As the story of a marriage, Church Folk is nonexplicitly but realistically concerned with sexuality in a Christian context. Glodean’s unwholesome use of her sexuality to manipulate men contrasts with Theophilus and Essie’s joyful coming together in marriage. Theophilus even preaches a sermon on the goodness of such a bond, saying that husbands should love their wives “with juice.” Not only does such loving sexuality hold families together; it helps give African Americans strength for their struggle against injustice. However, minor lapses resulting from unmarried men’s and women’s natural attraction to each other do not draw heavy condemnation. Sexual sins occur when people turn sexuality to other purposes: Glodean’s flaunting of it to manipulate and punish men, and the preachers’ brothel venture using sex to make money and provide “entertainment.”
Racism is an implicit but powerful theme. Although the foibles, temptations, and strengths of the characters could occur in any group of Christians, racist restrictions confine these Christians’ lives. In the 1960’s south, blacks could not stay at regular motels, so when Theophilus travels he must find a boardinghouse that accepts blacks. Racism has deformed some characters’ self-image. Mother Harold is so proper that she cringes when people use even clean slang or contractions—yet for all her sense of propriety, she has no dignity in the eyes of prejudiced white people. The Civil Rights movement functions in this novel as a vehicle for the church’s redemptive work in the world. Ironically, Theophilus and Essie cannot work for it as openly as their hearts desire. In deference to their church superiors, they provide background support for civil rights efforts as leaders in the respectable black community.
God’s plan is bigger than man’s plan, and not always understood by mere mortals. Most of Theophilus’s big decisions are made in the light of this truth. Thus he answers repeated “calls” that are not his own choice, secure in his trust of the Lord’s will.