By Mike Willis
We use the phrase “feet of clay” to remind ourselves of the weaknesses in a man’s character. The phrase may be drawn from the image that Daniel saw in chapter 2 which had feet part of iron and part of clay. He explained that the image meant that the kingdom under consideration would be “partly strong, and partly broken” (Dan. 2:44). Whether or not that is the origin of the phrase, we understand that even the best of men have “feet of clay.”
Bible Heroes of Faith Had Feet of Clay
The book of Hebrews enumerates many heroes of faith. One has to search very little in Scripture to see the feet of clay that these men had. Noah, whose faith moved him to build the ark, became drunken and lay exposed before his children (Gen. 9:21). Abraham, the father of the faithful, was afraid for his life when he and his wife Sarai conspired to lie to the king of Egypt about their marriage relationship (Gen. 12:12-13). Moses demonstrated his feet of clay when he glorified himself and Aaron and then smote the rock to bring forth water for the thirsty Israelites at Meribah (Num. 20:10-11). David showed his weakness in his sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11). Peter denied his Lord at the trial of Jesus (Matt. 26:69-75) and later withdrew from the Gen-tiles in Antioch because of his fear of the Jewish saints from Jerusalem (Gal. 2:11-14).
Even the greatest of men among us have feet of clay. Some-times one admires a man so much that his faith is shaken when he becomes aware of some of the weaknesses of the man’s character and of the times that he stumbles into sin. Were Cecil living today, he would agree with this assessment of men and with bowed head acknowledge his own failures.
As I reflect on the life of my fleshly and spiritual brother, I am painfully aware of his “feet of clay.” What happened to him occurred in such a public way that one would not be honest in giving an assessment of his life and achievements were he not to acknowledge his sins. He might as well try to write the biography of Richard M. Nixon without mentioning Watergate as to comment on Cecil’s life without acknowledging his weaknesses.
Some Things Were Not His Character Weaknesses
Some of the things that men thought were his weaknesses were not weaknesses. Many thought that Cecil was too hard and pointed in exposing error. He was fearless in con-fronting false doctrine. Cecil had an ability to attract others to help him do the things he wanted to get done. One of the first tasks he asked me to help him do was to listen to the tapes of the Willis-Inman debate in Parkersburg, West Virginia (held in 1966) to verify that the transcription was accurate. I was impressed with the gentlemanly tone of the debate, but still Cecil plainly exposed the weaknesses and errors of the sponsoring church and church support of human institutions. I frequently read his reviews of printed articles by men who were moving away from the truth. These reviews were not his weaknesses, as some might imagine, but his strengths. He had an analytical mind that could see through the illogical arguments of error and ex-pose them so that the common man could understand the danger of apostasy.
He was not political in his opposition to error. In the grace-unity conflict, the public charge was made that Cecil was the “political Mr. Willis.” In the charges against him, the impression was left that Cecil thought of himself as the pope and that his dictums were as binding as Scripture it-self. Cecil never had such an impression of himself. Those of us who knew him well know that he did not “hold his finger to the wind” to decide where he stood. He was more like John the Baptist he was not a reed shaken by the wind (Matt. 11:7). In participation with him in the discussions of the Board of the Cogdill Foundation, I never saw anything that made me think his opposition to a man’s teaching was based on it being an opportunity to make himself more popular, to oppress a brother while he was down, to enlarge the circulation of Truth Magazine, to increase the financial base of the Foundation, or any other sinister motive. One thing motivated him his love for the truth of the gospel.
Some men might think that Cecil’s “feet of clay” was his cold-heartedness. These men did not know Cecil. Cecil was willing to share what he had with those in need. One of the things that was characteristic of Cecil was his liberality. I know of many instances when he made contributions to poor brethren in the Philippines as well as helping many in the States. If there was a need, Cecil used his good influence to arouse others to help. Cecil was not one who violated the words of John who said, “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” (I John 3:17).
The compassion that Cecil felt for the sufferings of others could be seen in his friendship with O.C. Birdwell. Brother and sister Birdwell lost a son in an industrial accident. Their son was underneath a train car opening its drainage spout when another car hit the train, causing the car to run over him. He died soon thereafter. Cecil was in a meeting nearby when he heard the sad news. He rushed to their side to attend their needs during this time of grief.
Cecil’s Clay Feet
Yet, there certainly were moral blunders (sins) and other weaknesses in Cecil’s character. We acknowledge them here in the effort to be honest in our evaluation of his work.
Sometimes Cecil appeared aloof and detached. He was so caught up in the things that he was interested in that frequently he manifested little interest in what was important to others. I know Cecil as a brother and have witnessed this on more than one occasion. Sometimes, he was rude, calling brethren at all hours of the night to tell them what he needed them to do the next day. Many of his closest friends have received calls well after midnight. He was still up working and apparently thought that others were (or ought to be) as well. While the thought was still on his mind he would call to talk. Sometimes as he visited in the home, he was so absorbed in editing Truth Magazine or other publications, answering correspondence, or reading that he was did not relax and visit with the family in whose home he was staying.
Cecil’s absorption in his work contributed to the break-down of his marriage. I will not pretend to explain why his family fell apart, for only God knows for sure. However, I know that he was sometimes gone 20-30 weeks a year in gospel meetings, debates, lectureships, or other activities. When he was home, he was always under pressure to catch up on his work from the times he was away. His absorption in his work took him away from the family both in body and in mind. I kept thinking of the statement in Scripture, “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17). Cecil’s zeal for the Lord’s church so monopolized his time that there was little left for his family.
Cecil and his wife separated in December 1976 and some-time later were legally divorced. Cecil wrote a statement on the occasion of his separation that was circulated to several of us which explained that neither he nor his wife was charging the other with sexual immorality at the time of their separation. He understood that he did not have the right to remarriage at that time. Cecil was publicly embarrassed by the breakup of his marriage and was emotionally shattered by it. When he left Marion, Indiana in December 1976, he wanted to go to some isolated part of the world to “lick his wounds.” He moved to work with the church in Hawaii, but that was a disaster because of his physical and emotional condition. He flew home to Texas a sick and broken man.
In his despair, he did not think that his reputation could be hurt any more than it already was. He began doing things together with women, such as going out to eat and to events together, that were inappropriate because they were viewed as “dating.” Sometime later, he moved to work with the Huntsville, Texas church and a similar situation occurred while he was there. The elders of that church withdrew from Cecil for “dating” with the intention of marrying the lady. When I spoke to Cecil about their withdrawal, Cecil belittled the elders for their conduct. However, they perceived what was going on with Cecil better than he did. Within two or three months, Cecil had married the lady and in time a child was born in a marriage that was unscriptural. During his years that he was in the unscriptural marriage, Cecil worked as a prison guard at the Huntsville State Penitentiary. Cecil resisted the temptation to defend his unscriptural marriage by adopting some false doctrine on divorce and remarriage.
Cecil finally left that marriage in 1986 and was publicly restored on July 23, 1986. His confession was published in Guardian of Truth on September 4, 1986. When Ron Halbrook and I talked to him about leaving his unscriptural marriage in the Sumpter Cemetery, just a few miles from my parents’ home in Woodlake, Texas where his body now rests, he expressed his intention to leave. Later, he explained that he realized that he would never be able to do in the kingdom of God those works that he had done prior to his falling into sin, but that he felt like the psalmist who said, “For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Ps. 84:10).
The aura of self-confidence that had characterized Cecil’s early years was broken and destroyed by his sin. I never got used to seeing Cecil in this broken condition. His strong faith, self-assurance, and confidence in the truth had always inspired others to follow his lead, though he never sought any sort of personal following. Still, his drive and self-confidence made him a natural leader of men in the work he did. In that respect, he was somewhat charismatic. The Devil took that from Cecil by seducing him into sin.
We do not honor Cecil as a perfect man. He was a sinner saved by the amazing grace of God. We rejoice that Christianity is not a system of salvation by perfect obedience, for in that case neither Cecil nor any of the rest of us could be saved. Christianity is a system of redemption, a remedial system. Cecil fled to Christ to find refuge in the grace, mercy, pity, kindness, and love of God. He did that as a young man when he was baptized into Christ. He did it many times along the way, but especially when he was restored in 1986.
Many brethren never felt comfortable using Cecil in gospel meetings after this. Cecil was not bitter, for he understood that brethren need to use men of impeccable character and reputation in such services. However, he was grateful for those who gave him an opportunity to preach after his restoration. I heard him preach in Connersville, Indiana in a gospel meeting last fall. He spoke on that attitude of brethren who want to preach Christ instead of the church. He cited the number of references in the gospels where Jesus preached the “kingdom of heaven” and showed that one cannot preach Christ without preaching what the Christ said about his kingdom. It was the best sermon I heard anyone preach all year.
I will be forever grateful for how Cecil influenced my life and the cause of Christ during the institutional and grace-unity controversies. He stood for the truth in the face of much opposition from liberal brethren. He was the victim of malicious words, the impugning of his motives, and such like things. He bore the malice of the enemies of truth with-out becoming bitter and continued to stand. He was a man of great influence, especially during those years, but as his life unfolded, we were reminded that he was but a man with feet of clay.
A quotation from Teddy Roosevelt fits the life of Cecil. Roosevelt spoke at the Sorbonne in Paris on April23, 1910. A portion of his speech was quoted by Richard M. Nixon upon resigning the office of President after the “Watergate” scandal. Cecil’s son, Steve, sent me this quotation saying, “When I read it, I often think of my Dad and his work.” The quotation reads as follows:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes out again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumphs of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
Guardian of Truth XLI: 15 p. 2
August 7, 1997