By Larry Ray Hafley
(Editor’s Note: In preparing our special issue on Cecil, we inadvertently omitted this article by brother Hafley. We apologize to him for this oversight.)
Cecil Willis wrote a biography of W.W. Otey entitled, W. W. Otey: Contender For The Faith. Having been asked to write concerning Cecil’s work in contending for the faith, I can think of no more fitting title for this essay. If ever a man illustrated and demonstrated the spirit of Jude 3, it was Cecil Willis. “The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion . . . They that forsake the law praise the wicked: but such as keep the law contend with them” (Prov. 28:1, 4).
Brother Willis did not see himself as a “professional debater.” He was, first and foremost, “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Pet. 2:5). Of course, that, by necessity, obligated him to be “set for the defense of the gospel,” but he never saw himself as one whose primary object was to “scare up a debate” (Phil. 1:17). Even when he was directly and personally involved in the discussion of a particular issue, he was willing to step aside and allow others to debate the matter, if that was what was best for the occasion. “If I am an unacceptable opponent for any reason, I will be glad to secure someone whom they will approve” (Cecil Willis, Truth Magazine, November 13, 1969, 4). That quote shows, in part, that Cecil’s attitude regarding debate was in the interest of truth and not self
Perhaps the clearest statements brother Willis ever made about debating were the following: “Some brethren are `down’ on religious debates. Brother Alexander Campbell said that a week of debate is worth a year of preaching. The Bible is filled with accounts of truth-error confrontations, and that precisely is what occurs in a properly conducted de-bate… .
“Some of our people think it is not dignified to debate. But those brethren need to remember the conflicts our Lord had with the religionists of his day, as well as the numerous debates that the apostle Paul had. Our brethren in the Philippines are growing so rapidly, largely because denominationalists in that country demand that their preachers try to defend their doctrine, and honest people can tell the truth from error…. Brethren can pre-pare either to meet these bold errorists in debate, or they can run off and hide. As for myself, I do not intend to run off and hide. Thus I expect to have some discussions with these false teachers… .
“After the debate I held in Marion with Mr. John Wilson last Fall, the very next week a young couple called me asked that I come to their home for some studies. They since have been baptized into Christ and are very faithful in their service now. Hopefully every debate will result in the conversion of one or more. But even if that be not the case, the mouths of false teachers must be stopped, and face-to-face confrontation in debate is the best means known to me to stop them. I have heard people say that a debate they heard many years ago was that which turned them to the truth. One person said that a debate he heard twenty years ago destroyed his ability to continue in that denomination, but that it was several years before he obeyed the gospel… .
.. there will be other battles with other adversaries, and those who want to `fight the good fight of faith,’ and who want to `fight a good fight,’ must be prepared to meet these purveyors of error” (Truth Magazine, April 4, 1974, 3-5).
“One thing is for sure. I have determined that the discussion, so far as my part is concerned, will not end until the damaging teaching . . . is stopped…. Early in my life, I committed myself to oppose error and compromise, and I do not intend now to change my course, God being my Helper” (Truth Magazine, December 13, 1973, 3, 5)!
“Paul told Timothy to `Fight the good fight of faith’ (1 Tim. 6:12). Paul further taught that the `weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh’ (2 Cor. 10:4). We instead use a spiritual sword called `the word of God’ (Eph. 6:17). Jude admonished the brethren to ‘earnestly contend for the faith’ (Jude 3). One thus can see that in the army of the Lord there is no place for the spiritual pacifist. We all are to be combat soldiers.
“.. When one enlists in the service of God, he must enter into the fray. … it is only by fighting the good fight of faith that one can lay hold on eternal life, and receive the unfading crown in the last great day. What kind of fight are you making my brother” (Truth Magazine, July 16, 1970, 3)?
“.. Any observant person can see that the future holds more struggles for the people of God…. Already battle lines are being drawn upon new fields. A soldier of Christ does not finish the fight until God tells him to lay down his armor. So, fight on we will, God being our Helper.
“.. The Lord’s people are always facing some kind of a crisis, for the devil is never at rest. But wherever the battlefield and whoever the enemy may be, we must all be ready continually to `fight the good fight of faith.’ Whether we sail briefly through balmy seas, or are pitched upon the turbulence of raging waves, let us hold high the banner of the Lord Jesus Christ . . . until he comes” (Cecil Willis, Truth Magazine, September 7, 1972, 5).
Brother Willis’ Debates
In so far as I am able to ascertain, Cecil engaged in five, public, oral de-bates. Two were with Clifton Inman in 1966. James P. Needham ably assisted Cecil in these two debates. (Cecil often told me how indispensable brother Needham was to him in their labors together.) The first of his de-bates with Inman was published. These debates were on “Congregational Co-operation and Benevolent Organizations.” Brother Willis twice debated John Wilson, who was the state chair-man of the Assemblies of the Lord Jesus Christ, a oneness Pentecostal Church, closely related to its more famous “half-twin,” the United Pentecostal Church, Inc. They discussed the Godhead, the “baptismal formula,” Holy Spirit baptism, miracles and tongues, as well as instrumental music. Those debates were held in 1973 and 1974. In 1975, Cecil also met brother Jesse G. Jenkins in debate on the right of institutions such as Florida College to exist.
Cecil Willis: The Debater
Brother Willis was a student of history, especially religious history, both sacred and secular. Accordingly, his vast storehouse of information produced quotations related to an opponent’s position that helped “the present truth” to be seen in a clearer light (e.g., Willis-Inman Debate, 191). His knowledge of the arguments and principles of the controversies of the past helped him to show where the same principles of truth were being transgressed in a current conflict.
This is, partially, at least, what Peter had in mind when he wrote the second chapter of his second epistle. Knowing the history of past apostasies enables us to see through the errors of our own day (cf. 2 Pet. 2:1, 2, 10-16). In the third chapter, the Spirit again used the history of past ages to establish principles of judgment and to encourage godly living. This is how brother Willis’ great mind worked, and he used it most effectively in combat with the forces of institutionalism and its next generation heir, modernism.
Cecil saw the “big picture.” No, not in some heroic, grandiose manner, but in the larger fabric of the grand scheme of redemption, he could see, almost instinctively, how a particular point violated the general tenor and teaching of the Scriptures. His knowledge and insight into the broad theme of justification by faith enabled him to con-front and counter-attack a “faith only” advocate. His vast and extensive understanding of the nature and character of the church, coupled with his equally great knowledge of its historic corruption, enabled him to see at a glance the fundamental flaws in the modem day sponsoring church arrangement and institutionalism.
1. Preparation: Cecil was always prepared. He often remarked, “I don’t want to meet the man who out-prepares me.” And he never did! Whatever an opponent had ever said about the topic under study, Cecil was sure to find it. He would scavenge through his opponent’s denominational tracts, booklets, and histories in order to know exactly and precisely what the man believed. Too, if, in the debate, the man took a position contrary to his denomination’s general stance, brother Willis was quick to present the contradiction on a chart for all to see.
Though he was not blessed with the marvelous ability of the lamented W. Curtis Porter, who was able to quickly and concisely turn an opponent’s argument against him, Cecil’s preparation enabled him to be a formidable opponent in debate. While none of us may be able to match his many hours of work, still the word of God demands that we imitate the renown Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared” (2 Tim. 2:15; 1 Pet. 3:15).
2. Bold, Blunt, Direct: No one ever doubted what Cecil Willis thought about an issue under study. He was a “straight shooter.” Some saw this as a sign of egotism, arrogance, and hard-headed dogmatism. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Rather, Cecil’s attitude was that of Paul, “that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the … gospel. … That therefore I may speak boldly as I ought to speak” (Eph. 6:19, 20). Believing as he did that we ought to speak “as the oracles of God,” he, like the disciples, prayed “that with all boldness (he might) speak thy word”
(Acts 4:29; 1 Pet. 4:11). “Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech” (2 Cor. 3:12).
Did the apostles and prophets, or our Lord himself, ever engage in debate and leave the audience unsure of where they stood? Neither did brother Willis. “Preaching that never gets to the point is just so much wasted talk. Preachers therefore need to be more specific in applying God’s truths to specific sins, that men and women who constitute the church of God may know exactly those things from which God expects them to `turn away’ (2 Tim. 3:5)” (Cecil Willis, Truth Magazine, October, 1962, 3).
Did the Lord or the disciples ever leave any doubt about whom they were speaking when an opponent had to be publicly identified (Matt. 23; 2 Tim. 2:16-18; 4:14; Tit. 1:10-13; 3 John 9)? Neither did Cecil Willis. “My mother gave me a name, and it is by that name I prefer to be called. I would much prefer a fellow to call my name, if he is talking about me, than to use some cowardly word-picture, the application of which he can deny if someone calls his hand” (Cecil Willis, Truth Magazine, October 18, 1973, 5).
“Set For the `Defense of the Gospel’??? The ‘campaign speaker’ . . . told the brethren . . . what kind of preaching to expect. He said: `I do want to set your minds at ease and tell you I do not believe in name calling or being hypercritical of people or groups of people. . . . My sermons are planned in a positive way, (to) preach the gospel as clearly and positively as possible.’
“This brother simply announced . . . that this would be a campaign of compromise. His preaching, if he preached like he said he would, was very unlike that about which read in the New Testament. Paul and the other apostles never hesitated to criticize a false religion or to call the name of a false teacher” (Cecil Willis, Truth Magazine, December 2, 1971, 4).
3. Tenacious: Brother Willis was perhaps the most tenacious man I have ever known. Once he sunk his teeth into a controversy, he never wavered nor looked back. “Be ye steadfast, unmovable” (1 Cor. 15:58). He never let an opponent in debate forget his inconsistencies and contradictions. (See the Willis-Inman Debate.) Like a pit bull, Cecil would latch on to error’s weak points and never let go. Again, some saw this as evidence of a “mean spirit,” but Cecil simply saw it as an opportunity to help others see the clarity and consistency of truth.
4. Attitude and Deportment in Debate: Cecil was not easily shaken or rattled by the pressures of intense controversy. His internal spirit may have been surging, but he always displayed a quiet, unflappable confidence. In the three debates in which I assisted him, and in three debates in which he helped me, he was never rude, crude, or discourteous at any time. Hear James P. Needham’s assessment of Cecil Willis and his opponent, Clifton Inman “Each … made his arguments in a forthright and courteous manner. At no time did either of them lose his composure, or speak in a disrespectful or deriding manner” (Introduction to Willis-Inman Debate). Of Cecil’s debate with brother Jesse Jenkins, James W. Adams said, “The decorum of the debate was impeccable. Both disputants treated one another with courtesy and kindness and, in every way, conducted themselves with dignity and proper restraint becoming men professing to be Christians and gentlemen.” As brother Adams pointed out further in his review of the debate in Truth Magazine, no personal division or animosity resulted from their brotherly discussion.
5. “Speaking the Truth in Love.” Brother Willis would often show me letters he had received from brethren who said they appreciated his stand for the truth but did not like the way he was going about it. He often said, “If they do not like the way we are saying it, let them say it in the manner in which it should be said!” Often, those who deprecated his manner were those who secretly wished he would say nothing at all, for his arrows of truth were hitting their mark! Cecil said that controversy and debate were a weariness of the flesh and that he, too, wished it did not have to be done, “but it does,” he said, “and if someone will say what needs to be said in the way it needs to be said, we will publish it.”
Cecil would look up, smile, and ask, “If there were a way to challenge error and teach the truth without offending anyone, don’t you think the Lord would have found it?”
“Let Brotherly Love Continue”
Cecil believed that his charges and challenges against brethren who were compromising the truth and leading unsuspecting souls into apostasy were a sure and certain sign of his love for them. He reasoned, “If my doctor cares for me, he will tell me when he sees something wrong. He will not say, ‘I love this person too much to frighten him with what I have detected. I will just let it go.’ So, if we as preachers of the gospel truly love the souls of men, we will alert them to dangers and digression that we see developing. We will not say, ‘I love these brethren too much to upset them with the truth.”‘ How wonderful it would be if all men had this view! As Paul asked, “Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth” (Gal. 4:16)?
Cecil’s words ring as clear and true as they were when they were written twenty-five years ago: “The tensions and conflicts among brethren the past two decades or so have severely tested our love for one another. Of course, some brethren think that the mere fact that we have any disagreements at all is evidence that we do not love one another. Others think that when a person mentions the name of a brother with whom he differs that brotherly love is absent. Actually, the brother who believes his brethren are in error and that their souls are jeopardized must seek to correct them. God loves us, and thus he corrects us and chastens us by his word.
“But we have now for many years been engaged in heated conflict with many of our brethren. We all should have waged our battle on the basis of principles rather than merely against personalities, if we have not. There is no justification for character assassination of brother against brother. There is a manly and an honorable way in which to differ with a brother.
.. Disagreements among brethren are bad enough. Division in the body of Christ is deplored by every right thinking person. But when division becomes necessary in order to practice what one believes to be acceptable worship to God, at least we can be manly, honorable, and brotherly in our dealing with one another. Indeed, `let brotherly love continue”‘ (Cecil Willis, Truth Magazine, July 27, 1972, 3, 4).
Cecil Willis, my friend, my brother, my fellow-laborer in the kingdom of God, was a true contender for the faith. If the reader will pardon these personal thoughts, let me speak of his influence for good on my life, the lessons he taught me, the example he set in so many good ways. No, he was not a perfect man. None of us is. But I knew him long. I loved him well. I miss him still.
Guardian of Truth XLI: 19 p. 12-14
October 2, 1997