Monday, March 31, 2008

A Non-Believer in Church: Church of Christ at Oxford

It's like those miserable Psalms... they're so depressing. Now knock it off!

I stayed local for church this week. I went over to the Church of Christ on North Lamar Street in Oxford. Services start promptly at 10 PM. The layout is traditional for a Church of Christ auditorium: classical pews fill the room with a single pulpit and baptistery at the front. The auditorium seats roughly 400 people. Perhaps I'm revealing too much of myself here, but I've been in dozens of Churches of Christ, and they all follow this pattern.

If you aren't familiar with the Churches of Christ, maybe you recall the trial of Mary Winkler, accused of shooting her husband, a preacher of a Church of Christ congregation. Mary Winkler's problems should be her own, but her religion was dragged into it. It was a storm of media attention and I followed most of it. On the CNN show "Nancy Grace", Nancy investigated deeper into the Church of Christ... by interviewing a Baptist minister. The Baptist minister, in a bit of irony, called the Church of Christ "kind of is a borderline cult, unfortunately." Pot. Kettle. All denominations retain some knowledge that the other denominations either don't have, have overlooked, or just ignored, and this is what makes denomination X better than all of the others. What I can say about the Church of Christ is that they follow a painstakingly strict interpretation of the Bible.

The services started with several songs. There are no instruments in the services, and the congregation puts forth all of their effort into each song. The communion is passed and the offering followed. The prayers are long drawn out pleas to God, including calls asking for wisdom, thanking God for the weather, mentioning the sick of the congregation by name, and asking for forgiveness. This service had more than one of these pleas to God.

The lesson of the hour came from the 107th Psalm on the redemptive powers of God. At the heart of the preacher's lesson was his understanding that God is providentially working in our lives. He cited examples of drug addicts turning their lives to God, alcoholics turning their lives to God, and gambling addicts turning their lives to God. The message was clear: the only way to break free from a harmful addiction is to turn your life to God. You may be wondering how turning your life over to a metaphysical concept helps, but that's where the belief in providence must come in. He decried individualism, saying that it was currently the biggest problem plaguing the church. I had to agree with the preacher here: once I started to think for myself, I stopped believing. He thought it was interesting that the Christian religion is most successful with people who seem to be at the lowest point in their lives, but did not speculate as to why. The point was also made to study the Bible more, because verse 20 of that psalm says "He sent his word, and healed them," and made the implication that the only book that you really need to consider in helping your troubled life is the Bible.

As an aside to the rest of the lesson, the preacher talked about how the differences in the character of God between the Old Testament and the New Testament were "a bunch of bologna." His point was that God was a god of love all the time. When we characterize the God of the Old Testament as a god of wrath and the God of the New Testament as a god of love, then we completely misrepresent the love of God.

I understood what the preacher was trying to say, but I didn't believe him. Through out the Old Testament, God allows evil to happen to both the righteous (see Job) and the unrighteous (see the rest of the Old Testament) and yet in the New Testament, he is still striking people dead for minor offenses. Old habits are hard to break. The argument could be made that God is a god of love throughout the Bible, but only if you over look all of those passages where he isn't. God loves you, except when your great grandfather was an unbeliever.

After the lesson, the invitation was offered to anyone who needed the prayers of the church. Three people came forward, including one person who needed prayers to help him attend church more often. I kept thinking to myself, "I'm looking for a way out, and he's looking for a way in."

I'm going to be on the eastern side of the Mississippi this weekend, which will give me the opportunity to visit a new church. If the response to this post is positive, I might turn this into a series. The idea of visiting churches and writing the experience is respectfully ripped off of Hemant Mehta's fascinating book "I Sold My Soul On eBay".

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Agnosticat said...

I really like the idea of a series here. It would be very informative to those of us who just can't yet bear to step foot in a church again.

One note on the CoC's following the rules of the Bible: I still note that they pick and choose a lot. The OT laws are often dismissed as being "under grace" now and quite a few NT verses are just not brought up. In this respect, they are the same as every other Christian church.

Ryan Corcoran said...

So, when your father spanked you for running into the street or your mother slapped your wrist for telling a lie, they were doing that out of wrath, not love?

Our Holy Father punishes and admonishes--sometimes very painfully--in order to teach us (or sometimes to teach others) difficult lessons.

To agnosticat, I'm curious as to what NT verses that are "not brought up" that you mention? The OT laws are not "dismissed" as you put it, but more of "fulfilled." The requirements for salvation under the old law were all completed--once and for all--by Jesus on the cross. This is why Jesus cries out on the cross just before he dies "It is finished!" (John 19:30).

Now, does that mean that things like lying, stealing, and adultery are ok now? Of course not! But whatever sins we commit, they have already been atoned for by the sacrifice of the perfect Lamb of God.

vjack said...

I agree about the idea of a series, Agnosticat. I'm not sure what it would take to get me in any of the local churches, but I don't see it happening anytime soon. It is interesting to read about Oliver's experience. Kind of like an anthropologist study some foreign culture.

mooncat said...

I really like the idea of a series. Sort of an "Oliver goes so we don't have to" report.

The Amiable Atheist said...

really interesting! i'm looking forward to reading more. sorry that you have to go there, though, i don't envy you that! after 18 years of it, i don't know if i would want to go back. :)