip said, “If thou believe with all thine heart, thou mayest.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (Acts 8:36–37)
- Then Peter said unto them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 2:38)
- But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
I do my best to follow each of these daily. I also try to follow the Golden Rule: "Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) Likewise, Luke 6:32 says, “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.” I also follow the Greatest Commandment as given to us by Jesus in Matthew 22:37–40: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” I believe in the simplicity of love and faith to guide my Christian life.
I learned this in my little country church from the various preachers we had while growing up. In the earliest years of my life, we had two preachers that alternated every other week and preached at a second church. We had one preacher who was not kind to people who were not church members, like my mother, who was a Baptist. This preacher nearly tore the church apart before he was asked to leave. After that, I remember we got a young seminary student from Faulkner University (a Church of Christ university in Montgomery). I thought he was one of the most gorgeous men I have ever seen. He was so handsome and charismatic. I hung on his every word. It didn’t help that I was going through puberty at the time and had an erection at the drop of a hat. I always dreaded him finishing his sermons because it meant that I’d have to stand up and sing the song of invitation. I was always so embarrassed that I had an erection every time I had to stand up. Come to think of it today, while puberty may be to blame for part of that, carnal thoughts about the attractive young man who was our preacher probably had something to do with it as well, but I digress.
There were rarely any surprises at our church. Things ran relatively smoothly every Sunday to a particular routine. We all had our regular places to sit in church. My family sat on the left side of the church behind the song leader and his family. The song leader sat in the front pew, and his wife sat in the second. Behind his wife sat my parents and my sister. I usually sat in the fourth pew next to my grandmama and, before he died, my granddaddy. My aunt sat in the pew behind us. On the church's right side, the preacher sat on the first pew, and his family sat on the second. Behind them was the lady for whom the church was built. Various neighbors of hers either filled the pew beside her or behind her. Her husband, who had donated the land and built the church, sat two rows behind her.
I mention the couple who was instrumental in building the church because when they got married and moved into the house, they would spend the rest of their lives in, the wife said, "Everything would be perfect if I had a church close by." Even though her husband was a Methodist, he knew his wife valued her denomination and set out to find a church that needed a new home. He found one a few miles away and offered to donate land a build them a new church. The church accepted, and his wife had a church within walking distance to her house. It was a simple white church, initially just one room with outhouses behind the church and a fellowship table on the grounds surrounded by pine trees. As I got older, they expanded the church to include a Sunday school room and bathrooms, though the Sunday school room never saw any use as a classroom. That was my small church.
At age 13, I was baptized into the church along with my sister one Sunday night. At first, my duties at church became reading the lesson's texts (sermon) that Sunday, much like I post a Bible verse at the beginning of each Sunday post. Soon, our song leader's emphysema made it increasingly more challenging to lead the song worship, so I was asked to take over. I was maybe 14 or 15 when this happened. I remained the song leader until I graduated college and moved to Mississippi for graduate school. I was a terrible song leader. I could barely carry a tune, and I only knew about a dozen or so songs well enough to lead the song worship. Usually, I would start the song, and the lady the church had been built for would really lead the song worship. I always thought they should have just let her lead the singing instead of me. She was much better. She was also the de facto church leader, though no one would admit it. The men of the church would meet to make any decisions, but nothing would actually be done without her informal approval. She also prepared the Lord's Supper (Communion) every week. I truly loved that woman; she was so sweet and so kind and loving. As she got older, she declared that it was too much for her to wear a dress every Sunday when she felt more comfortable in pants, and she never wore a skirt or dress again to church. She always wore pants.
As the church grew larger, we eventually doubled in size. After I left for graduate school, we had a new church member take over as song leader. I had other duties in the weekly service, which I continued to do when I came home from Mississippi. I served communion alongside my father. Originally, my granddaddy and father served communion, but after my grandfather had a heart attack walking into church one Sunday morning, he rarely returned to church after that, claiming that he had bladder issues and did not want to disturb the service by getting up to use the bathroom. So, I took his place serving communion.
Our services were simple. Before the service started, we would usually catch up with each other, i.e., gossip, but it was never malicious gossip that I remember. At precisely 8:45 am each Sunday morning, the song leader would call our service to order, and we would sing two songs, usually the first and last verses of the song. We always remained seated for these first two songs. Then the service would be turned over to the preacher for the main prayer, although sometimes that honor would be offered to a special guest if we had one. After the prayer, the song leader would instruct us to stand. We would sing another song before the preacher would stand and make his way to the pulpit and give a sermon, usually lasting around 30-40 minutes. As he finished his sermon, he would call us to stand for the song of invitation as he stood at the front of the church to welcome anyone who wanted to join the church and be baptized. After the song of invitation, my father and I would stand and go to the communion table where my father would say a prayer before I would pass around the unleavened bread, which was the representation of the Body of Christ. After I had passed around the bread, I would return to the communion table and offer my father the bread, and we would eat the bread together. Then he said a prayer for the "fruit of the vine," which represented Christ's Blood, and I would pass it around just as I did for the bread. When I returned to the table, we also drank from the small communion cups that usually grape juice. (Occasionally, the woman who prepared the communion would run out of grape juice and substitute her homemade muscadine wine, much to everyone's surprise. She never warned anyone ahead of time.) Then my father would hand me a wicker basket that had been with the church since its beginnings. (It was still stamped on the bottom with 5¢.) My father would return to his seat (I returned to my seat too before I became song leader), and I would call for any announcements. Then, we would stand again and sing the first verse of the closing song before my father gave the closing prayer.
After the service concluded, we would usually gather outside the church and socialize for a bit before we all headed home. Usually, my Sundays after that consisted of my mother cooking a large lunch, which she sometimes started before leaving for church. On special occasions, we would go out for lunch. Because we often got out of church by 10 am, we were fortunate to be able to eat lunch out at 11 am when the restaurants opened and before the "church crowds" arrived. We did have Sunday night services for a short time, but with such a small congregation, it was not worth it if only a few people attended. Eventually, we discontinued Sunday evening services. We never had Wednesday night services as many southern churches did because my family went to my grandparents' house for supper on Wednesday nights. We also rarely had Sunday school, even though we eventually added a classroom to the building. We tried a few times, but it was never very successful.
It was a simple church with simple people who cared a great deal about one another. Most of the church members from my formative years have now passed on: the song leader, the couple who established the church, and my grandparents. My parents have moved away, as have my sister and I, so my aunt is the only family member to still attend the church. My sister even became a Baptist, much to my father's horror. I think he took the fact that I was gay better than he took my sister becoming a Baptist. Ironically, my parents now attend a Baptist church. However, my mother claims that it's Baptist in name only as it's made up of community members where they currently live and comprised of people from many different Protestant denominations.
I don’t know if this description of my church upbringing is interesting to anyone, but because of the love amongst my church's members, my primary philosophy of love and acceptance was formed, despite some of my parents' more discriminatory beliefs. Except for the preacher who nearly broke up our church with his insistence that anyone who was not a member of the Church of Christ was going to hell, very little judgment was ever practiced within the church. I mentioned the incident a few weeks ago about the current preacher's sermon on the evils of homosexuality and another sermon on gambling. Our preachers have always focused on being a better, more loving Christian, which was always most important to me.