“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
This anonymous prayer depicts religion as it can be but seldom is. The fundamentalist Church of Christ of my childhood neared a worst-case scenario of hatred and intolerance. I was raised to believe that:
1) The Bible was dictated word for word by God. The Bible is true historically and scientifically, and it outlines God’s plan for salvation so simply that “even a child can understand it.”
2) Salvation is by a combination of faith and works. Anyone who deviates in any way from New Testament teachings does so out of pride, and is doomed to an eternal fiery hell. Teaching the gospel meant warning people of hell in almost every sermon.
3) The Church of Christ is the only church that Christ instituted, although it was driven underground by persecution soon after Christ’s death until the 1830s when two former Presbyterian preachers brought it back above ground.
4) God will guide those who sincerely seek him to the Church of Christ even if they live thousands of miles from the nearest Church of Christ and have never heard of its existence. With the exception of children who have yet to reach an unspecified “age of accountability,” only members of the Church of Christ will go to heaven. The fate of someone who dies on his way to join the church (by being baptized) is unknown.
Some examples of what all this looked like in practice is that the Church of Christ doesn’t have instrumental music because the Bible doesn’t say that the early church had instrumental music; the Church of Christ practices baptism by immersion because Jesus “went down into the water”; the Church of Christ has weekly communion because the first Christians “broke bread upon the first day of the week”; and Church of Christ buildings are unadorned because the Bible doesn’t say that the early churches were adorned. The Church of Christ belief is that if the Bible doesn’t overtly approve of something, it is a sin to want it.
Despite insisting that God’s will is so clear that “even a child can understand it,” and that everyone outside its ranks is bound for an eternal “lake of fire,” the Church of Christ is divided into three branches, each of which insists that the other two are going to hell. The most conservative branch only uses one “cup” to serve communion wine because Christ said “take this cup in memory of me.” It doesn’t allow women to preach, teach Sunday school, or make announcements in church because the Bible says, “For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
The middle of the road branch (which was my branch) serves communion wine in little glasses that nest in stackable trays, but it doesn’t allow women to preach, teach Sunday school, or make announcements in church.
The most nearly liberal branch serves communion wine in little glasses, and although it doesn’t allow women to preach, it does permit them to teach Sunday school and make announcements in church. None of these churches existed in my area.
Despite having a grandfather and a great grandfather who were Church of Christ preachers, I was the most religious person in my four person family. When I was eleven, I improvised a pulpit in my backyard, decorated it with wisteria, and preached to the neighborhood kids. I was the only person in my family who went to every one of the church’s four weekly services, and I never missed a revival at any of the area churches that were a part of my branch of the Church of Christ. I led singing, served communion, collected donations, preached short sermons, and went with preachers on out of state revivals. Despite all of this activity, I began to question the justice of the Biblical deity during the same year that I built my pulpit. At age eighteen, I optimistically tried to liberalize the church by writing articles for the newsletter. None of my articles were published, and, seemingly overnight, I became a persona non grata. When I left the church for good at age nineteen, no one inquired after me.
I hadn’t gone far, my town’s Episcopal Church being only three blocks away. Before I settled on the Episcopal Church, I went through a period of church shopping during which I visited fifty Christian denominations and a synagogue. Because my town didn’t have fifty denominations, I had to drive the sixty miles to Jackson (Mississippi) to find some of them. It was a period of great joy during which I had every confidence that I would find a church I could love. The Episcopal Church proved to be that church. My first experience with it occurred when my girlfriend, Sherry, and I were walking past my town’s Episcopal Church of the Redeemer and, upon discovering that the door was unlocked, went inside. While sitting in silence admiring the beauty of the sanctuary, we heard the door open and the priest walk in. He greeted us warmly, performed whatever task that had brought him there, and left.
A few weeks earlier, we had in the same manner walked into one of the area’s most conservative Churches of Christ. Because the different Churches of Christ have nothing to do with one another, we didn’t know anyone who attended that church, yet because we too were members of the Church of Christ, we anticipated a friendly welcome when we heard the door open, but the preacher was livid, accusing us of using the building to “gratify our lusts,” and threatening to call the police if we didn’t leave immediately. I interpreted his behavior versus the behavior of the Episcopal clergyman to symbolize the difference between the intolerant close-mindedness of conservative Christianity versus the openness and welcoming of liberal Christianity.
The biggest difference between myself and those who flourish in environments like the Church of Christ is that, while they feel threatened by differences, differences pique my curiosity. It is also true that, no matter where I go, I never truly feel that I belong because I am always the odd man out. Another difference is that I have a strong need for ritual and physical beauty, and the Church of Christ is largely devoid of both.
When I was a small boy, my family attended the Catholic wedding of my first cousin, and upon comparing the beauty of that church with its bright colors, saints’ statues, stained-glass windows, confessional booths, and fount of Holy Water, to the plainness of my own church, I began to yearn for the ornamentation that the Church of Christ says is sinful Having a rich history also matters to me, and although the Church of Christ claims that it had simply “gone underground” for 1,900 years, I don’t know if anyone really believed it, there being no record of the church having existed prior to the 1830s. The Episcopal Church used to run ads that proclaimed, “You Don’t Have to Check Your Brain at the Door,” and while the claim is debatable when made by any religious institution (all of which require belief in the unsubstantiated), checking one’s brain at the door is exactly what one must do to find contentment as a fundamentalist. Despite what many of their detractors claim, all churches are not alike.