Editorial - Putting Old Preachers on the Shelf

Cecil Willis
Marion, Indiana

This article is not intended either to defend putting old preachers on the shelf, or to advocate that we do so. We need all the gospel preachers we have, regardless of what their age is. The apostle Paul summarized very succinctly the qualifications of a preacher when he said they must be "faithful" and "able" (2 Tim. 2:2). There are several sub-points one might make, but I have always been of the opinion that when Paul spoke of "faithful men" who were "able" to teach others also, he had said about all that needs to be said regarding the qualifications of a preacher.

I get a little amused at some of the qualifications expressed in the ads run by churches that are seeking to locate a preacher to work with them. The situation gets a little more ridiculous when the preacher starts advertising his availability and reciting his credentials. A few years ago, a church advertised in the Gospel Guardian that they wanted a "King James preacher." Some time ago a Baptist church wanted a preacher. Their advertisement said they wanted "a man who did not know Greek, had not written a book, and who had not made a trip to the Holy Land. " I knew of a certain Ohio church a few years ago that wanted a preacher. They said they wanted "an older man." They got one! And that is about all they got. He had a bad reputation everywhere he had been, could not preach, was unstable and unsound, and when they fired him, he went straight to the liberals. Brother Gus Nichols wrote him a fine recommendation, the Gospel Advocate took him under its wing, and I have not heard from him since. But I would guess that he fared sumptuously ever after.

Some of the brethren compile a great long list of qualifications for a preacher, but which qualifications have not a thing on earth to do with his doing an effective work in the service of the Lord. The ideal preacher is one 35 years old, well educated, who gets along well with the business men of the community and with the young people (a "good mixer" is the way they put it). He must be married. Hopefully his wife is a good secretary, and one who does not mind working nearly full-time, but without pay. You know the other proper credentials. I need not list them. He should have had 25 or 30 years preaching experience, having worked with elders and without them. There must have been no church troubles anywhere he has preached, or he is suspect. The brethren themselves seldom are.

What I am saying is merely this: with some brethren, a man under thirty is too young to preach, and one over forty is too old to preach. And no church wants a complete beginner. I wonder where young men are supposed to get all this experience everyone wants him to have. Perhaps I am just getting sensitive on this matter. After all, I just passed my 40th birthday a few months ago.

Really what I want to talk about in this article is how churches that are growing looser by the year find that in a few years, the very preachers who started them down the road of digression are too strict for them. It is quite difficult to stop, once one starts skidding down an ice covered mountain. Harder still is it to reverse ones course, and return to his original stance. Similarly, once a church starts down the road of digression, it is nearly impossible to get them to turn back. Usually they pick tip momentum, and proceed even further from the truth. Even a novice historian ought to see this very evident fact.

J. B. Briney, J. A. Lord, L. B. Wilkes, Moses E. Lard, and even J. W. McGarvey died miserable, disillusioned, and rejected old men. Some of these men wanted to accept the missionary society, but to reject mechanical instrumental music. All of them, at some point in their life, lent their influence to the side of digression. Some of them wanted to avoid a fight, and sought therefore merely to keep silent on the bothersome issues. But digression begets digression, which in turn begets additional digression. Once the juggernaut has been set in motion, it is not likely that one man or a small group of men can stop it.

And brethren, the digressive juggernaut has been put into motion among us. It has been wreaking its devastation for nearly forty years now. Personally, I accept about 1938 as the date when the present digression began. At the Abilene Christian College Lectureship in 1938, G. C. Brewer was asked to make a speech to try to raise some money for ACC. He spoke without preparation, and said some things that he probably later regretted saying. Certainly he said some things that the ACC administration later wished he had not said. Hundreds of brethren heard him say something that he himself later tried to deny that he said. But I think it can be historically authenticated that G. C. Brewer on that occasion said something to this effect: "The church that does not have Abilene Christian College in its budget just has the wrong preacher." And the war was on! Personally I think that is when our present troubles began. However, there were some background circumstances that contributed even to that conflict. Some bitter scars resulted from the fight waged over premillennialism. Some congenial and scholarly brethren (like some of those connected with Harding College at that time were, to say the least, sympathetic with premillennialism. The results of the premillennial fight aligned some men with Brewer on the college question that otherwise might not have stood with him. Some were sympathetic with Brewer merely because they did not like Foy E. Wallace, Jr. who waged one of the strongest fights against the college in the budget.

But all of that is past history now, and we cannot change it. Clearly the lines were drawn, and division has now resulted. Some relatively young men then, like E. R. Harper and Guy N. Woods, acted as though they were going to fight a valiant war. But brotherhood sentiment on the church supported college question moved with Brewer and the Gospel Advocate. So brotherhood politicians soon capitulated, and aligned themselves with the Gospel Advocate. This wiped out Guy N. Woods and E. R. Harper as defenders of the faith.

The emotionally explosive orphan home issue eventually was injected into the debate. This was merely a strategical ploy on the part of the college-in-the-budget brethren. They could talk about the starving little orphan digging in a trashcan on a cold winter night for a morsel of food, and with some people they did not need any scripture to justify human institutions. Having no scripture to justify church support of human institutions, they cried about the poor little orphans. They called brethren who objected to church support of human institutions some bad names, and hung on their neck some opprobrious labels, and the strategical ploy had worked.

This set the brotherhood skidding down the icy mountain side. A few of the brethren, about half way down, decided they would like to get off the sled. But most will ride it out, until it hits rock bottom, and the blessed church of our Lord has been turned into but another perversion of that Body about which one can read in the New Testament.

Some of these things that are happening presently are not clear to some, because it is said that history has to be written by those who come after the event. We are right in the middle of the skidding Church of Christ at present. Old Brother J. D. Tant used to say, "Brethren, we are drifting." I have simply used a different figure and talked about skidding down the mountain side.

A few brethren shouted the warning, before digression broke loose among us. But their cries were drowned out by the shouts of our "great success." When the church began her downward plunge, unfortunately some refused to try to do anything to stop the digression. There are scores of influential men in this country whose shoes I am glad that I will not have to wear on judgment day. Brethren have begged men like Tom Butterfield, Fred Dennis, Foy Wallace, Clifton Inman, etc. to lend their influence to the opposition of error. In some instances, they have done nothing to stay the tide. In some instances, they positively have advocated and helped modernism and digression to advance.

Harvest time is nearly here now. Within the past five or six years, we have begun to see the second generation of liberals. And Guy N. Woods, G. K. Wallace, B. C. Goodpasture, E. R. Harper, Gus Nichols, Tom Warren, Glenn Wallace, Foy E. Wallace, Jr., Clifton Inman, Tom Butterfield, Fred Dennis, etc., etc., do not like the appearance of their spiritual children. But my brethren, you cannot deny your own! They may reject you, but you cannot reject them. They are your very own. Your preaching produced them, and your children and your childrens children are going to have to live with them.

I do not mean to be disrespectful of old age. I am fast moving in that direction myself. Actually, I admire and revere old age, but I must confess that I cannot respect any man, young or old, who refused to use the sword of the Spirit, and with it to repel error. There are some faithful old men whom I dearly love, for their works sake.

But these vacillating old men who have through the years compromised the truth are in the process of being put on the shelf as useless back numbers and obsolete pieces by their modernistic children. And these old men know what is happening. Read some of their pathetic little pieces, like E. R. Harpers new book on prophecy. They are weeping with broken hearts, as did Briney, Lard, and MeGarvey. They could personally turn back, and save their own souls. But they cannot stop what they have begun, and they know it.

W. L. Totty of Indianapolis has been in the fore-front of the digressive clan. He probably has conducted as many debates in defense of church supported human institutions as any man among the liberals. He has preached for nearly 35 years for the Garfield Heights church in Indianapolis. They often have boasted of being the largest Church of Christ north of the Ohio River. Brother Totty has known, and many others of us also have known it, that he did not go along with the social gospel which was a part of the package-deal offered in one bundle by liberalism. The Garfield Heights church has never had a kitchen in their building. They have never favored church sponsored recreation. They have never sponsored special youth groups. They even stayed out of the Jimmy Allen "Campaign For Christ" conducted in Indianapolis about 1966. They have opposed the Pentecostal-like Holy Spirit movement that has invaded many Churches of Christ.

Totty and I have stood on opposite ground, and both have known it, for twenty years. I have thought that he frequently has used underhanded and unchristian tactics, but I have admired him for being willing candidly to state what he believes on most points. However, I have wondered why he did not write strongly against church supported recreation in the pages of the Gospel Advocate, which pages were readily accessible to him when he wanted to smear the "Antis."

It has been my opinion for a good many years that the Gospel Advocate crowd was using Totty as their hatchet man, and he was not smart enough to detect it. But a new generation has arisen! But it is a generation that does not know W. L. Totty, and will not long tolerate Guy N. Woods. W. L. Totty is nearly seventy years old. B. C. Goodpasture is well past seventy. The younger generation which has grown up under the influence of W. L. Totty, Guy N. Woods, and B. C. Goodpasture is much more liberal than are any of these three men. This younger generation could not care less for Totty, Woods, and Goodpasture. One can see the contempt for them in many articles appearing in the voice of second-generation liberalism, Mission- magazine.

After preaching 35 years for Garfield Heights church, Totty has now been thrown out, lock, stock, and barrel. They hired a second preacher . . . one of the second generation liberals. Having been fed from the pabulum spoon of liberalism for these many years, they were now ready at Garfield Heights for a stronger diet of liberalism than would be supplied by Brother Totty. After all, they wanted their youth ministry, their recreation program, and the whole shebang.

So, Garfield Heights simply casts nearly 70-year-old W. L. Totty out on the theological junk heap. To the second generation liberals, Totty is not "with it." He is not relevant. Why, he is answering questions that no one is asking. So Brother Totty, and his "faithful few" who want just a little liberalism are trying to start all over again in Indianapolis. Meanwhile, Garfield Heights can go on with "progress." Totty and his group will have to meet in a store building, a school auditorium, or some such temporary quarters until they can erect a new meeting house. Then they will try again to build a church with just a little liberalism in it. But friend, there is no such thing as a little liberalism. You either buy it all, or none at all!

Some of the older ones of the liberal preachers are getting alarmed. They might be fortunate enough to put up their feeble protests and yet be tolerated throughout the balance of their life. Some have done just that. Some will make valiant attempts to re-establish in their remaining years what they have spent a lifetime building up. But time will fast run out on them. How much better it would have been if they had built upon solid rock, rather than upon the shifting sands of digression, innovationism, and liberalism. But the torch is rapidly now passing from the bellicose hands of those warriors who want to be 50-50 liberals, into the hands of the second generation who already have a running start. And denominationalism, here they come! And you are welcome to them, unless they repent, and I am afraid it is too late even to hope realistically for that. A lot of old men are now going to be turned out to pasture by the liberals, not because they are physically or mentally debilitated, but because they are not in tune with the times. Their preaching has had in it a built in obsolescence, and the old men have become useless back numbers, and are being rejected by their spiritual posterity. I guess I should feel sorry for them, but candidly must confess that it is going to be quite difficult for me to do so. I pray, yes indeed I pray, that we might one and all build upon the solid rock of Gods Word that we might be spared the heartbreak of seeing a lifes work swept away by a swirling tide which we ourselves set in motion.

It is too late for these old men among the liberals to profit much by what they now have learned. Historians can write them up like they have Lard, Briney, MeGarvey, etc., but there is little consolation in that. Let us learn now what these men are learning too late in life to profit much by it, namely, that there is no such thing as a little digression from Gods Word.

November 30, 1972