The Parable of the Runaway Train

By Mike Willis

A train was parked on a steep incline with many passengers aboard. All were in merriment as they awaited their trip toward New Jerusalem. While the train was parked and quietly resting, several of the well known men on the train went to the rear of the cars and began to release the brakes on the train. The train began to creep forward.

Several of those on board who were more alert to their circumstances felt the first movements of the train, jumped off and started shouting, “Jump off the train!” Others tried to put the brakes back into a locked position but were unsuccessful in doing so. They began to shout, “Runaway train! Everyone jump off!” A few more on the train jumped off the train but the large majority of the people continued their merrymaking.

Some of those who had jumped off the runaway train ran along beside the track begging other passengers to jump off while they still had the time. Most of the passengers on board the train thought these men were a bunch of alarmists and ignored them.

The train began to build up speed as it continued down the mountain side. At first, the passengers thought that this was just the normal acceleration of the train. Soon, however, they perceived their sad plight. They were racing toward disaster. Many more were ready to jump off the runaway train but now they were afraid to jump. The train was going too fast; they were afraid they would be hurt in jumping off. Besides, they would be leaving their friends and relatives if they did decide to jump off the train. Too, some thought they should stay behind and try to stop the runaway train.

The train was doomed. It was going so fast that it was impossible for it not to jump track, wreck, and kill its passengers. Those on board the train were doomed.

Interpretation of the Parable

The train represents the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord’s people boarded the train and were headed for the . New Jerusalem, heaven. If, things had continued as God had planned, the train would have arrived there on schedule. However, someone loosed the brakes and the train began its runaway. The well known men who loosed the brakes were men such as Guy N. Woods, Batsell Barrett Baxter, W. L. Totty, G. C. Brewer, Clifton Inman and many others.

They loosed the brakes on the Lord’s church when they contended that there was no pattern for evangelism and where there was no pattern there could be no digression. Consequently, these men who formerly opposed the church support of missionary societies began to organize their own missionary society which operated through the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas and which was known as the Herald of Truth. A historian in the liberal Disciples of Christ movement, which has used church-supported societies for over a hundred years, could see what Woods, Baxter, Inman and others cannot see; he described the churches of Christ as becoming involved in “orphans homes and other multimillion-dollar `missionary societies by other names’ at Abilene and Lubbock” (A. T. Degroot, The Restoration Principle (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1960), p. 160). Others who should have known better from the history of previous apostasy wanted to get the church involved in the support of colleges. When this failed, they diverted attention from the college to the orphans’ home. Before long, the churches were sending contributions to the orphans’ home. Brother Baxter wrote a pamphlet in which he stated,

Some who are agreed that the church can contribute to an orphans’ home are not convinced that the church can contribute to a Christian school. It is difficult to see a significant difference so far as principle is concerned. The orphans’ home and the Christian school must stand or fall together.

The brakes were released and the train was now rolling. Some brethren began to oppose the’ digression which they saw in the church. Men such as Roy E. Cogdill, C. D. Plum, Franklin Puckett, Luther Blackmon, James R. Cope, Cecil Willis, Connie Adams, James P. Needham and a host of others tried to get this stopped. They could not.

At first, the matters over which brethren argued seemed immaterial to the vast majority of brethren. Indeed, they considered the matter just a preacher fight. Consequently, they did not get alarmed at the cries of “Runaway train!” or “The church is headed toward digression!” These were mere alarmists among them, so they thought.

Yet, the train was definitely moving. Surely, they thought, this is just the acceleration of the church as it is moving in its local work. The train began to move faster and faster. Things began to occur in the local churches which alarmed even the most unconcerned among them. Things were changing. The church was now sponsoring recreational activities; why some even wanted to build a recreation room in the building. Though some thought about jumping off the train, they persuaded themselves that all was well and that they really did not need to be worrying.

The preaching was beginning to change rather noticeably as well. The denominations were no longer being exposed as proponents of false doctrine. As a matter of fact some of the more aggressive preachers were going to the denominations to find out how they were having as much “success” as they were having. The day of “book, chapter and verse” preaching was rapidly drawing to a close as well. The sermons were becoming sermonettes filled with anecdotes and illustrations. Even the missionary society, I mean Herald of Truth, was becoming watered down. Some of the programs sponsored by the Herald of Truth had decided not to mention the name “Church of Christ” or even the name, of Jesus lest it turn someone off. The sermon topics were becoming more and more socially oriented. Bible preaching was gone. But, as Baxter so ably put it, after a person reviews all this evidence, “then he must make a very simple decision. Either he must stand with the criticisms and vote to stop the program, or he must stand with the (Highland church, Abilene) elders and vote for the program to continue” (Batsell Barrett Baxter letter ‘To Whom It May Concern,” on David Lipscomb College letterhead, November 26, 1973). Each person riding the train must stay on board or jump off — “a very simple decision.” Baxter, like most other riders, said that he intended to stay on board.

Before long, the attendance began to lag, so all sorts of devices had to be invented to keep the attendance up. They had all sorts of special services: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Oldest-Person-Here Day, Youngest-Person-Here Day, Grandmother’s Day, etc. Special singing groups were brought in to draw the crowd and entertain the people. Soon, even this began to have little success. So, the Bus Ministry was invented. The churches began to buy used school buses, re-paint them, and name them “Joy Buses.” Then, special organizations were devised in the local church to promote the bus ministry. Bus Captains went through the neighborhoods passing out candy and other treats to bribe, I mean persuade, the children to ride the “Joy Bus.” Sometimes, they would hide a five dollar bill under one of the seats to encourage the children to ride the Joy Bus. On many occasions, the bus would stop at Dairy Queen, McDonalds, Burger Chef, or some other fast food restaurant as a special treat to get more riders. Some had even resorted to allowing the bus captain who brought the most riders to the services to hit one of the elders in the face with a cream pie at one of the services of the Lord’s church. Indeed, the train was now going break-neck speed as it raced down the hill of denominationalism toward the abyss of hell.

Many of the passengers were wanting off. To get off, however, was not easy. The preacher who wanted to get off knew that he would be losing his support if he jumped off the runaway train. Many of the members could not stand the thought of leaving their friends and relatives (especially their children) behind and endure the ridicule of those with whom they once worshipped. Tao; many did not know that there was any other alternative. From the descriptions which they had heard of that little radical group of “anti’s” they did not desire to be a part of them.

As the train continued its race down the hill of denominationalism, many of the older men began to get more and more alarmed. The train which they had unbraked was only supposed to move a few miles; it was not supposed to go this far or this fast. Men like W. L. Totty, Fred Dennis, Garland Elkins, Thomas Warren, Ira Rice, etc. began to cry about the liberalism in the church. They detested church involvement in recreation, the bus ministry, church support of colleges, women preachers, tongue-speaking, etc. The younger men among them, looked upon these older men as a bunch of antiquated old men who were clinging to bygone years. Some listened but did not decide to jump off the train. They criticized some of the things which were going on among them such as women preachers, weak teaching against denominationalism, instrumental music, etc. Yet, they were not ready to jump off the train. Indeed, they had no desire to jump off the train. Instead, they would go ahead and use men in their meetings who had accepted every liberal tendency among them. Though they opposed church support of Bible colleges, they continued to want to use Batsell Barrett Baxter in their meetings; though they opposed church sponsored recreation, they used men who believed in it. No, they had committed themselves to riding the train to its ultimate destination or doom, whatever that might be; they were not getting off the train.

Before long, the train passengers spotted a sign in big letters as it continued its down-hill . run. It said, “You have now arrived in the mainstream of twentieth century Denominationalism!” A loud cheer, ascended among the younger men; the older men were groaning, ripping their garments and looking for sackcloth and ashes. The runaway train had arrived! It was now respectable. It was no longer a sectarian group who met on the other side of the tracks. It was a socially acceptable, Protestant denomination involved in all of the activities any of the other denominations were involved in.

Beyond the city limits was a small knoll. What lay beyond the knoll in the tracks? Everyone’s eyes peered ahead. As the train hit the top of the knoll, screams of pain could be heard. The train plummeted into the abyss of Hell.

Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

Truth Magazine XXII: 22, pp. 355-357
June 1, 1978