W. Carl Ketcherside (1908-1989)

By L.A. Stauffer

May 25, 1989 marked the end of the long controversial life of a talented, influential, well-known preacher among Churches of Christ and Christian Churches. After spending the day in volunteer work at the Cornerstone Fellowship, a religio-social communion that distributes to the needs of the poor, and the evening in Bible study at the Oak Hill Chapel, his home congregation, W. Carl Ketcherside of St. Louis, MO, who suffered from heart trouble the past few years, apparently died in his sleep. He was 81. Leroy Garrett of Denton, TX, Ketcherside’s closest associate, a friend of 37 years, preached the funeral May 28. Burial was “back home” in Farmington, MO.

Ketcherside, according to Garrett, began preaching at age 12 or, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, age 13. Soon thereafter, friends report, he became an award-winning championship debater in a Kansas high school. The development of his talent both as a speaker and a polemicist equipped him well to persuade and move hundreds, even thousands of people to his way of thinking. Friend and foe alike attest to his power in the pulpit and on the debate platform. The name “Ketcherside,” first attached to his followers as arch-conservatives and later as extreme liberals, testifies to the attractiveness of his person and the eloquence of his speech. These qualities served his purposes well during nearly 70 years of preaching.

The preaching life of Carl Ketcherside divides itself into two nearly equal parts. He devoted the first 30 to 35 years of preaching to opposing what was commonly called “located preachers” and “Christian colleges.” My first acquaintance with Ketcherside came through the published debates he conducted with G.K. Wallace in discussion of these issues. He then denied the right of preachers to receive stipulated wages and to locate with one congregation under the oversight of elders. He likewise denied parents and interested individuals the right to build and support “Bible” colleges in which to educate their children. He drew the circle of fellowship tightly around those brethren who opposed these practices and shut out of his communion all who disagreed. His views were cogently argued and skillfully penned in Mission Messenger, a monthly periodical he published for 40 years or more.

In 1957 Ketcherside, after repenting as it were in “sackcloth and ashes,” began more than 30 years of preaching new views on the meaning and extent of “fellowship.” In 1961 1 met and talked with W. Carl Ketcherside for the first time at a “Unity Forum” in Chicago. He assured me that his biblical views had not changed, except in the broadening of his ideas of fellowship. He then believed what he had always believed, including opposition to mechanical instruments of music in worship and church support of missionary societies. He could now, he said, fellowship all Churches of Christ and Christian Churches in matters on which he and they agreed without endorsing any views he rejected. He used the pulpits of both to spread his concepts on fellowship among all who had been baptized into Christ.

In 1974, at Indianapolis in a second conversation, “Carl,” as he was usually addressed, told me that his former ideas were unimportant to both him and God. He by this time had concluded that baptism need not be “for the remission of sins” and that “Jesus Christ didn’t come all the way to earth and die on a cross to concern himself with issues of whether men should use instruments of music in worship.” In reply to a question about the breadth of fellowship he brusquely refused to acknowledge that anyone among “Disciples of Christ” denied the bodily resurrection of Christ. In time he drew the circle of fellowship wider and wider – including even those who claimed devotion to Christ but denied the nature and necessity of baptism.

Leroy Garrett’s eulogy at the funeral included what he assured the audience was Ketcherside’s favorite poem and favorite Scripture. Both are appropriate in summation of his life and its impact. The poem relates to drawing circles of fellowship. It tells how one man draws a small circle of fellowship that shuts men out and another man draws a larger circle of fellowship that takes the first man in. The Scripture: “For David, after he had in his own generation served the counsel of God, fell asleep” (Acts 13:36).

Garrett’s application of the poem, in the first place, alluded to men who on the basis of scriptural authority refuse to have fellowship with those who accept instruments of music in worship (see Eph. 5:19; 2 John 9) and with others who outrightly reject baptism as essential to salvation (see Mk. 16:15,16; Acts 2:38). When Ketcherside accepted those men and either propagated or encouraged their views, strict biblicists drew lines or circles of fellowship that excluded him. He then with his patented “I love you” drew his circle around them and said, “I fellowship you.” But biblically, “I love you” must not be confused with “I fellowship you.” God loves the whole world but has fellowship only with those who walk in the light (see 1 Jn. 1:5-10). Christians who draw circles that exclude men from fellowship – love those men, whether they be W. Carl Ketcherside, Leroy Garrett, Billy Graham, or Pope John Paul II.

And yet Garrett’s poem is a fitting description of W. Carl Ketcherside’s life. He first drew small circles to shut men out, then larger circles to take men in. His life was one of extremes, and at both ends of the spectrum the power of his personality and charisma moved men.

Garrett also assessed Ketcherside accurately – that he sought to serve his own generation and then fall asleep. He neither built nor left any permanent institution to carry on his work. Even Mission Messenger was laid to rest when he had said what he wanted to say in its pages. He did not leave it to a younger editor to further his goals.

No one, however, not even Garrett, believes that the influence of W. Carl Ketcherside will end with the generation he served. His works will follow him and he being dead will yet speak. He will especially speak thorugh the generation he served – through the vast array of men and women who have left the simplicity of the gospel to find their way into modernistic, charismatic, denominational, evangelical religious bodies who are dominated by either “faith alone,” t4social gospel” concepts, or both.

Yes, the Scripture Garrett quoted truthfully depicts Ketcherside’s will and what is theoretically true. A man can serve only his own generation and must then fall asleep. But the legacy he leaves that generation and the fruit it bears constitute an echoing voice for which he is responsible whether for weal or woe.

The life and teaching of men with charisma, such as W. Carl Ketcherside, who move and influence others on extreme ends of religious spectrums remind us that “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn. 8:32). When men speak, regardless of how powerfully and persuasively, we must be found “examining the scriptures daily, whether these things” are so (Acts 17:11).

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 15, pp. 453, 455
August 3, 1989