The Willis-Jenkins Debate

By James W. Adams

Debates of the formal, oral variety tend to bring out the party spirit which seems to be latent in each one of us in one degree or another. In this fact, lies one of the dangers of such confrontations among brethren. Particularly is this true when the issue involved is not within itself of such character as to demand a severance of fellowship between those holding diverse views regarding it. Prima facie evidence of the party spirit ordinarily is found in the reports which are written of such debates by the opposing parties involved. Each “side” claims “a great victory for truth” and sheds crocodile tears over the alleged “impotence and confusion” of the opposition. Then, of course, there are always those persons who, in their modest judgment, could have done so much better than either participant, and who can identify endlessly all of the mistakes that were obvious to any “logical mind” or “experienced debater.” All of which is noted for the purpose of suggesting that this report will not be of, that variety.

The debate should be allowed to stand .upon; its own merits. Each person who heard it can judge for himself as to the strength or weakness of the argumentation and make up his own mind relative to the issue involved. Numerous tape recordings were made which will be w played to many others. The debate will lie published and hundreds of others, perhaps even thousands will have the opportunity of carefully reading every word that was said; weighing judiciously all of the argument, and reaching their own conclusions away from the often prejudicial heat of oral controversy. Relative to this discussion, for a number of very good reasons, I would consider it highly improper and a reflection upon the disputants to rehash in detail in this report the arguments of the debate, or to attempt to give a personal evaluation of their merits.

The debate in question was conducted September 23, 24, 26, and 27, 1974 in the auditorium of the Pasadena, Texas High School. Although the debate itself arose as a result of articles on each side of the issue involved appearing in church bulletins, it was considered advisable that no church be identified with the arrangement and “sponsorship” of the discussion. I shall not rehearse the circumstances which led to this decision for two reasons: (1) My statements might be regarded as partisan; (2) they are already a matter of public record.

The disputants in the debate were: Cecil Willis of Marion, Indiana, elder of the Westside church in that city, well known gospel preacher, and capable editor of Truth Magazine, himself an alumnus of Florida College; and Jesse G. Jerkins of Denton, Texas, preacher for the conservative congregation of that city, also a well known preacher and writer, and a brother with a well deserved reputation for proficiency in public, oral debate. Willis also has participated with credit in several such debates. Both of these men are of high moral character, sincere and devoted Christians, considerably above the average in native intelligence and acquired ability and knowledge, and are, in my judgment, both completely representative of the positions they espoused in the debate.

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 to men professing to be Christians and gentlemen. The behavior of the audience, except for one slight display of partisan fervor in the form of audible laughter and “omens,” was irreproachable. The debate demonstrated beyond question that such encounters do not have to assume the character of “dog fights” nor do they have to result in brethren “biting and devouring one another.” Each disputant pressed his points with zeal, but did not allow his arguments to descend to the level of mere personal attacks or destructive character assassination. This is not to say that the actions of particular persons which were deemed by the disputants to be relevant to the discussion of the issue involved were not thoroughly explored; but even this was done in good spirit and without rancor.

The propositions discussed in the debate had to do with the right of such organizations as Florida College to exist: and function, and to be supported and utilized by Christians. Brother Willis affirmed the right of such organizations to exist, function, and be supported by Christians on, the ground that they are business organizations selling services and/or products, hence doing a work not charged by Christ to a local congregation, and are to be justified by Scripture on the basis of generic authority. Brother Jenkins opposed such organizations on the ground that “God has authorized only one collective. to employ, support, and oversee men” in the teaching of His Word; namely, the local congregation, hence that any other collective so functioning is unscriptural. Jenkins defined a “collective” as a body of persons characterized by “agreement, common oversight, and pooled resources.”

Willis insisted that Jenkins’ definition of a “collective” involved him in many gross inconsistencies in that Jenkins endorses and utilizes many arrangements, among them publishing houses, which logically qualify under said definition as “collectives” and arbitrarily rejects others such as Florida College. Jerkins, on the other hand, denied that a parallel exists between publishing houses which employ, support and oversee men in teaching the word of God through the medium of the printed page and Florida College employing, supporting, and overseeing men in teaching the word of God through the medium of oral instruction in the classroom. The issue was joined here and the majority of the argument pro and con was in reference to the scriptural validity of these two antithetical concepts.

The debate did not arouse great enthusiasm among the Christians of the Greater Houston area. Attendance ranged from 250 to 300 people. A large number or these were preachers from all parts of the country. I judge from these facts that, as yet, the issue poses no problem relative to the peace of the churches. However, it could do so if the matter is needlessly and irresponsibly agitated from the pulpit and in the bulletins of the churches. Since the issue involves what the individual is permitted by Scripture to do, it should remain just that, an individual matter. It should not become the concern of the churches as such, nor should lines be drawn solely on the basis of the personal conviction of an individual with reference to the matter.

Brother Robert Craig of Austin, Texas served as moderator for Brother Jenkins, and Brethren Robert McDonald, Glen Burt, and others as his helpers. I served as moderator for Cecil Willis and Brethren Larry Hafley, John McCort and others as his helpers. Everything done by all participants was in a mutual spirit of good will and helpfulness. As evidence of the continued good feeling between Willis and Jenkins, Brother Jenkins graciously extended to Brother Willis the invitation to speak at Denton the Lord’s day following the debate, and Willis just as graciously accepted. May this continue to be the attitude among all who differ relative to this subject. It would be tragic, indeed, for brethren and churches to discriminate against one another on this basis. It would be equally tragic for gospel preachers to be discriminated against solely on this basis in reference to calls for meetings and such like. It is my fervent hope and prayer to God that it may not come to this.

The debate will be published. Announcements will be made from time to time in Truth Magazine relative to the progress being made and the approximate time of delivery. It would be helpful for those who plan to buy the book to send in their orders now. No money need be sent, but your advance orders would help tremendously.

Truth Magazine XVIII: 2, pp. 24-25
November 14, 1974