CINCINNATI -- At the Church of God Cincinnati in Mount Healthy, Father’s Day came a day early.
The church honored the fathers in the congregation on Saturday, June 18, because unlike most Christian churches, the Church of God Cincinnati meets for worship on Saturday rather than Sunday.
It’s one of a surprising number of Christian churches in the Tri-State region that do so. And like the Church of God Cincinnati, some of them also observe traditional Hebrew holy days and feasts, such as Pentecost.
“You might say that we are so traditional that we are nontraditional,” said pastor Jim O’Brien. “In a nutshell, we see the Bible as a consistent message from beginning to end, and the New Testament as a continuation of the Old.”
On the day before Father’s Day, about 60 people gathered for worship at 2 p.m. inside the church’s new building. It had formerly been an Episcopal church, but it was empty for at least a year before O’Brien’s congregation purchased it in August 2016.
Much of the service looked like Sunday morning worship at any other Protestant congregation. A praise band of guitars, drums and a trombone player played contemporary worship songs as the congregation sang along. There were announcements, corporate prayers, some testimonies and a sermon.
But there were also subtle differences. A woman who opened the service in prayer asked God to “bless our Sabbath.” Another woman who read Scripture noted that God promised long life to those who honor their fathers. That’s one of the 10 Commandments, and there was a framed copy on the wall.
And before the sermon, children were dismissed to go to Sabbath classes – not Sunday school classes.
If you were to hang around long enough, you would notice theological differences as well. The church’s website urges members to join the Common Faith Network in Destin, Florida, this fall to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.
The Common Faith Network is an association of congregations and ministries that have a common belief in Saturday Sabbath. And the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot, commemorated the end of the harvest and agricultural year in Israel.
The church observes Hebrew feasts and festivals because God doesn’t change, O’Brien said, and such observances are commanded in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible.
Church of God Cincinnati also takes a somewhat different view of God than most Christian churches, which believe in the trinity of father, son and holy spirit -- distinct persons, but essentially one being.
That’s a man-made construct, O’Brien said. His church sees God the father and god the son as separate beings, taking the view from Jesus’ words in the gospel of John, “The father is greater than I.”
Most of the church’s theology came from the late Herbert W. Armstrong, the founder of the Worldwide Church of God, the denomination that gave birth to Church of God Cincinnati.
Armstrong began his ministry in the late 1930s and grew a large following in the ‘50s and ‘60s through a radio ministry. His “The World Tomorrow” programs talked about his view of Biblical prophecy and its fulfillment in our day.
But after his death in 1986, his successor, Joseph Tkach, began slowly revising some of Armstrong’s doctrines, including the need to keep weekly Sabbaths and to avoid pork and shrimp. That prompted many churches to leave the denomination, including Church of God Cincinnati in 1995.
The denomination later renamed itself Grace Communion International, and it’s now in full agreement with the statement of faith of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Probably the best-known Christian denomination that worships on Saturdays is the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which O’Brien said would probably have more in common theologically with mainstream Protestant churches than with his church.
According to the Seventh-day Adventist Church website, there are 17 Adventist churches within 30 miles of downtown Cincinnati, the largest being Shiloh Cincinnati with 685 members. There are 19 million Adventists worldwide, including more than a million in North America.
Other local Saturday-Sabbath-observing churches include One Word Assembly, the United Church of God and the House of God.
One Word Assembly began about seven years ago as a Bible study in the home of Alexandria resident Kelley McClellan. It now meets at 2 p.m. Saturdays in a sanctuary it rents from the Dayton Church of God in Dayton, Kentucky.
The two-hour worship service includes about 45 minutes of praise and worship music, he said, and it might also include dancing and believers speaking in languages they don’t know, as happens in Pentecostal churches. It would also have more of a Jewish flavor than most Protestant services, he said.
The services typically draw 20-30 worshippers weekly, he said, from a variety of religious backgrounds. They have various opinions about the trinity, he said, but all believe Jesus is the son of God – but they mostly call him Jeshua, his Hebrew name.
According to its website, the United Church of God has hundreds of congregations around the world, including one in Cincinnati and one in Milford. The Milford church has two Saturday services, the Cincinnati church one.
Headquartered in Lexington, the House of God “is a church that honors the Sabbath and God’s Holy days, and we are witnesses of the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit.”
There appear to be at least two House of God churches in Cincinnati, including the House of God in Lockland, but the denomination’s website doesn’t have a handy “church finder” feature, so it’s hard to say exactly how many. Repeated efforts to leave a message at the denomination office were not successful.