The secret of uniformity

I went to a Church of Christ with Carl last night, and heard songs that I heard regularly during my first eighteen years, but hadn’t heard at all in the last forty. “This World Is Not My Home,” “Fairest Lord Jesus,” and “I’ll Fly Away” came back to me as clearly as if I had sung them yesterday. I was wrecked, absolutely wrecked, by memories of places and people from long ago and from the unparalleled beauty of the songs themselves. I tried valiantly to join in on hymn after hymn, but invariably lost it by the second line. I hid my tears as best I could, but that wasn’t very well, so I’m sure a lot of people wondered what kind of a vile sinner they had in their midst that Christ was working on him so.

The text was Romans 7, and Carl loaned me his leather-bound Bible—with Jesus’ words in red—so I could follow along. I immediately turned to Romans, and chuckled to think that most of my present-day friends would have to look for it in the table of contents. Come to think of it, Peggy would too. Eighteen years of Southern Baptist church services, revivals, Bible studies, Sunday Schools, Vacation Bible Schools, and mid-week prayer meetings; and through them all, she maintained her virginal ignorance of all things Christian. You’re really got to admire such strength of apathy. An ordinary person would have some tiny but flabby pore somewhere in her membranes that would admit at least a little knowledge through osmosis, but not Peggy. She knows scarcely more about Protestantism than she does about Islam, yet she is a far more ethical person than I ever so much as aspired to be. When someone tells me that you have to believe in God to live with integrity, I wonder how well they themselves would measure up against the woman I had the good fortune to marry.

It wasn’t just the songs that hadn’t changed in the Church of Christ. As I looked around, I asked myself what might give the place away as being from 2007 rather than 1967. The balding preacher had a beard, I noted, and he didn’t wear a tie. Also, we were using a twentieth century version of the Bible, and there were two black people in the audience, one of whom was the preacher’s wife. Now, that was really different, but everything else was pretty much the same. The women still couldn’t ask questions or make announcements much less preach; the music was still a cappella; stacks of metal trays still held tiny communion glasses; there was still a baptismal pool in a three-sided room behind the pulpit; and there was still an invitational hymn after the sermon.

I thought it a wonder that the Church of Christ can have no governing body beyond the individual congregation, yet remain so nearly uniform across time and space. Then it struck me that maybe the lack of a governing body is the reason for their uniformity. Governing bodies usually become the object of partisan struggle with the party that wins forcing the party that loses to either go along or get out. Because the Church of Christ lacks a governing body, there can be no large-scale struggle and therefore no mass exodus. Instead of stifling revolutions, centralized governments make them all but inevitable.

“I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing…. Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner…. What a wretched man I am!”
the Apostle Paul

As was the case with the hymns we sung, I had not heard the verses we read for many a decade. Such passion! Such angst! (Such harmony with the hymn “Amazing Grace” that I so recently criticized.) How little the human condition has changed in two millennia. Whatever it is that a person is fighting, who cannot relate to the above?

The preacher said that when he was a teenager, he would look at the failures of older Christians and wonder why they acted so badly, why it was that they couldn’t get things right after all their years of practicing. He said he now knows that the struggle just keeps getting harder. Yes. At least for me it does, and I don’t even have Christ to back me up. I will never have Christ to back me up. Yet, I enjoyed myself tonight. When the preacher greeted me, I told him that the only thing wrong with his talk was that it ended too soon. His expression said that he didn’t often hear that particular compliment. How odd he would find it if he knew that it probably came from the only person in the building who makes no claim to Christianity.

Carl exhorted me to bring my wife to church some Sunday, and I didn’t even laugh. This was no easy accomplishment, but probably worth the struggle.